Why fourth year is actually the best year of college

Here’s one for my fellow UL crators.

Everyone knows fourth year is tough.  You go into it expecting it to be a nightmare work-wise, and you’re more or less right.  But there are some good points too.

1.  You’ve probably known most of your college friends for two or three years at this stage, meaning proper friendships have been established.  Yurt.

2.  You’re at the stage where you can be yourself with these friends so much that you can let all of the weird out and they’re just used to it now.  (It may even have rubbed off on them.)  Maybe some people did this in first year, but generally for the first few weeks, or even months, most people probably try to tone down any of their crazy, until they can judge how it’ll be perceived, and then unleash it gradually, once they have people trapped in friendships.

3.  You know your way around campus with no trouble whatsoever.  Apart from the main building.  That’s just a maze.

4.  You also probably have a decent idea of how you’ll do in your degree, after having sat a few exams over the past three years.  So if you’re stressing over your grades, you know it’s because you have a certain chance of getting a first degree honours, second or third, etc.  Rather than the panicking that may have happened earlier on in college, having literally no idea what to expect, or if there was a bell curve, or if you’d get a high mark if you just used the subjunctive enough times in French.  Now you kind of know the craic, so you can either relax a bit, or work your ass off while knowing that it will pay off and knowing almost exactly how much work you need to do and how much time you can dedicate to having the craic, focusing on clubs and societies or simply throwing shapes in Icon.

5.  You are a much wiser individual at this point in time, having done three years in college.  For example, if you’re a girl, you now know that a good warm coat is key on a night out, whereas in first year you seemed to have no idea that it got cold in Ireland at night time.

6.  It’s your last year in the place so you and most others in your year are probably going to try to enjoy it.  Craic all over the shop, I’m tellin’ ya.

7.  If you’re doing languages in UL, you get your very own weekly discussion groups all for you fourth years and nobody else (I know right?!  Unreal!) so you don’t have to deal with first year plebs who intrude on your valuable language practice time without even having ‘travelled the world’ first, which of course is a thing you can say you’ve done, if you went to at least one or two countries on co-op and/or erasmus, like the cultured fecker that you are.

8.  If anyone is annoying you, impeding your study or simply occupying a valuable space when the library is full, you now have the right to literally dropkick them out of the library from Week 10 onwards.

Actually maybe google that last one, I’m not 100% sure if it’s right.


So, fellow fourth year cratoreens, have an unreal year, and mind yerselves – always remember of course that UL has a free counselling service (like most colleges in Ireland), as well as a number of bars on campus, both potentially useful for when times get tough.

Refusing to speak English while on erasmus

As I mentioned a while back, I decided to stop speaking English for the remainder of my erasmus.  Yesterday evening, I had my last ever erasmus class (well, that was really on Monday, seeing as for yesterday’s class we just went to the Christmas market, but anyway).  Seeing as that marked the end of erasmus (I’ve finished all my exams bar one not very significant one tomorrow –  ahh, nearly forgot it was tomorrow…), I decided to let myself speak English again, starting at about 6pm.

It was interesting.  A few people had almost forgotten I spoke English, and thought it was bizarre to hear me speak it again, once they realised.  I surprised myself by not struggling to remember every word I needed, which happened regularly after being immersed in Spanish for a few months.  It was seventy full days since I quit speaking English.  Granted, I obviously spoke it on certain occasions – Skype calls, having visitors, meeting up with people from my home college, language exchanges, randomly enough bumping into new Irish people and sometimes on occasions where English-speakers I hadn’t told about my silly plan popped up.  So there were about two weeks within that where abstaining from English was largely ignored.  For the rest of it though, was it actually worth it?

Well for starters, I spoke far more French than I would have if I didn’t decide to do this, which for me makes it worthwhile.  I also resorted to other languages more often, and even learned or revised a little bit of Spanish, Irish, German (klar!), Chinese (nǐ hǎo was all I picked up, but it’s a start), Japanese, and possibly some Italian (io non parlo italiano).

Attempting to speak the language, while not resulting in fantastic improvements in my level of French, at least made me less embarrassed about trying to speak it, and most of all made it much easier for me to respond any time a French person magically appeared and said something to me in French.  Previously, when I was used to using English, simply responding to a basic question or greeting was far more challenging, as I wasn’t thinking in French at all, so I’d have to take a moment to register what language was actually being spoken to me, and then my brain would have to switch to that language, and form a response.  By which time the other person would probably have said something like “ah you don’t speak French”, and then said whatever they’d originally said in English.  If you’ve ever tried to speak the local language of a place when it’s not your native one, you’ll know that once this happens, there is almost never any going back.

Which basically made me go down this route in the first place.  This and the fact that, even though I can never seem to lie about the fact that I speak English if someone asks me (despite responding in their language anyway, to sort of hint at the fact that maybe I’d like to continue speaking that language please please please), avoiding speaking English at least made it easier to keep speaking French, even when native speakers of it kept responding to me in English.  As soul-crushing as it was, I at least got to practise speaking it, even if I didn’t get to try and improve my comprehension of it often.

Another benefit was that when erasmus students with really good English realised I was speaking French to Irish people, it probably made them more inclined to speak French to me rather than English.  And they’re often easier to understand than native speakers, because they usually speak more slowly, and get it when you have no idea how to express what you’re trying to say, often even knowing exactly what you’re trying to say even when you don’t have the exact words.  We’re like, telepathic or something, I don’t know.

A major, and very obvious negative aspect of the whole ordeal however, was simply not being able to speak.  I could communicate, obviously, but not as quickly or accurately as I’d have liked, without throwing in a couple of English words now and then.  But that in itself sort of pushes you to improve.  Or at the very least, it makes you more aware of what you need to learn – if you can’t say a certain basic word in French, maybe you should look it up next time you get a chance.

Your personality changes a bit when you speak a different language too.  So I was mainly la Sarah française since the start of October, aside from the odd outburst of Irishness in the form of exclamations like “shite” and “jaysus”.  It’s far more difficult to joke in French too, when you’re not fluent in it, which is a shame, but sometimes attempts at speaking French or weird phrasing end up funny in themselves, so that cancels it out somewhat.

If I was to go back in time, I’d still do the same – it was difficult, but I would have found erasmus more difficult if I’d continued with what I’d done in September and spoken loads of English.  If it was possible, I’d have done my erasmus with no other native English speakers, but that was either not at all possible, or extremely close to impossible, and I didn’t think of going as far as asking the people in charge of my erasmus placement to just send me to any French-speaking area within Europe where they thought there would be the least amount of English speakers, please and thanks, despite that being my priority when making my erasmus choices.  English speakers are cool though, so it’s nice that I did get to know a few of them while here.

Trop Bizarre

I recently had one of my usual (at this stage) moments where I’m surrounded by native speakers of a language I can’t speak – except this time, it was English.  I’ve challenged myself not to speak that until I leave France, so when I was out for dinner, with all English speakers, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, needless to say I spoke less at the dinner table.  Normally, I literally can’t construct the sentences I want to add to group conversations in other languages (when I understand them), or I manage to do so in my head after the subject has been changed, so it was very strange when I could easily add something in English, but I didn’t want to, well, because of the challenge.  And it wasn’t too easy to change things into French, even if it was amusing sometimes attempting to directly translate things like Irish slang into French.  Allez les mecs.

It’s a very strange experience and I’m starting to wonder why I decided to do this, but I’ve started it now, so I’m going to continue.  I’ll get the hang of it eventually…

I’ve had a crazy language-learning idea that just might work

It’s taken me thirty days, living in France, to have this brainwave, but it has finally happened.  Or, maybe more accurately, thirty days of often having great craic with Irish people (oh hey comfort zone) and other anglophones, but not really speaking or learning anywhere near as much French as I’d like to.

Inspiring quotes stolen from the internet – for all your motivational needs

Anyway, on the night of September 29th, I finally had this epiphany…

What’s the best way for me to improve at French?  By not speaking English!  Okay, I knew that before – that wasn’t really the epiphany.  I’d always known it – I mean for as long as I can remember wanting to learn any language.  The idea was only reinforced recently when I read ‘Fluent in 3 Months’ creator, Benny Lewis’s article on the topic, which I recommend if you want more language-learning motivation.

But – and yes, of course there’s a but – believe it or not, that is indeed easier said than done.  Especially, when you’re on erasmus, most of your friends are native speakers of English, and most other people you know, or get to know, speak it very well, or at the very least, know some, and can probably converse a little.  People also tend to think you’re a bit mental if you just decide you’re not speaking any more English.  (Obviously, there are some rules that go with this, namely – I can skype in English, and speak it to anyone from home who visits me, but I’ll get to all that later, probably in a separate post.)  Even when people really want to improve at their target language, it just seems a bit crazy to go all out and quit speaking the only language you’re fluent in.  At this stage though, I think it’s just all or nothing.  It’s easier this way, really.

Right, here’s where my own brainwave comes in…  I honestly think it would be extremely difficult to do this without some sort of excuse that people might possibly accept (otherwise I’d probably have started earlier).  So, my stroke of genius is, that I’ll bet some money with a few friends that I can avoid speaking English (bear in mind that all the rules of this still have to be worked out) until I leave France to go home for Christmas.  That’s only all of October, November, and most of December.  It’s not really that long.  And I assume that the first week or so will be the most difficult – then after that, it’ll get easier every week.  I don’t know how much to bet, but it’s going to be a bet where I’d actually win €0 if I succeeded.  I don’t want to win money from people, I just want to learn French.  I’ll bet with people, that I can avoid speaking English until my Christmas holidays, and if I lose, I pay them all.  I think it would be about a dozen people, so it wouldn’t be much each, but, the total amount will have to be enough to give me more motivation not to lose.  The thing is, I don’t plan on losing.  I’m not being big-headed and saying I think this will be easy.  I just don’t want to just throw money away, that’s not the idea of this, so I’m setting myself what I think is a manageable challenge.  In reality, I just think money would just be a bit of an added incentive, and it might make life easier if people want me to speak English, and I’m able to say that actually, I stand to lose a lot of money I really can’t afford to lose if I do, so I can’t.

And it’s not a thing that I’m going to expect people to speak French to me.  Ideally, they would, but if English is their native language, then fine, I understand English, and if they’re here on erasmus too then we both have some level of French so we can all understand each other.  If there’s an extreme communication barrier at times, as there will be, I can switch to my broken Irish with the Irish students, or try Spanish with anyone who speaks it, seeing as I now seem to find it easier to speak than French.  Sign language, gestures, drawings, whatever, if I’m feeling really determined to use zero English (I think being allowed to ask in French how to say a word in English is just logical, and makes it easier for anyone trying to deal with my attempts to communicate with them).  If people just want to practice their English with me too, even though the idea of them being here is probably to learn French, and they’re truly adamant about learning English, then fine.  I won’t lie, I won’t be happy about it, but with English it’s kind of inevitable, so if I still get to speak French, or even Spanish to them, and they respond in English, I’ll still learn something from speaking a language other than English.  I can live with that.

Another key exception I should point out straight away is that I’m going to play sort of by the rules (or rule, really) of the gaeltacht I went to a few years ago – one full sentence in English (or in that case, a language other than Irish) is not allowed.  I also believe that the young gaeilgeoirs got a warning if that happened, and were then kicked out, but I’m not sure if I’ll add that, I suppose it’s a good idea…  The main thing though is, if I accidentally react to something by saying something along the lines of “yeah”, “what?”, or “shite!”, in English, and then realise and go back to French – it doesn’t count – stuff like that is almost impossible to avoid at the start, at least.

A lot of people might think this idea is crazy, stupid, or just plain annoying if you’re unfortunate enough to be an English-speaker on erasmus with me (le sozz, guys), but I think it’s crazy to study French (or any language) for as long as I have, study it in college, and then go on erasmus in France – it also happening to be your first time in France – and not doing your best to speak the language as much as possible.  For me it would just be such a wasted opportunity, and such a waste of time and money.

I decided to start as soon as October arrived – literally at midnight last night, I stopped speaking English.  I even tested it out a little before that – mainly warning people that I was going to start speaking French to them, explaining myself, and speaking French with some of them to see how strange or difficult it was.  And it was very odd.  But it was possible.  We could converse.  We could understand each other (most of the time).  And most people I tried speaking French to wanted to practise it too, but like me, hadn’t spoken it as much as they’d like to yet.  So when I brought it up, and awkwardly switched to French with people, it got them responding in French, even if it was only for a few minutes.  It’s a start.  And it’s shown me that it’s possible for me to do this.  So I think I will.

I guess I’ll keep you posted.  Hopefully it’ll be a succès.


PS:  Like a lot of challenges, I guess if I tell enough people what I plan on doing, then it’s an extra incentive to go for it, ’cause it would be kind of mortifying if I kept telling everyone about this, and then failed spectacularly.  So if you’re wondering why on earth I’m sharing this spiel, there you go.  I just want to add possible embarrassment to the mix so I’ll work harder at avoiding English.

A Musical Milestone

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to sing a song on my own in front of people, for the first time ever.  Today, I did that, but without consequently forgetting the chords I was playing as well as not blanking when it came to the lyrics.

So that’s not really a big deal – it’s something a lot of people can probably manage very easily.  But it’s not something I’d ever been able to do before so I guess it’s kind of a bucket list moment for me.

Which reminds me, I need to add some stuff to my bucket list, and get crossing more things off…  It’s been a while since I’ve put anything new on it.  Most likely starting with trying some new French food.

How to learn a language while on erasmus

All you need to do, is make sure English is not your native language.  And no matter where you do your erasmus, you will probably learn a lot of English.  Plus whatever the local language is, assuming it’s not English.  Two for the price of one.  Did I mention you’ll learn English?

What I’m trying to say is, it’s extremely difficult for native English speakers to learn other languages because it seems like everyone studies English and knows enough for conversation.  In fact, more often than not, they’ll know it better than the local language when on erasmus.

In other words, I’m blaming my lack of progression with French on what I’ve just said above.

In other words, being a native English speaker is fantastic (you’ll almost always be able to find other English-speakers no matter where you go) – unless you want to learn a language.

In other words, I’d really like to learn some French.

I was right to be terrified about erasmus…

It turns out my fear was justifiable.  I’ve spoken almost entirely in English so far (I got here yesterday).  It’s a nightmare.  I need to avoid it, but can’t.  Maybe after orientation and all that I’ll be able to settle in properly and actually speak French as much as I’d like to.

So far, it’s been nowhere near enough – an occasional question or encounter with university staff or shop assistants, but basically nothing else.  Which has made me realise that my French is terrible now.  I can barely ask basic things, and attempting to hold a conversation just fries my brain.  I keep speaking Spanish by accident (things like ‘bueno’ and ‘gracías’, mainly, as well as normally saying ‘y’ instead of ‘et’).  I hope that doesn’t last.

I don’t want to forget my Spanish or the tiny bit of an Argentinian accent I may have picked up when saying certain phrases, but I don’t want to keep letting Spanish get in the way of learning French.  Quel cauchmar.

My pronunciation is terrible too.  I just don’t remember how you’re supposed to pronounce things in French  – vowels, the letters ‘c’ and ‘j’, and even where to put the emphasis in a word.

Basic vocabulary too, grammar – you name it, I’ve probably forgotten it.

Everything is really expensive as well.  So that’s awful.

On a happier note, it’s quite sunny.