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COLUMN: When studying abroad, linguistic loneliness can be isolating



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Midafternoon sunlight strikes the building facades in Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, a plaza in Aix-en-Provence, France. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

This semester, I’m studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I’m taking classes at a local university alongside French students and doing a homestay with an elderly French woman.  

When I envisioned this semester, I didn’t account for how psychologically draining the language barrier would be. Instead, I expected sunshine! Provence! Baguettes!

During my first few weeks here, I would walk home in the evening after classes exhausted by the sheer amount of extra thinking packed into my day, the recollection of verb tenses, random nouns and correct pronunciations jumbling together in my head. This thankfully subsided after a while, but a linguistic worry still plagues me. 

I’ve had conversations with my host and other French people that span all sorts of topics: current affairs, Jane Austen, the films of Ingmar Bergman, Bradley Cooper. You name it. 

Even so, there are times I feel lonely in French. I feel unlike myself.

A while back, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words,” a treatise on her difficulty with learning Italian in a way that allows her to inhabit the language and make it her own. This is the obstacle now in my way. Yes, I can ask questions and express complicated sentiments and ideas, but right now it seems impossible to carve out a niche for myself in this language that bears the same connotation and subtleties as my English does. 

For example, I have yet to find a word in French that encompasses all that “home” means to me. There’s “ma maison,” which means “my house,” and “chez moi,” which is closer to “my place.” Neither of these options fits in my mouth the same way “home” does, which to me is a word that hums, one I can feel in my bones. 

I often wonder if I’m the same person in French as I am in English, a suspicion furthered by my sense of my imprecision in the language. Do I move through the world differently in French? More clumsily? More direct, perhaps, and also ruder? After all, who knows how many social “faux pas” I’ve made.

All of these anxieties were dogging me one night in particular. But then at dinner, my host brought up her love for a certain American painter, Edward Hopper. I perked up at this. Hopper has been a favorite of mine too, ever since I had to recreate one of his lighthouse paintings on the shell of a hollowed-out egg in seventh grade art class. 

I told her that she needed to visit Chicago so she could see “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. At that, she disappeared into another room, then returned with a photo of that very painting that she’d taken when it was on display in Marseille ten years ago. 

After that, she retrieved two books of Hopper’s paintings, thumbing through them and pausing on the ones she liked. Like me, she loves his works for their moments of disconnect between people: The absence of eye contact, bodies turned away from each other and faces rendered disinterested. Most of all, though, we both love the sterile, institutional urban loneliness permeating his compositions.

She was thrilled to have found this shared love of ours, and we both rejoiced in rediscovering old favorites. She smiled when I pointed out “Hotel Lobby” to her, a painting that calls the Indianapolis Museum of Art its home. 

My own sense of linguistic isolation retreated while she and I discussed our love of Hopper’s lonely scenes, if just a tiny bit.

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