Doesn’t it sound like it would be a blast to learn another language in a country that speaks French? I mean, I have done it before with Spanish, and learned more during my 3 weeks in Ecuador than within eight years in a classroom setting. Although this information would make you believe that becoming tri-lingual is easy when abroad, there were just a few things that made me a little nervous for the language-learning aspect of my program in Switzerland: (1) I had no prior learning experience with French, (2) I had to take a placement exam even though I had no prior learning experience with French, and (3) I am expected to sit in a 3-hour long French lesson for my class.
I can confidently say that taking French was not one of the reasons I chose this program, but prior to arriving in Switzerland, I was already familiarizing myself with new words on Duolingo. It turns out that my Duolingo ventures may have paid off. For all of the students that had no prior background with learning French, our placement exam was fairly simple. Two students at a time went into a classroom where two professors were sitting and waiting for us. Then, all that they did was tell us to say all of the French words that we knew. Something that I had learned briefly in eighth grade was how to count from 0-9. On that note, I started showing off and began counting which seemed to impress the professors very much. As you can tell, the bar was set relatively low.
One weekend when I was doing homework by the lake, a man came over, sat on my right side, and greeted me with, “Bonjour!”, to which I replied the same back. It was at this moment that I knew he would continue speaking to me in French and as expected, he did. After looking very confused by the many French words that came out of his mouth, I responded in English that I did not understand, but he proceeded to ask if I spoke Spanish. This very experience has contributed to my appreciation of languages and made me very proud to have amateurishly spoken three in one conversation. I would have never guessed that I would be in Switzerland learning French, but the ability to know several languages is a very special skill that allows one to communicate with people you may not have been able to communicate with otherwise.
Apart from taking French classes, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about international politics while also visiting the headquarters of organizations located in Geneva. During my first week, we took a tram to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and had briefings there. At the ICRC, we were also able to hear from a humanitarian diplomat who told us many interesting facts, including that the United States is their largest donor, that they are a private Swiss company and take pride in being neutral, impartial, and independent, and that the ICRC has immunity at the Hague in the Netherlands where the International Criminal Court (ICC) is held. If I were asked to think about the Red Cross prior to this trip, I would recall the blood drives that held at school each year, but there is more to the organization that that. I can truly say that I was most surprised by how much more the ICRC does other than provide medical care. There are diplomats involved, veto power for the P5 members (United States, France, United Kingdom, China, and Russia), and state mandates for the ICRC to uphold humanitarian law. Now, the following question still remains: would I be interested in working for the ICRC someday? The answer to that question is no. No, because we were told that applicants should know at least three languages… and I cannot quite hold a conversation in French just yet. Further, I would not be able to stay impartial to what is occurring in the world. The ability to be able to voice my opinion on matters of oppression is an important right that I would not want to give up. I believe in the work that the ICRC is doing and their mandate to uphold international humanitarian law, but it is simply not for me.
Some days after entering a building that holds great importance within the international community and being aware of just how much information is located on those very grounds, I think to myself about how grateful I am to have this opportunity to learn. It is one thing to sit in a classroom and discuss the main activities that the World Trade Organization (WTO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and United Nations (UN) do and then have to memorize that information for an exam, but then there is the chance to actually go there and be able to create a dialogue with someone who works in that field. This is a global studies major’s dream.