“Bonjour les enfants! Bienvenue á Ecole Kenwood!” My eyes widened and I felt a mixture of confusion, awe, and gnawing curiosity. It was my first day of kindergarten, and my five year old self was not sure how she was going to be able to learn if she could not even understand the teacher. The man led us to the geometric patterned carpet, still making bizarre noises. I had sometimes heard my older brothers speaking in a similar manner, but never felt the pressure to actually understand what they were saying. Now the pressure to comprehend the jumbled sounds was all too evident.
As the school days passed, the sounds took on meanings, the meanings became words, and the words fit together to form sentences. Eventually I found that I could form the sentences myself, and speaking French became second nature. The pattern of communicating predominantly in French carried over into the first grade, and stayed with me throughout the nine years I studied at Ecole Kenwood, French Immersion. Every day I was exposed to the unique cultures of countless different French-speaking regions. The nationalities of my teachers ranged from French, to Belgian, to African, and the accents they spoke English with became just as familiar as my mother’s clear, midwest accent. The ethnicities of my classmates varied also, certainly more so then the ethnicities of my classmates at my private, Catholic high school. I was taught early on to accept all people as equal, and to look far beyond superficial qualities and stereotypes.
My linguistic skills stayed with me as I made the transition from alternative immersion to traditional Catholic school. My new French class was very different, and I found I struggled in some areas, yet excelled in others. Correct grammar became the ultimate goal, as opposed to general communication. Despite the change in teaching style, I still thrived in French class, and took all the chances I could to develop my language skills and overall cultural awareness. My new school offered the chance to house a French student for two weeks, and I jumped at the chance for further cultural exposure. This program offered a more direct experience with French culture, one I had not had since leaving Kenwood. I was able to once again view the art of speaking French past just the grammatical and technical level; I was able to understand the spirit of the language. I continued to host exchange students and improve both technically and artistically in my language skills.
The summer before my junior year I switched roles in the French exchange program and traveled to Le Havre, France. The household I stayed in was amazingly hospitable, and I became a part of the family for two weeks. I even went so far as to show my host family an aspect of my own culture by cooking them one of my family’s traditional Italian recipes. I traveled across Normandy during my stay there, and everyday had the privilege to witness breathtaking sights. Each view was precious. The next summer, I knew I had to go back. As opposed to traveling with school, I stayed with my brother in his Parisian apartment. The experience was truly liberating, for never before had I been granted so much freedom. I spent many days alone, exploring Paris and soaking in as much knowledge as I could. I stayed a few days in Nice, sleeping in a youth hostel at night and discovering Provence during the day. Every day was a blessing, and I constantly thanked my lucky stars I was gifted with an experience I knew few others had. If not for my linguistic background, I never would have had the opportunity to travel extensively nor understand a culture outside the USA. My early exposure to French language is the core basis for many of my life altering experiences, and therefore my central being.