French Fluency at Your Fingertips

Jossie Ward '22 aspires to work at the United Nations, where French proficiency is a job requirement. The international studies and political science double major is sharpening her language skills in a unique way — by texting with a middle-aged food industry CEO learning English in France.

Think of it as a student exchange program, but without leaving the country. 

Priscilla Charrat-Nelson, assistant professor of French and Arabic in residence, started incorporating the free online platform Ayni into her classes in early 2020. Students submit their hobbies, interests and other information they want to share. The program then matches them with partners in the Francophone world who want to learn or improve English. The pair correspond directly through text, video messages and in-person calls, splitting their communication between languages. 

"The biggest advantage, in my opinion, is that students get to talk to native speakers and engage with the culture through real-life exchanges," said Charrat-Nelson. "It also shows them that they are able to communicate much better than they assume!” 

Despite their language, cultural and age differences, Ward and her partner quickly bonded over their mutual passions for running, music and travel. The new friends share life experiences — she sent video tours of the Bradley campus; he showed off family photos from his surprise birthday party — while encouraging each other’s foreign language abilities.

“I think that practicing with somebody who will correct you — and having that contact every day — increased my skills tremendously,” Ward said. "Even if you’re not speaking it properly or are struggling, speaking French every single day is one of the most beneficial ways to learn the language.”

Ashleigh Owens '21 still messages with her spring 2020 exchange partner, a 30-year-old French mom. The theatre arts performance major plans to move to France after graduation, and she relies on her partner as a great resource. They discuss everything from customs and traditions to sentence structure and grammar. 

“I noticed myself getting a lot more confident with explaining how I was feeling or my plans for that day,” Owens said. “I’m having more of a conversational speech instead of using the same vocabulary over and over in a really robotic sense.”

She and Ward both highly recommend the program as a fun and unique way for students to improve their French. But to get the most from it, you can’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. 

“I would recommend pushing yourself to have in-person Zoom or FaceTime conversations instead of just sending texts or videos,” Owens said. “Even though it’s difficult and seems awkward, your French is going to get so much better.”

- Wendy Vinglinsky