Communicating across boundaries

Civil engineering major and BEST scholar Talisa Watts reflects on her first week in France as part of the Tufts in Talloires program, and how she's learning to communicate in spite of a language barrier.
Snow-capped mountains with green fir trees in front.
Photo courtesy of Talisa Watts.

This summer, rising sophomore Talisa Watts studied abroad in Talloires, France. Talisa is a civil engineering major and a scholar in the Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) program. She blogged about her experiences in Talloires during the summer of 2018.

By Talisa Watts, E21

I have finished my first full week studying abroad in Talloires, France and I already love it here! Just the other day, my roommate and I went to the park near our house to find a friend’s watch. The watch was nowhere to be seen. We kept searching, hoping that maybe we would spot the watch near where we were hanging out. We were about to give up when we were approached by a young boy. “What are you looking for?” he asked.

I had no idea what he was asking at the time, so I responded with some of the few French phrases I know: “Sorry, I do not understand. I do not speak French.”

The boy attempted again, “Are you looking for a watch?” to which I could only answer again, “Sorry, but I do not understand.”

The boy ran off again and returned with a picture of the watch our friend had lost and asked again, “Is this what you lost?”

At last, I realized what the boy had been asking. After confirming that indeed I was looking for that watch, the boy ran to retrieve the watch which my roommate and I were able to successfully return to our friend. While I was very grateful to have been able to find our friend’s watch, that wasn’t what I found most meaningful about the encounter.

Before coming to Talloires, I had never before felt a barrier to communication so large. Although I remember a few words and phrases from my high school French, recognizing words spoken in a normal speed and stringing together sentences of my own takes more effort than I realized it would. This barrier made me realize that effort would be needed to have successful communication in everyday interactions like talking to the cashier when checking out at the market.

The first time the boy asked what I was looking for, I was dismayed that the exchange was not successful. And I was not expecting it to be, which made the eventual success of my interaction with the boy an unexpected eye-opener. I shouldn’t think that if I don’t understand right away, an interaction is unsuccessful. It was the boy’s persistence in asking by rephrasing the words and showing the photo that resulted in the success of our interaction. Communication across languages may require more effort, but this encounter showed me it was definitely worth it. I am so grateful to have had this great experience early on, and can’t wait for the rest that will come during my time in Talloires!