During my academic exchange abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, I had to take an oral exam for one of my courses. The course dealt with significant historical events and how they shaped literature. At the start of the exam, the students taking the oral exam received an extract of a text written in medieval French. One hour was allotted for us to read the text and make notes. Then, we each had a 30-minute session with the professor to describe how the extract related to the historic events we had studied and other literary extracts read in class. The professor assured us that it wasn't the level of our spoken French that interested him but whether or not we could comment on the text in an educated way. Sounds like an easy exam, right?
Long story short, I botched it.
I understood the text but I didn't know how to analyze it. I realized that up until that point, all my studies had revolved around memorizing and regurgitating information and not on learning how to think critically. When I opened my mouth to speak, no words came out. I had no idea how to express any of my ideas in French. That's when it hit me: My French was terrible.
The professor was nice about it and I passed with a rather generous mark in the end. To save the exam, he asked me questions, leading me through the text, and showing me how to make connections between my given extract and other pieces I had studied in the course. I was tearfully embarrassed - what little pride I had left went up in smoke.
That experience was hard. After more than 10 years of learning French, I couldn’t handle a generic oral test. II wanted to crawl into a hole and call it quits after six months of living abroad. I thought to myself, What am I doing here? Physically, I was fine. Mentally, I was torn.
While sobbing in bed that night and doing some introspection, I realized my problem was not really my problem: I had a theoretical knowledge of the language, but not enough real-life practice. Today’s language courses focus on perfecting students’ grammar and syntax, holding them to a standard which even native speakers rarely achieve; fill-in-the-blanks exercises, which help with conjugation but are hardly conducive to good sentence building abilities; and reading exercises that only focus on understanding the written language. All in all, I had a perfect theoretical foundation of French, but using it in a fluid, spontaneous francophone setting made me a feel like a kindergartner learning the alphabet for the first time.
I put things into perspective. Though this experience hurt, it eventually became a blip on the radar (compared to another experience of getting lost in Venice in the middle of the night with no place to stay). I wasn't a lost cause, I just needed to improve - and I did. I somehow managed to do three other oral exams in French and pass with relatively good grades. Ironically, it was the English courses I took later that I didn't do as well in.
While reflecting on all of my language experiences, abroad and otherwise, Confucius' saying came to mind:
"There are three ways in which we gain wisdom. One: By reflection, which is the noblest. Two: By imitation, which is the easiest, and three: By experience, which is the bitterest."
It was a bitter experience, no question about that. But the wisdom that comes afterwards, well, let's just say it was worth the experience.