“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I met Elvin during my first position as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US in 2001. He was a reserved and hesitant student at the time. However, he was still able to improve his French considerably by the end of the semester. He has since adopted French as a daily tradition and inspiration. French has become and always will be a part of who he really is. He tells us here the journey of his transformation.

bird flying next to the Eiffel Tower
La Tour Eiffel, Paris

What is the concept of language to you?

A favorite quote of mine: “He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We live in such a diverse world that is full of so many things to explore. You may ask: what is it that can bridge anyone to explore any part of this diverse world in a deeper and more meaningful way? I believe one common variable would be language itself.

Coming from a diverse cultural background and traveling to various countries, I have always believed that learning a new language is a doorway to expand your horizons – where one can learn not just about the world, but about oneself at the same time.

What is learning French to you then?

Although my experience began in a bilingual environment with Spanish and English, French has truly been my first doorway to explore new and interesting opportunities.

I have always loved languages/culture as far as I can remember. To me learning a foreign language is somewhat of a love story that comes with a natural curiosity to learn/know about something or someone new that is so unique. It is something that has contained such a vast history, before I even thought to seek it out, and this is a part of what drives the growth and relationship with the language itself.

I have always thought that there is something very humbling about being before a vast ocean of words, phrases, and sounds that insist on taking shape very slowly, and only for the most patient touch.

The thrills and frustrating plateaus of exploring a language landscape (French in my first case), that was not made with me in mind, and often driving me to the brink of my own abilities, reminded me that there are limitless worlds to be explored.

Can you tell us about the French learning process you have been through?

The beginning of my journey with the French language began with small baby steps at the age of 11, fumbling with words, and sentence structures with not much grace. Yet, I do recall it being a lot of fun, as there was much game play and role playing with my peers in a social gathering. All, which is such a key element in learning a language just as young baby learns to speak.

Most people forget that kids enjoy this process very much before they are drawn into the abstract mechanics of all things, or life itself. I somehow feel that this happened to me at some point in my learning experience. I started to become detached from the sense of culture, and experiencing the language that I was initially introduced to. All which hinders progress in the language, and in turn can become discouraging.

Before this, in my early stages of learning, there was countless ways to experience the language such as field trips to French restaurants, historical sites, social role playing, the arts that included museum paintings, films, live plays, or puppet shows. It was a fabulous experience that brought real enjoyment to learning the language.

It really was not until I reached French courses in college that I was reintroduced to the social aspects of the language itself, thanks to a special instructor… Yes of course you, Hélène! Basically, going back to experiencing it vs just studying the mechanics of the language in a classroom setting. That social aspect is like being reintroduced to that lost love you had for learning the language in the first place, and that same love is what pushes you through the frustrating hours of grammar study, as if learning arithmetic.

I recall creating social scenarios in class that brought back those initial fond memories, which led to meeting at cafes or bars, just simply to converse and enjoy the company of others. It was also the first beginnings of learning slang that was a new flavor to this experience. How could I not enjoy! I can say that this was LIVE FRENCH in its infancy beginning to take form.

What changes has it made to your education?

Within a short timeframe, I began to feel a significant linguistic difference than ever before. I just wanted to continue this journey, which led me to continue studying economics, and business administration courses in French. The professors felt that my learning had come along so well, that they encouraged me to take examination for a diploma from the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris.

These are Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris examination courses, where students typically study 8 weeks of intensive French classes partaking, and following specific exam classes for their chosen CCIP course. These courses are for those who want to validate their French with an official diploma. This would be for a university, or a future employer, or for professionals who need to use French as a professional requirement, and certify their aptitude in communication in a working situation.

I was able to obtain a 1st degree diploma from this organization in my last year of college, and decided that it was also time to travel to France, and raise my experience to another level.

How challenging was it for you?

When I found myself in the birth region of French, I found very quickly that English was scarcely if at all spoken. What an adventure to experience this culture firsthand, and really forcing me to practice everything I had learned every single day. Every morning was the start of a new adventure.

I felt that I was running a constant obstacle course, where I would conduct my first conversations, and start to feel as though the language I was speaking was no longer simply memorized sounds being grasped from thin air. The sounds began to take forms that followed one another, that made sense, then formed coherent stories, thoughts and expressions — This is the art of feeling and experiencing the language itself.

Bouche de métro à Paris
Métropolitain, Paris

Did you really play the game of total French immersion at 100%?

So, I immersed myself 100% for the limited time I had, yes. When you do this, you go to a place where you can marinate fully in not just the sounds, songs, and the idiomatic expressions, but the people, the colors, the smells, and everything that makes the language something less tangible than just a set of characters written out in a certain order in a book. The sound of the language falls around you like heavy, warm blankets, telling you over and over that you are learning, making even the most mundane exchanges profoundly interesting. You are in a sense getting to know the soul of the language.

Every day, every second, provides a new opportunity to trip and stumble into a new level of understanding, of pronunciation, of fluid ability to express oneself. From speaking to the hotel clerk on how to use the subway, to ordering a meal at a restaurant, getting a phone card at the tabac, or casually speaking to strangers on the Eiffel Tower lawn. Whether I may have said something embarrassing or good, it did not matter, as I was having fun every minute. It is always encouraging to be told that you have a great accent, and that your French is very good.

Having fun while learning a language is certainly a key element for a better learning process and stronger results! What would you say about the effect that language immersion has had on you?

Being immersed in the culture wakes you up with a kind of conviction in your ability to learn that is rarely experienced. The brain seems almost to have run away with the knowledge you have fed into it all this time, to have taken it and molded it into something that can no longer be fully expressed in speech. A type of euphoria dare I say.

The language basically took root in me and expanded throughout every corner of my subconscious, wrapping itself around concepts that I may have considered unique to my own native tongue. To think, to feel, to make jokes in this new language felt almost a privilege. I did not just want to half understand it, I wanted to fully understand it.

I had not even left the country, and I was already beginning to miss it. How far I could go, if I could just spend a few months here? Being in this environment my learning became more fluid now. It became less an active seeking out of information, and more a gradual taking in of all that’s around you. True, there remains as much as ever to learn about a second language, but now that you can see it through the better-adapted prism of itself, the concepts and grammatical structures and slang become parts of a whole you have already constructed. They just simply need to be colored in. I felt as if I had swum up a river stream, and now I could bathe in the calmer waters of unintentional learning.

To me, every word became a gift. The sounds, the facial expressions no longer became isolated but rather became a part of everyday life. It is truly magical how this happens, when being immersed in the culture, as if you are one of the many locals. I was no longer just learning a language, I was actually living it. So much, that I was even intrigued at just watching television shows, and commercials in my hotel room. It really made me remember the social classes I had with you while in college. This was just another level of that same type of study.

What has it done for you professionally?

I felt that this experience alone opened up so many possibilities, even professionally. I have been a technical specialist at the Stepan Company, a global organization headquartered in Northfield Illinois that produces commodity chemicals. My background in French opened opportunities to work with our counterparts in France, as well as projects that involved translations, such as databases and web pages used worldwide. So much so, that it has also inspired me to learn other languages!

This is one of the wonderful things I have seen with the LIVE FRENCH structure. A wonderful tool that helps you experience the language firsthand, through an immersion that can lead you to grow socially and professionally. The possibilities are endless, and most importantly it is fun!

Thank you, Elvin. Would you say that learning French changed your life and that French is part of who you are now?

Sure, people may doubt my accent, ask where I come from or even assume I was a native speaker, but I truly felt that this immersive experience made the language not so much secondary, but rather something more intimate. You could say you become as what people may call; fluent. To this day, French is and will forever be a part of my very being, and I would highly recommend it to curious seekers. I may always be a tourist to this beautiful language, but to have climbed the mountain of learning, and realizing that the top of the mountain is a vast ocean of native speakers to be immersed in, to integrate with, is an experience that cannot be replaced.

Having just come out of a storm

A storm on the high seas of life, that nearly drowned me 

I now breathe new air on the calm seas

Sailing in the dawn of a new light 

To what seems a new beginning, yet everything unknown

Surprises waiting to happen in the new light of day  

A new current pulls me forward

… and there… a first surprise… and I saw you 

A tsunami of emotions all at once  

A new storm I entered, trying to gain control over the waves  

Waves that echoed from the past somehow 

A remembrance of many past times

What the hell did this all mean ?

No words could I even fabricate 

To describe something foreign, unknown, yet known, undescribable, yet beautiful and untouchable  

I have fallen into the ocean, barely feeling myself, gasping for air, yet I long to stay there 

Absorbing the currents of the past to this moment  

A new channel has been opened 

Awakened in the depths of my heart.  

Elvin Servellon

January 2022