The compulsory semester abroad is one of the highlights of the Bachelor of English and American Studies programme at TU Chemnitz. My interest in the French language and the works of several French scholars in the humanities motivated me to choose France as my Erasmus destination. The University of Poitiers, boasting alumni such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, had also received positive reviews by recent exchange students, so I was looking forward to it. Now that the first semester has ended, I can reflect back on the past five months and compare my impressions to my experiences as a regular student at TU Chemnitz.
The seven university courses I attended and my internship as a German Language Assistant in two high schools and one middle school (read more about it in Part II, coming soon) revealed an interesting consistency in the French foreign language education system. The classes at all three academic levels follow a similar structure. The finals are based on a unified format, and the educational facilities such as classrooms and libraries are also organised in a similar manner. Although university lectures take place in auditoria which are not emblazoned with colourful drawings on the walls, the layout is surprisingly similar to what students are accustomed to from their school days. This is done so as to minimise any shock in the transition from one educational setting to another.
The hour-long school classes turn into two-hour-long university lectures followed by mostly four-hour-long finals, which are needless to say, exhausting and require exceptional time management.
This is all quite different from the set up at the English Department here at TU Chemnitz where, in addition to our regular 90-minute lectures, our assessments range from examinations to term papers and presentations. While in France, I missed the process of conducting research and the feeling of being involved in academia, which undergraduates experience through writing term papers. Here, students can also perfect the style and substance of their argumentation, which one cannot do so easily with the time restrictions of an examination. The group projects and discussions which are a usual practice at TU Chemnitz seminars were rare in Poitiers and were replaced by question-and-answer interaction. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a few interactive Literature tutorials where we performed memorable scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The presence of 60 fifth semester regular students of English at Poitiers posed an opportunity to meet with many individuals sharing an interest in philology, yet this made the communication between lecturers and groups quite challenging. What our department at TU Chemnitz manages with one simple mailing list was done by separate individuals for each course. The lecturers would thus trust information to the person in charge, who would then share it in the class Facebook group. This might have made me nostalgic, for its quaintness reminds me of high school, but for the most part, it was an organisational headache because it complicated the lives of non-Facebook users and Erasmus students, what with the bother of having to join multiple classes and social media groups. Most of the oral and written announcements were in French, so international students had to stay alert.
Although I participated only in English-medium courses, the majority of them included information in French, which did not give me a brilliant first impression of the faculty. Since I was still at a beginner’s level, I was irritated by them switching from English to French because this immersion into the foreign language gave me insecurities and an uncanny fear of incompetence, potential failure and humiliation. Nevertheless, I overcame my instinctive annoyance by reminding myself that the language was the core reason for my choice of Erasmus destination. The pressure to learn French as a matter of academic survival during this semester abroad made me experience my most rapid linguistic growth thus far. Luckily, I was not on my own, for I found several supportive friends with whom I could practise the language and overcome my fear of making mistakes.
So I would encourage you to challenge yourself by spending a semester abroad, which apart from the Erasmus clichés of travelling, fun and exploration of new cultures, lets you experience a unique feeling of accomplishment after breaking your personal barriers.
(Bachelor English & American Studies, 5th semester)