Re-learning the simple rules of friendship

How a summer at French immersion camp taught me the value of words

Claudia at the French immersion camp.
Supplied by Claudia Rupnik

Last summer, I embarked on a five-week educational trip to Baie-Saint-Paul, Québec—a town an hour north from the province’s capital, Quebec City.

It’s one of the most naturally beautiful areas in Canada, filled with picturesque fields of lavender, foggy pastures and narrow roads lined with art galleries and local restaurants.

But it’s also home to a population that barely speaks a word of English.

Funded by the federal government, the Explore Program is designed as a French immersion experience for language learners of all levels. As such, its participants are strictly prohibited from speaking English.

Saying so much as a casual, “How are you?” in the local café could land even a model student a meeting with the administration to discuss their place in the program.

With students arriving from all corners of Canada, the level of French comprehension throughout the group was diverse. Some participants were fluent, while others could barely introduce themselves. 

In the midst of it, I was as excited and nervous as someone whose French education didn’t extend past high school could be.

As the first few days of the program unfolded, one thing quickly became clear: the language barrier would be more challenging than I expected.

Under constant supervision, and lacking regular access to a bilingual dictionary, my peers and I were faced with the day-to-day challenges of communicating amongst ourselves.

I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere for over a month with strangers and an impeded ability to communicate. I wondered how I’d possibly be able to connect with anyone.

And yet, in spite of the struggle to speak an unfamiliar language, I made friends: friends completing their undergraduate degrees and friends finishing their doctorates. Friends who introduced themselves in French for the first time that summer, and friends who carried their language skills abroad.

Most importantly, I met people who still take the time to ask about my well-being, and friends who wish me a happy birthday every year—all in French, of course.

There were dinners spent staring across the table at one another because we’d run out of things we knew how to say, and hundreds of conversations that melted away into laughter when someone mangled their French into nonsense.

There were mountains climbed in silence because the effort to hike and speak at the same time was too strenuous, and French songs sung too loudly during karaoke after a few drinks at the local bar.

Through the Explore Program, participants were given the gift of understanding the value of verbal communication—something so easily taken for granted when you live in a community that shares your mother tongue.

Words are deliberate and, when each sentence takes time to string together, they’re thoughtful.

I learned that a great deal of friendship is listening to the people around you. Even when there are no words to be found, there’s companionship in silence, too.

At Queen’s, the pressure to have a thriving social life can make it easy to forget the core elements of friendship.

But this experience was a healthy reminder that friendship is actually really simple: be kind, be supportive, and be enthusiastic.

Life is good—and friendship is the process of sharing that with other people.

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