Olivia Nixon at the Eiffel Tower.                (Photos provided)
Olivia Nixon at the Eiffel Tower.                (Photos provided)

by Kathryn Hampshire

    It can be difficult to imagine being alone in a foreign country, knowing very little of the language and staying with complete strangers; however, this is exactly the situation in which Western High School Senior Olivia Nixon found herself for the entire summer.

    As part of the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Languages (IUHPFL), Olivia had the opportunity to spend this past summer in France, learning about the language and culture in a unique and powerful way.

    Olivia first heard about this program during her freshman year of high school when an older student who went on this trip talked to the French I students about the opportunity. “It sounded really interesting,” Olivia remembered. Now three years later, she took advantage of it because “I’m interested in the culture and I wanted to learn the language while getting some independence away from my family,” she explained. So, from June 8th to August 4th, Olivia stayed in the little town of Ploufragan, France, outside the city of St. Brieuc. She lived with a French host family consisting of a mother and father, along with a nineteen-year-old son and a fifteen-year-old daughter.

    One aspect of IUHPFL which made this experience especially challenging was the limitations placed on language: Olivia was not allowed to use English at all while in France. “I couldn’t listen to anything in English - not even music. I couldn’t talk in English or even write in English,” she explained. “It was hard because I really couldn’t talk to anyone back home.”

     While there, she attended classes each day through IUHPFL. Olivia took courses in Linguistics, Grammar, Communications and Culture. This curriculum was designed to help the students master their language skills while at the same time giving them a greater appreciation for the culture of the country.

     Another way which Olivia got to experience France was through trips to various landmarks like Paris and Normandy. She also visited the Mont St. Michael monastery and small towns like Dinan and Binic. Apart from these excursions, Olivia spent her time getting to know her French host family, shopping, attending city-wide dances and hiking along the coast. She got to try authentic French cuisine such as crepes and quiche while adapting to the differences in French dining: “The meals are really different there,” she commented. “In a normal dinner, there would usually be seven different courses.”

    Over the course of the summer, Olivia’s language skills improved dramatically. She explained, “I could barely function when I arrived, but I went from talking like a two-year-old to talking like a 22-year-old.” Her sister Emma Nixon, a sophomore at Western, remarked that Olivia even had some difficulty transitioning back into speaking English: “It was hilarious; she couldn’t remember the simplest things! Her grammar was off so she would say things like, ‘I have hunger,’ and she couldn’t remember words like ‘stroller’ or ‘remix.’”

    After looking back on her experiences this summer, Nixon concluded, “At first it was terrible and I knew that this was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done. Now though, I can speak a different language, I have a family across the world and I’ve learned so much about a different culture and also about myself. Cutting myself off from everything American really made me look inside myself and learn who I really am.”