09. a language adventure. sciences po

I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from the French government for my second two years and moved to Paris where I entered L'Institut d'Études Politiques (the School of Political Studies). "Sciences Po," as this school is called, is located near St. Germain Cathedral in the heart of the medieval part of Paris, just off the Quartier Latin, or students' quarter. Sciences Po boasts many illustrious alumni, including former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

The teaching culture at Sciences Po was different from North America. The emphasis was on learning facts and being able to organize them quickly according to a time-honored formula. I still remember when a Law Professor told me that "the form was more important than the content!"

The method for organizing your thoughts at Sciences Po was simple. Whatever you wanted to say had to fit into the following formula: Introduction, Part One, Part Two, Conclusion. It was important that Part One and Part Two were about the same length. Ideally, Part One presented one point of view or Thesis, Part Two presented a contrary position or Antithesis, and the Conclusion presented a resolution or Synthesis. Voilà!

This emphasis on a logical and balanced presentation of information is a useful discipline for communicating in any language. This technique helped me to organize my essays and oral presentations in French, which was after all still a foreign language to me. When writing or speaking in a foreign language it is particularly important to have a basic formula for organizing your thoughts, otherwise it is too easy to just ramble on because you lack control in the new language.

Obviously writing a business report, writing an essay on philosophy and writing an academic paper all require you to organize your information in different ways. You need to be more formal and structured than when you engage in casual conversation. The preferred structure for such writing will even vary from culture to culture. However, whenever I wrote in a foreign language, and French was my first, I felt that the individual sentences I wrote were the same as my spoken language. In my mind I made no distinction between the written and the spoken language, even though there undoubtedly was one. I always tried to make them both as similar as possible. I recommend this approach to all language learners as a way to improve the accuracy of both your written and spoken language.

The courses at Sciences Po were very stimulating. The most interesting lecturers, such as Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, spoke to overflowing audiences. We were taught plenty of facts and the professors were very definite in their views, often bristling with irony. They were not interested in the ideas of their students. Yet somehow I found this atmosphere more stimulating than the one I had left behind at McGill University. Canadian English speaking intellectual circles are less tolerant of genuine originality than the French. This is particularly the case in today's politically correct age. The reason for this, I believe, is the deeper tradition of learning and greater intellectual confidence of the French.

The French place importance on being able to express yourself with elegance and precision. The most important exam for students at Sciences Po was the Oral Exam, a spoken essay. Students were given a few minutes to organize a fifteen-minute presentation to a senior panel of professors on a subject selected at random.