Culture Shock for an American English Major

By Ellen Parent, Class of 2013

My host parents here in Paris are party animals.  On any given night, multiple dinner guests want to know what my major is in the United States.  They are invariably confused when I tell them I’m an English major.  “But you already speak English,” they say, wondering if the language barrier or the champagne has made me misspeak.  “That’s true,” I tell them awkwardly, “but what I really do is learn to write well.”  At this point, they tend to nod vaguely and ask me about the elections. For me, though, the question of what it means to write well in France is harder to explain.

Since middle school, I’ve been learning how to write academically.  Early on, I got the hang of it and wrote some mean five-paragraph essays in AP English.  Like many teenagers who are simultaneously nerdy and wrought with angst, I went through a bout of doubt concerning the legitimacy of a “right” and “wrong” way to write a paper.  Still, I wrote my persuasive essays just like everyone else and got into college.  Since then, I haven’t questioned the way I write a paper as much.  My papers in college are more involved and advanced than the 5-paragraph essay; they are more like miniature versions of essays in scholarly journals. Yet, I can still count on familiarities like the comforting framework of a thesis, supporting paragraphs, a clever conclusion, and one-inch margins.  It’s just the way college papers are written, right?

Before I went to France to study abroad, I was a nervous wreck about the new language, new people, and new cheeses, but I was confident that I could write my way through any paper the French threw at me.  Stand aside, Parisians, I’m an English major, I thought to myself.  You can imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting down with a writing tutor who wanted to teach me how to write a paper.  This surprise quickly turned to terror as she started saying things like “problematique” and “1.5 line spacing.”  As it turns out, the French style of writing a paper is totally different from the style that I’ve learned in my own liberal arts college experience.  Based on a “problem” about the topic, a French paper can have a couple different theses that build off each other or even contradict each other.  The best conclusion contains a new question and a specific recap of the paper.  In other words, French writing is way out of my comfort zone.

I never considered that the structure of academic arguments varies from culture to culture, or that I’d have to relearn a skill that always seemed to have a clear-cut method.  Maybe next time a French dinner guest asks me if I’ll be voting socialist this season, I’ll bring the conversation back to my major and tell them some of what I’ve learned in France: how to write a paper (again), and the impact culture has on how we write and ultimately, how we think.