A Tale of Two Cities: Studying linguistic landscapes in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

In the heart of Southern France is the city of Aix-en-Provence, or Aix, a Provençal town known for its hundreds of fountains, manicured gardens, and fine shopping. Once the home of 19th-century French painter Paul Cézanne, Aix remains a center of art and culture with its music festivals and multiple “musées.” For over a decade, the city has also been the site of Princeton’s French language immersion program.

45 minutes down the road is the bustling port city of Marseille. Located on the Mediterranean Sea, it has long been a gateway for immigration into France, especially for people emigrating from Italy and Africa. Marseille’s diverse population contributes to the city’s vibrant culture, characterized by its lively street markets and ethnic food.

The juxtaposition of these two different cities and the people who inhabit them was a theme of the 2019 language immersion program. Led by Christine Sagnier, director of the French language program and senior lecturer in French and Italian, and Murielle Perrier, lecturer and associate director of the French language program, undergraduates spent four weeks living with host families and taking courses in French language and culture. They also traveled to several nearby cities, including Marseille, to compare and contrast their experience in Aix with those in other places.

“There are many advantages to being in Aix-en-Provence,” said Sagnier. “Through solid collaboration with the IS Institute, we have a very strong network of homestay families with whom many students develop a special relationship. And due to the small, walkable scale of the city of Aix, we can do different activities easily, taking advantage of the arts, music and open-air markets without worrying about transportation.”

While learning outside of the classroom has always been a crucial part of the program, it was augmented this year by a formal partnership with Aix-Marseille University. “Being able to work closely with colleagues from Aix-Marseille University and their students has opened up many opportunities to enrich our program,” said Sagnier. “We are constantly exploring new possibilities for collaboration, both on campus and abroad.”

This partnership with Sylvie Wharton, professor of sociolinguistics, and Méderic Gasquet-Cyrus, assistant professor of sociolinguistics, is being continued in Sagnier’s spring semester course, “Language, Power and Identity,” where students, using virtual learning tools, are studying language and diversity in urban space with their peers at Aix-Marseille University.

Gasquet-Cyrus, a native of Marseille himself, led the group on a tour of the city. He explained that over the last few years, Marseille has become a major hub for cruise ships, resulting in an influx of tourists and Airbnb properties and thus driving up the costs of housing for the “Marseillais,” or citizens of Marseille. This tension has stirred up anti-tourist sentiment, evidenced by the graffiti covering buildings even in the city’s most affluent areas.

On the excursion, students got to see the graffiti and experience the city’s diverse culture firsthand. “I walked from one street to the next in Marseille during the football games with Tunisia, Senegal, and Algeria. It was interesting to see how the people changed based on their football jerseys. One moment I would be outside a Senegalese restaurant and see a sea of blue and white, and then in a Tunisian neighborhood swallowed in red,” said Seth Lovelace, a senior concentrating in mathematics.

Some students even preferred Marseille’s grittiness and multiethnic culture to the more pristine and polished character of Aix.

“Whenever I think about Aix and Marseille, I think of how different they are,” said sophomore Mouhamed Ndiaye. “This is not just because of the many classroom lessons we had that were focused on contrasting the histories of these two cities, as well as their current social and economic realities.”

He continued: “Having been in both cities, I felt Marseille to be more like home: its architecture felt less elegant, its shops and restaurants more humble, the people and their interactions more intimate. Aix felt like a tourist destination: the architecture was something out of a museum, and locals were less abundant than tourists.”

Sophomore Martha Clark agreed: “Between Aix and Marseille, one of the most striking differences was Marseille’s level of diversity, in practically every sense of the word. Aix is beautiful, and I loved my time there, but Marseille felt a bit more vital, and I would have loved to explore it more extensively.”

Sagnier plans to continue developing the program’s connections to Marseille to encourage students to reflect on issues of diversity, gentrification, migration, and languages. “Examining the visible language of public spaces in these two very different cities fosters critical, political, and cultural awareness,” she said.

Internships in Aix-en-Provence

New to the 2019 program was the option for students to continue their learning outside of the classroom through a four-week internship in France. Of the students who participated, many found their experience gave them an eye-opening look at French norms and culture.

“Working in France meant exploring an entirely new side of French culture that one simply couldn’t acquire in the classroom,” said Chris Barkachi, a sophomore majoring in computer science. “The experience also shaped the way I look at obstacles in the workplace; the language barrier is just one of many barriers that I might face in future job opportunities, and learning to overcome, or at least deal with any barriers in the workplace is crucial for collaborating and feeling at ease.”

“With my supervisor, I learned more about French work culture, professionalism, and work-life balance. These were all new and challenging experiences that pushed out of my comfort zone, and I was made a better person because of them,” said Ndiaye.

Clark, who interned at a museum in Cézanne’s studio, said: “My internship gave me a great opportunity to apply the language skills I had cultivated over the first four weeks in an entirely new environment. My workplace operated almost exclusively in French, so I had the opportunity to practice through both informal conversations with my coworkers and more structured interactions with museum visitors.”

She added: “The most challenging aspect of my internship was adapting to a different environment while continuously developing my language skills, but I felt that my first four weeks left me with a more-than-adequate jumping block from which to start.”

The 2020 French Language Immersion Program will begin in June. But before this year’s students leave for Aix, they will have the opportunity to experience a taste of Marseille on Princeton’s campus. As part of its celebration “Diversity in the Francophone World,” the French program is bringing a Franco-Senegalese band from Marseille to play fusion music. The concert, which is scheduled for Thursday, April 16 at 7:00 p.m. in Taplin Hall, is free and open to the public.

Tale of 2 cities- Aix shot from above.