How can you learn and keep up French if you live in a country where it isn't spoken?
This is a frustrating issue for language-learners (and I personally have this problem with German and Italian). Obviously, it really helps to have a native-proficiency conversation partner or a teacher, to read books or watch films in this language, and to try and practice regularly. Ten minutes of good work each day pay off more down the line then hour-long weekly sessions: to learn a language doesn't only mean learning its vocabulary and syntax; at a deeper level it is about living in that language, so frequent exposure really matters. On a day-to-day basis, I like to read news clippings from a website in the language I'm working on, or even Wikipedia entries on subjects I'm not familiar with: this often gives me vocabulary I wouldn't have encountered otherwise. If you keep a vocabulary notebook (the linguist's best friend), I very much recommend going over a page or two before going to sleep, which has improved the retention of all my students who have tried it, and frankly, maximizes the chances of foreign vocabulary seeping into your dreams–which is when you know you're really getting into a language!
I'm stuck at the beginning of my short story– I don't know if I should start with a description, a character, or a scene. What's the best way to open it?
Although most writers recommend starting a piece of short fiction with an arresting action rather than description to grip the reader from the get-go, there are about a hundred ways to open a story successfully. But it's important to realize that what we write is often a warm-up to get to what we really want to say. It's completely okay to scrap an opening paragraph after a chapter's been written–it's an exercise I learned from a novelist, and in many cases, it actually makes the story sharper, snappier. Of course, a beginning can also be reworked, tightened, or swapped with another passage later on– the really important thing is to bear in mind that a story isn't bound by its opening (and neither is a novel, a poem, or an article).
How can I start writing well thought-out, engaging essays that stand out?
There isn't a single definitive answer to the matter of essay-writing, but I find it always helps to work with a good sense of structure so the edifice of your argument will stand when you start adding complexity and nuance. Many great essays start erratically and brilliantly, but it's helpful to corral ideas into a progression that can guide the reader through the argument. This will allow you to add more varied (and more exciting) material your essay as you go, making it a more lively read to a teacher who potentially has a lot more assignments to go through, while keeping your work cohesive enough to sustain attention. I think it's also important to distinguish between legitimate critical jargon and the sort of hollow terms we often resort to when our argument is faltering (I was once called out on it by a professor, to whom I'm still grateful for doing so). Or, as George Orwell had it, 'Never use a long word where a short one will do'. Lastly, an important exercise is to read critical writing by more seasoned writers, assessing whether their argument is convincing or not, and by what means it succeeds or fails. Then again, reading as critically and as widely as possible is one of the most useful things for intellectual growth!