My recent trip to Strasbourg re-inspired my love of the French language.
I learned French in high school and studied it for six years. At the time, I recall people telling me that I was wasting one subject at school when I should have focussed on an additional maths or science subject. However, I loved learning another language. As I was learning French, I was also picking up grammar as we were not taught it in English.
Having a language to learn made me appreciate the rules around grammar and language in some sensible and logical way in which English failed to achieve.
(I also speak Greek which is my heritage but sometimes I do take this language for granted and could easily further my studies here if I wanted to).
Besides, when you learn a language, you also learn about new foods, culture, stories, history. You get to see what you learned in English from an alternative perspective.
Over the years, I never had to use French in Australia.
Unlike Europeans who can travel for a few hours and find themselves in a new country surrounded by another language, Australians don’t have that luxury. Instead, the only time I’ve had to string some sentences together was when I travelled internationally.
One year, I decided, on a whim to go to Paris before heading off to Greece for a few months. I had completed my university studies and wanted to do my big solo trip. I booked the first night at a hostel in the premier arrondissement but figured that from the second night onwards, I was pretty much on my own. I used my language skills to fly into Paris, spend the night at the hostel and then walk the streets to find suitable accomodation for the rest of the time. In hindsight, it was stupid and unlike what I have done since then, however, I wasn’t scared. Guess I had the optimism of youth to guide me – and it guided me directly to a wonderful quaint hotel – with tiny apartments directly opposite the Louvre.
I remember walking into the hotel and opening the door when a waft of cigarette smoke came out. The man behind a desk seemed annoyed I had saved him from his smoke chamber but in my nicest and politest French I enquired if he had a room for the next 5 nights. Exasperated he let out a string of French and waved me off.
“Come back in an hour!” he yells at me.
“I will come back in an hour but promise me you’ll have a room!” I laugh.
I come back in an hour and sure enough, he’s organised a room. It was TINY but it was all mine. My little safety haven with a window that opened to a tiny street and if I cocked my head to the right a bit, I could see the Louvre. It was perfect. There was no shower or bath in the room (just a tiny sink I had to navigate around because the bed took the entire room) but I didn’t care.
So I stayed there for a week and wandered the streets the entire time just taking it all in and enjoying every moment of being in the city. I talked to anyone and everyone and I didn’t care that I mangled my French. At least I was trying.
Since then, I have travelled back there when I could and most recently, my husband and I spent another week in Paris a few years back. He’s not as passionate as I am with France or the French – so it’s one thing we disagree over but I loved the whole experience. Even he was pleasantly surprised about how amenable the Parisians were. Then, in January, I went to Strasbourg for another week before presenting at LearnTec 2020 in Karlsruhe Germany.
There was no denying it anymore, the French bug had come back with a vengeance.
So I decided that I need to look into this more deeply now. Why is it that every time I travel, every time I hear the French language spoken, every time I have a chance to see or do something related to France, eat their food, tastes their wines and cheeses, see their artwork – something just attracts me to their culture? I can’t stop listening to these cues that are around me.
Comment j’apprends le francais
So I started to explore this further.
In the past, I had dabbled in apps like DuoLingo (to learn some German) but after a couple of months of this way of learning, I found that nothing was sticking into my head.
I had to go back to the basics which is the way I was taught at high school and revisit the old text books. After all, I knew basic vocabulary, I can conjugate verbs and can discern words when spoken slowly. While in Strasbourg, I could negotiate a new ticket with the train entirely in French (although some of it was guesswork…fill in the gaps…)
I also realised that although I can read it (and discern the sentences to make sense of what it is trying to say), my language skills is pretty bad – so I do need to practice the language out loud with other speakers.
However, first things first, I had to revisit what I had learned previously.
So here’s what I am doing at the moment:
- I have worked my way through the Action! Book 1 Graded French by Michael Buckby. This was the book I used back in 1984 and I’m spending 30 mins a day working through the exercises. The first book was very easy for me so I’m nearly finished but it’s just making me recall some basic vocabulary. After I finish this, I’ll be doing Book 2 and my Year 11 French exercise book which goes into more detail. The reason why I have gone back to the old school texts is that they have exercises and activities to test my knowledge. Doing these three books will then be enough to then to get the basics although I do have….
- Teach Yourself Beginners French which I had completed a couple of years back and which I found valuable in getting around Paris. This is one thing that I find annoying is that French is taught as if you’re a tourist (which is obvious because that’s usually why people learn a language because they’re going to visit). Once I finish the above books, I’ll revisit the Teach Yourself Book and see what else I can add. Between these books, that’ll be enough for me to learn the structure and basics.
- I have the Premier Dictionnaire En Images which is entirely in French which was given to me by a friend who had found it at a second hand book store. I’ve not used it in the past but I think I will need to…
- Now, GRAMMAR! I have this wonderful book on French Grammar which I LOVE. I bought it about ten years ago and wished I had it in high school. I read it like a novel, it’s THAT interesting to read because I love learning the rules. It’s called Easy Learning French Grammar by Collins. I figure if I can just read this cover to cover and conjugate the verbs at the back of the book, I’ll be right for anything. I could then be ready to start reading French – maybe not speaking it and picking up the aural distinctions but at least read and translate texts.
Podcasts & Apps
Now it doesn’t escape me that I need to be listening to French as much as possible.
In the past, I have used Coffee Break French which was delightful and quite easy to do especially when you start from the beginning. However, I had to gauge where my skill level was and that is why I had difficulty trying to find the right medium to do this.
I tried using DuoLingo and explored a new app called Memrise that Donald Taylor (@DonaldHTaylor) had suggested but I don’t think apps (for now) is where I want to start from. In fact, I’d like to use them more as recall AFTER I had learned in my own way. That is, I’d like to have a go at doing my own language learning using what I have done in the past (because I know it works), testing my own way. However, the apps would be great for spaced learning – but I’m not a fan of the repetition. I prefer to somehow integrate the words and sentences to what I do everyday in my life and contextualise it. If I just repeat ad nauseum, my brain has nothing to “stick it to” so it’s likely I’ll forget it.
I’m still trying to figure out if these apps will be a feature in my learning. The jury is out on that one.
I have found a podcast on Kanopy however, which I’m seriously looking into and going through. They are about 45min to an hour and there’s 30 in the series. This one made an impression on me immediately. It’s called Learning French. I sat engrossed through the episodes and repeating passages of text. I’ll stick with it and see how I go because I’d be using these only for aural exercises. I find people who are non-French by background speak slowly and articulately and I need to be able to discern the words.
Another great podcast which I love is Learn French Daily Podcasts. One paragraph of news and information spoken in French and then chunked down into digestible sentences with explanations. I listen to one of those every day on my walk – just so I can hear French.
The Fun Stuff
Also, I’m exploring shows and series in French, once again, just to keep listening to it and pick up queues of sentences but I get annoyed at sub-titles which do not translate the literal meaning of what is being said. People who write the subtitles further interpret their own meaning to be as close as possible to what is being said on the screen however, it’s literally incorrect. If you’re learning a language, don’t rely on English subtitles. In this case, I look at the mannerisms of the character on screen as to what is happening then put their words into Google Translate to get the ACTUAL word translation, then I write it down and repeat it a few times. This way, guess I’m learning how French people “speak it on the street”.
I’ve also started to explore sites like Francais Authentique but this is one I’ll get to in time…and more practice.
The Best Way To Learn
In all honesty, the best way to learn is full immersion.
In future, I hope to attend some language training and culture course in country for a period of time (hopefully my husband could find ways to entertain himself maybe playing golf in Scotland while I get this out of my system). That’s the plan for retirement although I don’t have to wait until then because we have wonderful institutions like the Alliance Francaise de Melbourne which puts on cultural events.
My plan is to skill up a bit more in language then go and get myself assessed to find my “level” and then I can plan accordingly what I need to do. I cannot escape the fact that reading and writing the language is one thing but I need to be able to speak it fluently and be put in situations where my brain has to string sentences together to another person.
Are you learning a language? How do you learn languages?
- The Seven Secrets of Language Training by Steven Kaufmann (polyglot who speaks 16 languages)
- Language Learning
- Learning French by Podcasts and Which Ones to Avoid