Many of you know that I have been learning French this year. I have been devoting time, energy and attention to getting my language skill up to speed in the hope that I learn this language to the point of being able to speak it, read it and also understand it when it is spoken to me. I wanted to get to at least an intermediate level.
To do this, I have tried various methods. One of which is self-directed using the variety of different resources online and through books that use a modularised approach building upon lessons along with tons of grammar and translation drills; spaced repetition and recall and writing daily journal entries using words and expressions learned. I have also had a steady diet of French podcasts, music, movies and series just to get my aural skills up.
I’m not perfect in the language but I’m certainly far progressed to what I was earlier in the year sitting in a restaurant in Strasbourg sputtering out a few French words. At least now, when I visit again, I’ll be able to string entire sentences and phrases together and express an opinion; talk about the food and some such.
However, I also did a formal course at the Alliance Francaise this year – a 10 week program at A2.6 level and admittedly, initially, I thought it was one of the worst French language learning experiences I have ever done. I was fearful that I would end up hating it because what I hated was the IMMERSION into French. That is, it was ALL in French. Now I understand why the French seem to think that the immersion idea is a good idea to learn languages BUT it doesn’t seem to make “learning theory” sense.
To learn something new, you need to be able to UNDERSTAND it first. When you comprehend something – it’s why and wherefores, when you can ask questions about it and then be given a detailed explanation of WHY, then you can use what you learned to translate and apply. If you’re getting full blown explanations in French only, you’re only picking up a miniscule percentage of the explanation and after a while, your brain shuts down. Initially, I placed it all at fault of the teacher because I didn’t understand this Alliance system BUT I decided to explore a bit more and later on, it wasn’t the fault of the teacher at all – it was the SYSTEM.
So in a way, I took issue with this immersion system that I felt to me wasn’t properly respecting the students love and motivation to learn a language and instead, only confusing and frustrating them.
In some breakout rooms, I’d quickly ask in English to the others students, “are you getting this?” “Did you understand what that grammar rule was?” Unsurprisingly, they were also in the dark as I was.
So in the early weeks of my 10 week course, I had to change tack. I noticed myself getting quieter in class because simply put, I wasn’t really enjoying the Alliance Francaise system of learning because it was making me hate the language because I was feeling that I wasn’t learning – only getting frustrated with trying to understand the rules. I was going through the motions of attending the class.
Things changed slightly when I decided that I have to take matters into my own hands and do the exercises all myself BEFORE the session. That is, I read up on the grammar rules and activities IN ENGLISH before and then did my own French drills and exercises using my own books that I had bought. That way, I UNDERSTOOD and pre-planned all the exercises before the session. That way, at least I felt prepared however, what I was missing out on was more SPEAKING practice with REAL French speakers – not just my class mates who were also learners like me and who didn’t give me FEEDBACK into my sentence structure. I was chatting to them in French but for all I know I was bastardising the language without my knowledge (well, I KNEW I was bastardising the language but didn’t know how to CORRECT it).
My learning experience with the formal 10 week lessons with the Alliance Francaise then were mixed for me. The positives were that I loved the online classes and something to look forward to but the negatives were that these classes were expensive but also lacked the explanations, the comprehension and the discussion with feedback. (However, I did two of their Conversation Classes which were both superb).
(Some months later: Since writing the above, I have registered for another course with the Alliance and instead, changing my approach by making sure that I ADD more exercises and activities during the week and using these weekly lessons to try and get some talking in. It’s also nice to be learning as a group. Also the Alliance runs a variety of social events too that are a lot of fun and necessary for language learning as well as understanding the culture. I have since decided to continue with the Alliance but go backwards. That is, I have finished A2.6, I am in the process of A2.5 and next, I will do A2.4 just so I can use it as an opportunity to speak).
WHAT DID I LEARN
In hindsight, I have to say that learning a language is really all about learning a SKILL. As such, it’s different to learning something for work, that you can learn quickly, apply and move on.
Learning a skill requires certain learning practices such as:
- Comprehension (you need to be able to have it presented in YOUR language ie English so that you can ANCHOR it to something MEANINGFUL and CONTEXTUAL to you. Having it all in French was really a frustrating process and most of all, seriously affected my MOTIVATION to learn this language).
- Feedback (you need to be given feedback in order for you to learn it CORRECTLY and in CONTEXT. Without it, you’re just wasting your time learning this skill). Feedback also is a motivator for you to change your behaviour. I noticed the lack of feedback for me was a DEMOTIVATOR. As such, I had to find people to practice speaking with (and hence found iTalki and also setting up chat sessions with French people so they can TELL me and WRITE down (so I can SEE it) what I was doing right or wrong.
- Identifying Patterns – the reason I wanted some English in my French learning is that I needed to identify PATTERNS. It goes with trying to make the learning meaningful and contextual. When the lessons were all in French, it DENIED ME the opportunity to identify patterns and to fully take charge of my own learning – in fact, it then just became more TELLING and ACCEPTING of what the teacher said. That is not learning for me – so I switched off.
- Drills, Drills, Drills – I cannot stress enough the importance of doing drills. This is PRACTICE. In order to build a new skill, you need CONSTANT PRACTICE. Making time for at least 30-60 minutes a day on doing exercises and activities and testing yourself on translating exercises. Then, for me, I needed to INCLUDE these into some WRITING practice so I didn’t forget the words and the expressions.
- Spaced Repetition – if you need to ingrain the language, you need to ensure that you incorporate some activities over a few days to boost what you learned previously. For me, I had to incorporate them into my speech. I noticed this in my talking and writing. Once I learned the difference of venir de + infinitve (immediate past) and aller + infinitive (immediate future) and compte de + infinitive (plan to…) and en train de + infinitive (in the process of…) I noticed that I was saying these a lot. They just rolled off my tongue. Over time, they start to wane until I force myself to incorporate them into my sentences just so I can remember them again.
- There are lots of LOW POINTS when learning a skill – you are out of your comfort zone for most of it, you berate yourself, you get disheartened and are easily discouraged. For me, I was also ANGRY at myself and when I get to these points in learning something new, it’s easy to GIVE UP. However, if we can resist the urge at this point and think about your greater WHY.
- Make it Personal – have a WHY. My goal was that I wanted to reach a point with French where I’m speaking it fluently and can understand it enough to have a conversation with someone in the street (I think I’m getting there). I want it to reach the same level as my Greek. I also FAILED French in high school and I wanted to make amends this year with all my FAILURES in life and having to overcome the stigma of these by revisiting them and BLITZING them at 51 years of age. 2020 was the year I overcame my demons. There’s also something else with French. I can’t quite place it but I have this thought that “I need it” – no rhyme or reason. It simply must be part of my life. Even though the Parisians give me the irritations, I am in love with their language and culture so much that I need to know their language – simple as that. Don’t ask me why – it just is.
- Language Learning Means You Learn About Yourself – I have become more self-reflective about the process of learning than I have with anything else and it’s really made me realise HOW I need to learn something new and not rely on just FORMAL education (coming close with say, learning an instrument which uses the same principles).
So learning a language has meant for me that I have LEARNED THE PROCESS OF LEARNING ITSELF. It’s made me appreciate the process of THINKING, COMPREHENSION and APPLICATION.
It’s made me realise how many workers in corporate organisations NOW are NOT doing any REAL LEARNING at work because they’re not actually building up any real skills UNLESS they’re incorporating all of the above into the actual work itself.
And guess what? The new modern worker will need more of this way of learning if they want to be relevant in today’s constantly changing world of work.