Where’s the best place to learn French?
I tried learning French in Paris once. Before then, I’d been learning French with audio courses, textbooks and a few private lessons with a strict French lady who was all grammar and no chat.
Needless to say, my speaking needed some work.
The idea: Spend a few weeks with my old housemate who lives in Paris. I’d meet his lovely French friends and get my speaking skills up to scratch.
The reality: My conversations went like this…
Parisian: Where you from?
Me: Je suis anglaise.
Parisian: Don’t worry, I speak English.
Me: Mais… Mais… je suis venue ici parce que j’aimerais apprendre le français. (But… I came here because I’d like to learn French).
Parisian: Ah… how long you stay in Paris?
Me: Environ trois semaines. (Around three weeks)
Parisian: And your plans?
Me: Sighs and continues conversation in English.
The problem with learning a language abroad
This kind of conversation damaged my already fragile confidence in speaking French. If you’re an English speaker and you’ve tried practising with the locals on holiday, this might feel familiar.
You pluck up the courage to speak and you get Englished.
Maybe they think it’s easier. Or they see an opportunity to practise their English.
My usual trick to avoid getting Englished is to simply explain that I’m learning the language and I’d like to practise. People are usually happy to help by chatting to you in their native language, at least for a few minutes. And I did find a couple of patient Parisians who were happy to chat to me in French.
But for the most part, I struggled to practise my French in Paris. Learning a language abroad is not always as straightforward as it seems.
The problem with language classes
Next, I tried joining a French class, but it slowed me down for the following reasons:
- When the teacher talks to the class, the learning is passive, so it’s easy to switch off. I wasted a lot of time thinking: when will this woman stop talking so I can go home and have dinner?
- The curriculum isn’t relevant to your life. It’s based on what the teacher selects for a group of people, so you end up wasting time learning stuff that’s not important for you and skipping over stuff that is.
- You don’t get much speaking practise and hardly any one-on-one time with a native speaker (the best way to learn).
So learning French in Paris was too frustrating and classes were too slow. Luckily, I found a place to learn French that’s juuuust right.
My living room.
Which is great news because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.
Soon, I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing to get fluent in French from my armchair. But first…
What does fluent mean anyway?
Before we get into how to become fluent, we should talk about what that actually means.
Fluency means different things to different people. Some people think you have to sound like a native speaker before you can call yourself fluent. Others believe you can say you’re fluent as soon as you can express yourself without too many hesitations.
I think it’s somewhere in the middle.
Lets see what the Oxford Dictionary says:
Fluent: Able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.
Easily and accurately. So you don’t need to sound like a native speaker, but you should be able to communicate comfortably without too many mistakes. This sounds like the “professional working proficiency” defined by the Foreign Service Institute as:
- able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
- has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
- has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to search for a word
- has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker
If you’re familiar with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for language levels), it’s around C1 level.
Announcing my next language mission
My new language mission is to speak fluent French by the end of the year. To certify my level, I’m aiming to pass the DALF, a diploma awarded by the French Ministry of Education. It corresponds to C1/C2 level in the Common European Framework, so it fits in well with the definitions of fluency we talked about earlier.
I’ll decide whether to go for C1 or the higher C2 level nearer the time, when I have a better idea of the level I can get to. I’d like to think I can go the extra mile and get C2, but I don’t want to put myself under too much pressure, so we’ll see.
I’m excited for this mission! I love France and the language – speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine.
So what’s the plan?
I’ve been learning French for a while and it’s going quite well – I’m enjoying it and making progress. My plan for the next month is to carry on with what I’ve been doing, but more intensively.
How I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room
Take Online Conversation Classes
To improve my French speaking skills, I’ve been doing one-to-one conversation classes through a website called italki. I chat to native speaker tutors – called community tutors – on Skype and they help me practise my conversation skills.
They’re not qualified teachers, so the lessons are excellent value (as little as $5 hour). And I prefer it that way as I’d much rather use time with a native speaker to focus on conversation – I can study grammar and vocabulary from books. You can find some brilliant tutors on there – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.
So far, I’ve been doing these conversation lessons sporadically, but if I want to get fluent I’m going to need to rev it up. I’m aiming to do 3 lessons per week until the exam.
Good news – I’ve teamed up with italki to get you a discount. If you fancy giving italki a go yourself, click here to get $10 worth of free lessons.
Flood my ears
This might sound like something you should go to the doctors for, but it’s actually one of the most important things you can do when learning a language from home.
Whenever I can, I’ve got my headphones on and I’m listening to the language I’m learning. For the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music while I’m walking to work, doing the dishes, cleaning the bath etc. Anytime it’s socially appropriate to have my headphones on, I’ll be filling my ears with French.
That reminds me, if you’ve got any good recommendations for French podcasts or music, please let me know in the comments!
Get into a routine
Whenever I start a project, there’s an over excited part of my brain that says things like: “Yeah! I’ll study for 5 hours a day, learn 100 words a week, read a book a week…”.
Of course I don’t manage to do even a third of these things, so I get discouraged and do nothing.
Over time, I’ve realised that this ambitious little voice does me more harm than good. I’ve learned that the key to making progress isn’t ambition, it’s routine. As Aristotle once said:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
Instead of wasting energy chasing big ideas, I try to reign it in and establish habits that, when repeated every day, will get me towards my goal. Here are a couple of examples:
- Reviewing vocabulary while I’m waiting for things: my computer to load, friends to arrive etc.
- Squeezing in an hour of language learning before I start my day.
The last example, an hour a day, might seem like a lot. Here’s where the habit mentality works its magic. If you say “I’m going to study for an hour today”, it’s difficult to get started. Instead, focus on building a habit gradually by choosing something easy, say 10 minutes, and increasing by 1 minute each day. Soon you’ll be up to 60 minutes, and you’ll be more likely to keep it up compared to if you’d tried to do an hour from the get-go.
Set 2 minute goals
There are some parts of language learning that I don’t particularly enjoy, like writing and grammar. Until recently, I couldn’t motivate myself to do them, so I just ignored this part of language learning. And I’ve got a few holes in my skills because of it.
Fortunately, I’ve found a way to start getting on with this stuff.
When there’s something I don’t feel like doing, I set myself a mini goal of doing it for 2 minutes. Once the hard part (starting) is out the way, I’m usually happy to keep going for 20 minutes or more. But even if I put my pen down after 2 minutes, I achieve a lot more over time than if I hadn’t bothered at all.
Focus on sounds
Pronunciation often gets relegated to the bottom of the pile, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me: it’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and people make snap judgements about how good your speaking skills are based on your pronunciation (whether they realise it or not).
But when most resources are geared towards grammar and vocabulary, you have to make a conscious effort to focus on sounds. I’ve been doing just that recently and it’s really worthwhile. Here’s the technique I’ve been using:
- Listen to simple dialogues (from textbooks) and write them down like a dictation.
- Annotate sounds that are difficult for English speakers, like the “u” in menu, where the tongue is much further forward than in English.
- Practise saying the words with tricky sounds, focusing on the mouth positions.
- Listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to keep my pronunciation as similar to the speakers’ as possible.
Keep it real
One mistake people often make when learning a language is to think they can learn grammar and words in isolation and put them together later. Languages don’t work this way. They’re a “learn by doing” kind of thing.
I find words and grammar only start to stick once I practise using them or see them being used in real life. Dropping them into conversations with native speakers is a great way to do this, but there are things you can do on your own too.
When I learn new words or grammar points, I put them in real life contexts by writing example sentences. Let’s imagine I just learned the phrase “Vas-y mollo” – go easy on something. Next, I try to think of sentences people might say, like
- “Vas-y mollo sur le gâteau!” Go easy on the cake!
- “Vas-y mollo sur le sucre” Go easy on the sugar!
Then I write them in my notebook.
Also, as I read and listen to the language, I try to keep an eye out for things I’ve studied being used in real life. If I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll write them down so I can come back to them later.
Turn passive activities into active ones
I’m quite a lazy learner: I enjoy passive activities, like listening and reading, but I struggle with active ones that require me to actually do something, like speaking and writing.
Because I spend more time on passive activities, I need a strategy to make them more active. One way of doing this is to write down keywords as I’m listening or reading, then talk aloud for a minute or two about what I heard/read. I’ve been doing this a bit already but I’m going to try and do it more over the next few months.
Learn more vocabulary
I’ll need to expand my vocabulary for the DALF exam. So far I’ve been learning 15 words a week and I’d like to ramp it up a bit. I’ve decided to increase the number slowly so it’s more sustainable. I’m aiming to add 5 extra words per week until I get up to 50.
Possibly the most important resource in language learning is time. I’ll need to put in a lot of time to reach an advanced level, so I’m hoping to spend 2-3 hours a day learning French (not including weekends). This means I’ll need a good balance of things that feel like work (writing, grammar and pronunciation) vs. things that feel like fun (podcasts, TV, books) so I don’t burn out.
Get into the culture
The closer I feel to a culture, the more motivated I am to learn the language. I’m going to follow French current affairs more closely by watching programmes on France 24 and reading the cheeky spoof news website Le Gorafi.
I’m a bit stuck for other resources to get into French culture – if you have any suggestions, stick them in the comments please!
Have an eff it day
When it all gets too much (or I’m feeling lazy) I’ll abandon all of the above and just watch French TV. It’s a great way of giving myself a break without getting out of the French habit. This will happen a lot.
To pass the DALF exam, I’ll need to improve my French and learn about how the exam works (some might argue that the latter is more important!). So this month I’m going to start practising the hardest part of the paper for me: writing. That said, I don’t want to lose sight of my main goal, which is to feel fluent in French, not learn how to pass an exam. So I’ll leave most of the exam prep until nearer the time.
What does this look like on a normal day?
Here’s my schedule for learning French over the next couple of months:
Daily (2 – 3 hours)
- Active listening: Write keywords as I watch TV, then speak aloud about what I heard
- Writing: Either exam practice, a diary entry or example sentences
- Grammar: Exercises from my grammar book + example sentences
- Pronunciation: Practise words with difficult sounds + read along with audio
- Downtime: Watch TV or read
- Earflooding: Fill my ears with French as I go about my day
- Practise one writing question from the DALF exam
- Take 3 conversation lessons on italki
- Learn 20 – 35 new words per week (gradually increase the number)
This plan isn’t set in stone. I might do more or less of certain things depending on my mood and I’m sure I’ll make tweaks as I go along. I’ll let you know how it’s going next month!
What about the other languages?
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: French, Italian, Spanish, German and Chinese.
I say “learning” because I don’t believe you can ever really complete a language. I’ve taken the highest level exam in Italian, the boss level, but there was no baddy to fight at the end and my Italian level didn’t magically become perfect as soon as I put my pen down. So even though I speak Italian to a high level, there’s always room for improvement and I enjoy getting into the lifelong learning spirit.
To manage all 5, I have one sprint language that I learn intensively and 4 marathon languages that I study in a more relaxed fashion. French will be my sprint language until further notice, so here are my plans for the others:
I took the C2 Italian exam last month – fingers crossed I passed! Next, I want to work on gradually closing the gap between me and a native speaker. I may never close it completely, but it’s nice to keep moving in that direction. The main differences between my Italian and a native speaker’s are:
Grammatical slips: When I’m speaking spontaneously, I still make some grammar slips with things like masculine/feminine endings. I’m going to try to pay more attention to this as I speak. I’m also going to record myself speaking once a week so I can listen back and self-correct my mistakes.
Vocabulary: The best (and most enjoyable) way to learn vocabulary is through reading. I’ve got a pile of books on my bedside table that I’ve been trying (rather unsuccessfully) to get through this year. Perhaps looking at the big pile is too intimidating, so I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself the mini goal: read one page in the evening. I’ll probably feel like reading more once I’ve got started anyway.
Pronunciation: I’m going to work on my pronunciation using the “focus on sounds” method that I mentioned for French. I’ll aim to do this once a week.
I’ve been neglecting Mandarin a bit since my last mission. I had big plans last month, but I didn’t get any of them done! I feel like I blinked and June disappeared, and I forgot about Chinese. My plans for June were:
- Learn 15 new words per week
- Continue watching Mandarin TV
- Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
- Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week
- Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me
The only things I managed to tick off the list were: write a couple of pages of pinyin (with example sentences of words I’d learnt recently) and watch 3 tutorials on YouTube.
I’m going to dust myself off and try again in July.
German and Spanish
For Spanish and German, I’m keeping it short and simple:
- Learn 15 new words a week + write example sentences.
- Do some leisure activities like watching TV and reading
Over to you
French learners, I need your help! Can you recommend any good resources? Thanks in advance! If you’re not learning French, I’d still love to hear from you: which language are you learning at the moment? What are your goals this month?
This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.