Archive for June, 2012
There are books written on how to learn languages and how to prepare for a trip to France, so I won’t spend a lot of time on my own approach. Having said that, though, there are a few things that are worth mentioning explicitly here. The most important thing, though, is to have fun with it. Learning a language gives you a means to speak to an entirely new world of people and a new way of understanding cultures (both how different and how similar they can be).
My experience with French started when I was two or three years old. My parents (who already had started teaching me a few French words and songs) enrolled me in a class. Unfortunately, we moved when I was still pretty young so I ended up losing a lot of what I had learned. That being said, I think that some of the grammatical constructs and accent stuck with me. Furthermore, throughout my life, my family has used French in certain circumstances. For example, when my mom asks me how much money I have on me (if we’re going into a shop), I respond in French to avoid announcing to the world at large that I have $100 on me.
When learning a new language, there are two separate axes that are useful to think about: comprehension and speaking. Some things, like learning new vocabulary, will improve both at the same time, but I needed to work on them separately. I found that practicing listening to French via podcasts (five to ten hours a week) helped me a lot here, basically any French will do. I found RFI’s journal en francais facile to be very helpful, as well as a fun way to keep up with world events. I also subscribed to a couple of RTL’s podcasts. Once you achieve a basic level, watching movies and TV shows helps to teach you some of the slang (argot) as well as helping you acclimate to how you’re likely to hear French spoken on the street. The French that you hear spoken by radio personalities is very clean, very formal, and very clearly enunciated and it will take a lot of time to get used to the pace and grammatical shortcuts in casual French. If you do watch movies, try to do so without subtitles, it is very easy to read the subtitles and not listen to the French, defeating the purpose. If you’re having too much trouble understanding a movie with subtitles, or you can’t disable them, concentrate on ignoring them as much as possible.
There’s a secret method for learning how to speak a new language, but don’t tell anybody: practice! Throughout the two years between my second trip to Paris and my six month voyage I did the following:
- Read French articles aloud (occasionally recording and replaying them to make sure my accent was somewhat correct).
- Found French meetup groups, as much as my schedule permitted.
- Spoke to myself a lot: in the shower, in my car.
- Maintained an internal French dialog of what was happening in my life and what I was seeing, which is a great way to learn new vocabulary (e.g. when I was watching Harry Potter, I’d say to myself: “ok, maintenant, il utilise son … wand (sa baguette) … pour se defendre!”).
Every little bit helps. Speaking out loud is very important: even if you have the best vocabulary and perfect grammar, you need to get used to saying unusual sounds and unusual combinations of sounds. For some words (like peripherique), I would actually sit down for and, for minutes at a time, say the word over and over until it rolled off my toungue.
Where did all of this work get me? When I got to France, my comprehension had gotten quite good. My French friends would have to take a little care to be sure I could keep up, but not to a point where it was onerous for them. Also, once I got to France and was surrounded by French, my level improved in leaps and bounds. As for fluency, I could speak and get my point across, but with a lot of grammatical mistakes and a lot of hesitation. The cure for this was simply to speak more and to force myself to go faster (more on this later). Overall, I would say that my level had moved from low intermediate to high intermediate.
Once I got to France
It was very important for me that I spoke French in France. This is actually not as obvious as it sounds: a lot of people speak English, and will take the opportunity to practice with you. Don’t let them! It is too easy to sit back and speak English, which won’t help your French at all. If someone responded in English (usually under the guise “Oh, I speak English, it’ll be much easier for you”) I would respond, “Merci, mais je prefere parler en fran├žais” (Thank you, but I prefer to speak French). While it was true that it was easier for me to speak in English, I was willing to struggle as much as necessary. So, don’t take the easy route out!
I don’t know if I’ve made it clear enough, but the one constant here is that it will take time, effort, and patience. Don’t get discouraged! As I wasn’t taking courses, I didn’t have any tangible evidence of my progress, except that occasionally, I would say a complex sentence without stuttering or mistakes, stop and realize “Wow, I just said that!” which, in a way, is a better yardstick of progress than a simple grade.3 comments
I’m sitting here in Mozilla’s San Francisco office after having spent 6 months in Paris, working in our office there. While I was in France, I basically lived my life in French and spent as little time as possible speaking in English. It was an amazing time, and I’m sad to be back in California!
As an American in Paris, I noticed a bunch of interesting things about living in France both in terms of having to speak in a second language and differences about our cultures. So, I am going to spend a couple of blog posts talking about my observations and experiences. I was very lucky to have coworkers and friends in Paris who were accepting of my mistakes and willing to let me bumble my way through my trip (and patiently explain when I made mistakes, both culturally and linguistically). While my experience was in France, I think that a lot of what I learned can be applied to other countries that don’t use English as their primary language.
PAQs (Possibly Asked Questions)
My family has a special relationship with France. My parents both speak French (even though they’re both American) and both lived in Paris for an extended period of time. I have cousins and uncles who go to France regularly. As a result of this, as I grew up, I found myself surrounded to some extent by French and French culture. For example, my parents have been trying to teach me French ever since I was three. On the strength of this familiarity with French, I’ve been to France (and more precisely to Paris) several times, each of them for a month and every time I’ve been there, I’ve found myself saying to myself, “I would really love to live here.” So, when I realized that I might have the opportunity, I jumped at it.
Where did you stay?
Going to a foreign country for six months is a little awkward. It’s just enough time that it might not make sense to keep your apartment in your home city, but not quite long enough that it’s worth the hassle of finding a new one when you get back (especially in San Francisco). Fortunately, I have an “aunt” (in a very loose sense) who avoids winters in Paris by living elsewhere in the world for four months and who doesn’t like to have an empty apartment, so while I was in Paris, I was doing double duty working for Mozilla and housesitting (it’s a hard life, I know!).2 comments