Jun 26

Preparation and Learning French

Category: Uncategorized


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!

Final note

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 so far

  1. glandium June 26th, 2012 6:31 am

    The interesting thing about people trying to talk to you in English in a foreign country when you address them in their language is the underlying assumption that you’re a native English speaker, which, considering how many people in the world are not, is not necessarily a good assumption. Sure, your accent might give you away, but it’s not necessarily true either. You could very well be an hungarian not understanding a word of english. That’s the kind of thing that I found annoying when I was in Japan, although this would only happen rarely.

  2. Vladimir June 27th, 2012 12:43 am

    Good article, inspiring to improve my French. Just noted one thing, that I’d like to share with you, of course if you don’t mind: The correct way to say is “parler + language”, without any article or preposition. In all other cases not including the verb “parler”, you may use both an article and a preposition depending on the situation. Hope it helps to further improve your French ­čÖé

  3. glandium June 27th, 2012 2:37 am

    Vladimir, depending on context, “parler en fran├žais” works. As well as “parler le fran├žais” and “parler fran├žais”. See http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=21677