How did I learn to speak awesome French? (part 1)

by | Jul 11, 2017 | blog

French is the fourth language I have learned (including my native English), and the second foreign language I have learned well. My level of French is pretty respectable- I can easily read and understand most newspapers, I have read several unadapted books in French, I can understand the news (although movies are somewhat difficult for me), and I can speak relatively freely, although my lack of practice means that in the beginning of conversations in French, or in very long talks, I sometimes speak more slowly than I’d like to. 

I started learning French when I was in my last year of university and had already been learning German for three years. My expectations about the difficulty of the French language were partly formed by my experience learning German, which, because of its system of cases and strict rules about word, I found to be rather difficult, at least in the beginning of my studies. In other words, I expected French to be difficult, and I expected it to take me at least a couple of years to get to a good level of French.

In fact, French surprised me by being quite easy to learn. There were a number of reasons for this. One of them is that, when I began studying French, I knew what level of French I wanted to reach (I wanted my French to be as good as my German was, which at the time I considered to be rather good) and why I wanted to do it (I was studying history and needed to know French to read some sources that were available only in French). Another thing that helped me was that I already had a lot of experience learning another language, German. I knew how to discipline myself, I knew what it felt like not to understand a point of grammar or a part of a difficult text (and that understanding sometimes comes later), and I knew that the first semester would be extremely important (I had not done so well in my first semester of German, and remembered that this made my work harder later on). So, very early in my study of French, I decided to work extremely hard and to make as much progress as possible. I also had very little time- I believed I would need to be able to read French well about one year from the start of my studies. 

Another thing that helped my success in French is that French shares an enormous amount of vocabulary with English, perhaps even more than Spanish does. I discovered this one day about four months after beginning to study French. At that time, I was working in the University of Florida library, where it was my job to shelve books that had been returned by guests of the library. By chance, I had to reshelve the classic French novel The Stranger by Albert Camus, and decided to try to read a few pages of it. I had low expectations of how much I would be able to understand- I remembered how, a few months after beginning to study German, I tried to read a page of Der Spiegel, the famous German news magazine, and had understood almost nothing. I opened The Stranger and began to read. I noticed that the verbs had unusual endings on them- I reasoned that this must simply be the past tense forms of the verbs, which I had not learned yet, and continued reading. Much to my surprise, I was able to understand the first few sentences. I missed a word here and there, but continued reading and seeing words that were similar to English ones. I was amazed- after just a few months of study, I was able to read a few pages of an unadapted French book! To reach the same level of reading in German, I had needed around two and a half years. Whenever I saw French books in the library, I would read a few pages of them before putting them back on the shelf. I was always amazed by how much vocabulary was nearly identical in French and English, and this made the task of reading far simpler than it had been in German. There were some words that were quite different from English ones, too (for example, “become” is “devenir” in French) but these repeated so frequently that I quickly learned them anyhow.

Reading was not part of my main approach to learning French, though; systematically reading large amounts of text in the target language was not yet part of my language learning repertoire. French pronunciation is rather difficult, and spelling is also rather irregular, with many silent consonants, particularly at the ends of words. In order to get good listening comprehension, I regularly visited the language lab, where I scrupulously completed every single listening exercise- most of which trained me to listen to fine differences in the sounds of words. I also searched every chapter of our French coursebook, Chez Nous, for unknown words and made word cards from them. Copying my own technique which I had devised while studying German, I wrote masculine nouns in blue, feminine nouns in red, and wrote all accent marks in green. And of course I attended class, which fortunately took place every weekday. The large number of classes was an enormous help to me, as there was constant day to day pressure to complete homework before the next class. By the time we had our exam at the end of the second semester, I found that I was able to have a good introductory conversation in French and to read books in French- as long as they were on scientific or academic topics. In fact, I concluded that French vocabulary was, very roughly speaking, a subset of English vocabulary: a very large percentage of French words were understandable to English speakers, but not all English words were understandable to French speakers. I did well on my final exams in French and soon left to go to France: I had a crazy idea to walk across the country.

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