In two weeks I will have passed the 5 month mark of me being in France. Living here has been an experience that will definitely shape my outlook on life just like all my travels have (which is one of the reason’s I’m so addicted to travel!). One of the biggest things defining my experience here is learning to speak French. After about my first 6 weeks of being here I became super dedicated to getting the most out of my time here by acquiring a new skill, or in this case a language, that I could use professionally in the future.
Upon my arrival 5 months ago I believed that I had a good level of French. In college I had taken my first four semesters of lower division French packed into one year. After I graduated, I moved to New Orleans with my girlfriend where I continued to audit upper division French classes such as French Phonology & Phonetics, Advanced Grammar & Composition, and a French Conversation class. Whenever I encountered French or French Canadian tourists in New Orleans (of which there were a lot) I would often strike up conversations with them and be congratulated on my level of French.
Imagine my surprise when I arrive in France and while trying to carry out everyday tasks such as buying a cellphone or asking a ticket agent questions about prices, I was given that ‘what the hell are you saying?’ stare. Some people even became quite annoyed with me and even worse, would reply to me in English. That was definitely a humbling experience and it was only when I had to use French every single day that I saw what my real level of production was like. So after my first 6 weeks of getting settled in, I decided that I was going to leave here not just having gotten better in French, but extremely fluent.
Taking the advice of Benny the Irish Polyglot, author of The Language Hacking Guide, I made one major decision that changed everything: I cut out English of my life (Except when updating my blog, or calling my friends, family or girlfriend). I decided to do everything in French, and when I say everything, I mean E-VE-RY-THING. Since my commitment about 3 months ago, on a daily basis I:
- Only listen to music in French.
- Watch all movies in French (I’m kinda a movie buff and I often watch movies before bed) without subtitles.
- Read the newspaper everyday (there’s a free newspaper called Direct Matin that comes out every weekday that you can find in various Metro stops).
- Listen to comedy and news podcasts in French.
- Only read novels in French, even if they’re not originally in French.
- Convert all my email inboxes, Facebook, cellphone, kindle and computer software into French.
- Most importantly, strike up conversations and speak French often, even to Parisians who speak English.
On top of that, I study for about 1 ½ to 2 hours a day on the train to work or at my desk when I’m not out and about. I knew that my grammar needed a lot of work, so the first month or so I studied from a grammar book called Ultimate French Review and Practice. Each chapter is full of exercises that I used to test myself with. This was in my opinion the best grammar book I found. I would check my answers for each chapter or section, and if I got less than 80% correct I would go back and redo it the next day.
My next phase was to focus on Vocab, of which I’m now at the tail end of. I’m using a book called Vocabulaire Progressif du Français : nivel avancé. I love this book because there are no translations, only synonyms for the words, descriptions, context clues and drawings of scenes and characters to make you learn the new vocab. Each section is different and quite thorough touching topics such as politics, cooking, emotional reactions, quantities and measures, and forms, materials and textures to name a few. Each new vocab page has a corresponding quiz page. This book has really helped me expand on the variety of topics I can discuss.
My next project will be working on reducing my foreign accent and I will write more in French. I have already been learning to sing and play songs on the guitar in French, practicing tongue twisters, and mostly reading out loud to hear myself but starting next month this aspect of my learning will take center stage.
None of these study phases are absolute. While I was working on my grammar I was also learning new vocab daily and working on my pronunciation, but grammar was more of the focus. I rotate each aspect of learning the language as I self-diagnose my strengths and weaknesse . I also enjoy learning slang and swear words (of which French is particularly rich in) by always keeping a list in my pocket of slang vocab and sentences. Another great recommendation that Benny had, which he called “time hacking,” was to make the most out of all those minutes in the day we waste by spacing out when we could be learning a language. He recommends making use of those minutes spent waiting in line at the post office, waiting for a web page to load, or even waiting at a traffic light. I incorporate this into my day by glancing at a vocab list while waiting for the computer at work to load (slowest computer I’ve used since the 90’s), reading the newspaper on the metro and quickly switching to listening to a podcast while I’m walking to switch to another line, or reading a book while I wait for the bus.
Also, something I learned studying linguistics in college that really helped me: Imitation. In Bilingual Language Acquisition, we learned that babies learn to speak a language simply by imitating those around them, namely their parents. So why can’t we do the same as adults? One major way I’ve profited from watching French movies, is that whenever I hear a new phrase, a way of saying something, a slang word I heard during the movie, I imitate it and integrate it into my daily conversations with people. Of course sometimes there’s a little bit of gray area as to who you say what to and in what context but for the most part, I’ve learned a good amount of my French here by imitating what I heard others say.
End result: My French has improved DRASTICALLY. In three months of hard work I’ve seen a difference weekly. A movie I watched six weeks ago that had very colloquial language and that was very difficult to follow at that time is almost crystal clear today. Making progress quickly has been really motivating to me to continue with this method.
I still have 3 more months here, not including a couple trips to Spain to visit my girlfriend where I’ll use Spanish instead, to get my French to as high a level as possible. For any of you out there if you have any other tips or ideas, want to share your own experiences, or just feel like leaving feedback please feel free to comment below. Until next time…