Learning French


La belle Tour Eiffel
La belle Tour Eiffel

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…





Language Learning part 1

This is the start of a series of posts on language learning.

There are currently around 6,000 languages spoken in the world. I’m kind of a linguistics nerd. I like pondering the connection with the mind and perception, how languages change over time, as well as the fun stuff like vernaculars, accents, slangs and colloquialisms. When traveling, it is essential to at least know some basics of the language(s) spoken in that region. If you speak English, you have the advantage of knowing one of the major lingua francas (widely spoken languages used to facilitate intra-language group communication) in the world. English will get you by in many places, but there are still tons of countries out there where English is hardly spoken if at all.

The languages that I currently speak to one degree or another are: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Russian. That’s starting with the language I speak the best, English, to the language I’m the least proficient in, Russian. The path I took to learn each one has been very different and I feel confident in commenting on the different methods of language learning and what has and hasn’t worked for me.

Language learning in general

First of all, in my opinion the most important thing, especially for travelers, is effective conversation rather than reading or writing. You will need to be able to read signs and restaurant menus of course, but most of your beginning efforts towards learning a language should be geared towards being able to speak the language in basic day-to-day interactions with people. Here are some things to think about:

What methods you use to learn a language will be dependent upon your environment and the resources available to you.

Environment is important in providing the resources. Are you already in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken? If not, are language learning resources such as internet, access to books, music, movies, formal classes or informal tutoring available to you in that language?

After figuring that out, how well you learn a language is completely dependent upon you. Although certain people definitely have a natural aptitude for learning languages, in my opinion  how  well most people learn a language depends upon their motivation, attitude, and how much time they put into it.

Motivation– this includes external as well as internal motivation. How much do you need to learn the language? If you’re in a foreign country without any knowledge of the local language, the external pressure is always on for you to learn some quickly to be able to fit in and get around. How much do you want to learn the language? How much you want to learn the language is proportionate to how quickly and effectively you will reach your personal goals.

Attitude– There are plenty of people who take several semesters worth of language classes that they’re not interested in and finish not really knowing very much at all. Inversely, there are people who take only one or two semesters of a language and can use what they learned quite well. You need to be interested in the language you want to learn if you want to learn it well. Taking an interest in the culture also helps a lot. Enjoying the process of learning the language is much more productive than viewing it as a chore. Another thing that hinders people is shyness. When learning a new language, if you speak you are going to make tons of mistakes. You are also most likely going to have a thick accent in the beginning. If you can get over it and just continue to try using whatever bit of the language you’ve learned thus far you will get better at speaking very quickly. Many people study a language for a long time but don’t want to speak much until they are good at it, which is an oxymoron because you need to speak a lot in order to speak well.

There are many ways to learn a language and it is ideal to employ many methods at once for best results. Many people swear by one method or another, by I’ve found that you can and should use any method at your disposal to mix it up and help you learn in a variety of ways. Some of the methods I’ve used include watching movies in a foreign language, language meet-ups (usually in cafes or on college campuses), writing to language exchange pen pals, language learning audio tracks, taking classes at a local university or junior college, downloading e-books online, and using the internet to look up any specifics about the language I’m trying to learn. In my next posts on the subject I’ll go into more depth about each of these methods and talk about their efficacy…

From Spanish to Portuguese

       Since I am still traveling in Brazil and do not have pictures to upload yet, I will nerd out for a second on Linguistics. Being a Spanish speaker makes it much easier to pick up B. Portuguese from what I’ve experienced so far. Comprehension is already decent and production goes by leaps and bounds each day. It brings up the question in my mind, when two daughter languages evolve from the same parent language, up to what point are they still considered dialects of the same language and when should they be classified as separate languages? I remember that usually two dialects of the same language are mutually intelligible and when they are not, they become classified as separate languages. Spanish and Portuguese seem to me to be in this grey area. They are not completely mutually intelligible but they don’t seem to be mutually unintelligible either. The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich stated, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” He was speaking about how oftentimes two very similar languages, or dialects, are only classified as separate languages when the two neighboring countries that speak them are sovereign and claim a different label for the variety of the language that they speak. Such seems to be the case for Swedish and Norweigen, as well as Czech and Slovakian. (Please let me know if this statement is faulty somehow, I speak none of those languages and am going off of what native speakers of those languages have told me). On the other hand, I have heard Cantonese as being referred to as a dialect of Chinese, yet I have also heard it reported that speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin do not understand eachother. Going back to Spanish and Portuguese, there are some regular sound changes that I could mention upon initial analyses.

Spanish                 B. Portuguese
Diphthong              Monophthong
Monophthong        Diphthong (These two statements are general and not always applicable, there are many diphthongs in Spanish that remain the same in B. Portuguese)

-ción                      -ção
[o] ———————> [u]/___#    ([o] becomes [u] at the end of words)
[e]———————-> [i]/___#     ([e] becomes [i] at the end of words)
C———————–> 0/V__V     (A consonant is deleted in between two vowels, usually in the last syllable of a word, may not be absolute)

I’ll stop myself from analyzing these differences any further because these are both European languages that have been documented extensively. These are just a few observations I’ve made during my first few weeks of travel in Brazil. In my opinion, a Spanish speaker would probably only need about 2-3 months of immersion to be conversationally fluent in Portuguese as opposed to the average 6 months for other less closely related Indo-European languages and 9+ months for non-related languages. Once again, this is only based on observations within the context of my travel and language learning experiences.
As for B. Portuguese, I have learned a lot during my first few weeks here. It was difficult for me to study Portuguese preemptively, probably because of the lack of tangible results. However, once in-country, anything learnt is extremely valuable and immediately applicable. Much is learnt in day to day interactions and conversation. I started out with what I call bullshit Portuguese (Spanish spoken with a pseudo-Brazilian accent), but is moving more and more everyday to the correct pronunciation and grammar. Besides day to day conversation, I find a dictionary with IPA pronunciation, a simple grammar book, and Pimsleur audio lessons (available for free download on thepiratebay, or so I hear…) to be useful. Excuse the density of this post, I had to nerd out for a bit but I will post pictures and interesting tidbits once I can upload pictures next month.