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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Learning French on a shoestring

Two years of French at school were enough for me to develop a healthy dislike for the language. When I moved to Geneva years later, I had to realise that it nevertheless remains an indispensable language in a number of places. Thus, I had to brush up, and quickly.

As a stagiaire at the time, I didn't have much money to spend on courses. Nor could I practise much French during the day in a chiefly English speaking work environment. This article describes some approaches I've used for reviving my French speaking skills, and then slowly improving them from intermediaire to avancée.

Step1: Make learning words and expressions fun.
I've got a set of small index cards with the French expression on one side and the translation on the other. In addition, I've got a cardbox set up as in the picture.

The first compartment I revise daily: If I know the translation, the card moves to the second compartment. If I don't, the card remains where it is.

All other compartments are revised once they are full: As their size increases, this ensures that the timespan between iterations becomes longer. Again: Every time I answer correctly, the card moves on – if I don’t, the card moves back to compartment 1. This way, spending ten minutes a day on your vocabulary becomes a game to empty the first compartment.

I usually keep the content of the first compartment with me at all times, so I can revise whenever I wait for something. You can mark your hits and misses with a pen (so the goal is to get five hits in a row) or sort the cards as you would in your box.

Of course, as the reason for me to play this game is to learn, I additionally need a way of refilling the first compartment with new, unknown vocabulary. Ready-made sets of index cards didn’t really work for me as most of the words I got were either irrelevant, obvious or already known. In general, there are three ways:

  1. Create a new index card every time you look up a word in the dictionary. Though cumbersome, I’ve noticed that the act of writing already helps me memorising.
  2. Make a habit of noting unknown words and useful expressions on empty index cards, and add them to your cardbox once you’ve found out what they mean. For this, it helps to always carry some empty index cards with you.
  3. If you really want to go for it, pick a random French text that you feel is relevant to what you want to learn, and underline every word that you do not know while reading it. Now write each on a new index card, take out your dictionary, and you should have enough words to continue learning.
By the way: You do not need to buy hundreds of index cards for this exercise – cutting some normal sheets of paper into 16 pieces will give you wonderful A8 cards as well.

Step 2: Surround yourself with French culture
I love movies, and watching movies in French wherever possible is another simple and unobtrusive way of learning the language. Don’t worry about not getting every word – in most movies the screenplay alone tells the story. Watch the movie a second time if you need to, or choose a story you already know.

DVDs are great if they let you choose the language. I’ve also found that I understand most of the dialogues when I switch on French subtitles in addition to the French text. However, English or German subtitles tend to distract me.

Blessed with French language cinema here in Belgium, I’ve resolved to watch movies in French wherever possible. While this has led to the discovery of some gems, it took me a while to get used to hear Orlando Bloom court Keira Knightley in French.

If you prefer books to movies, try books with a clear and engaging plot. Childrens books are always good for a start, especially if they contain short stories like Le Petit Nicolas. My next stop was Harry Potter – as I book I already knew. In general, translations tend to use easier language than French originals. Turn to these once you are confident that you can keep your fascination for the book in spite of difficulties.

Along the same lines, try French language radio or newspapers where available, switch to TV5 or discover some great French musicians!

Step 3: Learn on the road
Libraries can be a great source for further language learning material. The library of Geneva had an extensive selection of books, videos, audio tapes and educational software, and it was there where I found Assimil's Using French: Advanced Level, an inconspicious little book with 4 audio CDs. Its seventy lessons focus on teaching conversation and useful expressions, and became a permanent companion on my ipod. If you're looking for a good audio course for self-study, look no further.

Now that I’ve worked my way through, I still keep French ebooks and the odd French podcast with me at all times.

Step 4: Create opportunities for conversation
With the tips above, you’ll develop a very good level of comprehension – but actually using the language is a different cup of tea. I do it, but only if I must – and in most cases there are easier ways of making myself understood. The strategy here is to get myself into situations where I’m forced to speak French by:
  • Living and working in Belgium. Speaking French in the supermarket is easy, but have you ever tried renting an appartement or registering at the commune? Tomorrow I’ll even have to explain to a designer how to layout a brochure.
  • Creating mutually agreed learning situations. In my office, some French learners (and native speakers) go out for a French Drink every two weeks. The amazing thing: We’re even speaking French when there are only German natives around. Another option is to seek someone who helps you with French in exchange for you helping her with English or another language.
I’ve also tried language courses, but am increasingly disappointed: They often focus on grammar instead of language use, and only move as fast as the slowest participant. On the other hand, one-to-one lessons worked wonders for me: The teacher focusses on your learning goals, immediately spots the mistakes you make and tailors lessons around your interests. It doesn’t even have to be expensive: In Berlin, I paid 20 € for two hours.

Step 5: Try not to be perfectionist
Grammar is important, but it’s not the focus of my language learning. Chances are that you will keep carrying around a foreign accent with you anyway, so most people you speak to will forgive you if you mix up le and la or use the wrong tense. I try to learn as much by assimilation as possible, and relatively little by rules. It helps that I went through the grammar once, and I keep a reference book close by. When you’re not sure if you need to study grammar and which part, try a couple of exercises and see whether feel comfortable answering the questions. If not, that’s a hint for your revision list.

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