My love for language preceded my love for French Culture. I was obsessed with foreign languages since early childhood. When my parents would let me pick out a book at a bookstore, I would buy things like “The Italian Traveler’s Vocabulary Book” at 7 years old.
French was easily my favorite subject in high school and when I went to France on a school trip at 16 I fell in love and have never looked back. Every opportunity to travel to France, I took without hesitation. I have broken up with several boyfriends because I didn’t want to be held back abroad. There was nothing that stood in the way of my passion for France.
Learning the language was easy for me because of that passion. It never felt like work and my hunger never wavered. Now that I am married to a Frenchman, I would say that my French is near fluency, but I could use several more years of practice and it would help if we returned to live in the country.
I still prefer to watch TV with subtitles and reading in French is much slower than reading in English. To be honest, I have never liked reading in French.
Let me walk you through the process of mastering the language.
Step 1 – The basics. Learn grammar, syntax, vocabulary, verb conjugation, etc. It can be tedious and will take quite a while, but just keep doing it. Sure, there are a lot of people that pick French up by living in the country. It’s kind of like playing an instrument by ear. It gets the job done, but a formal training allows for a foundation that I find necessary.
Step 2 – Talk! I used to be so nervous for the 15 minute oral conversation that I would have to do 3 times a semester with my professor. What would I talk about for 15 minutes and what happens if I don’t know what he is asking me? Yikes. Be brave. Make mistakes. Get messy. The worst you can do is say something silly and get a good laugh. This is absolutely crucial for learning a language.
Step 3 – Talk… to yourself. I used to talk in my car, talk in the shower, talk talk talk talk. Just keep talking.
Step 4 – Watch French TV/Film. Watch a movie with English subtitles, then French and pause and repeat what they are saying back to the TV. You have to go out of your comfort zone to learn a language. I will not sugar coat that because it’s crucial. Practice intonation. Let go of the grammar rules for a second and try to mimic what the people are saying. Listen very carefully and pay attention to vowels.
Step 5 – Live in a francophone country! This is a necessity. Sure there are people who are quite good at speaking French who have not lived abroad, but for fluency or anywhere near it, plus cultural references, you must live there. I learned more in 3 months abroad than my entire formal education.
Step 6 – Live with a host family. Speaking French from dawn to dusk is a sure method to learning French and speaking it well.
Step 7 – Accept that you won’t be a native speaker. I will always have an accent speaking French and my husband will always have an accent speaking English. Use it to your advantage. It’s a tool. Trust me.
Step 8 – Fall in love with a French person. Honestly, that is your best bet. Ha. My professor even told me that in college.
Step 9 – Pretend it’s music. This is a tip that you won’t hear often. In fact, I have never heard it. I play piano, so I related my language learning to that. During the process of learning an instrument, you start learning notes and reading music. It starts sounding like something, but it feels maybe a contrived and inauthentic. Once you master the fundamentals, you can add flair and personality. There is a point when you just about to cross a hump with language learning and you need to jump head first into the next level of expression, confidence and truly communicating with people. This is when opening your ears, noticing and mimicking others will become your most valuable tool. When someone asks you something, don’t stop and think if everything you say is perfect. Communicate the idea you want to communicate and the grammar and accent will follow you.
It’s funny because throwing myself into the language with an open mind has somewhat given me a different persona when speaking French. I talk more and I tend to talk more openly. I also feel a bit more bouncy and joyous because I love the way French people spar in conversation and are quick on their feet.
Step 10 – The accent will come. Learn about pronouncing vowels and r’s and all of that. Really take moments to be mindful of your pronunciation. As Americans, we are cursed with some pronunciation blunders. Once, I had a classmate who would pronounce his r’s very strongly. I asked myself should I sound like I am trying that hard? Then I ran into my professor at the airport and we had a drink. One of those, holy crap I am hanging out with my teachers outside of class moments—I love that. Anyway, I said what’s up with so and so and his pronunciation. Should I over-pronounce even if I don’t feel that confident in the language yet? He said no. He said make sure you pay attention, attempt to mimic and listen carefully, but as you get more confident with the language the pronunciation improves simultaneously. I thought phew. Now, 5 years later, I can say that he is right. It all goes hand in hand.
Step 11 – Work really really hard! It doesn’t just happen and it is not just an app or computer program that is going to get you there. It’s a daily effort for years. I have seen so many people start confidently and then it just fizzles. It’s like anything; you have to really want to learn the language. You might think, oh I really want to learn the language, but if you don’t like the process that gets you there, it will be really tough. It’s one of those Malcolm Gladwellian 10k hour things.
Okay! Best of luck with your language learning and remember, have confidence! You have to try and put yourself out there. It is such a valuable experience and you will gain more than just the ability to communicate verbally. You will gain a pass into another world.
Thanks for reading.