In the autumn and winter, when it’s persisting down as it is today, conversation on forums and francophile groups turns to two things: where to get logs from, and how to speak better French.
I can’t think there is anything more important than learning to speak French. You cannot integrate without it. It always astonishes me how few people speak French and treat it as if it is something that is kind of optional. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen ‘is there an English-speaking line for XXX’ or ‘does anybody know a XXX who speaks English?’ – problems that would be solved immediately if people learned, or at least tried, to speak French.
But it is not easy. People think I can speak French because I have an aptitude for languages. I don’t. I have an aptitude – and an appetite – for learning and I know it’s important. It means I can get work and I can fill in forms. When my glass smashed in my door the other week, I could find the best place to cut a new piece. When my electric went off, I could go into the street to ask my neighbours what was going on.
If I had to say five things that would improve your French, they’d be the following:
#1 Start with basic nouns for everything and a verb a week. Once you have a basic noun vocabulary of about 3,000, life is a lot easier. Stick sticky-notes on everything, and use flashcards. I have boxes and boxes of little cards with the English on one side, the actual French word on the other, and a guide to pronunciation underneath. Like this: chatouiller - shatoo-yee - to tickle. Two things will help a lot at this stage: wordreference.com and Larousse. Word Reference is an online dictionary which gives you far more detail than Larousse. It also gives you a forum to access that gives examples. If you’ve got a question about how to use a word, it’s likely someone else has already asked it. Larousse is the online site of the French dictionary and encyclopoedia publications and also includes an excellent facility – you can hear the word said. Between the two you can start to build up your basic vocabulary. For verbs, I use the Blue Pocket Book of French Verbs which really helped me nail my conjugation.
#2 Beginners and advanced speakers alike can also benefit from the wealth of FLE materials on the web. FLE means ‘Français Langue Etrangère’ or French as a foreign language. You are not alone in learning French. There are thousands of people also learning French in order to live here, and these sites are the equivalent of ESL sites. I really like Le Point du FLE and Français Facile which are two great sites, unfortunately in French (so not so helpful for the complete novice!) with lots of activities. They aren’t flashy and modern, but they are great sites with a wealth of resources.
#3 Find a more-talk radio station and listen to it religiously. France Bleu radio stations are the equivalent of BBC local radio and as such have lots more talk than music. You’ll find lots of programmes and podcasts to listen to. At first, you won’t understand and it’ll be really fast, but eventually, you’ll pick out words and then it will all just make sense. But make it something you do actively, not just something you have on in the background. Also, don’t knock French music. Anyone who knows me knows I am the least likely Celine Dion fan. In fact, I can’t hardly stand her singing, but her song Pour que tu m’aimes encore is pretty much the only reason I remember the subjunctive of savoir. “Il faut que tu saches…” is never going to leave my head. Songs make things memorable and sticky.
#4 Find your favourite programmes and movies in English and watch dubbed versions of them. And watch subtitled French films in English. I watched full seasons of Les Experts because it helped my French and because it was familiar. I’d seen them before, but it helped me pick up enough language to watch non-familiar programmes. Then you can also find lots of broadcasts on Pluzz.fr if you want to be able to stop and start and repeat. Pick them up cheaply from vide-greniers.
#5 Find a native teacher. Nothing improves your French better than a native teacher. A native teacher is how I learned Japanese in six months. Native teachers can be free, via clubs and associations, but will be unlikely to do one-to-one lessons in which you will undoubtedly learn quickest. Private teachers can be found on le bon coin. In my local library, the librarian is a retired French teacher. There are plenty of retired language teachers out there who you can enlist to help you. Of course, sometimes these are not easy options, so other sites like italki, verbal planet and livemocha also offer lessons online and language partners. On italki, for instance, you can find someone who speaks French who wants to learn English. You sort out a time and agree to speak 30 mins in French, 30 in English and you’ve got someone dedicated to helping you learn the language for next-to-nothing. You can also hire professional teachers on these sites and ensure you find a teacher who is bilingual. I am teaching some Russian students (of their own volition!) at the moment and find it very difficult that my Russian is limited to da, nyet, spasibo and das vidaniya so I can understand why people might seek an English native teacher who can teach them French but in reality, they make mistakes unless they have very, very good French or are qualified translators, and their accents are not good. They can help you with basic vocabulary and conjugation, but as a friend said of an English lady offering French lessons, ‘even I know you don’t say lie-say for lycée’ – so avoid the non-professionals and go to someone who is trained in languages and trained to teach them. If necessary, find a bilingual teacher who can explain the difficult bits in English if you need them to. I will never forget my secondary school Latin teacher who spoke with a very pronounced Todmorden accent. If I spoke Latin like that, I doubt anyone in Rome 2,000 years ago would have understood me. Sure, she could explain verbs and conjugation and meaning, but it’s important – if you can! – to find someone who speaks with the right accent.
It’s important to balance a combination of reading & listening with speaking. It’s that balance that makes you well-rounded and confident in French. I try and do a little every week, and I’m still finding interesting new expressions and ways of saying things. Like last week, I learnt BCBG which I’d never heard before – Bon chic, bon genre, for someone chic and classy. Learning a subject is like growing a plant. You have to nourish it and water it and tend it, otherwise it dies. Even surrounded by French, that can still happen with your French! That’s why I practise regularly.
Now… how do I keep on top of my Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese?!