Scott H Young

My Progress in Becoming Bilingual


I started learning French in April, roughly seven months ago. For the people interested in learning a second language, I thought I would share my progress and some tips I’ve learned.

Am I Fluent?

I remember reading months ago that fluency was a myth. You can’t have fluency. You just have situations where you can communicate and those where you cannot. Fluency is impossibly vague because it works on a sliding scale. I’ve found it’s much better to focus on tangible goals in language learning than trying to become “fluent”.

For example, some of the milestones I’ve achieved:

  • Understanding and speaking French in conversations.
  • Self-reliance using French to deal with stores, requests and the bank.
  • The ability to express myself with most things, albeit perhaps with more effort and less linguistic artfulness than many.

The point I’m at right now is at the understand/being understood level of fluency. The next level obviously is to be understood correctly, in more situations, with fewer mistakes.

Some Lessons Learned

As many of my readers are already bilingual (or even tri- and quadrilingual) the lessons from someone who can speak 1.5 languages may not seem terribly profound. However, I’ve always found it’s more important to share the journey than the destination when writing.

Speaking is Essential

This one definitely isn’t universal. Fellow Canadian, Steve Kaufmann who runs The Linguist speaks at least 11 languages. His method of learning is based highly on listening to the native language to passively absorb many of the words, phrases and sounds of a language.

While this method may work for Steve and others, I’ve personally noticed that speaking (especially with native speakers) is an essential step in improving my fluency. Something about speaking a word allows me to use it and remember it better than hearing it alone. Admittedly, hearing is still crucially important, but I don’t believe I would be able to develop my skills as rapidly if I relied on passive listening.

Accept Being Misunderstood

When I first started speaking, my goal was perfection. I recounted the words in my head multiple times before uttering them. I wanted to say what I was going to say without any errors, being completely understood. As someone who is proficient with English and grew up in an all-English environment, the possibility of being misunderstood was alien to me.

Now I realize that this approach doesn’t work. I succeed in communicating far more often when I just blurt out what I want to say, without the internal mental refinements. If I missed the mark and didn’t say it correctly, I’ll get some confusion. I’ve accepted that. But getting out and speaking is the best way to refine your skills.

Classroom Learning Helps

I think the mistake is made when people assume classroom learning is enough. It’s not. The improvements I’ve made with the language have all come from interacting with native speakers. Listening to them and responding in conversation.

However, that doesn’t mean classroom learning is useless. In a social environment, I don’t usually want a French lesson. I want to buy the baguette or make small talk with the person at a party, not discover the hidden truths of verb conjugation. Classroom environments can help because they provide a place where you can learn the subtleties of a language that nobody would correct you on in daily conversation.

Is classroom learning necessary? I don’t believe so. My sister became fluent in Danish and relied mostly on speaking with Danish friends. But I think it can help, if you put it in the right context.

Don’t Try to Remember Everything

When I first started learning, I’d try to remember every word and phrase I encountered. Now I realize this is almost impossible. Ask people what the words are for things, but accept that you may need to encounter a word 2-3 times before it sinks into memory. Considering the abundance of new vocabulary in any language, investing tons of energy into memorizing one word is a waste.

Once again, I’ve found usage helps solidify vocabulary. When I use a word, I’m more likely to remember it.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

The biggest skill I’ve found in learning a new language is to always ask what new words are. If you encounter something unfamiliar, ask a person what the word is. If you hit a gap in a conversation, ask the person to help you find the word you’re looking for.

Set Reasonably Expectations

Learning French has greatly increased my appreciation of anyone learning English as a second language. The biggest learning point from this experience has been the realization of the sheer amount of learning effort that goes into learning words in a different language. It means remembering the translation for tens of thousands of words in your native vocabulary, along with different grammatical syntax and different connotations.

If I repeat this experiment in the future, I’d make sure to give myself at least 10-12 months to become good at a new language. I’m sure intermediate goals can be reached before then, but I’d say that’s a good estimate of how long it takes to become good with the language, assuming you’re spending a bulk of that time with native speakers.

What Next?

I’m still in France for at least another 8 months, that means plenty more time to practice my French. My current goal is to be understood in a wider range of situations, improve my usage of the language and soften my accent. Hopefully in several months I can offer another update.


Print Friendly
StumbleUpon It!

This website is supported, in part, by affiliate arrangements (usually Amazon). Affiliate relationships are always marked by bolded links.


16 Responses to “My Progress in Becoming Bilingual”

  1. Mark Lewis says:

    I think cultural immersion is the key factor for learning a new language.

    I took Spanish during my high school years and barely squeaked by. I didn’t put much effort into it. Years later, I would find myself in Spain regretting not taking Spanish classes seriously in school.

    Two years ago, I decided I as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would learn Spanish. I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. And I can point my inability to continue on the fact that I would be unable to maintain the knowledge beyond learning it. You see, I don’t use Spanish in everyday life. I’m not even around people that use Spanish. If I could use it, I would pursue it again!

    Good job on your achievement so far and keep building on your experience.

  2. Hey Scott,
    I agree with you that listening passively is not a great way to learn. I think being actively involved in regular conversation is best. Also, reading has helped me a lot with my speaking and listening as it has a great effect on my vocabulary level. Cheers.

  3. Alina says:

    I love languages.

    I took Japanese and French in high school. It was a great experience but I only remember the veryveryvery basic (and maybe not even that) lol. The only languages I use frequently are English and Vietnamese haha.

    But yeah, France is lovely. Hope you have fun practicing your French.

  4. hirokln says:

    I love to learn new things. I always wanted to learn new languages. I gonna start learning French from nov end as soon as my semester gets over.
    I believe this saying
    “If u see, u forget.
    If u hear, u remember.
    If u do, u know.”
    *do(practice lang).

  5. Hi Scott,

    I see you mention Steve Kaufmann in your post and that you don’t think passive listening works for you. I would love to hear your thoughts on all that we offer at LingQ (www.lingq.com), which is the learning system developed by Steve and myself. It is certainly much more than just passive listening. We do offer a large library of audio all with transcript but as well there are vocabulary learning tools and opportunities to practice speaking and writing with native speakers.

    I, myself, have been studying French on LingQ for the last 8 months, here in Vancouver, with no face to face contact with native speakers. I have managed to become quite comfortable in French. Not all of us have the luxury of being in a place where we can use the language we are learning. Although it must be nice!

    At any rate, I would be curious to hear your thoughts about LingQ. And, of course, I do realize that there are many ways to skin a cat. The main thing is to enjoy what you are doing so that you do it more and continue to improve. Good luck to you in your French!

  6. Scott Young says:

    Mark,

    I’ve used LingQ, and I think it’s a great service. Particularly for the combination of text/audio and easy translations. My point wasn’t to disagree with Steve, as I think he’s one of the most knowledgeable people online right now regarding language acquisition. Simply that I prefer another approach.

    -Scott

  7. François Cassin says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’m french and i started reading your blog not so long ago. I didn’t know you were living in France at the time being, I hope you’re enjoying your time here :)

    Although I learned english at school, my learning was mostly based on watching TV shows and reading books/blogs. As Mark pointed out, it must be great to be able to practice every day, my accent is horrible !

    Bon courage pour la suite, le français à la réputation d’être une langue difficile à apprendre !

  8. Scott Young says:

    François,

    Merci. Le français est difficile pour les anglophones parfois, oui. France est une très belle pays!

    -Scott

  9. Had a look through your previous posts related to your French learning and your commenters’ and your own general analysis are definitely along the lines of what I would recommend! :) Rather than think of fluency as a “myth”, I define exactly what it means to me and aim for that, much along the lines of the tangible achievements you’ve mentioned here.

    One thing I would disagree with is your projecting for more time if you try this again. You are definitely learning a lot about being able to speak a language and about how languages are structured and this will hugely speed up the process when learning your 2nd foreign language, especially if it’s another European language related to French, like Spanish or Italian.

    Even learning an Eastern European or Asian language would be so much easier at the end of your stay in France, compared to before it. You’ve gotten over the extremely important barrier that holds so many of us back, of only being able to think in English. Getting over that barrier just once is much harder work than the grammar or vocabulary issue in any language. I famously suggest that anyone can achieve fluency in 3 months, but it does presume acceptance of certain ideas that take some getting used to first. You’ll have already passed that stage! I don’t think you need so much time for your next attempt ;)

    I’m glad to see you’ll still be in France for a while! I use Paris as my hub (despite having quite the love-hate relationship with Parisians), since I’m working on getting miles with Air France, so I’m always passing through! In my current plans, the next few trips will only be hour or two transits, but I might hang around for a few days and possibly travel in France from March – note sure if I would make it to Montpellier, but it would be nice to meet up!

    Merde !! (“Break a leg“, a charming, if not confusing French expression of wishing crappiness upon someone so that only the best will happen!)

  10. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for your advice, Benny.

    The third may be easier than the second. My point was more for myself (and others) who like to take on the task of learning a new language without any real commitment (in time, and effort) and then complain/give up when they don’t make progress.

    Definitely if you’re around the south, drop me an email, I’d love to meet up!
    -Scott

  11. OK, to get on to the third as quickly as possible, learn Esperanto as your second one (in a week or two of work). It’s a freebie in terms of becoming a polyglot :D Anyway, you’ll hear me rave about it soon enough on my site since I’ll be spending New Year’s with about 500 speakers in Poland – these guys know how to party; and strangely enough, most of them are veggies too ;)
    Will let you know if I can make it down there, at least the TGV makes things easier!

  12. Joseph Garza says:

    Nice work Scottie :)

    I had to learn Russian living in a coal mining town, so I now how you feel. After 2 1/2 years I was clocked in at an advanced low level…. whatever that means :)

    Good luck with the language… it pays off 100 fold with integration.

  13. phylox says:

    I learnt English as a second language. Actually it wasn’t hard at all but that’s probably because it is very close to German (my native language). What’s more, there was a lot of stuff on the web I was eager to understand. Therefore, learning was always fun. When I spend 6 month in Australia I realised for the first time that there is a gap between consuming and speaking.
    My accent wasn’t too bad (e.g. not typical German ;-) )but sometimes I was too slow to express myself exactly the way I intended. This was not because I didn’t know enough words but rather because I wasn’t used to talk in “real time”.

    French, however, is something different.I learnt it in school as well & I managed to score good marks. But I hardly understand native speakers and I feel even less comfortable speaking it myself.

    Right now I am living in a city which lies very close to the borders of French. It’s very tempting to start learning French anew.

    Unfortunately my studies are very demanding right now but hopefully I’ll find some time in the near future to spend some time over there.

  14. Charles says:

    Where are you in France, Scott?

  15. Domagoj says:

    After some 8 years of classroom studying of french I was at a simmilar level as you are now. I went to a three months work assignement to Besançon to no avail. But it took only three weeks on Interrail crisscrossing France and Belgium to start speaking it 24/7 and to learn converstational words like hash, meuf, ca y ait, bouffer, boulot, bosser, monnaie, con, and some fillers like vachement, quand meme, c’est pas vrai…
    But the most important thing was to learn how to express my ideas, and for that you usually must learn subjonctif. Je pense que il faut le faire sinon pas de paye. And you must learn how to quote others Il a dit que tu as mal a tete. And you must learn the difference between Je suis chaud and Je ai chaud :)

  16. Serge Allard says:

    I can only commend you for undertaking such a difficult task. Learning a language at an adult age is not easy. As we know, most people in North America just give up. I would like to point out that I have been using an amazing learning tool for Spanish from a company http://www.langcal.com. It’s a language calendar that you hang on the wall and study daily. They have a French-language version. I saw it in the store, and it looks as good as the Spanish one. I highly recommend it.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

Leave a Reply