Ask the Readers: Advice for Learning a Foreign Language

I recently got accepted into an international exchange program through my university. It seems I’ll be living in Montpellier, France, for one year starting in early September.

There’s only one problem: I don’t speak French.

I’ve taken some basic classes, but I’m far from fluent. I understand many of my readers are multilingual, so I thought I’d ask the audience for help on this one. What is your advice for learning a foreign language?

I’ll be spending the months between April and August putting myself through second-language boot camp. Hopefully I’ll get a change to experiment with different tools to give myself a basic level of conversational fluency before I go to Europe. Any ideas are welcome!

Edit (Mar 18, 2009): I have the best audience on the web, and possibly also the smartest. It’s been less than a day, and already I have a few dozen comments. Thanks for all the advice, I’ll keep you guys updated on my progress.

  • Thor

    Trivia note, France knew the internet a decade or so before the rest of the world in the form of Minitel that was launched in 1982. Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML in 1989.

  • Jeff

    I moved from the states to the Italian region of Switzerland without having learned a bit of Italian. It took about a full year of working at it, but I’m now very comfortable speakign Italian all day every day, and I definitely learned a few things about picking up a language. To keep it short:

    * find some good audio lessons that you can listen to while walking around. Living in a new place = lots of roaming around exploring, so you might as well be practicing while on walks. After trying many different audio and software lessons, I recommend Pimsleur’s speak and read. It’s extremely well done, and it keeps learning fun and light weight.

    * flash cards. They are the fastest way to learn tons of words, and in any new language you can’t get around needing to pick up a couple thousand new ones. 10-20 minutes a day and you will amaze yourself.

    * It’s been shown that producing language is what reinforces your language memory, while listening barely helps. You want to get into the habit of spitting it out, no matter what. As you go down the street or enter into a store or restaurant, rehearse in your mind what you might say in different situations. Go through practice runs of conversations, and try to use words from your recent flash cards or lessons.

    Good luck. France is the bomb and getting into a new culture is a blast. The biggest thing is to just do something each day to keep pushing your skillz forward.

  • Jeff

    Oh, and the internet was around in the states for about 30 years before the web. Email, newsgroups, ftp, gopher… France likes to have their own version of everything, but they didn’t invent it. Lots of good programmers out there though.

  • eliska

    Understanding a language is much easier than speaking it. The best thing you can do to learn a language is to overcome your fear of speaking it. Practise at every opportunity!

    One more thing: don’t forget that you live in a bilingual country 🙂 You can find French-speakers anywhere (ask around at bilingual schools or go to touristy places where there are often many Quebec students working for the summers), listen to the French-language CBC station, read the backs of cereal boxes, head out to Quebec for a short vacation…

    Most of all, remember that once you get to France you will be completely immersed in the language and that’s your best opportunity to learn it. Enjoy the trip!

  • Thor

    Great pointers on learning languages Jeff. And you are right in regards to the internet, I should have said web instead. Basicly what was in Paris in 1982 was a phone with a screen and keyboard in most/many households. And with that people could visit different pages, get info and/or buy service from for example hitmen and prostitutes, according to a article I read about the thing long time ago.

  • Thor

    I think this is the article from newspaper Le Monde but not sure (not available full text for free online).

    Lois Pouzin, the man who did not invent the internet

    Louis Pouzin L’homme qui n’a pas inventé Internet
    Article publié le 05 Août 2006
    Par Stéphane Foucart
    Source : LE MONDE
    Taille de l’article : 964 mots

    Extrait :

    Bien sûr, c’est maintenant une histoire ancienne. Mais quand il a fini de la raconter, on lui demande tout de même s’il n’est pas un peu fâché. S’il ne garde pas une pointe d’amertume. Il répond, l’air étonné, que non. Qu’il a fait ce qu’il avait à faire, voilà tout. Non, vraiment, Louis Pouzin n’est pas amer. Il y aurait pourtant de quoi. L’ingénieur et chercheur français mériterait de longs chapitres dans l’histoire d’Internet ; son nom n’est que dans les notes de bas de page. Robert Kahn et Vinton Cerf, les deux co-inventeurs du Réseau se sont inspirés de ses idées et sont, aujourd’hui encore, fort courtisés aux Etats-Unis ; lui est un parfait inconnu dans son pays.

  • La Unica

    Try the FSI courses.

    They were developed by the US government to train diplomats, and I have found the spanish course, at least, to be pretty good.

    By the way, Europe is amazing, so much better than the United States! You cannot pretend to be personally developed unless you have travelled and seen other cultures and ways of seeing things. You can use the Internet all you want, but it really is no substitute.

  • Catherine

    FSI is good, it’s free, but it’s also old.

    There are a ton of other free learning resources out there too. Do a search. Collect them all. Then shut down your computer, get out of the house, and speak with the locals.