Update on My Goal to Learn French

It’s been close to two months since I started my quest to become bilingual. Over two months ago, I asked the readers for advice in learning a foreign language. That brief post now has over 60 public comments, and I’ve received many private emails with advice as well.

I’m not an expert on language learning. Many of my readers are fluently multilingual, so chances are many of you have more experience than me. However, I’d like to share some of my discoveries over the last two months. I want to do this both for novice language learners and for other English speakers who are interested in leaving monolingualism behind.

1) You Aren’t Going to Be Fluent in a Week

In the beginning, I was very motivated to start learning French. I think this motivation caused me to underestimate the amount of work needed to fully comprehend and speak another language. It’s one thing to understand some basic words and expressions. It’s another thing entirely to have a complete vocabulary and speak effortlessly.

I’ve since adapted my goals to focus on smaller successes. I’m trying to set realistic goals to understand a little bit more spoken French, add a few more words to my vocabulary, and improving my verb conjugation.

Learning French has also given me tremendous respect for all the people who are learning English as a foreign language.

2) Languages are a Skill, Practice Before Study

In my brief experience, I’ve found that practicing the language is far more useful than studying it from a textbook. I completed a Teach Yourself French book earlier. While it was one of the more useful language tools I experimented with, it didn’t teach me to speak French. Actually conversing in French with French speakers is the only way I’ve made small improvements.

Some people have asked me whether I think holistic learning can be applied to language learning. Before, I refused to comment, as I didn’t know another language. Now I believe I can answer that: no, holistic learning won’t work with languages. As a skill, a language needs practice not conceptual understanding.

3) Slang is Often More Important than Correct Grammar

I suppose it depends on what your goals are. If you’re trying to learn a language so you can translate academic papers or give speeches, then slang isn’t that important. If you want to have a conversation, make friends or use the language naturally, the unofficial dictionary is often more important than the official one.

4) Access to Native Speakers is a Must

My current approach is that 90% of your studying time should be invested in conversations with native speakers. The other 10% should be studying the grammar and vocabulary. The only way this can happen is if you have access to native speakers of the language.

I’ve been lucky in this regard. My ex-girlfriend is French and lives in France, and she has provided me a victim to practice my French on. Also, I’ve been able to meet several exchange students who are just learning English, so I can be exposed to more French.

Instant messaging chat in French has been helpful. That way, if I get stuck with a word, I can use an online translator. The one downside is it doesn’t provide the pronunciation, which is a major factor in speaking a language. I consider it training wheels for eventual fluency.

Many people have warned me that the French tend to be critical of people trying to learn their language. Luckily, I haven’t found this to be the case as of yet. Or perhaps I have such a thick skin that I don’t notice it.

5) You Can’t Be Passive

Some of the advice I received was to just surround yourself with the language and, “eventually you’ll pick it up.” While there’s no doubt exposure is important, I haven’t found a passive stance to be effective in learning a language.

Be active, go out and talk with people who can’t speak your native language. Immersion and exposure definitely accelerate the process of learning, but only if you’re willing to invest the energy. Study a bit and practice a lot more. When you don’t understand something, get it translated to improve your vocabulary.

6) Accept that You’re Going to be Awful

My first approach was to spend time studying the language, and when I reached a basic level of fluency, try to speak it. Now I realize that this is backwards. You can’t improve unless you start speaking. And when you start speaking, you’re going to be awful.

I’m not good at French. I speak too slowly, use incorrect pronunciations, improper conjugations and my vocabulary is limited. Undoubtedly this will irritate a few native French speakers who would prefer I didn’t talk at all. However, if I want to improve I have to ignore them and continue hobbling through the “I suck” phase.

I know many English speakers that have little patience for people who can’t speak English properly. I can admit, sometimes I get frustrated trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand English. However, if you’re in the process of learning, you have to ignore people like me and continue practicing anyways.

Steve Kaufman, who is great for language learning tips, makes a similar suggestion in this post. He argues that a key to successful language learning is being able to handle uncertainty, and realize you won’t understand everything perfectly.

The same is true of almost any skill. If you have horrible social skills, an effort to improve them is probably going to be met with resistance. You need to push through all the assholes who criticize you for trying to improve.