Où est mon passeport ?
Popular wisdom says that the best way to learn a language is to live in a country that speaks it, but for many of us that isn’t an option. What to do? Luckily there are still great ways to make progress in French without needing to take the dramatic step of moving abroad.
French is spoken quickly and fluidly and learning to understand speech can be quite a different challenge to recognising individual words or phrases. The news can be an interesting place to start as reporters will tend to speak clearly — although the vocabulary can be quite extensive. Start a French movie night by yourself or with friends who are also learning, or pick a TV show you like and switch the language to French. Turn on the French subtitles if you want, but try to avoid using English ones as your brain can default to reading these instead of listening to what’s being said. If you know the show already it can be easier to keep track of what’s happening even if you’re not catching everything.
Reading is fundamental
Especially you’re a beginner but for more advanced learners too, the idea of diving into an entire book in French can be pretty daunting. But the difference between a vocab drill and a full text is that you’re seeing the language written out in full sentences and interacting with words in context, which is a huge help when you’re going on to form your own French sentences. Most importantly, be confident about not understanding everything, or even not understanding most things! Keep a notebook and a language dictionary nearby to check and make a note of new words or interesting phrases, but try not to be too diligent in translating everything. Think about how small children learn to read — they will absorb the text as a whole and pick up on specific meaning or nuance later. Don’t be afraid to start with a translation of a book you’re familiar with, or try children’s books or even picture books. If you think about it, these are designed specifically for language learners (albeit usually younger ones)!
Keep a diary! Write recipes. Review books, pen letters to your friends, make up short stories for your kids or your cat. Whichever you choose, write it in French. The aim here is to force your brain to construct French sentences and put all that grammar and vocabulary you’ve been learning to active use. If you have a French-speaking teacher or friend who can look over them for you and give you tips on how to improve then all the better, but the primary aim is pushing yourself to produce French, not just to absorb it. And here is a great time to implement a few of those fun words or phrases you’ve accumulated from the reading you’ve done!
Speaking can be the hardest part of language-learning to practice when you’re not living in a country that speaks it. Luckily there are ways around this too. Conversation classes may be available in your area or online, and can range from lengthy courses to ad-hoc coffee sessions organised through social media. Another option is to check if there are any French speakers seeking tandem partners near you. This is an arrangement between two native speakers who are learning the other’s language and are happy to help each other improve, in an informal one-to-one setting. Again there are dedicated websites and social media groups to help connect you with people. Speaking is for most the hardest part of a language and often the scariest — but this means it’s all the more useful to find ways to practice this, so that when you’re visiting France, you’re pre-prepped for asking questions in the supermarket or making small talk at the bar.
Ask a professional
Sign up for a French course! You can do these in person or, if you prefer the flexibility, there are excellent courses like those here at Learn French with Alexa available online. It can be particularly helpful when they’re run by a native speaker who knows the language inside out. Taking a course alongside your own study can create a structure to your learning, act as a good incentive to keep motivated and provide you with access to a knowledgable teacher who has first hand knowledge of French.
So here we’ve covered the four key aspects of language learning — listening, reading, writing and speaking — and supporting all of these with a great teacher and learning structure. The best part is that you can do as much or as little as you have time for, but by covering these four bases and with expert input from your teacher, you will be progressing inexorably towards mastery of the French language. On y va!
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