How I Didn’t Learn to Speak French Fluently

Seems like a strange thing to post about! But if you read my experience of becoming fluent in German [last week]( "How I Learnt to Speak German Fluently"), this’ll provide a good contrast. Two years ago a close contact helped me land a three month gardening contract on a French estate. The contract was arranged three months in advance, enough time to [learn some language]( "The Value of Learning a Language"). I naively believed that since I’d already acquired German, I should be able to acquire French too, only much more quickly. I launched in without a plan.

Three months before France
When my contract was secured I bought Paul Noble’s French audio series, which I thought was very good. The series attempted to give access to English words that exist in French to quickly build up vocabulary, as well as basic grammar, which I think was a sound approach. Problem was, I only listened to it on the Tube, so I didn’t practice aloud. There was too much passive listening, and not enough active listening.

I also had a Lonely Planet phrasebook, with its introductory grammar section. I intended on only covering grammar basics, similar to that covered in my audio course. I never did any exercises beyond reading.

I really liked SRS (Spaced Repetition System) when I learnt German, I found it improved not only my vocabulary but also pronunciation. I tried looking for the French equivalent of the software I had used for German, but couldn’t find it. At the time I didn’t realise the style of learning was ‘SRS’ and my internet searches to find ‘vocab software’ didn’t uncover anything. Had I had a VA at the time I might have more likely located Anki or Memrise.

While in France
I arrived in France and went off to work. I had a notebook which I recorded words in and reviewed regularly. I made a point of learning slang and trying to get pronunciation correct. These efforts were recognised by my French co-workers, and one was very good at taking time to teach me new words. But there were other English speakers on the job, and I used English at lunch breaks, on the job, and in the evening. I’d also be with English speakers on the weekends. I found a French radio station that I listened too a bit, but my foundation just wasn’t there.

The result?
I never became fluent, not even close. I can still recall some basic phrases, as well as a bizarre assortment of garden related vocabulary (rake, spade, screw), and a few rude words. With a small amount of real effort I could quite quickly resurrect what did make it to long term memory. Essentially I’ve got a scattering of knowledge which with a properly planned approach would still be useful for a foundation.

The benefit of hindsight
What I should have done before arriving in France was this:

  • Review my German learning in full (as I did in my last post)
  • Deconstruct the language
  • Continually question if the methods used were good, AND if more methods were needed
  • Found another flash-card piece of software, since I’d had good experience with this in Geman
  • Use Paul Noble in combination with vocab drills
  • Found some natives to speak to: they say the 21st Arrondissement of Paris is South Kensington, so I had no excuse!

What I should have done whilst in France was:

  • Make more of an effort to distance myself from English and use more French
  • Recognise that my foundation was not strong enough and devote significant effort to building it… I was trying to run before I could even crawl.

I think I will pick the French up again in the future at some point, but I have another language priority which I will post about next week