‘How’ I learnt French

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I will admit upfront that I didn’t start French 100% from scratch. I had studied it throughout high school for six years. However that was around a decade before I restarted it in 2015. So I definitely feel I had a bit of a head start as the basics had well and truly been hammered into me back in the day when I was less than enthusiastic about it.

In a previous post I covered 12 things I learnt from 12 months of French. In the following post I will cover the resources and methods that I used during the past 12 months. I hope it will give you an outline of how I learnt my first foreign language, French, and potentially give you some ideas for your own language learning journeys.

Refreshing what I learnt at high-school

Some great programs to start any language include Duolingo and Memrise. Personally, I’m a fan of Duolingo. So when I took up French this year it was what I started with. I finished the tree in 3 weeks and continued to keep it gold, i.e. all exercises completed and up to date, for as long as possible. The plan was to keep going over the basics until they became rote memorised to the point of automatic, where exercises were well and truly boring.

I like Duolingo because it’s gamified, which makes learning the language somewhat secondary to playing the game and finishing the tree. Each tree focuses on teaching you the 2000 most common words in that specific language. As it’s gamified Duolingo is a relatively fun and painless way of learning and refreshing the basics of a language you’ve taken up.

After I got bored with refreshing the exercises every day, and because I wanted to level up even faster and finally reach level 25, I dived into the immersion section. Unfortunately, the immersion section is limited to the first few languages that Duolingo implemented as they discontinued it (it was originally meant for companies to upload documents they wanted translated). I really liked using this section because it allows you to upload any webpage you find online and then translate it while receiving points for your translations and for when people upvote them if they’re correct. I would just search Wikipedia for things I was interested in learning more about such as the history of the Vikings, of the Roman Empire, the city of Melbourne, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, anything.

The only thing about this section that irritated me is that other people can override your translations and change them if they think theirs is better, and they take your points if they do so. So some people can be pretty petty in that regard.

Pro tips:

  • Once you finish your language in English, you can do the English tree in your target language to change things up
  • Use the language creatively: once things get easy, use every exercise/example in a new sentence that you have to make up on the spot. Say it aloud to practice pronunciation as well. E.g. “The cat drinks milk.” à “The cat drinks milk, but it doesn’t like it.” Or “The cat drinks lots of milk and is very fat.”
  • You can also learn new languages in other languages if Duolingo has the combination you’re after. Unfortunately for me it didn’t have Portuguese for French speakers, but it did however have French for Portuguese speakers. So I started playing around with that tree as well.

Speaking

Speaking is arguably the most important thing to practice when learning a foreign language. So finding other learners who want to speak with you in your target language in exchange for time in your native language is awesome. Furthermore, you will get so much more out of these kinds of interactions than say chance meetings with native speakers of your target language at say parties, in the street or at the gym, etc. If both of you are language learners not only do you already share that passion in common, but you have a mutual understanding of why you both may be overly chatty and keen to speak in your target language. I’ve found this is often times annoying to strangers, or even friends, who may otherwise not be interested in listening to you stumble through basic French phrases as you practice, and instead want the interaction to be as over as quickly as possible.

I used the online website Speaky, as well as the mobile phone app HelloTalk, to find several native speakers of French with whom I could practice French in exchange for practicing English with them. You can chat on both the website and the app, but I found it a lot easier to add them to Facebook or Skype and chat to them on there. The key here is to find only a few people, with whom you have a friendly connection with (i.e. can talk with easily, about whatever) and to try to organise regular practice sessions one or more times a week, for whatever amount of time suits you.

Local meet-ups whether for language-learners or for cultural groups is another way of meeting native speakers who are likely to be more interested in helping you learn their language. Going to these things is a lot of fun as they often involve outings, activities, drinking and eating. They also occur on a regular basis and you’re likely to make a lot of friends even if you only go once or twice. The only downside is that unless you live near or can get to larger cities, finding these kinds of events may be more difficult.

Writing

Continuing on from the above section about speaking. All the native speakers I met on Speaky and HelloTalk, and even at meet-ups, I would end up chatting to most of the time via Facebook chat. I’d ask them to correct any errors I made if it wasn’t too much of a burden to them. This was of constantly getting feedback on any errors I was making, whether things such as minor spelling mistakes to large grammatical issues. I could then save these corrections to word documents, or write them down and practice them later until I no longer made the same mistakes.

I used Lang-8 quite a bit when I felt like practicing writing. I tended to just write about things I had done that day or week. Often I would also try and use new things I had just learnt or previous mistakes that I trying to correct through practice.

I also used Christophe Clungston’s German Volume Method when going through the Complete French Grammar book. He sells this system online so I’m not going to go into too much detail about the specifics other than to say that I found it to be a really good system for rote learning grammar. It does involve a lot of repetition, more of a brute learning program, and isn’t for the faint hearted. But if you’re disciplined and willing to do a lot of reps to nail grammar, pronunciation, spelling, etc. then it’s definitely a powerful method you should investigate. As this system was on the more boring end of the learning spectrum, more like homework than play, I would always do it in short intervals of between 30 mins and 1 hour, and then do something else between sessions.

Reading + Listening

Although these two aspects of language learning are often considered separately I tried to get them to overlap as much as possible. I felt this was a good way of getting more out of each respectively, not to mention saving myself time when I could have 1 hr of listening and 1 hour of reading overlap. By listening while I was reading I was hearing the words on the page being pronounced by a native speaker. By reading while I was listening I would miss a lot fewer words that I would otherwise have missed if I had only been listening. I felt it also allowed me to read a lot more, and a lot faster. Although that may just be because I am a slow reader who gets somewhat bored or sleepy if I read in silence for too long.

Finding both reading and listening resources for the same thing can be difficult. So it’s best to try and find popular well-known materials. Also, materials that you have already read or listened to in your native language are great places to start as you already know the story. This helps you make a lot of inferences about word/phrase meanings as you go, than if you were using brand new material. Furthermore, this highlights the importance of repetition. You get a lot more out of going over a single material several times, than going over several materials a single time. High quality, low quantity > High quantity, low quality. So here are some resources I used that I could find both books and audio books for:

YouTube is full of great resources whether it’s documentaries translated into your target language, short skit comedian channels (i.e. Cyprien and Norman) or channels full of short videos on whatever your interested in whether it be science, history, or literature, etc. If they’re big enough they often have subtitles. E-penser was a good one I liked, which was science based with both short and long videos that I would watch over and over.

I also found websites made for teaching kids at school about the basics of subjects like maths, physics, science, history, etc. such as BrainPop French (it also has other languages including English and Spanish). BrainPop is a subscription based site, although they have a free video section that had dozens of videos, again which I made use of.

I also listened to 100s of hours of podcasts any time I was walking somewhere or traveling on public transport etc. The hours added up really quickly and it was an amazingly easy way to improve my listening comprehension rapidly. Some of the podcasts I really enjoyed and recommend in French are:

I might add that watching the news in your target language is another great way of immersing yourself. I did this for a few months but personally found I reverted back to news in English as I realised I was more interested in local news. French news channels I used were:

In order to learn new vocabulary I used the spaced repetition system (SRS) called Anki. This involves making ‘cards’, each of which you use to practice a specific word, phrase, grammatical rule, etc. in your language, that you add to a ‘deck’, which you revise each day. Each card has a front side, e.g. “I ___ to the shops” (verb: to go), and a back side, e.g. “I go to the shops”. Based on how difficult you found guessing the answer to be you click how soon you want to see the card again, i.e. 10 minutes, 1 day, or 3 days. If you got it wrong you will want to see it again in 10 minutes. If you got it right but it took a few seconds to work it out you may want to see it in 1 day. If you got it right instantly and it was too easy you will want to see it again in 3 days.

The only thing to mention is that you have to be very brutally honest with you answers and how hard they were. I always err on the side of caution and say something was harder than it was, even if I think I may know it. This way you force yourself to revise the cards (i.e. vocab) you’re having trouble remembering, while the cards you find easy to remember have to be revised much less frequently.

I’ve found this to be a really effective way of learning vocabulary. Within several weeks of starting to use it I was up to revising 250 cards a day (~20-30mins), which would have totalled reading several thousand words. I might go into the specifics of how I use Anki to learn specific vocabulary, phrases and grammar in the future. For now I’ll just say that I really recommend everyone using some kind of SRS.

Some great websites to help you make cards to add to your SRS include:

  • Reverso – A great site for finding translations and native example sentences for words or short phrases.
  • Google Translate – for French, it often gave a definition with example sentences for any single word you entered.
  • An online dictionary
  • Google Images – this page has all thumbnails set to small so the pictures you download are all miniature when imported into your SRS.

What would I do differently?

Learning from what I’ve done with French over the past year there are definitely a few things that I’m going to be changing in the coming year where Portuguese is going to be the focus.

Firstly, I think it’s important to state that less is definitely more. Going over the basics repeatedly until it’s rote learnt, before delving into the deeper more tempting waters of language learning is definitely a must. Also applying the high quality, low quantity > high quantity, low quality rule, where fewer good resources that you cover numerous times is much better than using many resources only a few times.

Secondly, I think I will definitely spend a lot more time and effort speaking. Although I feel I did a lot of speaking in French, I know that I could have done a great deal more than I did. It’s a lot easier to spend more time learning passively at home in a comfortable environment using books and podcasts, but putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation where you have to be actively using the language pays huge dividends in the end. The ultimate goal is speaking, so I am definitely going to speak as much as possible next year.

Thirdly, I think I’m going to put a great deal more focus into using word frequency lists. I think I spent a lot more time than I should have learning less frequently used words. This was a result of doing more listening and reading than I was speaking. So I invested more time than I think I should have in learning words and phrases like “murmured uncle Vernon”, “groaned Aunt Pertunia”, “Expelliarmus” and “Whomping Willow” than I did around material I would actually use when having conversations.

 

So that’s a brief summary of the methods I used over the past twelve months of learning French. Hopefully whether you’re learning French or any other language you can gain some insight from what I’ve gone over above. And if you have any recommendations of resources and methods you use to learn your target language please feel free to comment below.

All the best,

Pete

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Author: Pete Smissen

I'm a PhD student with an ever developing passion for learning foreign languages. I started this blog to flesh out and share my thoughts and ideas on how to go about learning foreign languages to fluency. I am more interested in concept based approaches that each individual can tailor to their own personal living situation, interests, attention span, etc.

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