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27 Feb 2010

Tips on learning French

I am not a natural linguist, and it has taken me a long time to become reasonably confident in French. Along the way, I have found a few things that helped that might be worth passing on.

To begin, some sort of formal learning is pretty important especially at the very beginning.. It can give you concepts, grammatical insights, and the confidence of learning with others. Even if you can only manage the occasional hour of tuition at a further education college, it is worth the effort. If you live in London, the Alliance Francaise runs very good courses, and puts you into a very French ambience from the start. If not, there is always the Open University. I did one of their French diploma courses a few years ago, and it was very useful. Then you had to record middle of the night television programmes to help, but it is now all internet based.

Languages are about communication: to learn you need to communicate, and that really means speaking to others. Obviously, In France that is not too difficult, but may be more so in the UK, other than London. In France, make opportunities to talk to people as often as you can. As long as you are polite, and make an effort, just about everyone will help you out when you get stuck, and not laugh if you make mistakes. There is a piece on this blog about Getting on with the French, which might be useful. There was a documentary on French TV a few days ago (February 2010) about the French community in London. There are now somewhere between 300,000 and half a million French nationals living in London, which makes it the sixth largest French city by population. In my street in London, without about 58 houses (though many two or three flats now), there are four French families that I know by sight,enpought to say 'Bonjour', and probably others. In central and north London one can hear French being spoken every day.

In the 60s I read an article about the then famous cyclist, Tommy Simpson, who was based in France as that was the only place where professional cyclist could earn a living. He did not speak much French, but got on perfectly well with his cycling team mates, and the world in general, by using the word 'faire' (to do or make) as his only verb, followed by a usually relevant noun. So he would say 'je fais velo' - I will ride my bike' - or 'je fais dejeuner' - I had lunch, or 'je fais gagner ' - I am winning. Everyone understood him, and he had a very successful career, until he died in a race from the effects of performace enhancing drugs, probably the first famous sports person to do so. My point is not that you should avoid performance drugs, though of course you should, but that you can talk effectively and happily in France in French, however little you know, as long as you try.

If you are not in France, it might prove useful to find a way of establishing contact with French people learning English - or indeed another language - via the internet, and set up a regular online conversation. With the internet the way it is, there is no problem in being able to talk to and see someone anywhere in the world. Just do a bit of research around the concept of 'chat'. Asking a teenager you know to help explain it is best if you are over 30  - all teenagers seem to be in perpetual conversation with all the others. There are a number of sites where you can find people who want to help and be helped learning English and French. Try Total France, ExPat Blog, educational sites, and some social sites (beware wierd people and places, though). There are a lot ofpeople who are happy to help you with your French, in return for your help with their English.

Reading French newspapers really does help. The national papers such as le Monde are available in most British towns, and if not local libraries might often be able to get them. They do provide exposure to a lot of words you won't come across in textbooks, especially colloquial everday speech terms, and technical stuff, not to mention the sort of thing you will find in the advertisments. The virtue of a newspaper is that you can take your time, you can stop and start when you like, and look up things you don't understand. It will also demonstrate, if you are undergoing formal education in French, that the seemingly dozens of tenses that are part of French verbs, but not English, are rarely used, and you can do without them.

It is widely believed that television in France is generally dreadful. Not really true, though their rubbish is even worse than British rubbish. They do have more arts programmes, political discussions, and other serious stuff, and those programmes are often up to three hours long. Here is a really useful tip: watch documentaries, especially about the arts, on the French/German channel Arte. Everyone speaks very clearly, and steadily, unlike drama and popular shows where there is shouting, gabbling and slang that you will never grasp. As the programmes are usually shown in both countries, they are made with the need to be translated either by dubbing or subtitling, in mind. That means that speech is more measured, and more careful, and for someone learning the language whether French or German, this helps enormously. It might also be that arts programmes tend to feature intellectuals, academics, and the higher bourgeoisie, all of who usually think before they speak, assume that others will be interested in what they have to say and want to think about it before replying. And of course, a lot of it is being read from scripts, carefully.

For example, last night I watched a programme called 'Un Soir àu Musée' (an evening at the museum), which was about a new exhibition of JMW Turner paintings in Paris. Apart from the fact that the pictures are stunning - one can see that Turner put up the scaffolding on which the Impressionists hung their work - the programme was hugely interesting, with some extraordinary filming in Venice to back up the paintings. The commentary, and all the interviews, were clear, obviously correct French, and easy to understand. This programme was actually on France5, but is typical.

Another tip is that many digital channels (and all French television will be digital only soon- March 2010 in lower Normandy) often have the option to have subtitles for the hearing impaired members of the audience. This can be really helpful to learners of French, because you can see the words being spoken written down simultaneously. Of course, it cannot be word for word, but the gist will be there, and it is surprising how much this helps learn more of the language. A big problem for learners of any new language is elision, the running of words together, so it is very hard to tell where one word ends and the next starts. Seeing it as well as hearing it makes that much easier. It also helps with pronunciation, and interpretation of what you hear. A good illustration of this is the phrase 'la vie en rose', which means 'life in the pink' or the good life. When spoken, it can be hard to tell the difference between that and 'la viande rose' - pink meat - or 'l'avion rose' - the pink aeroplane. Context helps, but confusion means thinking about what was said, and then missing the next bit of speech.

If you are not in France, many programmes on Arte are available to watch on the internet at for a week after broadcast, for free, as are some programmes on the other French channels, so you can watch them from other countries.

For immediate translation of words and phrases, I have put Babel Fish on my always visible bookmarks, so I can very quickly copy paste a fragment of text on the internet to get the meaning. The software is free - there is a link on this blog. Not perfect, but as good as any other translation by machine.

One last thing that I found positive: learn some key common phrases that can both give you time to think if you add them into a sentence, and suggest to the person you are speaking to that you are a bit more fluent than you really are. That second point, strangely, means that people are more relaxed, and less likely to expect that they won't understand you, so conversation becomes easier. The sort of phrase I have in mind is 'c'est à dire' - that is to say -  which gives you the chance to find the words you need without looking if you are really struggling, 'comme ci, comme ça' - a bit/more or less/maybe/average, and is useful to cover the situation where you just cannot think of anything specific to say, and 'ça fait du bien' - that will do very well/ is fine. But above all: practice speaking, listening and communicating. No substitute, and it is more enjoyable that you might think.

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