How I Learned French

While I was travelling in Mexico a few years ago, I ran into some backpackers who spoke astonishingly good Spanish after having studied the language for only about a month or two.  I was embarrassed talking with them because I’d been studying the language for years, and yet I didn’t quite have the confidence and natural flow of speaking that they did (although, to be fair, my vocabulary and grammar knowledge was more extensive than theirs).  I asked them how they’d learned Spanish so well so quickly, and they’d told me they attended immersion programs in southern Mexico and Guatemala.  I thought, “Hell, I should be able to do the same thing,” so I started looking into intensive language courses in languages that I was interested in.  

I’d had some interest in French for a while, so in June of 2012, I booked a ticket to Lyon and signed up for an intensive summer course at the Université Catholique de Lyon.  It actually ended up being a great decision because this was one of the funnest summers of my life!  The program organized excursions and activities for us multiples times a week, and the other students and I would get together for dinners and drinks.  The teachers were all great, and I learned a lot and practiced speaking a lot in my classes.  Best of all, in contrast to some other language programs I’ve been to, the students all spontaneously chose to speak in the language we learning, French, instead of English.  This meant that, even though none of us were native speakers, we were immersing ourselves in the language.

I also got incredibly lucky with my housing situation.  During my second week in Lyon, I stopped by a cafe that hosted language exchange meetings, and I was lucky enough to be there just as a young French woman was putting up an ad looking for someone to practice English with.  We started speaking to each other in a mix of English, pidgin French, and hand gestures, and ended up hitting it off really well.  Marie invited me to visit her flat, where I discovered she was looking for a new flatmate, and so I ended up living at her place all summer.  I spoke with her and her roommates in French 100% of the time.  After this summer, about two and a half months learning French intensively, I spoke French at a B1 level.  

After that summer, I took the opportunity to take courses in French wherever I lived, including an upper division French conversation class at the University of Texas and a class at the Alliance Française in Prague.  These classes were more for maintenance than anything else, and I didn’t improve much through these courses.  (I now think it would have been better just to find language partners to talk to on Skype and consume French media by myself rather than go to a class).  

At the end of 2015, I decided that I wanted to make an effort to really improve my French and get it to a good level.  I started reading novels in French (my favorite writer at this time was Amélie Nothomb), and watched the French TV series Les Revenants (with English subtitles).  I already had a solid grounding in grammar from my language classes, so the best grammar book I used when I wanted to take my French to the next level was: Difficultés expliquées du français… for English speakers, a very literally entitled book, but the French grammar book that has been the most useful for me in my French studies.

In the summer of 2016, I decided to sit for the C1 exam of the DALF.  I prepared over a roughly two-month period by doing the following:

  • I read the news in French every morning, looking up any words I didn’t know in a monolingual French dictionary (usually the French wiktionary) .
  • I also watched a lot of Youtube videos, equivalent to roughly one hour per day.  Listening comprehension was always my weakest point (moreso than speaking or writing), and to improve my listening comprehension skills, I would listen to TED talks and other Youtube videos in French, and transcribe the text.  Transcription was the most effective method for improving my listening comprehension.  By the way, it’s important to learn a language by consuming media you’re interested in.  I was really into Game of Thrones at this time, so I followed the “TheGrandTest” channel which had great episode recaps and analyses in French.
  • I got a tutor on Preply to talk to me twice a week, just so I could have speaking practice with a native speaker.
  • I wrote one essay per week on the writing topics of some practice DALF exams that I found, under exam conditions.

I was not living in France at the time I was preparing for (or sitting for) the exam, but this didn’t prevent me from doing lots of things to practice and improve my French.  A couple of months after I sat the exam, I got an email telling me that I’d passed.  I had the highest score of the students sitting the exam that day.  Language learning never ends, and a language exam certificate is not the end all and be all, but I love being able to say that I’m officially fluent in French.

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