The adventures of Me and the French Part of My Brain

For me, learning language has two key components:

1. Being able to understand the world around you.

2. Being able to interact with the world by finding out information, contributing information or just making jokes and sharing your personality.

So far, understanding the world around me has improved dramatically over the past few months of being in Paris, as expected. Understanding the conversations around you feels like the auditory equivalent of the world coming into focus. The world is much more focussed now. 🙂

Interaction with the world, however, takes a LOT more effort and learning. As such, it often feels like there are several parts of my brain. The primary, English-speaking part (Me), and the part that interacts in a foreign language. While the primary part of my brain is mostly consistent in its playfulness and interactiveness with the universe, the French Part of My Brain (FPoMB) seems more temperamental. Sometimes they play well together. Sometimes, not so much.

Months ago, when I first returned to Paris, they had this exchange:

Me: Oh hey there, French Part of My Brain, long time no see! We used to be so close!

FPoMB: Oui. Qu’est-ce que tu veux? (“Yes. What do you want?”)

Me: Well I know we’ve drifted terribly, and it’s been over 12 years since you had a proper French lesson… but now that we’re in Paris, it’d be super awesome if I could return to that state of near-fluency we were at.

FPoMB:

Me: I’ll give you more French lessons!

FPoMB:

Me: I’ll immerse you in the culture!

FPoMB:

Me: I’ll ply you with French wine?

FPoMB: Peut-ĂȘtre. (“Maybe.”)

And, admittedly, after a drink or two, the French does come out more easily, though I don’t rely on it.

More recently, since I’m understanding more of what’s happening around me in the world, the urge to interact with it is much stronger. Especially telling jokes. I love making people laugh. And I honestly believe that a good indicator of your strength at a language is whether you can make jokes in it. So, these days, it feels instead as though there’s me thinking up all these witty and informative things to share with the world because I understand more, and the FPoMB is there as a gatekeeper.

On good days, the interaction is like this:

Me: Oh, I understood what that person just said. I know how I could respond, potentially in a funny fashion!

FPoMB: Si tu veux. Vas y. (“If you like. Go ahead.”)

Me: Yay! (I run out to play and frolic in the land of successful interaction).

On other days, it is a bit more like this:

Me: Oh, I understood what just happened! Lemme out and play!

FPoMB: Non.

Me: But I could make this super-funny joke, it’d be awesome!

FPoMB: Non. Le moment est passĂ©. (“No, the moment has passed.”)

Me: Aww, but pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease? I want to be out there! (Face is pressed up against the glass, whimpering sounds commence.)

FPoMB: J’ai dit non! Tu ne passeras pas! (“I said no! You shall not pass!” FPoMB is Gandalf-esque, dressed in a cloak, dust is swirling, and the staff in her hand is slammed down at the appropriate moment.)

you-shall-not-pass

So, yeah. To my French friends reading this, when we’re talking and I have a blank expression on my face (or perhaps one of frustration as I try to think of how to phrase something), the above is most likely happening in my head. I thank you for your patience. 🙂

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How do you learn French? ALL THE WAYS!

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One of my favourite things about travelling is learning the local language. And while previously I’ve mentioned the basics you should learn when arriving in a foreign country, I’ve been in France long enough to start focussing on more sophisticated conversations with the hopes that I will be able to work in French soon.

There’s a standard framework used for European language learning called the CEFR. This explains some of the competencies expected at each level. Language schools tend to teach you a curriculum based on particular levels. My French, to my knowledge, is somewhere in the B1-B2 range, depending on what I’m talking about, and with whom. For work purposes I should ideally be in the C1 or C2 range, so there’s still a lot for me to work on.

Meanwhile, I seem to be able to function in French, more or less. I can buy things in shops, order food at restaurants, have basic conversations about who I am and what I’m doing in France with minimal issues. I am starting to ask more complex questions and I surprise myself with the concepts I’m able to convey. I can understand most of what is said to me, at least the general topic area and the sentiment.

So far, my French education involved 6 years of classes in school (ages 12-18), and when I first arrived in Paris in April, I took classes at the Alliance Française for 3 months to try and bring back what I’d forgotten from my teenage years. I was away over the summer, and didn’t practice during that time at all, really. (Bad me!) So there was a little backsliding in terms of my skills when I returned in November. But after a week or two I think I was back at where I had been in June.

In November I decided that I wanted to focus on my spoken French for a while, since I can already read and write reasonably well. I needed to get my verbal French up to the same standard.

Of course, I don’t have the money for a French tutor to really work with me every day, or even French lessons so I have to find other solutions.

So, what have I been doing other than lessons?

  • I have moved in with French flatmates. Even if the daily conversations are only a few minutes of ‘Are you using the washing machine now?’ or ‘By the way, I will have a friend visiting for a few nights next week’, every little bit forces me to think about how I would express myself in French, and they speak only French to me. Even finding a place to live was an adventure of calling up in French and meeting them speaking only in French. Deciphering ads on Le Bon Coin (the French equivalent of Craigslist) was entertaining, too.
  • I ALWAYS try French first. At the bank, at the supermarket, at the train station, at the internet cafĂ©. Everywhere. I assume the person I’m interacting with knows no English, even if I know they speak some. You’d be surprised at how much you can express if you just try and use a few key words. Also, I’m very good at gesturing. In fact if they respond in English (because I’m a foreigner with an accent), I often keep trying the French despite their English efforts. I am determined to communicate in French if I possibly can!
  • I found a wonderful conversation group: l’Arc. It’s a group of native French retirees who provide an environment where you can go and practice your French with other non-native French speakers from all over the world. At each table there’s a French person to guide the conversation, welcome new people to the table, and to help provide corrections when required. It’s on 5 afternoons a week, and they even organise weekend trips every few months to see more of the countryside. I try to make it there most days for at least 2-3 hours at a time. It helps to have some degree of fluency, though. To begin with I sat and listened a lot, but these days I interact much more.
  • The Polyglot Club has also been incredibly useful. This is an organisation where you can get in touch with people who want to participate in language exchange events. You can find native French speakers who want to learn English, for example. I go semi-regularly to some of the evening events and over a beverage I chat with French natives in French, then in English. Or Polish, or whatever other language I want to practice. The website also provides resources to help correct written works. But be careful because not all of the corrections are done by native speakers.
  • Also through Polyglot and My Language Exchange I have connected with people for one-on-one language exchanges. We meet for a drink, or lunch, and spend half the time speaking French, and half English. The one-on-one nature means you get more personal feedback, but also it means you need to be lucky to click with the person so the dynamic works between the two of you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Thankfully, as a native English speaker I’m in demand and could probably meet someone new every week if I needed to.  Exchanges can happen in person, via IM, phone or Skype, depending on your preference.
  • I consume lots of the media. I watch French TV and news, I listen to French radio, I read newspapers. Usually, I’m terrible at keeping on top of current affairs in English-speaking countries. Here, I’m better simply because I’m using it as yet another resource to help understand the language.
  • I love watching French films and reading books which I already read in English before. Currently, I’m making my way through Bridget Jones’ Diary 2: The Age of Reason. In French. Booyah. Lots of slang, but because I’ve read the book and seen the movie, I think i understand a lot more than I might otherwise.
  • I do local courses. In an interesting twist, I’ve been volunteering at a swing dance school. So I attend dance classes, even beginner ones which are well below by skill level, to learn French. Arguably, much of the vocabulary I learn is specific to the domain of dancing, and I’m not sure how often I will need to describe keeping your core straight but rotating your hips in other circumstances. But I’m sure even the brief interactions with the teachers and other students are helpful from the perspective of learning French social interactions and how interactions differ here. I’m also finding it interesting to try and diagnose the beginners’ mistakes, and attempt to explain how to do it better in French.
  • I plan to also join a ukulele practice group when it stops conflicting with my schedule. And in that vein I’m listening to and learning to play some French songs.
  • There are dozens of mobile applications to make use of too, for vocabulary and to practice grammar. These are great when you have a few minutes to kill on the train, for example, or waiting for a bus.
  • I’ve dabbled with online resources like Duolingo and LiveMocha, but honestly, for me interactive activities work better. Online stuff rarely retains my attention for long.
  • I have also listened to a lot of mp3s (Pimsleur, BBC Active Talk 2) especially while walking somewhere or working out at the gym. Definitely good ways to make the most of your time.
  • Finally, one of my evil plans is to translate these blog posts into French, too, (with the help of my French friends, of course). Stay tuned!

What am I missing? What have been your most effective language-learning techniques? 🙂