As you guys know, I’ve been taking French since early last fall. A few weeks ago, the Level 4 class began. Even after being exposed to the language for weeks and months on end, this class has been a whole new ball game. At Fluent City, where I’m taking the courses, only native speakers are allowed to teach this class, and I’ve found the students in it are way more advanced. I think that’s because in earlier levels, the types of people taking classes were those who had maybe done Rosetta Stone on their own, or had taken French in high school years and years ago. In this class? There are people who have lived in France. Or speak it regularly with their (French) spouse and (French) friends. Or majored in it in college. Totally intimidating, right?
But, I’m not getting discouraged — which, I’ll admit, was my first instinct. Instead, I’ve been trying to hone in on the lessons I’ve learned after trying to learn a language as an adult over the last half year. I know that learning a new language is a goal/dream for so many people, so I thought I’d share some tips on what I’ve discovered with you today. Hopefully, these will encourage and inspire you to start learning and not give up!
STOP TRANSLATING WEB PAGES: Whenever I used to land on pages like Sézane and Garance Doré, the first thing I would do would be to either switch to the site’s English version, or have Google translate it for me within Chrome. Now? I really, really try not to do that. It’s like a pop quiz — out of nowhere, I have to take a minute and try and think about what I’m reading. Two things happen when you do this: one, you realize how much you actually can read and interpret in another language, and two, you end up being exposed to colloquialisms (which is a good thing). There have been a few times I’ve read a Garance essay and not known what a phrase meant, but when I Googled it, realized it was a French idiom. Knowing these little phrases is what makes your language skills sound more legit!
SPLURGE ON THE INTERNATIONAL GLOSSIES: The first time I ever splurged on a copy of Vogue Paris, I had serious doubt. The magazine stand I found it at was charging $15 for a single issue. Ouch! But, after a while, I realized it was a good value. For one thing, I can’t plow through a magazine written entirely in French at the same speed as an English one — it takes me months (yes, months). But the other thing is that a French magazine provides a lot of learning benefits because of the contextual clues it provides. A fashion mag like Vogue Paris isn’t so different from its American counterpart, or other style magazines. The way the book is laid out, and the types of topics it covers are all really similar, so you have a ton of context to help you through vocab words you don’t know. Plus, magazines inherently give you some choices of what to tackle — front of book pieces (like a short piece on a new skin cream) are easy to digest and can be read in a few minutes; longer features can be tackled when you have more time to sit, study and look up words. And, magazines give you pretty pictures to look at while you’re learning. What’s not to love?!
EXPOSE YOURSELF EVERYDAY — EVEN IN THE DOWNTIME: I paid for a couple flashcard apps to load on my phone — this one and this one. I try and use these on the subway. They’re somewhat effective. Sometimes, I find it’s kind of hard to concentrate and really make connections between the words I’m seeing on a phone and translating them to something meaningful that will help me remember — but I also think this is a function of sitting next to strangers and getting jostled around while on a train (when you’re learning a language, location really can be everything). But I’ve definitely picked up a few new verbs and random vocab words, and again, the frequent exposure helps.
TALK IS DEFINITELY NOT CHEAP: A student in my last class recommended this website called SharedTalk, where you can connect to people who speak the language you’re trying to learn and chat online, in person. I’ve found most people end up connecting there, then want to talk to you on Skype — I had to scramble to create a new account NOT associated with my name or work, for obvious privacy reasons! If you’re old enough to remember chatting with total strangers in chat rooms, or chatting up strangers on programs like ICQ way back in the day, this is basically the same. It’s brought about all kinds of awkward moments and situations that I have not experienced since I was a teen. Not on the A/S/L level (ha!!), but more people wanting to know about you or video chat with you and you’re just not sure if you want to. I think I need to find a real, live language partner here in NY. Preferably female. As a heads up, along with SharedTalk, iTalki is another super popular language networking site, that’s a lot prettier than SharedTalk. I like these things in theory, but I get kind of creeped out by all the dudes wanting to friend me. Regardless though, having more opportunities to speak the language you’re trying to learn is absolutely critical to getting anywhere. I might just have to suck it up!
Update: Since I wrote this post, I invested in the professional tutoring on iTalki and really loved it! In addition to the language partner chats I mentioned above, iTalki is a great resource to find certified language instructors. You can search by location, and see how fluent they are in your native language and the one you’re trying to learn. I worked with two different tutors, and both were fantastic. We met over Skype! With the first tutor we did a lot of conversation practice; the second one I hired created more structured one-on-one classes, with exercises and even a little homework. I ended up really liking this aspect of iTalki.
BE AGGRESSIVE, B-E AGGRESSIVE: Sometimes in class, I literally have no idea what’s being said, or I’m confused when it seems like one grammar point seems to contradict another. I’ve mastered two important phrases: J’ai une question!! (I have a question!!) and Comment dit on…? (How do you/we say…?). The other thing is that when an instructor asks for volunteers, it can feel like you’re back in grade school — total crickets and no one wants to go first. I’ve learned that raising my hand and offering myself as a sacrifice is really beneficial. It’s in these one-on-one exchanges with the instructor that I learn the most, get corrected, and can ask questions. You’re not in high school anymore — it’s okay to be that annoying person who seems like they’re bucking for an A+. Actually, I think your classsmates appreciate it, and benefit from all the questions, too.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT : It can be slow going, especially when you can’t immerse yourself in the language 24/7, like you would if you were living in a country that spoke it. That’s ok. Just keep going! The biggest key I’ve found to learning a new language as an adult is to learn to be okay with being uncomfortable. You’re going to make a ton of mistakes, probably feel embarrassed, and have no idea what you’re doing. Get over it, and keep trying. And that’s probably a good lesson for many other things in life, anyway! Trust me when I say, if you’re serious about picking up a language and can’t immerse yourself in it, settle into how awkward it is. It’s the only way you’ll learn. Sometimes when I hear people speaking French on the subway, I’ll randomly try and speak to them. Sometimes they think I’m nuts. Other times, they smile and say something back. Having those types of (short) conversations in the real world gives you so much confidence. And let’s be honest, French tourists in New York are super appreciative of the help!
Here are a ton of resources that I’ve learned about on my own and through my classes:
Word Reference (the forums here are amazing)
Fluent in 3 Months
Tex’s French Grammar
Ma France (this really cool series that BBC put together to learn French)
Quizlet (this verb flashcard set is great)
Have you tried learning a language as an adult? What helped you become successful?
Images: ‘Paris Ferris Wheel’ by Derek Key; ‘Paris-buildings’ by JPhilPG; ‘Paris Sunset from the Louvre Window’, Dimitry B. All licensed/used under Creative Commons; some graphics and photo edits added by me.