An ‘A’ for effort but am I making the most of time and resources?
After nine months, four terms of class, two weeks abroad, and one official exam I have achieved something approaching an ‘Elementary’ standard of French*. Not an earthshattering pace by anyone’s measure, but progress nonetheless.
Throughout the period I have explored a variety of approaches and resources, and having just recently sat my first French exam since the 2006 Leaving Certificate I feel the time is right to pause and reflect upon my efforts to date. In this post I will look back over the last nine months and consider what has both helped and hindered my learning until now. Hopefully, it will serve as food for thought for other learners and maybe even generate some discussion.
I took the first step on my language journey last September when I declared as publically (partly through creating and promoting this very blog) and as often as I could that I was committing to learning French. By laying my aspirations and efforts bare before the world I hoped to pressure myself into making some demonstrable progress as quickly and as regularly as possible. I upped the ante even further by making a financial commitment through classes and, eventually, a personal commitment to another learner through a language exchange.
Once I started, everything seemed to move at breakneck speed. In class we went from stammering through the alphabet to engaging in real functional communication in no time at all. By the end of our third eight-week term I could stroll with confidence into a Parisian boutique, buy a pair of long, yellow trousers and a black, leather scarf, before popping into the restaurant next door and ordering a medium-rare steak and a glass of red, while simultaneously phoning the doctor to see if he had anything for an ear infection and a sore left knee!
Outside of the classroom my main outlet for genuine conversation has been my internet language exchange. Although, getting started did take a while. I spent many weeks contacting potential partners via countless websites (italki and mylanguageexchange worked best for me). After a ton of messaging and five separate no-shows on Skype I had lost all hope and simply gave up on the idea. Then one day, out of the blue, I received an email through one of the sites from Aude, a young Frenchwoman looking to practice her Irish. We had our first conversation in January and have been talking every week since!
Between them, the classes and language exchange account for just three days a week, meaning I have to look elsewhere for the majority of my day-to-day French fix. I have tried to fit in one to two hours of language work every day, though more often than not I fail to find nearly that much time.
To this end, I have mainly been using Duolingo (1), the Michel Thomas French for Beginners audio-course (2), various games and exercises available at Le Point du FLE (3), as well as lots and lots of music and film.
I feel the variety of resources I’ve used has helped to combat monotony and keep my studying from becoming too much of a chore. It’s also helped me squeeze as much language exposure into my day as possible. The commute to work is now a race to reach my daily Duolingo quota. My lunch break is spent walking with Michel Thomas. Even working out at the gym or waiting at the bus stop is done to the sound of Stromae or Zaz (or even a little Céline Dion if I’m in the mood).
Sadly, it hasn’t all been musical bench-presses and lunchtime baguettes. The enthusiasm and lightning fast progress of the first few months did not last forever. Life, and work in particular, has a tendency for getting in the way of things. About six months in, work became a little hectic and my French began to suffer as a result. From late March to early May I was finding less and less time for my daily language work and I even missed a couple of classes.
In addition to a lack of free time I also developed a case of resource fatigue. After running into a particularly convoluted and seemingly insurmountable grammar segment I decided I needed a break from Duolingo. Starting your day under a cloud of confusion, frustration, and defeat can get really old, really fast!
On top of that, it didn’t take long for me to finish the Michel Thomas course and, unsurprisingly, by month six or seven my small French music collection was becoming a little worn out.
Thankfully, even when things were crazy at work I still had to make good on my French commitments. I had a language partner depending on me for her Irish practice and classmates who I would be holding back should I miss too much of the course. When life was busy it was these commitments that kept me from wandering too far off course.
Once everything quietened down again I looked to reapply myself anew. I felt a bit of freshening up was needed so I sought out some new resources. Michel Thomas was replaced with French radio podcasts (4) and I also started using news websites (5) for videos and reading material.
Above all else, what helped me get back on the horse and focus was the DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française) exam. I hope to discuss the DELF in more depth in a future post but for now all I’ll say is that it really helped me to refocus and add some fresh purpose, structure, and pressure to my studying. It breathed a new life into my work, giving a new dimension to all my endeavours. Preparing for the various elements of the exam’s oral component, for instance, helped me make great use of my language exchange.
Looking back over the journey so far what stands out most of all is the value of classes and continuity.
Without question, my classes have been my single biggest source of structure. The course, its established roadmap for progression, and its tying in with the DELF exams, has helped very much to shape my learning process and direct me towards attainable goals. What’s more, enrolling in the classes has locked me into achieving at least a certain amount of progress from week-to-week. Not to suggest that classes are any kind of guarantee of success but if you’re like me and are in need of external pressure and direction then classes can be of huge benefit.
Continuous practice and exposure might seem like a no brainer but having gone through both good spells and bad over the past months I have a newfound appreciation for just how big a difference it makes. As someone cursed with perfectionism and a propensity towards procrastination I used to find myself doing no practice whatsoever if I felt I hadn’t the time to work to an extremely in-depth degree. Consequently, during busy times I could go five or six days straight without speaking a word of French. The result of which was that when I finally found that elusive two-hour block of free time it was almost like starting all over again. Instead of pushing on and continuing to progress I was forced to waste precious time relearning previously covered material. Like turning on an old computer, it takes an age for everything to reload and start running smoothly again.
In contrast, when I’ve had an unbroken spell of weeks and weeks of daily practice, even if some days consisted of a mere twenty minutes of Duolingo, the regularity has kept the language on the tip of my tongue. The longer this has gone on for, the more words have come flowing naturally, without need for pause or process.
While I have already acknowledged the enormous benefit of regular practice and exposure, I am still not entirely convinced of my approach. For one, I have to wonder whether it’s a case of any exposure is good exposure or if by employing a range of resources with contrary techniques (i.e. methods favoured by my class teacher vs. Michel Thomas’ ‘Listen-Connect-Speak’ method vs. Duolingo’s grammar focused approach) I am actually doing myself more harm than good.
Another question I have been asking myself is whether or not there is much value in my use of music, radio, and film. Can I really gain anything significant through osmosis, or am I just fooling myself?
As always, I would love to hear what you think, particularly in relation to the points raised in closing. If you have any comments, criticisms, questions, thoughts, anecdotes, or recommendations (be they techniques or resources) please do share them in the comments section below.
- Duolingo: A free grammar-focused language course, available online or in app form.
- MichelThomas.com: A ‘no-pens, no-books, no-memorizing course that gets you speaking and understanding in just a few hours.’
- Le Point du FLE: Website of resources for teachers and learners of French.
- Le Sept Neuf: France Inter’s weekday morning news show in podcast form.
- France24.com: Website of Paris-based international news and current affairs television network.