Nine Months of Language Learning: Making the most of time & resources

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.

AF Course Progression

*The course progression template from the Alliance Française. Since September I have progressed from A1A to A2B. Levels are in line with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

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).

MLDMLD Áiseanna

Some of the resources I’ve used so far this year: France24.com, Duolingo, Le Sept Neuf podcast, Le Point du FLE, Skype, Michel Thomas French for Beginners audio-course.

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.

DELF ORAL

Preparing for the DELF with past papers, notes, and role-play props.

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.

A summary of the steps I have taken so far.

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.

 

Resources Cited:

  1. Duolingo: A free grammar-focused language course, available online or in app form.
  2. MichelThomas.com: A ‘no-pens, no-books, no-memorizing course that gets you speaking and understanding in just a few hours.’
  3. Le Point du FLE: Website of resources for teachers and learners of French.
  4. Le Sept Neuf: France Inter’s weekday morning news show in podcast form.
  5. France24.com: Website of Paris-based international news and current affairs television network.

 

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An Immersion Excursion

Last month I took advantage of some time off work and some cheap flights and had myself a little two-week taste of immersion learning. My destination was Narbonne, a town of about 50,000 in the south of France. I hoped that in going to a relatively small town, in the depths of winter, I would be faced with a sink or swim, French or nothing situation. I’m not entirely sure what I thought I would gain from the experience. I suppose I just took it for granted that this was ‘a good thing’ for language learning.

Ryanair Dublin to CarcassonneIt wasn’t long, however, before I began to question the wisdom of my endeavour. Within half an hour of landing at Carcassonne I found myself standing alone in the freezing cold, next to a dark and utterly deserted little regional airport, wondering if the woman at the information desk had said  ‘Wait outside and I’ll call you a taxi’ or ‘ You should call a taxi and wait outside.’ Thankfully, the former was the case and, after an initial misunderstanding which saw the driver turn to take me on the forty-mile journey himself, I eventually arrived at the train station.

As I waited on the platform a middle-aged French woman turned to me and made some remark. Train-related? Probably. Weather-related? Possibly. A romantic invitation? I’ll never know. I replied with a ‘Je suis désolé mais je ne parle pas français’, to which she responded with great amusement ‘Mais vous parlez français maintenant!’ We then spoke for a while about the region, its food, its weather, and languages before she guided me towards the correct section on the train’s arrival. Then, after disappearing down the carriage in search of her own seat she promptly returned to make sure I found my own.

As it happened there was already someone in my seat – a broody-looking French teenager with an unmistakable ‘don’t bother me’ expression plastered across her face. Since my journey was a mere twenty minutes I thought I’d just let her have it. My new French mammy on the other hand, was having none of it, and unceremoniously ejected the less than pleased young woman, whose Medusa-like glare I endured as I stood there sheepishly, unable to engage in this fast unfolding drama.

Miscommunications and tongue-tied embarrassment aside, I did, in the end, reach my destination.

Narbonne at Christmas

The beautiful town of Narbonne. Image taken from Office de Tourisme de Narbonne Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/narbonne.tourisme/photos/a.308372955839609.81961.162915937051979/927542723922626/?type=3&theater

Aside from travelling about, buying tickets and asking for directions, most of my interactions with people came in shops, restaurants, tourist sites, and theatres. For the most part, these were not overly daunting scenarios, save perhaps my trip to the pharmacy which quickly descended into a series of grunts, groans, and animated gesticulations. Despite all the gaps in language I was still confident enough in my comprehension to actually buy and ingest the medicine prescribed. In fact, the little pharmaceutical pantomime was quite an effective memory tool. I will now never forget that ‘un rhume’ is the French for ‘a cold’.

I found humour both an interesting and hugely frustrating aspect of my language experience in France. As someone whose default response to most situations is to make whatever (usually terrible) joke that springs to mind, it was really difficult to engage in conversations with a metaphorical gag in my mouth. Most frustrating of all was when a stranger would make a joke, going out of their way to be friendly, and all I could do was respond with a puzzled ‘Je suis désolé mais je ne comprend pas’, bringing the laughter to an abrupt and awkward end.

That said, when I ventured out of my comfort zone and went along to a comedy show I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to take in and enjoy. To be fair, as it was more a drama than a stand-up gig it was probably easier to follow. Nevertheless, it was the first time somebody had ever made me laugh in a language other than Irish or English. And again, like the game of charades in the pharmacy, the bizarre experience of listening to the crazed rants of a sex-starved French housewife as she deals with a mid-life crisis and a cheating husband, definitely served as an effective learning tool for a whole range of new vocabulary.

On a side note, it really is amazing how unequivocally clear a word’s meaning can be, given just a little context. The word ‘salope’ for instance, spat out by the comedienne as she described her husband’s mistress, required no explanation.

Events Narbonne

Posters from a comedy show and movie (without subtitles!) I saw in France.

In trying to assess the value of my short immersion excursion I’d say, first of all, I would have liked to put myself out there a little more. My big plans to put my Duolingo-acquired chat-up lines to work never materialised and a huge pile of corrections kept me from venturing outside of Narbonne itself.

Truthfully, I don’t think there is anything of enormous significance I can do now that I couldn’t beforehand. Even the new words I’ve learnt don’t amount to much more than a handful.

Notwithstanding all that, I do believe that the trip was really worthwhile. Firstly, I was exposed to a much more diverse range of vocabulary and registers than ever before, from the sordid to the sacred.

Secondly, in learning through living I found things registered and remained a lot quicker than is the case with other methods. Perhaps because they were so hard-won, or done so independently, I will never forget the words and phrases I learnt on my feet while trying to work through one of my many daily ‘challenges’.

There is also a great legitimising effect associated with the accomplishment of even the most elementary of practical tasks: ordering a pizza over the phone, registering for a library card, seeking medical advice, traveling from one town to the next by public transport. Though these might seem insignificant, their successful completion meant my French language skills moved from the abstract to the real-life. I have proved to myself that I can use my French to achieve real, concrete things.

Above all else, the most significant result of my trip has been an emotional one. Almost everyone I encountered was incredibly encouraging and supportive. My stumbling, stuttering French was never met with annoyance or a lack of patience. People seemed genuinely enamoured by my efforts with their language, especially when I would insist against their switching to English.

As a result of all the goodwill and warmth I experienced I have developed a stronger bond and affection for my target language. Something I am sure will strengthen my resolve and my motivation.

Hopefully, I’ll get another chance in the near future to do something like this again, and for a longer period of time if possible. With that in mind, I’d really appreciate hearing about other people’s experiences of learning through immersion. If you’ve ever done something similar, be it a short trip or a permanent relocation, I’d love to hear from you. How do you get the most out of it? What are the do’s and don’ts? Whether you’ve had a great success or an unmitigated disaster please do share your story, your thoughts, and your advice!

UPDATED QUESTION: I suppose the biggest question I have is: Is immersion learning worth the effort? Or are you better off simply sticking to language classes, workbooks, and audio courses etc.? Let me know what you think!

Language Exchange and Language Partners

I’ve been pretty busy this week exploring italki and My Language Exchange, trying to arrange Skype chats and meet-ups with French speakers. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to get talking to anybody properly yet but I hope to have spoken to a couple of people by the end of the coming week so I should have plenty to report back after that.

If anyone has any advice on how to make the most out of language exchanges, be they through Skype or face-to-face, I’d really appreciate some tips. Here’s just a couple of things I’ve been wondering about as I look for language partners online:

1. Should you avoid language exchanges with other learners and just stick to native speakers?

2. Is it a problem if the two partners are at very different levels in their respective new languages? For example, if I am starting from square one with my French and my partner is looking to fine tune their already impressive English could this lead to frustration on their part? Or is the level of my French of little concern so long as my English is good enough?

3. Is it best to stick with partners of the same dialect? i.e. as I am receiving lessons from a French person am I better off avoiding les Québécois, African, and even other European speakers when looking for language partners? Could a mix of dialects lead to any serious problems or confusion?

4. How structured/pre-planned should conversations be? Is it worth doing a lot of planning or is it better to simply go with the flow?

5. Is it better to conduct the conversation completely in one language and then switch over? I’ve had some people suggest one person speaking one language while the other speaks the second. Sounds a bit silly to me but what do I know?!

6. To what extent should language partners ‘teach’ each other? Is the role of a language partner to simply facilitate practice and answer questions or should they correct and instruct? Or is it a mixture of both?

Any thoughts on these or on anything else relating to language exchanges would be greatly appreciated in the comments section below.

À bientôt!

Week Two: The First Week of Class

One week in and, would you believe it, it turns out that studying French for six years at secondary school can be something of an advantage when trying to take up the language in later life?! That said, I’ve already hit one or two stumbling blocks.

My first week of class focused on what you’d expect – introductions, basic vocabulary and phrases relating to the classroom and to communication difficulties, numbers, and, most of all, pronunciation. We began grappling with pronunciation by drawing on our existing knowledge of French, looking at place names, as well as French/English crossover words such as le restaurant, le café, la pharmacie, and so on.

I must admit that I felt a little frustrated at times by the pace of the class. My Leaving Certificate French definitely gave me a head start when it came to things like pronunciation and the intital range of vocabulary. For a while I felt as though I had made a mistake by enrolling at the Beginners Level. This feeling didn’t last for long however, and during aural exercises on spelling I became frustrated all over again as I couldn’t for the life of me differentiate between the vowels a/o/u. Following a little bit of homework and with the help of YouTube I’m doing slightly better now but it was definitely a confirmation of the sorry state of my French.

Besides the improved pronunciation and the small amount of new vocabulary, I have already gained a huge amount from my foray into French. For one, I was reminded once again that Irish (the language I teach) is not the only language with a complicated grammar. As my teacher explained to one student who asked about differentiating between masculine and feminine nouns, ‘There are rules, but there are a lot of exceptions.’

Even more exciting than grammatical comparisons is the way that a new language exapnds your entire universe, suddenly and dramatically. A whole new world of music has been opened up to me. The relatively minor effort I have made so far has been repaid many times over by my discovering of Belgian artist Stromae, whose album Racing Carrée I’ve had on repeat for the past fortnight (I can even sing the entire chorus of ‘Formidable’, something that everyone else in the house is really happy about).

Stromae: Michael Jackson meets Pharrell Williams meets Faithless with a Belgian twist:

 

The fantastic response I received to last week’s post really took me by surprise. I am hugely grateful to everyone who offered words of encouragement, feedback, and advice. I’ve had a couple of interesting book (Babel No More) and website (italki, livemocha) recommendations, and hopefully I can look at these in the near future. The most common advice put forward was to get talking to French speakers asap. To that end, I’ll be throwing myself in at the deep-end this coming week by taking part in one of the language exchanges suggested by commentators on the Facebook page.

I have already ventured briefly into the scary world of learning by speaking. During breaktime of my very first class I tried my best to buy a cup of coffee en français. Everything started out alright with a ‘Une Americano, s’il vous plaît’. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that as I turned to the cashier and said ‘Quel dommage’, receiving a quite bemused expression in reponse. What I thought I was asking was ‘What’s the damage?’ (i.e. how much do I owe you?) but what I actually said was ‘What a pity’. It might not sound that bad but I promise you, the awkward silence, the confused stare, and the fact that I had no idea what I had just said, meant that I lit up red as a traffic light within seconds. On the positive side though, I will now never, ever forget what quel dommage means.

Comedian Des Bishop relives his own embarrassing misunderstanding had while learning Irish (from his In the Name of the Fada series):

If anyone else has a similar story of embarrassing miscommunications please do share in the comments section below and, as before, any recommendations on how best to approach the early days with a new language would be greatly appreciated (in particular any advice on how to make the most out of language exchanges).