Make life easy on yourself when learning a language

One of the first things we say in our Moving to and Living in France guide is “learn to speak French” but many readers do not. Nick Inman reveals how he beat his block

26 April 2017
By Nick Inman

I failed my French O Level three times and never passed. If anyone has an excuse for not speaking French it should be me; yet I function fully in the language – most of my friends are French and professionally I interview university professors, business people and dignitaries on their specialist subjects – even on the phone.

Things changed on the day of 9/11 on a train from Bulgaria to Romania.

The guard, who spoke almost no English, told me a preposterous story about stolen planes bringing down New York skyscrapers. 

He made me understand because it was so important to him.

Language, I realised, was not grammar and dictionaries – it was about a need to share information.

So, even if I do not have an aptitude for foreign languages, I do not have to suffer a lifetime blockage either.

More hours in class would not help, as teachers are natural linguists and could find it hard to understand being tongue-tied. So it was up to me.

There was plenty I needed to do which didn’t involve irregular verbs and making my third person plural feminine termination agree.

Age can become an excuse and, while children may learn quicker and better than adults, it may not be fertile brain cells that help them, perhaps just fewer hang-ups. Here are some points that helped me.

It is just communication

Speaking French is not about regurgitating the right parts of language in the right order. It is about communicating, aiming to give and receive messages from head to head (thoughts) or heart to heart (feelings).

A ‘language’ block may have more to do with attitudes to sharing yourself with another person than ability with nouns and verbs.

You speak with more than your tongue. Your whole body is involved so let it work for you: expression, eye contact and gestures help someone trying to understand and can put them at their ease and make them more disposed to helping you.

You need a compelling reason

Speaking another language does take an effort and you need motivation. A vague urge to learn is not enough.

I could say to do it for international empathy or access to a vast other culture but here is a much better reason: you will miss out on vital gossip and information that you need to know before it is too late to do anything about it but no one goes out of their way to tell you specifically – like plans for a new nuclear plant being built at the end of your garden.

Don’t demand too much of yourself

Fluency has been defined as the ability to make yourself understood – mistakes included. Your French does not have to be impeccable. Spoken communication is ephemeral. No one is checking it and giving you marks. Focus on what makes your meaning clearer not what anyone tells you is right or wrong. No one really cares if you make the window masculine and the floor feminine. If you get into bad habits, you can sort them out later.

French does not belong to the French...

And it certainly does not belong to the Académie Française, which dictates what and is not allowed.

When I speak, friends may say: “That’s not French.” They are wrong. If I think I’m speaking French, it may not be their French but it is my French. There are many varieties of French and mine is one of them.

The language is changing all the time, whether pedants like it or not, and I am part of that. The opposite of ‘perfect’ is not ‘incorrect’ it is ‘creative’.

Written French and spoken French are almost two different languages.

Some English speakers labour over the written word as if it is the key to speaking. The opposite is true: writing is likely to confuse and mislead you.

Put the written language aside while you learn to speak. Don’t look: hear!

Do not visualise words in your head: listen to them and think of them as sounds not collections of letters.

Listen actively

Even if you are only adding to your passive vocabulary, your knowledge of French correlates with exposure to it.

Watch favourite English-language films and TV series in French so you know what is going on or tune in to French TV just to watch the great mini-language lessons we call adverts.

Public meetings are free lessons in comprehension. In informal groups don’t be afraid to ask the obvious: “What are you talking about?” Once you know the subject, you are ready to understand some of what is said.

Look out, also, for words that are run together in which “l’ami d’Amy” (Amy’s friend) can sound like, “lammydammy”.

Learn French as it is spoken – not as the textbook says it should be spoken

There is also a big difference between formal French and informal French.

Pick up your French in phrases without analysing them – and that includes slang, which comes up a lot in conversation: bagnole for car, boulot for work, toubib for doctor. You need to ask someone but most people will find it amusing to give a definition.

France also loves abbreviations and you need to be alert for fac (faculty, i.e. university), psy (psychologist) and other shortcuts.

Take the initiative

Volunteer to speak before you are spoken to. People appreciate you coming out of your shell towards them and it sends a message that you expect to be understood. It also gives one big advantage: you decide the subject so you know what you are talking about.

Plus, you will make more progress if you try out a new phrase in practice – even if you get it wrong – rather than repeating it in your head.

French pronunciation is unfair

You are never going to lose your accent but why would you want to? It is charming and part of your persona in French. However, you can make things easy for yourself.

The more you move your mouth and lips (even if this feels unnatural to an English speaker) and the more you concentrate on distinguishing vowel sounds the less people will ask you to repeat yourself.

Some words are exceptionally tricky and a few are unutterable.

Even Britons who speak flawless French will admit to words they can never pronounce. If you cannot avoid them, at least enunciate them slowly and be sure the listener has lots of context. Mine are desert and dessert – where my pronunciation of the S sound throws them – and I am never sure if people hear “he’s crying” il pleure if I say “it’s raining” il pleut.

Make a fool of yourself

Whether you like it or not you are a stand-up comedian when you speak a foreign language. Everyone is. Be the first to laugh at yourself. I always come out with howlers. I thought the dentist asked: “Did you sleep well last night?” and he had to explain that by endormi he meant: “Is your tooth numb so I can drill into it?”

Years ago, when my wife was going into labour I checked her into hospital with the solemn words, “My wife is going to give birth to herself”.

Few people will mock but I remind myself the point is to communicate – even if that is at the expense of my vanity and pride.

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