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Why am I finding it so hard to become fluent in French?

Writer-teacher Nick Inman shares his continuing struggles to pick up the language nearly two decades after moving to France

Reading French literature is helpful but not a silver bullet Pic: Shutterstock - MarbellaStudio

Is it just me or is French an impossible language to master?

I have been learning it forever and I am still only at intermediate level. Yet other Britons seem to speak it fluently. What’s going wrong?

Total immersion

I am not lacking the grammatical base. I was taught French for five years at secondary school (and failed my O-Level three times, never to pass) but that wasn’t enough to stop me growing up to become a Francophile.

I have lived in France for 19 years now and have never shied away from total immersion.

I put in the hours. I have done the courses. I have worked as a translator. I am reading Les Misérables in the original language.

But I also go out and look for trouble. All my colleagues at the local university where I give classes are French, as are almost all my friends. I am the secretary of our local heritage association and I have co-written the definitive guide to our local church, having done much of the research for it.

Frustrations

I do all this and yet I still speak like a Native American in a corny western film. Or, as the French say, like a vache espagnole (a Spanish cow).

Is there any hope for me? Were my ambitions always unrealistic? Why is it so easy for some but not for me? I don’t know how many times I have heard that if you live in a foreign country you automatically become fluent in the language. It is not true. Not for everyone.

I know: moaning is not going to achieve anything. But what can I do to remedy the situation? How does anyone learn a foreign language successfully? Can everyone become fluent? Is this really the aim?

Motivation

I have three specific reasons for being interested in the answers to these questions. One is obvious and personal: I just want to be at ease with the language, to say what I want to say to anyone and everyone.

Reason two is that as a teacher of English to French students, I would like to be as good at my job as I can be. I want to know how I can best help the strugglers. I’ve noticed that the challenges for a French speaker learning English are very similar to an English speaker learning French. I can use my own difficulties as a useful resource in the classroom.

Reason three is that I hope something that I have to say in this series will help you progress in French, whatever your starting point. 

If you think about it, there might be more to learn from someone who has persevered than from someone who has never found it difficult. 

I have some useful tips to pass on about what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, it is better to take advice from a non-natural than someone who has always had it easy.

End goal

It is important for any language learner to know his starting point and his realistic end goal.

Each September, at the start of the university year, I get my new students to stand in front of the class one by one and tell me what they are doing in my class. What do they think of English? What do they want to learn it for? How well do they think they are doing at it?

Some are outstandingly good. 

The weaker, less confident ones wait until last to go up, and when they realise I haven’t forgotten them, they say something like “I cannot speak well English”.

I ask them to explain, and they do, maybe dipping into French for the odd word. 

After a couple of minutes, I point out: “You have just held a conversation with me in English.” 

I then ask why they want to improve their English. It is vital for me to know.

I can see right away who is going to make progress over the coming year. Those willing to give me their time and the effort. 

That depends on motivation – and motivation depends on them having a good reason to bother. 

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