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Learning French: Five ways to push through the pain barrier

Setbacks are inevitable, argues Nick Inman. The trick is to learn resilience at the same time

It might be a long journey to fluency so celebrate minor successes along the way Pic: twggy / Shutterstock

There is a cost to learning a foreign language. At the very least, it takes a lot of time and mental effort. 

You get nowhere if you do not put in regular, sustained commitment. 

It can also take it out of you emotionally: it can be humiliating and frustrating when you cannot say what you want to say. 

To begin with, while you are stumbling though the basics, you don’t get much reward. 

You go back to being a toddler

You go back to being a toddler, trying to find the words just to cover your basic needs. The feedback you get can make or break you. 

You speak to a Parisian waiter in passable primary school French and he refuses to understand. 

He lets you squirm on your tus and vous and masculines and feminines and then replies in insouciant English to prove that he is superior to you and you have not made any progress at all. 

Why bother, you think. 

You are only going to demean yourself further and you are never going to get where you want to go. If you live in France and don’t have a good grasp of the language, it can make you depressed and isolated. 

You can be tempted to give up entirely and retreat back into English but that is not necessarily going to make you feel better. 

I know the feeling of not being able to communicate, but I also know that persistence pays off. 

Push yourself through the pain barrier

You have to push yourself through the pain barrier. It does get better. 

It even gets satisfying and enjoyable – but it requires a certain constancy and momentum. 

So, what do you do when you are feeling discouraged and you think your attempt to learn French is futile? 

You have to keep at it with the language but the emotions need a different treatment. 

You have to tackle them with psychology. 

Here are a few pieces of advice you might want to remember when you next think of giving up: 

1. Don’t let one idiot be the judge 

The remarks of a surly waiter probably say more about him than about you. It is easy to dwell only on the negative feedback. Look around you: for every one person who seems bent on crushing your spirit, I guarantee there will be 10 people cheering you on from the touchline. 

2. Celebrate your successes, however minor 

You might dream of reciting Victor Hugo in the original but just to ask the garage to change the oil in your car is a victory for the time being. 

3. Every interaction is a one-off 

It involves just you and whoever you are talking to. It is not comparable with any other interaction, certainly not the ones you hear in French courses. The object is to exchange thoughts and it doesn’t matter how you do it, even if it involves a mixture of French and English or an awful lot of body language. If there is a connection, what more do you want? 

4. The person you are talking to might not speak perfect French himself/herself 

This might be the reason he doesn’t understand you, rather than your uncertain grammar or bad pronunciation. 

5. Make a joke out of your floundering 

This is the best way to puncture the arrogance of the proverbial Parisian waiter. Don’t apologise for your French but learn a few phrases to keep your ego from deflating altogether, such as Je vais y arriver (“I’m going to get there”) or Un jour je vais parler français comme vous parlez anglais (“One day I’ll speak French as well as you speak English”). 

Keep the faith and it will become true. 

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