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Learning French is easier when you don’t sweat the small stuff

Jump right in rather than striving for perfection first, advises a language-learning expert

You don’t have to pore over text books to start tackling a language Pic: Cast Of Thousands / Shutterstock

If there is one thing that makes many language learners groan, it is grammar.

Even those who were taught English grammar at school will often find their knowledge of the proper terms for types of words and sentences has started to elude them by adulthood.

So it is good to know that, while there is nothing better than a well-turned phrase, worrying too much about grammar at the outset of language learning might not actually be the best route to bilingualism.

In fact, rather than let the perfect be the enemy of the good, experts say we should take the plunge without sweating the small stuff.

Read more: Five tips to mastering the French language when you move to France

Speaking and listening first

According to Aditi Lahiri, professor of linguistics at Somerville College, Oxford, formal grammar lessons have their place, but the real key to unlocking a language is listening.

“It is your words that are important,” she says. “The best thing is to get the structure right, the basic syntax pattern. And you need to be able to hear it so you can speak it correctly.”

Just as when we were children, picking up our very first words, it is the speaking and listening in a language that our brains look for.

Poring over texts is not necessarily the best way to start out.

“When it comes to acquiring a language, reading is a later skill. If you acquire some language, it’s a great start – even if you don’t learn it properly, with the grammar. Just as a child would.”

Do not be afraid to make mistakes

While perfectionists might baulk at the idea of leaping into conversation with wobbly conjugations, speaking, listening and responding could fast-track your comprehension of grammar, without the endless written exercises.

“A native speaker will use the correct grammar, but they won’t necessarily think of it in that way,” explains Prof Lahiri.

“They know it intuitively because they have acquired it naturally.”

Unlike children, who are less afraid to make mistakes and not self-conscious about having a go, many adult learners feel inhibited at the idea of joining a conversation, knowing that their French is not fully formed.

However, it is good to think of your imperfect initial conversations as being the best route to later proficiency – speaking and listening is a crucial part of the journey and avoiding it might slow your learning down.

“The best sentences will come later. Be kind to yourself. Don’t worry about inflection and gender and getting the participles right – this will come in time,” says Prof Lahiri.

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

Learn some key phrases

To provide a more solid base from which to converse, she also recommends learning a few key phrases to explain that you are learning French, emphasising that you are trying, but might not be there yet.

“People will know to be more patient if they understand you are learning,” she says.

For those who still feel unsure, Prof Lahiri recommends shifting the focus from yourself to think about your impact on others.

“People are so pleased when they realise you are trying to speak their language,” she says.

“You are giving someone else so much joy. Think of that person – you are trying hard, and they will know.”

Use audio to improve

When it comes to expanding your language, Prof Lahiri recommends reading a book or listening to a text that you are familiar with in your native language, in French.

“Having something you know will help – it gives you a context.

“And choose an audio format – listening is better. Television isn’t great because you are seeing the action.

“Don’t spend hours on it. Listen for 15 minutes, then go and do something fun. Later on, come back again and see if you improve.”

Learning a language is difficult, but trying methods that feel more natural could make the process less of a struggle. Jumping in feet first might be daunting, but it could ultimately accelerate your French – without the extra homework.

Readers’ tips for tackling the language head-on

Dog-groomer Fiona Clark, 63, moved to Limousin in 2011.

“I knew no French when we first started coming for holidays here,” she says.

“Our neighbours knew no English, but they managed to teach me some words during apéros and meals.

“When we moved permanently in 2011, my neighbours took me dancing and I joined their group doing traditional Limousin folk dancing.

“I insisted from the start that it was all to be in French as I needed to learn. I now have a French teacher too and only watch French TV. I have more French friends than English and am going to take my Delf nationality exam this year.”

Dressmaker Nicky Leather, 64, moved over in June 2017.

“I went for French conversation and language lessons at first, but as all the other students were native English speakers, we all made the same errors and didn’t really improve much.

“I have gradually improved, but I know my grammar isn’t up to scratch at times.

“Luckily, my partner and French friends think my errors are mignon (cute). That said, I’m now working with Duolingo to try to improve my grammar and find it helpful.”

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How to access French language lessons for fun or a CEFR certificate

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