My French Odyssey and Ways to Improve Language Skills

Like many people, every January I give some thought to my long and short-term goals and come up with several resolutions. This year, however, I’ve been floundering—that is, thrashing about like a flounder hoping to flop its way off the deck of an aircraft carrier. A persistent problem for me is time. I always want to do far more than I have time for and I’m having great difficulty prioritizing. So in the spirit of “those who can’t do, teach”, I thought this week I’d come up with a list of suggested resolutions for others to adopt. More specifically, for people who would like to learn or improve their French.

Learn French!

My Journey with the French Language

I studied French in high school but then followed an engineering curriculum in college that set me on a path that was far removed from the world of literature, language, and the arts. Thirty years later, with 3 young kids in school, I finally had a bit of time for myself. I decided to refresh some of my high school French so that I might celebrate my 50th birthday in Paris.

My goals at the time were quite modest: being able to read a menu, ask simple questions, and avoid appearing like a rude and entitled tourist. The thing is, I really loved studying again. Before long, I signed up for a sophomore-level French class at a local university. One class led to another and after seven years, I’d earned a master’s degree in French Language and Literature.

Aside from the coursework, however, I have taken advantage of dozens of resources to improve my mastery of the language. The Internet is burgeoning with all kinds of content for every level of proficiency. Achieving a respectable level of fluency is now possible without ever stepping foot in a country where your target language is spoken.

Speaking Fluently—An Illusive Spectrum

An unfortunate and prevalent myth is that adults aren’t capable of attaining fluency in a foreign language. In their book Becoming Fluent, authors Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz maintain that adults have developed cognitive abilities that make them even better language learners than children. The only strengths children have over adults are their ability to reproduce a native accent and their lack of language-learning anxiety.

That’s great news that needs to spread but it doesn’t mean that becoming fluent happens quickly. I loved that first university course and was energized by the daily exercises in grammar and vocabulary. These were the building blocks that I was looking for. At the same time, however, my understanding of how much I’d need to learn to become fluent was growing exponentially. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule (the key to achieving expertise in any skill is a matter of putting in at least 10,000 hours of effective practice) persistently came to mind and I regularly wondered if I was on a fool’s mission.

Montesquieu citation
“You have to have studied a great deal to know a little bit.” —French philosopher Montesquieu

Fluency is like a vast unnavigable ocean and I had little idea in which direction I should head. But like any ocean, visiting even a small part of the coastline is still a pleasure. So, I persisted. Instead of dwelling on the vast vista of study that lay before me, I reminded myself of the ever-lengthening wake that trailed behind. I savored the “ah-has” and “faits accomplis” that each new activity afforded and then moved on, looking for a new experience to better my comprehension.

At this point, I’ve come to believe that my pursuit of French fluency will be lifelong, with slow but steadily-increasing mastery. I’ll never attain the speech of a native speaker but I’ve long passed the stage of being dissatisfied with my command of the language. Below, I share some of the activities I’ve engaged in over the years, ranging in skill level from beginner to advanced. Hopefully, a few may spur you into action and help you on your journey to a better French proficiency.

Proposed Resolutions for French Language Lovers

1. Improve your knowledge of French grammar

One of the reasons adults are better language learners than children is that they have years of experience in their native language that they can map to concepts and constructs in the language they wish to learn. I’ve never been a fan of language learning tools like Rosetta Stone that drop beginning students into an immersive learning environment (without any English) from day one. This essentially strips away useful building blocks that the student has already mastered.

English Grammar for French Students

There is a reason why French is easier for an English speaker to learn than German, which is easier to learn than Turkish, which is easier to learn than Chinese. The more a language differs from our native tongue, the harder it is to learn because we aren’t able to draw as many parallels to what we already know. If you’re like me, however, you might not be super proficient at identifying parts of English grammar. A book for intermediate students that I found helpful is English Grammar for Students of French, by Jacqueline Morton.

Ways of Practicing

French grammar workbook

Research shows that students retain information better when they have to write their answers on paper rather than entering responses via a keyboard. When I first began refreshing my French, I walked into a Barnes and Noble and bought a book on French grammar that came with exercises. There are dozens to choose from. Later, I came upon a workbook series with excellent explanations and practical exercises called Practice Makes Perfect. When I began studying French again, I gravitated to this rather old-fashioned approach but I think it was effective. The workbooks also come with CDs so you can immediately begin exercising your listening comprehension.

Duolingo logo

I’ve also dabbled in several online applications for learning French grammar. My favorite by far has been Duolingo. To be fair, when I started using the French Duolingo, I’d already learned all the rules presented by its lessons. But it was a fun and worthwhile refresher since I still made plenty of mistakes. Unlike a workbook, Duolingo has the ability to listen to spoken responses and judge your accent. It also poses questions in both written and audio form to help you with your comprehension of spoken French.

One of my favorite sources these days for exercising my grammar skills arrives in my inbox in the form of a free newsletter called La Langue Française. I’m not sure who is behind it but one of its target audiences is French people. A classic French exercise that tests your listening, spelling, and knowledge of grammar is the dictée. La Langue Française provides many to choose from, at a variety of levels. You listen to a French speaker reciting portions of a longer text and you type in what you hear. At the end, your entry is checked and deviations from the original are flagged.

Sample dictée
Sample dictée from La Langue Française.

The team behind La Langue Française provides new articles every week containing grammar quizzes, readings from French literature, French expressions, proverbs, and more.

2. Listen regularly to spoken French

Louis French Lessons

Louis French podcast

As soon as you’re feeling somewhat comfortable with basic grammar rules, I recommend extending your listening practice beyond the spoken exercises that come with whatever system you are using. The question is where do you start. In my case, I stumbled onto a podcast called Daily French. Today it is known as Louis French Lessons. These lessons are free and short! The host, Louis, only gives you one sentence per day, but it’s not dumbed down. These sentences are topical, often relating to leading international headlines.

Louis states the sentence and then goes about dissecting its meaning, giving his explanation in a mix of French and English. In the process, he might introduce several synonyms for one of the harder words, ending with an English equivalent. When I started listening to Louis, his 5-minute lesson would take me 30 minutes to digest. I’d have to listen repeatedly until I finally got the gist and even then, I’d often look up the written transcript (available online) to see if I had it right. Within a few months, however, I was quite comfortable with Louis and was getting exposure to a lot of great vocabulary.

Le Journal en français facile

RFI Francais Facile

Still a regular listener of Louis, I wanted a bigger challenge and turned to a very popular podcast from Radio France International called le Journal en français facile. This daily news show prunes the daily deluge of international news stories down to a handful. Unlike Louis’ show, there are no explanations but the presenters speak slowly. They summarize the headlines and then provide further details for each story. Again, when I first started listening, I was pretty lost. I remember a day when the only words I picked up from the headlines were pape and pédophile. With this in mind, other words like catholique and église jumped out when more details were given.

When learning a foreign language, you have to celebrate the little victories. Rather than being discouraged that I’d barely understood the newscast, I was excited that I’d been able to link one of the stories to the sexual abuse scandal that was dominating U.S. headlines as well.

Nowadays, the RFI website provides a complete transcript for each episode and if you run the podcast directly from their site, they’ll step you through the transcript in sync with the presenter’s voice. I encourage you, however, to try and figure out what’s being said without relying on the text.

France24

France24 logo

Listening to podcasts provides excellent training but it often helps to see a person’s mouth while they are speaking. Another of my early listening sources was and remains the live newscast on the French television chain France24. The presenters speak very clearly and when you can’t see their faces, the video that accompanies the story provides clues about what they’re describing. Sprinkled in between the perfect enunciations of the newscasters are occasional “man-on-the-street” interviews. These give you glimpses into how native francophones typically speak, whether they live in Paris, Provence, Martinique, Quebec, or parts of Africa.

Subscription services

Yabla logo

The resources I’ve listed so far are all free. When you’re new to a language, however, you might want a service with more structure, something that takes you by the hand and leads you along a curated path of increasing difficulty. Two such platforms that I find particularly well done are Yabla and FluentU and they both have free lessons to try out as well as free trial periods.

FluentU logo

Both of these services offer a wide variety of videos, all featuring native speakers. Each video is accompanied by quizzes that test your comprehension of what’s been said, challenging you to produce an exact transcript of the dialog. If you make a mistake, no problem, they show you the correct interpretation and voilà, you’ve learned something new. FluentU also provides an excellent newsletter which is free to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

FluentU Player

Podcasts for native francophones

As with all the resources I describe in this post, there’s virtually no end to available content. Ultimately, you will feel ready to tackle podcasts that native French speakers enjoy. Radio France, the French public radio station, offers a wide variety of shows to choose from. Two of my favorites are Affaires sensibles and l’Heure du crime.

Affaires sensibles logo

Affaires sensibles tackles the famous scandals, swindles, and trials that have marked history. These stories need not have taken place in France and range from the Patty Hearst kidnapping to the relatively recent terrorist attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris. Knowing a bit about the story before you dive in helps a lot with comprehension. This is my favorite French podcast but full disclosure, I find the host, Patrice Druelle, to be the fastest talker and most difficult person to understand on the show.

L'Heure du crime logo

If you like true crime podcasts, l’Heure du crime is for you. Each episode features a sensational crime story from France’s past. Like Affaires sensibles, this podcast interviews experts, airs old news clips, and presents eyewitness accounts. I personally prefer Affaires sensibles but find the host of l’Heure du crime, Jean-Alphonse Richard, much easier to understand.

Transfert podcast logo

These two podcasts are multi-faceted productions with a talented staff behind them. If you’re looking for a program that is less formalized and closer to shows like This American Life, I recommend Transfert, brought to you by Slate.fr. These firsthand accounts, largely presented by Gen Y and Zers, tend to be bit more self-absorbed than I’d prefer, but I’ve found some really interesting stories here and listening will certainly expose you to the most current way of expressing oneself in French.

Audiobooks

I talk more about books in general below but audiobooks are a great way to improve your listening skills. You can start with simple stories that you already know, like Blanche Neige or Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and work your way up to more sophisticated narratives. As your listening comprehension improves, I recommend you try listening to English books that have been translated into French. Even if you haven’t already read the book in English, the translation will tend to follow English sentence structure more closely than an original composition in French, thus making it easier to digest.

The Golden Compass, Pullman

I’m lucky to live near a public library that has plenty of French audiobooks to choose from. When my kids were young and began reading books on their own, they often wanted me to read those same books independently but simultaneously with them. As a result, I’d seek out various titles in French at the library and ended up finding two excellent French audiobooks that fit the bill, each covering the first book of a favorite series: Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer, and The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.

Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck

When my son was in high school and assigned to read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I found an exceptional French audio rendition, with multiple actors playing the roles.

If you subscribe to Audible, they have hundreds of professionally mastered French titles to choose from. In general, I find current French literature easier to digest in audio form than the classics. This may be partially due to a more limited vocabulary in modern-day writing, but I think some of my struggle with audio from authors like Balzac and Zola comes from long texts describing settings and circumstances that aren’t familiar. On a printed page, I can stick with the narrative and look up vocabulary when needed. In audio form, I tend to space out and even if I go back and relisten, it’s not a simple matter to pick out the words that are causing me difficulty.

You might also check out Librivox, an online library of free audiobooks that are read by volunteers around the world. Depending on the skill of the narrator, these can be hit or miss. I’ve not listened to an entire book on Librivox but have read positive reviews from those who have.

Films

Never has it been easier to find French films to watch for free. Youtube alone has thousands to choose from. If you subscribe to a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime, you’ll find even more French movies, documentaries, TV specials, and series. Documentaries tend to be my preferred form of video in any language. But they are also much easier to understand than typical French cinema.

Long after I could absorb a French documentary while cooking dinner or taking down Christmas ornaments, I’d rely on English subtitles when watching French dramatic films. Without them, I’d miss much of what was happening. Even though I’m an abysmal multi-tasker, I persisted in using subtitles—the written English words distracting me from the spoken French and vice versa.

Like an ex-offender in need of a halfway house, I started watching American Netflix series that were dubbed in French but also offered French subtitles. I quickly learned that the interpreters that do the dubbing are not the same people who write subtitles. In fact, the two teams work totally independently of each other, like cooks competing on an episode of Top Chef where they each have to create a dish from the same ingredients. Rather than focusing on the plot of the film, I found myself comparing the two French texts (only when I managed to catch both) and wondering what the original English might have been. The end result: a day later I was barely able to recall what I’d watched.

A better solution was watching French films with close-caption turned on (when available). The audio and text proved to be a much better match but I’m not a very fast reader and I don’t read French as quickly as English, so this technique rendered me oblivious to greater portions of the action. I’ve only recently decided to forgo subtitles altogether. I still fail to catch chunks of rapid-fire dialog but I was missing various details before. So, maybe on the whole I’m better off.

Like any good motivational speaker worth her weight in salt, I’m recommending that you learn from my egregious mistakes and dump the subtitles as soon as possible.

3. Read books in French

It’s hard to overstate the importance of regular reading when learning a foreign language. Many of the benefits that we extol to children who are learning to read apply. Reading improves your focus, memory, and communication skills. In addition, you learn new things about humans, history, culture, and society. I had the coincidental good fortune of returning to school to study French at the same time my kids were starting to read. Beginning with picture books to aid my comprehension, I mimicked much of their reading trajectory.

Young adult and children’s literature

Bone Tome 1

The university classes I was enrolled in had me read excerpts from great French authors like Hugo, Stendahl, and Sartre. At home, however, I was reading translations of my kids’ favorite books: Geronimo Stilton, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and the Bone graphic novel series are examples.

As their reading skills progressed, so did mine. When one of my daughters became obsessed with Harry Potter, I managed to get through three of the French editions available on Kindle. Those early introductions to words like elf, wizard, spell, sorcerer, claw, screech, creak, groan, flinch, and so on, have actually served me well.

Ender's Game

When my other daughter begged to read Twilight, at the age of 9, I found a French version at the library and told her she could read it after I did. By the time I’d slogged my way through, she’d happily moved on to more appropriate content. When my son entered high school and mutual interests were getting harder to come by, we could at least discuss one of his favorite series, Ender’s Game—used copies of which I managed to track down while traveling in France.

At this point, I’ve read dozens of books for children and young adults that I might have never given a second look. But many of these stories were highly entertaining and held my attention as well as any adult novel.

Bandes dessinées

Luckily for French language learners, the French people love comic books and graphic novels, referred to as bandes dessinées. French booksellers have countless titles to offer. This format is undervalued by many language learners but I find it has two important advantages over normal books.

First, pictures are hugely helpful in aiding comprehension. Ultimately, you absorb vocabulary through repeated exposure. On average, you need to read or hear a word 15 or more times before you’ve committed it to memory. You don’t want to have to look up every unfamiliar word. Context helps you determine meaning while avoiding a dictionary and illustrations further sharpen your interpretation.

Scene from Persepolis
Without reading this panel, it’s apparent that the older woman disapproves of the young teen’s outfit.

Second, comics and graphic novels rely heavily on dialog. The descriptive passages, normally found in a book, are replaced with drawings. I might understand every written word in Camus’ La Peste, but that doesn’t mean I know how to speak with people on the street. The speech found in bandes dessinées is closer to the way people actually talk than what you typically find in a book. It’s short, to the point, contains plenty of slang, and is seldom literary.

Page from Aya de Yopougon
Without knowing anything about the story, the pictures and minimal dialog on this single page paint a very expansive picture.

Below are links to some of my posts that feature favorite bandes dessinées.

Adult literature

As with English, there are more excellent books available in French than you can possibly conceive of, let alone read. Below are some of my favorites but I advise to only read books that appeal to you and if you start one that doesn’t grab you, don’t worry about finishing. Try something else. Keep in mind, however, that variety is the spice of life. I suggest that you frequently change things up. Here are some ideas to consider when choosing what to read next.

  • Reading French classics, or at least excerpts from them, has an advantage you might not have thought of. French people you meet often have not read any of these books but the general population is far more knowledgeable about great works of French literature than Americans are of their own literary heritage. Being somewhat familiar with masters such as Molière, Voltaire, Hugo, Rimbaud, and Proust, increases your cultural fluency and if nothing else, you’ll have a much easier time remembering the names of Metro stations and city streets.
  • Every December the Goncourt Academy awards prizes for the best works of literature that have come out earlier in the year. I haven’t yet read a book that received the top prize but there is more than one category and I’ve now read 3 books that won the Prix Goucourt des Lycéens, which is the equivalent to our National Book Award for Young Adult literature. These books are perhaps somewhat lighter than novels for adults but they still contain wonderfully gripping tales.
  • Don’t forget about books from francophone countries other than France. Some of my absolute favorites are from African and Canadian authors.
  • Immigrant stories, whether memoirs or based on the author’s personal experience, are usually packed with intrigue, hardship, hope, and triumph over adversity. They also tend to teach you about sub-cultures, traditions, and value systems unlike your own, exposing the complexity of human society.
  • The French are very good about recycling their books. When traveling in France, look for livres d’occasion. Many bookstores that sell new books, also contain a section for used copies and they are staffed with employees that are generally eager to help you find specific titles or, if those aren’t available, suggest other possibilities.
  • Reading French books on Kindle has several advantages. This post explains why.

Read Aloud

My final council on reading is that you read out loud as much as possible. French is not easy for anglophones to pronounce. Part of the reason for this is that it uses muscles in the face, mouth, and throat differently than English does. The more you attempt to pronounce it, the more you’ll exercise these weird and initially uncomfortable postures.

I also believe that reading aloud helps you retain words and expressions better than if you are silently perusing them with only your eyes. Reading aloud slows you down but when you take the time to pronounce French text as well as possible, the effort ends up paying noticeable dividends to your speaking abilities.

Click here for tips on how to improve your speaking skills.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

8 Comments

  1. Wow, Carol !!! What a thorough job you’ve done! It will take me years to get to all of your recommendations. Thank you!

  2. Once again, an awesome compilation of resources. You put an amazing amount of work into your posts.

    I agree with you about studying grammar vs immersion. An adult who already knows a language has the ability to understand explanations, and can thus take just a few minutes to be informed of a rule or pattern that might take hours to deduce just from hearing examples. Since we have this ability, why not use it?

    The same principle can help with pronunciation. For example, Germanic languages like English produce the sounds t, d, and n by touching the tip of the tongue to the ridge behind the upper front teeth, but Romance languages like French make those sounds by touching the tip of the tongue to the back of the upper front teeth. It’s a subtle difference which can be explained, but would be hard to pick up purely by listening.

    The emphasis on hearing and speaking is vital. It’s almost impossible to get pronunciation right, or even get close, by focusing mainly on writing and treating speech as secondary — especially in a case like French, where the relationship between the language and its spelling is complex and inconsistent, like English. Reading is more useful for retaining and expanding vocabulary once you’ve reached a fair degree of proficiency.

    It’s also a good point about the bandes dessinées. Language evolved to be used in context; ordinary conversation happens between people who can see each other and their shared environment. That’s why the style of discursive prose or even novels tends to be so different from that of actual speech — it has to be, to make up for the missing context. In a graphic novel, as you say, you can see the surroundings, objects being referred to, facial expressions, etc, which enables it to be more like actual conversation.

    (The popularity of manga offers a similar aid for studying Japanese, but the Japanese writing system is a Byzantine nightmare, making French or English spelling look as simple as Esperanto by comparison. The language itself is fairly simple and straightforward, but trying to read it can be migraine-inducing.)

    Reading stories in another language that you already know in English is an interesting idea. Even professional translations sometimes contain errors, though.

    the only words I picked up from the headlines were pape and pédophile

    Some words do just naturally go together, don’t they?

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts Infidel. You put an amazing amount of work into your comments. I wish I could add even a fraction of such insight to the comments on your thought-provoking blog.

  3. Excellent advice. And what courage you have to “go back” to French after so many years. C’est pas facile. Did you know Flaubert used to read out loud his manuscript in a room he called “le gueuloir”. He felt that if his text did not pass the shouting experiment, he had to write it again…
    Pas mal hein?
    Bonne semaine.

    • I wouldn’t say I was particularly brave Brieuc, maybe heedless of others opinions and doggedly single-minded would be better descriptions.

      Interesting regarding Flaubert’s gueuloir. I tend to read my writing out loud, just to ensure the rhythm is pleasing to me. I don’t relate to the shouting though. Maybe because today we have volume controls for that sort of thing. Back then, this may have been an important test case.

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