I have this habit of taking online French placement tests, just for fun. (Most language schools’ websites have free tests you can take.) The majority of these tests focus on verb conjugations and agreement between nouns and adjectives. In other words, grammar. This is why I always get near perfect scores on these tests even though I know I’m not fluent. Yes, I know French grammar as well as English grammar, but that doesn’t mean I can speak the language that well.
I also have a ridiculously large collection of French textbooks and teach yourself French books. The table of contents is always something like this: articles, question words, feminine adjectives, prepositions, partitives, present tense. Six chapters later, you can finally learn the past tense. Why do textbook authors think that everyone speaks in the present tense???
Browsing through the many French books that are available, you’ll notice that most are designed for the traveler who doesn’t actually want to learn the language, but rather memorize sentences that one would rarely use in his native language. A lot of textbooks are written this way as well, as if they expect that is the only type of French you will want to know – forget those who will never visit the country or those who will actually move there (for which there are two different types of French altogether).
Do you really need to know how to ask where to buy film if you are never planning on going to a French-speaking country? Maybe you just want to learn how to read French literature. What about opening a bank account, applying for a residency card, finding an apartment? Those little phrase books conveniently leave out those sections, as do most textbooks.
And the pronunciation (or should I say lack of?) in language books. ::sigh:: How do you expect anyone to learn to SPEAK or UNDERSTAND a language with no linguistic input? I understand that CDs are expensive and push up the price of the book, but if you have no phonetic pronunciation next to the words, (and I’m not talking about one little measly pronunciation section in the very beginning that everyone skips anyway) how is anyone going to learn to pronounce words and sentences correctly?
The vocabulary. Where is it? I see lists of common things with the general names, but where is the real French? The number of people who say cotton swabs instead of Q-tips in English is probably the same as the number of people who say correcteur fluide instead of Tipp-Ex in French. The vocabulary tends to be too abstract, as if you will never need to know the names of cheeses or pastries that you’d like to order. Apparently if there is no exact, direct translation into English, you don’t need to know it.
Similarly, forget about learning slang from regular language books. You have to look for books that are specially geared toward informal language (and there aren’t many.) Many years ago, I learned that travailler means to work, but how often have I actually heard people say that word? About 10 times less than I’ve heard people say bosser instead. Watching TV or listening to random conversations, you’ll hear words like frangine and piges and ça caille, but did you ever learn those in your French classes? I didn’t think so. You learned sœur and ans and il gèle instead.
I was told the only ways to form questions were 1) inversion of subject and verb or 2) add est-ce que to the beginning of the sentence. That’s fine for formal speech or writing. But what about just using subject + verb + question word? “Oh no, that’s incorrect. You CANNOT say that.” Perhaps the millions of French people who construct their questions like this in everyday speech didn’t get the memo?
Reduced forms, anyone? None of my textbooks taught me to reduce unstressed vowels. Phrase books definitely don’t mention this. What the heck does t’a’d’la monnaie mean? Ah, it’s tu as de la monnaie ? Or Est-ce que tu as de la monnaie ? as my books always taught it.
I understand that most textbooks are designed to teach you to read and write a language. But some of us would like to speak and understand as well. I just wish I could find more books that focus on meaning instead of form. Grammar-translation is not exactly the best method of learning a language.
End of rant. Thank you for suffering through it.