Category Archives: Learning French

The Gradual Progression

By   January 15, 2010

Being able to understand 99% of what people say in French is a huge accomplishment, I feel. I remember constantly struggling to understand movies or songs in French when I was in college and then trying to understand actual conversations when I first arrived in France. Today I have no problems understanding any of those things. I like being able to watch Amélie again and understand it perfectly, when I know I couldn’t do that before. Today it seems so easy. And that’s why I get so frustrated while studying German or Italian. I cannot understand 99% of what people say and it makes me feel like a failure. But I haven’t been exposed to those languages nearly as long as I have been to French.

I’ve been in France for over 3 years now and I need to keep in mind the enormous amount of information that my brain absorbed. I do remember struggling to speak even a year after my arrival. By the following summer, things were better, but still not good. Finally during my 3rd summer, I felt more and more confident and had real, normal, long, in-depth conversations with French people!  I had been learning how to communicate the entire time, but I never noticed when I picked up new vocabulary or when I was able to speak more coherently without stumbling because there is a gradual progression to learning a language. One day you just realize that you can understand, and that you can respond to questions, and that you can function like a human being in a genuine conversation instead of just saying yes or no or I don’t know.

If I had come to France to study French, I’m sure that my acquisition would have been quicker. But I came here to teach English, and even now I feel that teaching English prevents me from perfecting my French. That’s a huge concern for me since I would like to teach French someday. Of course, I was also preoccupied with studying a little German and Italian, so I can’t say my focus has been all on French. Nevertheless, the simple fact of being immersed in French everyday – even when I didn’t want to be or didn’t notice it – has helped immensely. Now I’m trying to replicate that with German, which obviously can’t be done the exact same way as I do not live in a German-speaking country, but I’m really trying to listen to German as much as possible. And maybe one day I’ll notice that I can understand every word in Good Bye, Lenin! and all of this hard work to acquire yet another language will feel as if it had been so easy all along.

The Beginning Translator’s Workbook (French to English)

By   January 3, 2010

I bought The Beginning Translator’s Workbook: Or the ABC of French to English Translation a long time ago when I thought I might want to try translating as a career and I finally got around to reading it this past week. It actually offers a lot of good tips for switching between the two languages that anyone learning French should find helpful.  The part I found the most interesting was on Modulation, or when the two languages “see” the same concept in different angles and so the semantical, grammatical or syntactical properties need to change when translating. With my students here in France, this seems to be a source of most of their errors – they try to translate literally, word for word, into English and it obviously doesn’t work the majority of the time.

For example, in English we have a goldfish and a polar bear whereas in French it’s literally a red fish (poisson rouge) and a white bear (ours blanc).  Sometimes one word in English is a group of words in French and vice versa: the verb to kick is donner un coup de pied, while the adverb dorénavant is from now on. French favors the active construction beginning with On m’a dit… instead of the passive construction I was told… and the prepositions following certain verbs are more often different than the same. To start with is commencer par, to look at is regarder, to attend is assister à, etc.  But it seems to me many of these structures are learned while you learn the vocabulary and grammar, so it’s more of a matter of just memorizing the equivalent expression in French, such as we do with proverbs and idioms because they cannot be translated literally either.

Textbooks explain the grammatical rules and always have lists of vocabulary, but one point they do not focus on much is the difference between analytic Romance languages and synthetic Germanic languages.  English uses many compound expressions that do not need connectors, usually in the form adjective (or compound adjective) + noun. French, on the other hand, prefers to use prepositions to link the ideas together. We say a brown-eyed girl in English, but in French we must say une fille aux yeux marron (literally, a girl with brown eyes).  A fast-growing company in English is literally a company in full development, une compagnie en plein essor.  Students learn business English, whereas in French it’s called l’anglais des affaires.

At least for me, I find the analytic vs. synthetic difference the hardest to remember when trying to translate English to French. Adaptation (translating the cultural aspects) also throws me off sometimes when I can’t figure out how to say allocations familiales in a few words in English without describing the whole system or remembering the conversions from Fahrenheit to Celcius or feet to meters. Since language and culture are impossible to separate, learners of any language must also learn the cultural references, but trying to translate those concepts into your native language can be a bit difficult.

French Christmas Songs

By   December 13, 2009

Learn French through Christmas songs! La chanson en cours de FLE has a few listening activities for the first 3 songs if you want to test yourself.

Petit Papa Noël

Vive le Vent (Jingle Bells)

Mon Beau Sapin (Oh Christmas Tree)

Douce Nuit (Silent Night)

Au Royaume du Bonhomme Hiver (Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland)

French & France News

By   November 24, 2009

Twitter is now available in French! And yes, I recently joined – though I prefer to say to that my website joined since my username is ielanguages. I’ll most likely be posting more website info and language teaching & learning news and links on there, unlike this blog which usually includes personal stuff like missing Michigan snow and endless pictures of my cat.

Did you know that 90% of French films on DVD are NOT subtitled for the deaf or hard-of-hearing (or French learners)? The main television channels in France are supposed to work towards 100% subtitling through 2010, but there are no similar statutes for the film industry. How sad.  Especially for DVDs that are exported and encoded in other regions, it would be such a great resource for French learners to listen and read at the same time.

Fighting words from the Parti Québécois, upset about the recent overturn of loi 104, which now allows children to attend English public school if they’ve attended one year of English private school instead of having them remain in French schools: “Au nom d’une Constitution que le Québec n’a jamais signée, des juges nommés par une autre nation veulent nous empêcher de défendre ce qu’il y a de plus précieux pour la nation québécoise. La Cour suprême nous dit que notre manière de défendre le français ne lui convient pas. Eh! bien, au Québec, c’est la Constitution canadienne qui ne nous convient pas.”

Only 38% of French people say they base their identity at the national level compared to 45% who prefer the local or regional level. The largest percentage identify most with their city, followed by neighborhood, région and département.  This isn’t too surprising considering how many regional divisions there are within France, and it does seem to be a slight blow to Besson’s debate on national identity and how he wants everyone and your uncle to be proud to be French.

Speaking of Besson, his xenophobic views are at it again. In a circulaire distributed to prefets across France, he poses the following question: “Comment éviter l’arrivée sur notre territoire d’étrangers en situation irrégulière, aux conditions de vie précaires génératrices de désordres divers (travail clandestin, délinquance) et entretenant, dans une partie de la population, des suspicions vis-à-vis de l’ensemble des étrangers  ?” Why, France? Why do you let this man have power? He’s turning out to to be the Lou Dobbs of France, except he’s the freaking Ministre de l’Immigration!

The Simpsons parodied Sarko & Carla a few weeks ago, but there’s another video clip making the rounds in France. After Hortefeux’s racist comments were caught on camera, apparently it was Chirac’s turn.  I expect ignorant comments like that from ultra-conservative nutjobs like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, but Chirac was president of this country for 12 years. I don’t remember Bush ever making any openly racist comments and that man was a moron. Isn’t Chirac supposed to be educated (even if he has a very shady political past)?

And one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in a long time: a group of students at a high school in Paris sent an insulting and threatening letter to their English teacher because she had ::gasp:: banned cell phones in class! She got fed up with them constantly texting in class when they should have been paying attention, and the students think that they can do whatever they want, so they demanded that the teacher change her behavior or be replaced. At the risk of sounding old, what is wrong with kids today???

Audio Links Roundup for Language Learning

By   November 21, 2009

Books can’t exactly teach you how to speak or understand a language. Listening is the most important skill to master when learning a language. And that is where the internet comes in. So here’s a short list of audio-heavy websites, most of which I’m sure I’ve already posted about, and many of which are multilingual:

Words & Simple Sentences

  • Forvo: All the words in the world. Pronounced.
  • Swac: audio collections that can be downloaded
  • Le Dictionnaire Visuel: French only obviously, but very specific & technical words
  • LanguageGuide: pictorial vocabulary guides
  • Internet Polyglot: vocabulary in several language combinations, with games
  • Learn Verbs: verb conjugations pronounced
  • Book2: 100 lessons of basic phrases; mp3s can be downloaded
  • Learn with Youtube: collection of videos specifically for language learning
  • very extensive site with thousands of sound files
  • LangMaster: hundreds of hours of free lessons in French, Spanish, German, and Italian

Slow Speech, Natural Speech & Reading

  • Yabla: language immersion through videos and subtitles; more videos can be accessed for free through the podcast
  • LangMedia Videos: everyday situations and cultural information; transcripts & translations available
  • Ashcombe School MFL Videos: conversations, talks, interviews; transcripts & translations available
  • Audio Lingua: short recordings on various topics; no transcripts available however
  • ListentoFrench and Sonsenfrançais: great collection of French listening resources mostly from TV & films; transcripts available
  • Radio France Internationale: listen to the “easy” news and read the transcript, though it does not match exactly what is said; no translations
  • Un Giro in Italia: videos of Italian culture, with transcripts but no translations
  • Librivox: audio books in the public domain; with texts provided
  • Logos Library: famous children’s books; with texts provided
  • Euronews: videos of news in (mostly) Western European languages
  • Catálogo de voces hispánicas: videos and transcripts of the various varieties of Spanish (and even some Catalan)
  • RAI Corso di Lingua: interactive elementary Italian course
  • France-Bienvenue: interviews on various topics, with transcripts and explanations of cultural vocabulary
  • Deutsche Welle: tons of learning German resources! Why can’t other countries produce material like this?
  • Slow German: articles read at a slow pace, with transcripts and translation of individual words possible
  • watch videos with subtitles in Dutch or both Dutch and English


I am too lazy to list other language podcasts and I cannot decide which ones I like best. Search for them in iTunes because there are a lot available nowadays. One caveat about podcasts is that many require fees for the transcripts. I’ve tried to include mostly free websites in the links above.

Other Audio Findings that I was Happy to Stumble Upon

  • Agricultural Labor Management: the University of California provides audio for learning basic phrases and agricultural words in Spanish
  • Italian Lives: the University of Western Australia did an audio-video project on Italian migrants in Western Australia

Television is Educational (especially when it’s in another language)

By   October 28, 2009

Just for (nerdy) fun, I wrote down all the Québécois words that were spoken in 3 episodes of Catherine as well as their “standard French” counterparts that appeared in the subtitles.

QuébecFrance QuébecFrance
plattechiant gangbande
chaudièreseau napkinneserviette de table
écœurerdégoûter pantoutepas du tout
cheapradin bobettesculottes
bocverre chicanedispute
blondecopine chaufferconduire
chumcopain charvoiture
braillerpleurer tantôttout à l’heure
souperdîner bouetteboue
mauditespèce de quétaineringard
frencherrouler une pelle vidangesordures
pis?alors? trippercraquer
scrapperdétruire partyfête
niaiserieconnerie gazessence
cruiserdraguer lavagelinge
laisserquitter balayeuseaspirateur

Of course, there were some words that I could not understand at all (and neither could David). But sometimes I understand more than he does because of the North American cultural references!

Talk Out Loud!

By   October 22, 2009

It’s vacation time already! I have 11 days off thanks to Toussaint. Then there are only 7 weeks left of the semester (one of which is shortened by the jour férié on November 11) after that. Time flies when you’re having fun, eh? I wish I could do this job forever. I know my next job (whatever it will be…) will not give me nearly as many days off and the possibility of sleeping in almost everyday. But it hopefully will involve more French and less English and a higher paycheck, though I’m not too optimistic about that in the land of low salaries.

But back to my current job. At the beginning of the semester, I like to torture encourage my first year students by forcing asking them to speak spontaneously in English for a whole 60 seconds on a subject that we have already covered in class. Considering they have been learning English for 7-9 years already, this should be rather easy. However, by the looks on their faces and the dead silence that lasts for 5 minutes before one of them is brave enough to start talking into their microphone makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s as if no one has ever asked them to SPEAK in English before and considering France’s current system of teaching languages, that may very well be the case.

So I will be spending my vacation listening to and grading some 50 recordings of these timid students who are afraid to talk in the language that they are majoring in. Few of them seem to understand the importance of speaking out loud when learning a new language. Not just for pronunciation, but to remember the correct phrases and to train the muscles in the mouth to get used to a new way of forming sounds and words and sentences.

Ok, they record themselves speaking English once, but then they think it ends there. No no no! You must listen to yourself speaking. Does your pronunciation sound good? Can you spot some mistakes in grammar? Are there a lot of hesitations and unclear utterances? What do you need to improve on?  Try another recording and listen again. Then do it again. And again. None of this “once is enough” attitude and doing it just for the sake of getting it done.

And the whole point is to get them speaking spontaneously, without any written preparation beforehand. They are so used to writing everything first, and then reading it. But that’s not real life. I seriously wonder how some students think they will be able to work for an Anglophone company in 3 years when they won’t even try to speak in English in class, where there is a native speaker to help them and it’s ok if they make mistakes because I will correct them. What are they going to do in the real world when they’re asked to talk to Anglophone clients or interpret at meetings or (worst of all!) answer the phone in English?

My rentrée is almost here

By   September 27, 2009

Tomorrow I will finally start classes again! We are just doing placement tests so we can divide the groups by level, but it’s still work, especially since we’re using our lovely computer lab with Windows 2000 and so far 3 out of 18 of the computers are already dead. New computers will be installed, but not before the rentrée 2010 – when I will no longer be a lectrice there – so the computer techs will not help us at all this year if we have problems with the computers or server. I am going to have to croiser my doigts all year that our 15 remaining computers make it until April!

My schedule is done, I think. I’ll have class 16.5 hours a week (7 are labs, 7.5 are vocabulary class, and 2 are a special class for the Italian exchange students). So I will have to do some preparation this year (for the Italian students) and a lot more correcting of recordings since I have 5 vocab classes instead of the normal 3 or 4. But I’m excited. I felt so lazy this summer for not doing much, and I would always rather be too busy than too bored.

I keep thinking about next fall and what type of job I can get. I don’t mind teaching English, but I still feel like it’s preventing me from perfecting my French. And I would still prefer to teach French to Anglophones… Not that that will ever happen while I’m living in France, but at least I can try to teach people through my website. As a technology nerd, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on autonomous technology-assisted language learning. I definitely believe the bulk of language acquisition takes place outside of the classroom, when and where the students feel most comfortable and motivated and where they can be exposed to a variety of input. That’s not to say that the teacher or classroom are unnecessary in language learning though. Both are required for interaction, correction, feedback and to provide the tools for further study. But students need to take the initiative to study on their own, outside of the measly few hours they spend in class each week.

On a slightly different topic, I don’t really feel qualified to teach French even if I could. My Master’s is in Linguistics, and my Bachelor’s is in French & Linguistics, which I specifically chose because I love linguistics a million times more than literature. Yet most universities focus their language programs on literature, so even if I did become a French professor someday, I wouldn’t want to teach those classes. I wouldn’t mind teaching culture, film, music, etc. but literature? No thanks. I guess I just always prefer the spoken language. I’ve been looking at university sites to see what’s required for degrees in French nowadays, and also to see what textbooks they use, and I came across Hong Kong’s impressive course websites and resources. Sometimes I wonder how people learned languages before the internet!

But getting back to teaching English and my future job in France, I can’t decide what would be better: continue teaching English or just be a student in French. I’d love to start my PhD soon, but I want to improve my written French first. However, can we afford to live on only one salary for a while? Do I want to try to juggle teaching English with improving my French and/or starting my PhD? Maybe something else completely unrelated to teaching will come up and I’ll be able to improve my French while earning money so I won’t have to worry about it. My goal is to get French citizenship (I can apply in 2 years) and a career that allows me to use languages, whether or not it’s teaching, so perfecting my French is going to have to be a priority.  In the meantime, I just want to discover the best way to teach French through the internet.