Category Archives: Learning French

Learning Two Languages Together: Where are the Resources?

Remembering new vocabulary involves a lot of connections between what you already know and what you want to know. This is why I don’t agree with “target language only” classes. Sometimes you need your native language to help you  learn a second language, and sometimes a second language can help you learn a third language even better.  For example, learning German in French is actually easier for me instead of learning German in English even though German and English are more closely related.  Whenever I try to think in another language and want to say something, French is what comes out first because it’s my second language. So now I think in French first for a few seconds before I can switch to German. It’s just simply easier for me to go from French to German than from English to German.

Whether you are learning two languages together and are at the same level in each, or whether you know one language rather well and are using it to learn the other, having the grammar and vocabulary compared side by side is a useful resource. This is why I decided to start writing comparative tutorials. So far only French & German and French & Italian are available, but I would like to do French & Spanish and Spanish & Italian someday. I don’t know of any language learning books that do this apart from the English Grammar for Learners of…. series, but that is always English + one other language, and I am trying to find resources for learning two languages simultaneously that is geared towards English speakers. But perhaps the market for learning two languages is not very large since most people seem to think learning one language is hard enough. But what about the multilingual enthusiasts like me? Or graduate students who must learn two languages in order to finish their PhD? Surely there are resources for students in a Romance Languages PhD program? Or are those books only available in graduate libraries?

I know there are plenty of multilingual phrasebooks for travelers, but I’m looking for introductory books that teach basic grammar and vocabulary of two languages (any combination, really) side by side. It seems to me that a book on learning Spanish and French together would exist since those are the most commonly learned languages in the US, but I cannot find this book. Does anyone know if something like this actually exists?

Luckily, I have some other multilingual comparative books, and I’m keeping a list here if you’d like to buy them too.

French and its Secret Liaisons: Why everyone thinks French pronunciation is hard

Ok, they’re not so secret in French. I just love the word liaison and I’m fascinated by the obligatoire, facultative and interdite liaisons in French pronunciation.

Liaison is the reason why a lot of people think French pronunciation is hard. Many French words end in consonants that are normally silent, unless the next word begins with a vowel sound – then that consonant sound is pronounced at the beginning of the next word (though sometimes it is not the actual consonant sound represented in the orthography, but its voiced or voiceless counterpart) unless the next word begins with an h aspiré in which case there is no liaison. Easy, right??

French and its Secret Liaisons: Why everyone thinks French pronunciation is hard

There are many rules as to when you should or should not do liaison, but of course it can vary with how formal or informal the speaker is being, as well as their age. (Older people tend to use more liaisons.)

OBLIGATOIRE : The required liaisons happen after…

  • determiners: un, les, des, ces, mon, ton, quels, etc.
  • pronouns: nous, vous, ils, elles, les, etc.
  • preceding adjectives: bon, mauvais, petit, grand, gros, etc.
  • monosyllabic prepositions: chez, dans, sous, en, etc.
  • some monosyllabic adverbs: très, plus, bien, etc.
  • comment when referring to health
  • est

FACULTATIVE : But liaison is optional after…

  • some monosyllabic adverbs: pas, trop, fort
  • quand when it precedes est-ce que
  • all other forms of être

INTERDITE : And liaison should never happen…

  • after et
  • before onze
  • before letters (le A) or citations (les “ah”)
  • before words beginning with an h aspiré
  • after singular nouns or proper names
  • after plural noun subjects
  • after interrogative adverbs (but see comment and quand above!)
  • in plural forms of compound words
  • after on, ils and elles in inversion, when followed by past participles or infinitives

Pronunciation Changes: First you need to remember when to do liaison and then you need to remember what the final consonant of the word is so that you can change the pronunciation of the following word. If the written word ends in -s or -x, the pronunciation will be /z/ while words ending in -d or -t will be pronounced /t/. Another common one is -n, which is pronounced as the nasal /n/ instead of a nasal vowel. Less common liaison pronunciations are -r as /R/ and -p as /p/. Words ending in -g are supposed to be pronounced as /k/ in formal speech, but this is often ignored in informal speech and it is left as /g/ or there is no liaison. The -f of neuf is pronounced as /v/ but only with the words ans and heures.

Here are some examples from the French Phonetics page:

elles arrivent mon amour
ils ont les ours
vieux arbres dans un sac
dix heures très aimable
attend-il ? plus ouvert
grand ami il est allé

Confused? If you are not already confused enough, it gets worse. Sometimes liaisons can create even more confusions. Il est tout vert is pronounced the same as il est ouvert, so is it all green or is it open??  In spite of these what-appear-to-be-random rules for forming liaisons, it actually isn’t that hard to get used to. In the beginning, it does cause a lot of problems for learners who are trying to understand each word because French phonology is not based on word boundaries like English. All the sounds are linked together in a phrase in French, which gives the language its smooth flow but also makes it so difficult to understand.  In English we tend to pause more often between words, but in French this happens between phrases, whether it’s prepositional, adverbial, etc. (And I’m using the word phrase in a specific sense – a group of words with a single grammatical function.)

I remember trying to learn the liaisons long ago in class, but I don’t really remember what worked best for me. Nowadays I have no problems with liaisons – it’s just automatic.  I like to think I simply picked it up after hearing enough examples, but I’m sure it took a while and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I always wonder how native speakers learn it too. Is it taught in school? Is it easier to learn spelling first or does it not matter? (This is mostly unrelated, but I’ve also always wondered about learning the gender of nouns. Do French kids have vocabulary tests where they have the identify the gender? Is using the wrong gender a grave mistake?)

Cheese leads to /p/. And the reason why I was thinking about liaison today is because of a cheese commercial. I’m not even kidding. A man says /tRo pepɛ/ and at first I thought he was talking about a grandpa (pépé) but then I realized he was actually saying trop épais (too thick). I don’t know why exactly, but I really don’t like liaison when it involves /p/. I like that -s becomes /z/ and -d becomes /t/ but I hate that -p is actually pronounced as /p/. It just doesn’t fit. It’s a bilabial for goodness sake, it doesn’t belong with alveolars! (Sadly yes, I am that obsessive compulsive about symmetry and patterns…) I cannot bring myself to do liaison with trop, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people do it lately and I find it very odd. I hope I’m not the only person who is this crazy about liaisons involving /p/…

Anyway, that was your French pronunciation lesson of the day because of a TV commercial.

RSS Times Three: Automatic Updates

I now have three RSS feeds for my site (well, four if you count my Twitter). Most of you are probably reading this through my blog feed, but I also have a feed for ielanguages.com website updates and I just created a new feed for the mp3s that I upload to the French Listening Resources page.

So for the RSS junkies, here are all the feeds:

Jennie en France Blog

Updates to ielanguages.com

French Listening mp3s OR you can subscribe directly through iTunes by clicking here

Isn’t technology great?

Using Audacity to Listen, Record and Compare Your Pronunciation

I use the free, open source software Audacity to create and edit sound files for my site, but it can also be used to simply listen to mp3s as well as to record while listening.  This way, you can repeat what is said and compare your pronunciation to the original. Many language students never record themselves speaking and so they never really have a chance to listen to their pronunciation mistakes, much less in direct comparison to native speakers. At the university we used to have a program called LogoLab that allowed students to listen to an audio file, and record their pronunciation in blanks after the native speaker. Then the student could listen to the file once again and compare the native speaker’s pronunciation to their own. Luckily Audacity also allows recording a second track while listening to the first one, but with one little difference – it is still possible to actually talk over the original recording, so you have to try to fit your speech in the blanks.

In Audacity, you just need to choose Edit and Preferences… and check the box before “Play other tracks while recording new one” that is on the Audio I/O tab.  Then after you’ve opened the mp3, you click Record (the pink circle) and the first track (the original mp3) will play while a second track will open for your recording. If there is not enough time between words or phrases in the original mp3, you can click between them to place the vertical line and choose Generate and Silence… and add a few more seconds.  In the picture below, you can see the source audio on top with a word to repeat and the recording underneath with repetitions of the words.

The faster you can repeat the words or phrases, as well as the number of times you can repeat them, is very important in aiding your memory to retain the information. And of course, you should always practice pronouncing out loud, not only to help you remember, but also to help your mouth get used to different movements (such as front rounded vowels) that don’t exist in English.

For the truly nerdy who are interested in the link between phonology and vocabulary acquisition, read up on Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory.

Polysemy and Homonymy in Beginning Vocabulary Acquisition

Polysemy simply means many meanings, so one word has several definitions and grammatical functions. Homonymy is a related concept broken into two parts: homophones and homographs.  Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation, whether or not they are spelled alike. Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but may or may not be pronounced alike. Homonyms are both homophones and homographs, i.e. words that are spelled and pronounced alike, but with different meanings.  It is important to learn the different spellings, pronunciations and meanings of words in the beginning stage of language learning or you could say something you don’t mean or understand something to be what it is not.

Polysemy of common verbs is probably something that should be learned early on. Verbs such as faire, mettre, and passer have numerous translations in English depending on how they are used and with which expressions. Faire doesn’t always mean simply to do or to make, as it is also translated as to be (especially when talking about the weather) and other various expressions such as to get used to (se faire à) or to worry (s’en faire).  The reflexive pronoun se and the prepositions that follow verbs can also completely change the meaning. Plaindre is to pity, but se plaindre is to complain. S’ennuyer is to get bored, but s’ennuyer de is to miss.

Homonyms are words like mer, mère, and maire. All of these nouns are pronounced the same so you really need to understand the context of the sentence or you won’t know whether someone is talking about the sea, a mother or a mayor. The word gare in French is most often first learned as train station.  It is very basic vocabulary that all beginners know. But gare also means something else. When it is an exclamation instead of a noun, it means watch out or be careful. Another homonym is bois. As a noun it means wood, but as a verb, it is the singular conjugation for the verb drink. Cours is a lesson, class or course (among others), but the verb form cours means run, race or compete.

Examples like these are easier to spot in writing, since nouns generally need an article in front of them, but in everyday speech if you cannot understand every word and only catch certain basic vocabulary, you could completely misunderstand the message.  This is also why learning the pronunciation of conjugations of verbs is important at the beginning stage.  French has a large number of homonyms between nouns and verbs because of the numerous conjugations so it is not enough to just focus on the nouns or adjectives that sound alike.

Obviously for words that are spelled the same, it easy to look up their definition(s) and pronunciation(s) in the dictionary. But for words that are not spelled the same, yet are pronounced the same, it can be a bit trickier.  Luckily the Dictionnaire du Francais that I posted about a few days ago does include notes about words that sound alike, and good vocabulary books include sections on homonyms, such as Vocabulaire expliqué du français (unfortunately, it is not available through Amazon.com)

Self-Study is better than Classroom Learning

Even though I want to be a French teacher, I do not want to teach in a traditional classroom. Why? Because students learn best when they are not in the classroom. I feel that the classroom has a very limited role in language learning, and that teachers are mostly responsible for designing quality lessons and materials, providing support and feedback, and motivating students to become independent, autonomous learners. All of that can be done online.  When it comes to foreign languages, there is only so much a teacher can do – each and every learner has to put enough effort into remembering the new vocabulary and grammar concepts. The teacher cannot magically make that happen.

In 2008, the NYTimes reported on a study that found “Online Education Beats the Classroom” and once again a new study confirms that self-study (either alone or in conjunction with some classroom time) is much better than classroom time alone. Most universities in the US have introductory language courses that meet 3-4 hours per week, and some require students to spend time in the language lab.  I want to teach French to North American university students, but I do not want to teach one of those classes.  I want to teach classes that are either entirely or mostly online.

The ideal language “classroom” would be online so that students can access the material from anywhere at anytime. Language labs are nearly obsolete thanks to computers and mp3 players. And for students who work during the day or who simply cannot make it to campus at certain times (and therefore cannot enroll in language classes or use the language lab), being able to access all the material online at home would be a huge help. Especially for insomniacs like me who prefer to study at midnight!

I do think hybrid classes work best though because not all students are extremely motivated and they need that extra push to get the work done. Perhaps meeting once a week for an hour as a class, or even just having weekly meetings with the teacher, would motivate certain students. To me, the classroom should be reserved for teaching students HOW to study languages and HOW memory works and HOW to manage time in order for the students to become autonomous learners. In the classroom, we should learn how to learn, but the bulk of learning actual content takes place outside of the classroom.

I’ve heard complaints that online learning is not social enough, especially for language learning. I don’t agree with that either because there are plenty of language learning social networking sites. Even simply using Facebook or Twitter is enough to keep in contact with speakers of other languages, and IM and Skype are useful for writing and speaking to each other synchronously. We have all of the tools already – we just need to exploit them better. Another problem I have with this line of thinking is that everyone who learns languages wants to be social and speak to people in that language. That’s not entirely true either. Plenty of graduate students have to learn 2 foreign languages – but they are only required to have a reading knowledge of the language. Some people only care about understanding music and films and not so much about having a conversation. We all learn languages for different reasons.

Another reason why I prefer online classes is so that students can spend most of their time listening to the language (authentic, native language!) because it is the most important part of learning a language. Usually classroom time is reserved for explaining grammar in the native language or repeating vocabulary words that aren’t used all that often or reading dialogs with other non-native speakers, none of which is useful for everyday language. We don’t always use proper grammar. We don’t speak one word at a time. And we certainly don’t learn to speak another language by interacting with other learners at the same level. In fact, attempting to speak a foreign language with someone who speaks your native language is sometimes detrimental to your acquisition because you repeat the accent and mistakes that they make.

Listening to native speakers in natural settings is best, and the easiest way to do that is through online classes.  Teachers can produce or select the materials and base exercises on the grammar and vocabulary used. Most textbooks used in the traditional classroom do it the other way – explain grammar and provide vocabulary lists and then write fake dialogs or scenes to go with them. But that is not authentic language. I don’t want to down-play the importance of non-native speakers or teachers either, because there are plenty who have gained near-native status. And non-native teachers can actually provide more support and understanding for students who speak the same native language. I feel like I can teach French well to English-speakers because I know what it’s like to learn French – I’ve already gone through the process and I know what mistakes are likely to be made and why.

French Dictionary for Non-Native Speakers of French

After skimming (ok, actually reading, because I am that much of a nerd) through my new French dictionary that is designed for non-native speakers, I definitely recommend it for learners of French. It is entirely in French, but it uses simple language to explain the definitions so I think it could be useful for beginners too.  It is a joint publication by Le Robert and CLE International, available on amazon.com (through third party sellers) and amazon.fr:


Dictionnaire du Francais

The pronunciation guide is standard IPA and what is great is that there are pronunciations for conjugated forms of verbs, and not just in the present tense.  The only other book I’ve ever found that provides this is All French Verbs from A to Z by Larousse. I know not everyone knows the IPA, but if you’re serious about learning foreign languages and acquiring proper pronunciation, then it’s extremely helpful.

The most frequent words used in French are marked with an arrow and there are also 350 proper nouns included (with pronunciation, of course.) Throughout the dictionary, relevant false cognates are listed and there is an annex of the full lists in 14 languages at the end. Plural forms of nouns, placement of adjectives, prepositions following verbs, as well as the register (vulgar, informal, standard, formal, etc.) of the word are also included.  Finally, other annexes are sigles, or acronyms and abbreviations, and their pronunciation if they are pronounced as a word instead of letter by letter; geographical names in their original language and the French translation; sections on countries and nationalities, numbers and official time; French governmental institutions; a chronology of French history; and conjugation tables.

The Gradual Progression

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)

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.