Category Archives: Learning French

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.

Free Audiobooks in Foreign Languages

It’s a great idea to use free audiobooks in foreign languages to improve your level of comprehension as well as increase your vocabulary. Here are some sites to get you started:

Some of these sites also include the text and translation into English.

Audio Links Roundup for Language Learning

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

Colloquial French Grammar

I just finished reading Colloquial French Grammar by Rodney Ball, which I highly recommend to those who want to learn the “rules” of everyday spoken French. You do have to have some knowledge of French because sometimes there are no translations given, and a linguistics background would be helpful to understand all of the grammatical terms.

One aspect that I was surprised to not find in the book was the usage of on and specifying the people included in on. I learned very early in my French classes that on is a more common substitute for nous, which can be a little confusing since it takes a singular verb and not a plural one. But I never learned that it is possible and common to name the person or people that you are referring to when you say on. For example, On est allé au cinéma, avec Marc actually means Marc and I went to the movies and NOT We (= someone else and I) went to the movies with Marc. In English, if you use we and then say with [someone], that someone is an additional person not already referred to or included in we. But perhaps this is possible with nous (I never hear anyone use nous so I don’t even know) and so it’s not considered colloquial?

Chapter 7, titled “Grammatical Effects of an Unreformed Spelling System,” reminded me of Joel Walz’s 1986 article “Is Oral Proficiency Possible with Today’s French Textbooks?” The answer was, of course, a big fat NO and I’m sure the answer remains no even in 2009 because textbooks really haven’t changed all that much over the years, unfortunately. In the chapter, Ball grouped adjectives and verb conjugations together according to their pronunciations instead of their orthography. This was a large part of Walz’s article on how textbooks only teach the written form of language and group certain grammatical items together solely by spelling and not by pronunciation.

As Walz points out, adjective agreement and the number system are highly complicated in oral form, but simpler in written form. Therefore, textbooks group the adjectives together based on their spelling changes, without regard to the many pronunciation changes that occur. “A typical textbook presents twelve adjectives showing fifty-two oral forms” yet when students are tested on their knowledge of adjectives, it is usually the spelling of feminine or plural forms with complete disregard to the pronunciation changes that do or do not occur. Most textbooks teach the numbers from 0 to 100 or to 1,000 in a single lesson, even though “the numbers zero through ten alone have twenty-two possible oral forms.”

On the other side of the spectrum, verb conjugations are easier to learn orally than in written form. Yet the textbooks do not adequately describe the pronunciation and instead focus on highlighting the spelling changes for verbs that do not actually change pronunciation, such as adding a cedilla to verb stems ending in -c before the -ons ending of nous. Writing ç is due to the archaic and complicated French writing system and not because the pronunciation changes during conjugation.

In Ball’s group of regular -er verbs, he states there are only two forms that need to be learned since the on form is more common than nous. Here is the IPA for the conjugated verb forms:

j’arrive [aRiv]
t’arrives [aRiv]
il/elle arrive [aRiv]
on arrive [aRiv]
vous arrivez [aRive]
i’z/e’z arrivent [aRiv]

The same two-verb system can be used for the imperfect, future and conditional, though of course, it does get more complicated with -re and -ir verbs. But the point is that it is easier to learn the conjugations if they are based on pronunciation alone. The written forms should be secondary, but in textbooks, they are always primary.

Ball and Walz both explain the syntax of forming questions, and how intonation is actually the most common even though textbooks still insist on teaching inversion and est-ce que. Walz even states “if the more frequent form is also easier for the learner to acquire, then textbook writers have an added incentive to develop that form pedagogically.” It is common sense to teach intonation to form questions since it is the exact same word order as for declarative sentences. But textbooks teach inversion of subject and verb, which actually delays acquisition for elementary French learners, because it is the standard form in written, academic French.

Walz goes on to explain that “academic purism prevents many writers [of textbooks] from describing the spoken language as it exists. Written language has always enjoyed more prestige.” There is a reason why textbooks seem to be clones of one another. Authors are afraid to teach spoken French because it is considered inferior to written French and publishing companies would just throw their manuscripts out. Another facet of textbook publishing is simply the profit factor. Publishing companies print textbooks to make money, not to help students learn. Otherwise, textbooks would be open source and online for everyone to learn from, for free. But I digress…

Part of the problem with teaching French based on orthography is French’s ridiculous spelling system with its numerous homonyms and spellings for one phoneme. There are 13 spellings for the phoneme [o] !! There will always be debates about reforming the system (especially during la rentrée), but I don’t know if it will happen anytime soon. It did happen in the 1800’s actually, but no one really knows about it because all of the earlier famous works in French literature were re-written with the new spellings. Today’s French has changed a lot since the time of Molière so when purists claim that the langue de Molière shouldn’t be reformed, they are just showing their ignorance because it has already been changed. (Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow’s The Story of French explains this and much more about the history of the French language throughout the world.)

I completely agree with Walz that French (or other languages with complex orthography) should be taught based on the pronunciation because it is easier to learn and because language, at its core, is more about spoken (or signed!) communication than written. Of course writing a language is important too, obviously, but speaking and understanding should be primary. French majors who have only learned textbook French have an incredibly hard time understanding everyday French when they study in, or move to, or merely visit, a French-speaking country. They never learned colloquial French so they cannot understand the majority of interactions in French, unless they plan on doing nothing but listening to the nightly news or presidential speeches.

Especially with French, it is important that the students do not get distracted by the spelling, so they should always learn the pronunciation of a word first or simultaneously with the spelling of the word. I’m a very visual learner and I need to see the spelling of a word in order to remember how to spell AND how to pronounce it even if the spelling has nothing to do with the pronunciation. But I learned the phonology of French first, and later applied that to the spelling sytem, so I can keep them separate in my head.

This post is getting incredibly long, so I’m going to stop there. But the point is that I wish textbooks would teach the real spoken language instead of fake textbook language that no one really uses. When is someone finally going to write and publish a textbook on colloquial French that includes authentic language samples from a spoken corpus and that focuses more on the vocabulary (especially slang) needed to survive in everyday situations instead of standard grammar?

Hot Potatoes and Audio Flashcards

As of September 1, 2009, Hot Potatoes (and Quandary) became freeware software. Anyone can download and use the flashcard and exercise authoring programs, whether or not you’re affiliated with a university or upload your work to the web. I use HP for work and for my website. I’ve made several flash cards and quizzes for French, Italian and German so far. With the help of flash mp3 players, I’m starting to make audio flashcards too. I started with FSI Italian and now I’m focusing on French since I know that’s the most popular tutorial on my site.

I also use the Before You Know It flashcard program for my own personal vocabulary learning. Unlike HP, it does not create independent webpages in which to study the flashcards or do the exercises, but rather everything is within the BYKI software (or you can study through their site). It does have a lot of  functionality (create your own lists, import photos and mp3s, generate multiple choice quizzes, dictations, etc.), but only if you buy the Deluxe version. The Lite version is free, but limits you to studying only the lists that can be downloaded through their website.

There are some websites like Wordchamp (free) and Quia (not free) where you can create flashcards, games and quizzes, but the main problem with these sites is that all of your work is stored on their server – so if the website goes down someday, you will lose everything. At least with HP, you have the original HP files and the HTML files saved on your hard drive. The same is true of BYKI, obviously.

I wish there were some way to integrate BYKI and HP flashcards though. I like using them both, but BYKI helps save time because the exercises are automatically generated; however, HP is completely free and can be made into webpages so you can share them with everyone with an internet connection.  There’s no need for learners to download and install software. In addition, the BYKI word lists can only be printed, and not copied into a word processor or exported into HTML as with HP.

I would like to be able to create both versions of flashcards for my website for those who prefer BYKI. As it is right now, I would have to type in the lists and import the mp3s separately for each program which means twice the work. I’ll probably just stick with HP for now though since I can share the flashcards and exercises with the most number of people.

Language Learning Quotes

To get back into full language learning mode, here are some quotes from scholarly journals and books to keep in mind. Citations are on the bibliography page.

1) why textbooks will not teach you to speak a language….

“Textbooks often present forms that are not commonly used, and most non-natives acquiring a language in a classroom learn a style that is too formal.” – Walz

“Books often teach written forms twice and oral forms not at all for words frequently spoken and almost never written.” – Walz

“[Textbooks] tend to teach items simply because the items exist and not because of any usefulness or frequency.” – Walz

“Writers present as many forms as possible without considering whether students can learn them or native speakers use them.” – Walz

“Despite today’s widespread acceptance of teaching language for oral communication, current textbook grammar is still a reflection of classical grammatical rules based on formal, written language.” – Glisan & Drescher

“Formal instruction (i.e., grammar analysis and discrete-point grammar practice) can temporarily improve performance on discrete-point tests, but apparently has relatively little influence on spontaneous language use.” -Schulz

“Language learning – regardless of theoretical orientation – necessitates frequent recycling of lexical and grammatical structures in different contexts. While we pay lip service to to the cyclical nature of language learning, indicating at least an awareness that the frequency in which vocabulary and grammatical patterns are encountered in the input contributes to their eventual retention and use, a large percentage of the words and structures we expect in the students’ active command appear only once or twice in the textbook.” – Schulz

“Teaching vocabulary without incorporating the necessary recycling is wasted effort.” – Harwood

“The belief underlying the use of drills is that production of the correct form is acquisition. However, as we indicated above, this is not the universally accepted position of SLA theory and research, and flies in the face of all the evidence when it comes to the creation of an implicit system. Acquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system. By consistently and constantly having to process linguistic data in the input, learners push the linguistic system along. Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” – Wong & VanPatten

“There is no SLA theory or hypothesis that suggests that practicing a form leads to its acquisition.” – Wong & VanPatten

2) the importance of listening, cultural input and pronunciation in learning vocabulary…

“L2 learners cannot learn a language if they never hear it; the sounds, the words, the structures have to come from somewhere.” – Cook

“Many important elements of languages, especially those that are unspoken or implicit, do not really exist outside of the culture in which the languages are spoken… not only can culture and language be taught together, they probably should be.” – Bush as in Kramsch

“Too much time is spent teaching imaginary content about fictional people and places rather than real content that tells the students something about the real world and real people.” – Cook

“Authentic materials, particularly audio-visual ones, offer a much richer source of input for learners and have the potential to be exploited in different ways and on different levels to develop learners’ communicative competence.” – Gilmore

“To keep information in working memory from fading it must be constantly repeated.” – Cook (this is called the articulatory loop – the faster you repeat things, the more you can remember)

“If we cannot say the sounds quickly, our short-term memory span will be very restricted and consequently we will face severe difficulties with the processing of language and with storing the language in our long-term memory. The lack of emphasis on pronunciation in language teaching in recent years has hampered not only the students ability to pronounce words, but also their fundamental capacity to process and learn the language. Pronunciation should be taken more seriously, not just for its own sake, but as the basis for speaking and comprehending.” – Cook

3) to summarize the best way to learn new vocabulary…

Notes from Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition edited by Coady & Huckin

New vocabulary items need to be learned in a meaningful and authentic context with plenty of audio-visual reinforcement. They should not be learned in isolation or by rote memorization.  Repetition of words and phrases (out loud!) and linking this new vocabulary to existing knowledge is also essential.

“Rehearsal at regular intervals is much more effective than massive rehearsal at infrequent intervals.” – Hulstijn (i.e. study in short bursts!)

“Learning items together that are near synonyms, opposites, or free associates is much more difficult than learning unrelated items.” – Nation & Newton

The easiest words to learn are:
1. Concrete words that can be  visualized
2. Frequent words which are mostly functional
3. Cognates with the native language

The hardest words to learn are, of course, abstract words and as they are usually forgotten first, they should be the focus of the majority of time devoted to learning vocabulary.

Videos & Subtitles are Best

In my nerdy, just-for-fun independent research on language acquisition, I’ve come across several articles about using video with subtitles in the classroom and how it vastly increases the rate of vocabulary acquisition. Hearing and reading the words in context is very important – now I just wish someone would tell producers of DVDs that… Subtitles in movies or even the closed-captioning in TV programs are not exactly consistent with what the actors actually say, but it’s better than nothing.

Here are a few free language websites that use video with subtitles or transcripts so you can read along and have a better chance of understanding:

French: and

Italian: Impariamo Italiano

German: My German Class (hilarious videos too!)


(Of course, you can always just search Youtube and DailyMotion for free language learning videos and I’m sure you’ll find many more.)

In addition, Yabla is a nice site that has many videos with subtitles and translations into English, but only a few are free as demos. You can slow down the speech, click on any word to get a translation, and play dictation games. It’s not cheap, but it seems really useful. It’s currently available in French, Spanish and English for ESL learners.

And thanks to a tip from, there’s a free library program called Sing & Study that allows you to copy & paste in song lyrics in two languages, and then add a Youtube video so you can listen to the song and read the lyrics in your foreign and native languages side-by-side.

Learning the Départements of France

After a 6 month break, I finally got David to do some more recordings for the French tutorials. We finished up French VII and sections on education, politics, television, geography of France, etc. There are a lot of games online you can play to test your knowledge of the geography of France, but I hadn’t yet seen any flashcards or any that include pronunciation. So I decided to make some audio flashcards for learning the départements and their numbers as well as their régions.

Département Flashcards: Name + Number (Part 1)

Département Flashcards: Name + Number (Part 2)

Département Flashcards: Number + Name (Part 1)

Département Flashcards: Number + Name (Part 2)

Département Flashcards: Name + Région (Part 1)

Département Flashcards: Name + Région (Part 2)

One of these days I’ll get around to adding more sets, especially to include the préfecture of each département. And I’ll probably have to add Mayotte if they vote yes today to become the 101st département! (Their status as an overseas département wouldn’t become effective until 2011 though).

I also added an RSS button to the top of each page, for those who want an RSS feed of the updates of the entire site and not just the blog. I hope this will inspire me to work on my website more often. I have a ton of plans (like the American English, Teaching French, and French Conversation sections…), but it just takes so much time to write and format each page, especially if I’m working with a bunch of sound files. I hope to focus on my site a lot more this summer when I’m not traveling.

Téléfrançais – Episode 1

Hey, I have an idea! Let’s put a talking pineapple, a creepy pilot doll, skeletons playing music, and two kids together in a video to teach useful French phrases like Je suis un ananas and Ce n’est pas possible ! Brilliant, right?

Thanks to Dedene for this gem.