Learning French — Or Anything — The Right Way
I learned a lesson about learning. But in typical Kelley fashion, I have to circle the block a couple of times before getting to the point …
Some might say I’m a Francophile, but they’d be wrong. In fact, I find it slightly annoying.
A Francophile is someone who has a love or admiration for all things French. And it’s true, I do. But I would say, in the current parlance, that I identify as French, meaning to feel a connection or sense of belonging. And if St. Barth and Guadeloupe can be French, then by God so can I.
My 100-year-old French Norman home is decorated in the French Provençal style, a mixture of Paris sophistication and French Country which came into favor as the areas outside Paris sought to upgrade their lifestyle, post-revolution.
I entertain my friends with French meals that go on for hours on end until all the courses have been served, all the dishes have been dirtied, and all the wine has been drunk.
My wardrobe is a sea of black, white, and navy blue, all in classic designs, which allows me to pass through Paris appearing as a local each year.
But it’s not enough to dress, cook, and entertain Frenchly. I need to speak French. Which I don’t. And every year, when I travel to Paris or some other region of France, I swear, “next time….”
I’ve tried to learn French, but, as I’ve recently discovered, I was going about it all wrong. Well, not all wrong. I mean, it could have been wronger—like studying the wrong language. But my approach was definitely not right.
Here’s what I did wrong:
I downloaded the free Duolingo app and subscribed to Babbel – the online course that purports to having you speak a foreign language in three weeks.
Listen, I’m not Babbel-bashing here, I think it and Duolingo are very good supplemental programs. But if you can learn to speak French with three weeks of Babbel, either you’re doing nothing but Babbeling from sunrise to sunset for 21 days, or their idea of “speaking French” is the equivalent of saying you can play tennis because you’re able to hit a ball over the net with your neighbor. Which is a long way from a match with Venus Williams.
But to my very practical and economically responsible way of thinking, I figured I would acquire some vocabulary inexpensively, at which point I would take private lessons.
Okay, here’s the problem with that:
First, there’s no accountability. Sure, when you’re doing the first lessons and learning to say bonjour and au revoir, it’s exciting to move rapidly from lesson to lesson. But as soon as it gets a bit more complex, and you don’t get the difference between vous and veut, or when and why you sometimes pronounce the last letter and sometimes don’t, it gets frustrating and there’s no one there to keep you on track and motivated.
Second, computers compute, they don’t really listen and they definitely don’t think. There were times when I knew I was repeating words back correctly and my flawless (eye-roll) pronunciation wasn’t being accepted (there is absolutely nothing wrong with my “bonsheurrrr,” dammit), and other times when my pronunciation was completely crappy and I got the approving “ding.”
And finally, there’s no basis in the fundamental rules—you know, all that stuff you learned in school that serve as the foundation for all other learning? Things like the sounds that letters make (and the exceptions), basic sentence structure (and the exceptions), verb tenses (and the exceptions).
And so, after struggling with my low-budget learning theory for almost a decade and getting next to nowhere, coupled with my determination to have something positive come out of all this Covid debacle, I enrolled in private lessons with my dear friend, Madame Corinne.
“Show” and “teach” are different words. I can “show” you how to make a croissant, but I guarantee you’ll never make a croissant. Or I can “teach” you how to make a croissant; making the butter block—that layer of heaven that creates separation in the dough; folding the dough properly so it comes out as God intended, keeping it at the right temperature so the butter creates layers and doesn’t turn into a biscuit.
So finally, instead of being “shown” how to speak French, I was being “taught.” It turns out there’s a method to everything, and teaching is no exception.
Our lessons are on Zoom—perfect for the current milieu. We started just as a child in France would start, complete with a French grammar book (which, by the way, is completely in French). I’ve learned my A-B-C’s (or ah-bay-say’s, in this case). I’ve re-visited parts of speech that I haven’t thought about since Hector was a pup. I feel like I’ve climbed Mount Everest after every lesson, and now I’m finding myself translating my thoughts into French.
There are great supplements to learning available—Babbel (cheap) and Duolingo (free), as I mentioned before; also YouTube videos (Learn French with Alexa is one of my favorites) and Google Translate (for those “how do you say …” moments).
But if you really want to learn French from the ground up, then as a student in France would do, puis-je présenter mon amie (may I present my friend), Madame Corinne?
And if you want to learn, well, anything, my strong advice is to find the very best way to do it and do that, and don’t waste a decade compromising.
I’m eagerly awaiting the day when I dream in French.
Bonjour! Je suis Kelley
Hi, I’m Kelley – thrower of parties, drinker of wine, and lover of all things French. I hope you enjoy my Lessons in Becoming French!