When I married my bilingual husband 21 years ago, I didn’t speak of a word of French. After the ceremony, we traveled to Belgium for a second reception where I was greeted by well over a hundred guests with beaucoups “bisous” and a heartfelt “Felicitations!” which means “Congratulations!”
At the reception, his friends and family performed skits, told jokes, reminisced, and sang songs….all in French. My husband translated as best he could, but he couldn’t keep up. The jokes flew at him, and it’s hard to translate jokes because half of the humor is contextual. I told him to just relax and enjoy himself. Meanwhile, I tried to guess the meaning of the speeches and toasts on my own. This was impossible, of course, and I ended up mentally exhausted. By the end of that evening, I promised myself I would never feel this way again.
Instead of simply signing up for a class, however, I tried a DIY method, piecing together resources I collected here and there over the years. If I were launching this do-it-yourself language learning approach today, I would save up my pennies and buy Rosetta Stone French. But it didn’t exist back then, so I used what I could find.
Here is my non-sequential, piecemeal, do-it-yourself French program, cobbled-together with the resources I could put my hands on. I rarely worked through anything beginning to end, abandoning a book or program when I got bored.
Highly motivated to speak and understand the language (less concerned with writing), I applied myself daily and reinforced in as many ways as possible. I became functional in French, understanding quite a bit and able to express myself reasonably well. I’m not ADD, but I think this approach would accommodate an ADD personality as well as a non-sequential, easily bored personality.
Ann Kroeker’s Do-It-Yourself French
- French in Action: The storyline is corny, but I think the French in Action video series sped up my language acquisition a hundredfold. You can watch the entire thing for free online as Video on Demand. I recommend setting aside about 30-40 minutes of “learning time” to watch each video (if possible, to reinforce the lessons, watch each one twice—not in one day, but maybe in two different sessions in a week—as they use an immersion approach that forces the learner to figure out a lot on her own). French in Action is one of my top recommendations.
- Children’s books: I’ve found that one of the best ways to reinforce basic French is through children’s books, because they usually use simple but complete sentences and straightforward language. Ask at the library for the children’s foreign language books. You could even start with board books for babies and move up from there.
- Continually rotate recordings from language programs (tapes, DVDs, and online recordings): Purchase various language programs at used bookstores, garage sales, library book sales, or sites selling used products like abebooks or Amazon.com used. Or browse the current library collection for programs to borrow. I would buy or borrow one for a while, listen and repeat, picking up what I could. If it came with written materials, I’d do some of the worksheets. When I got bored with one, I looked for another. Though not methodical, meticulous, thorough or sequential, listening and learning—and switching—is how I sustained interest. Be warned, however: it’s also why my grammar has great big holes in it. But I got to where I could speak and understand fairly well, so it worked for me.
- Textbooks: I own a lot of French textbooks. I most often buy them used at book sales. Now, I’m sure that the smartest, cheapest and easiest thing to do would be to work through one textbook series, beginning to end, to be sure I have the grammar basics down; however, my goal was to speak French, not to read, write and translate. Once again, I would work on one book for a while and then switch. And then switch again. Variety helped me sustain interest.
- Memorize phrases: I started out memorizing words, as any beginning student would do, but soon realized it worked better to memorize words in context. So I began to learn phrases and entire dialogues. I could listen to an interaction on one of my tapes or read one in a textbook, memorize the entire thing emulating the accents, and then have these in my head to draw from in conversation.
- Imitate accents: Listening closely to recordings and videos, I worked hard to imitate accents, copying a lilt or the way the speaker held his mouth. This helped minimize my American accent, be better understood, and gain confidence. If you get Rosetta Stone, don’t forget to do the speaking portion.
- Bible verses: I memorized Bible verses in French. All these years later, I can still recite Jean 3:16 and the beginning of Psaume 23.
- French singers: Discover French singers who enunciate clearly and include their songs on your play lists. Due to the time period when I was learning, I listened to some popular ’80s and ’90s guys like Francis Cabrel and Jean-Jacques Goldman. If you can stand the ’80s hair and video production, here’s one called “Comme Toi” by Jean-Jacques Goldman. Someone has translated the lyrics here, so you can listen and read along. Goldman is fairly easy to understand—he enunciates clearly for the French learner. And then you can see how he looks a few years later, when he and Francis Cabrel sing the same song as a duet on a talk show (Cabrel sings it, even though it’s Goldman’s song).
- French films (with English subtitles): I watched French movies and tried not to read the English subtitles too much.
- English films (with French subtitles): I watched DVDs and turned on the French subtitles to read as I listened. Ah, I would think, so that’s a way to say such-and-such in French!
- Counting: I would count in French while I exercised, going as high as possible. The repetition makes it more natural to speak and think in numbers.
- Marry a francophone spouse (or host French speakers in your home): I married a man who grew up in francophone Belgium and regularly spoke with him in French, asking him to coach me on my accent. It may be too late for you to find a francophone spouse, but you could invite an exchange student to stay with you for a school year or host international French-speaking students for dinner. We’ve done this many times, as well (yes, we’ve had a French-speaking exchange student live with us for a semester and international university students over for meals).
- Travel: Save your pennies and vacation to Canada, Haiti or French-speaking Africa, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of Switzerland. One year our family traveled to Belgium for a family reunion and while there, my husband had emergency heart surgery. With him stuck in the hospital, I couldn’t rely on him as translator, so I was forced to use what I knew. Leading up to that trip, I had spent weeks reviewing French in Action and working through some of my textbooks. Thankfully, I had tucked enough French into my brain so that it was there when I needed it.
Bonus: Music & Singalongs: A friend reminded me in the comments how powerful singing can be as a powerful language-learning tool. How could I forget all of the kids’ songs I have sung with my kids? Frère Jacques, Sur le Pont d’Avignon, Au Claire de La Lune, to name a few. It doesn’t have to be kids’ songs, either. I already mentioned Goldman and Cabrel, but you could listen to the classic Belgian singer Jacques Brel perform the melodramatic “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and sing along with the sorrowful chorus. You will never forget that phrase.
Or, for a more encouraging tone, try some Christian options. Listen to “Tu Et Le Maitre,” a worship song by “Exo,” a Christian group my in-laws introduced me to, or the melodic praise song “Je Lève Les Yeux” by Constance (lyrics in French here).
The DIY approach is not the most efficient path to fluent French, nor is it the most thorough. But it’s kind of fun. And that’s important to me when I launch any long-term project like language acquisition: to sustain interest I need to have a little fun.
Whether you use these ideas to create a French curriculum of your own, or to enrich a French class you’ve signed up for, may you find yourself able to listen, understand, and speak confidently with your francophone friends.
May I leave you with a little fun? While I can’t recommend any other videos by these guys, “Foux de Fa Fa,” a scene from an episode of Flight of the Conchords, is a silly song incorporating the kinds of words and phrases students learn in French class. The chorus itself, however, “Foux de Fa Fa,” is a nonsense phrase.