Do-It-Yourself French (13 language acquisition ideas for the easily bored, non-sequential, or ADD learner)

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.

I would learn French.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. French films (with English subtitles): I watched French movies and tried not to read the English subtitles too much.
  10. 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!
  11. 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.
  12. 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).
  13. 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.

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  • Comments

    1. “It may be too late for you to find a francophone spouse…” I’m laughing at that line — not sure if you meant it to be funny or not, but it’s cracking me up.

      I spent a lot of time in classroom study (and was a pretty terrible student, I’ll admit) and some time on the ground. But outside of class and actually functioning in a Spanish-speaking culture, I found your #7, 8 and 9 to be the best practice for me back home. I have a bilingual Bible I still use a lot to keep things fresh.

      • annkroeker says:

        Glad you’re laughing–it was indeed meant to be funny, but if it inspires a tweak to someone’s eHarmony profile, so be it.

        Glad to hear what helped you best. I’ve often though if I could just live in Belgium (or France or some francophone country) for even just six months, it would solidify everything. I’ve just never had the chance.

    2. Absolutely love that video. Never tire of it!! :)

      I’m going to come back to this post (and not just for the video :)

    3. Ann, I think this is a great post! First, I have used French in Action with my homeschooled kids ever since I found out that it’s the program used in my eldest son’s swanky prep school. It’s an astonishingly well built program, and lots of fun as well.
      We watch the videos online, as you suggest, and I have the cassettes and old workbooks which you can get on Amazon, Ebay, and also the Annenburg site — their store carries the out of print workbooks. This is much more affordable than the CDs! You just need a working cassette recorder! :)

      And second, I love that you are giving everyone permission to learn piecemeal and in different ways. I think singing is a great way to learn a language! The words have to flow. For me, memorizing the dialogues in school helped more than studying the grammar when it came to fluency (which I don’t have much of). Singing is the easy way!

      I will be tweeting this post, and I look forward to watching the clip with Bridget, a big FotC’s fan :)
      God bless you!

      • annkroeker says:

        Singing! Of course, yes…I have some kids’ tapes and CDs that I listened to with the kids! Guess this needs to be updated with a bonus 14th idea!

        Thanks, Leila! You’re such an encourager.

      • annkroeker says:

        Okay, I just updated the post, Leila, with some clips to kids’ songs (secular), a famous Jacques Brel song (secular), and two nice worship songs (Christian). Thanks for the inspiration!

        • Funny, Ann — I was taking #8 as *your* suggestion to sing! Bridget has been learning the lyrics to that silly song about the pain au chocolat (probably as obnoxious to the French as “That’s Amore” would be to an Italian, but hey). She sings along and has been learning some good phrases. I do think children’s songs are good because they have so much repetition. I was trying to get our French visitor (a friend’s teen daughter) to sing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” — so repetitive! But to no avail. I guess the kids don’t really sing in that family :)

          Honestly, this post is gold. I am going to use all your links with Bridget — and myself!

          Milles mercis, mon amie! Je vous embrasse.

    4. I can not tell you how utterly disappointed I was that we were moving to a German speaking area in Switzerland. I would love to learn French. You would be fluent after six months of living in a French speaking area, of that I’m sure. I, on the other hand, after two years in Schweiz still can’t understand how to pronounce my own street name!

      • annkroeker says:

        Can you apply the same principles to German acquisition, Kimberly? Can you start by listening to kids’ songs in German? Counting in German as you run? Learning the little phrases?

    5. I just sent that clip to my daughter. She studies at McGill in Montreal, PQ and is more comfortable with Italian ( my husband’s family) and she will just love this! I don’t imagine she has a desire to learn the language. But still. My husband is actually beginning to see a need for it re his job of late, so I will give him the other more relevant links. Thank you.

      • annkroeker says:

        So glad you can use some of it, whether to amuse or inspire! I updated it just now with some additional music clips, some of which are worship songs.

    6. I applaud you and am glad you had a very good reason to learn French. Your step by step instructions are wonderful. I took two years Spanish in High School, but didn’t learn to hold a conversation. It was good education. Our teacher advised us to travel to Mexico and stay at least a week or longer with a family who speak the language. That was not practical for me, but the idea of students in your own home is a good one.

    7. What great advice, Ann! My French is a little rusty and I have been looking for fun ways to brush up – several of yours will be perfect! I’m sorry to hear your husband had to have emergency heart surgery when you were in France – I’m glad it all worked out well, but it must have been very scary going through that kind of experience in a second language.

      If you have time, I’d love it if you would share this post with the Gallery of Favorites which is up on my site now. It’s an excellent post!

    8. May I add to your list? Livemocha.com! Podcasts!

      I’ve been brushing up on my bahasa Indonesia by using livemocha.com. It’s free and gives you the opportunity to have your work checked by native speakers. There are tons of languages to chose to study too.

      While looking for bahasa Indonesia in iTunes, I found a program called Coffee Break French (coffeebreakfrench.com). I’ve studied French before, and have always loved the sound of the language, so now I’m re-learning French.

      I think I’m one of those easily bored language learners. :)

      great list! I’m going to add French in Action to my how-to list.

      • annkroeker says:

        Excellent! I’m heading over to check out Coffeebreakfrench.com and livemocha.com. Thanks so much for joining this conversation and providing helpful ideas. I will try to add this in so that people get a master-list of solutions. Love seeing you here!

    9. This reminds me that when I was in college Spanish, we had to watch Spanish game shows and soap operas for our class. It really helped. I can still remember “Yo Compro Esa Mujer” (“I Bought This Woman”), a historical romantic telenovela.

    10. Oh, what a wonderful list! It’s perfect for how we do French in the younger years, and I think we’ll take some of the ideas to keep up our French in the summer rather than have the older ones continue in their textbooks.

      Thanks so much for the link!

    11. Earlier today I was talking with my husband who is doing a very good job of learning the Karen language spoken by many of the members of our church. Then, I clicked over here for these wonderful tips. I appreciate that you were able to identify that you weren’t trying to learn to write the language. It’s embarrasses me to admit I only speak English. And I always think I’m too old to learn one now (and I just keep getting older). But this gives me hope!

    12. Awesome!!! Thank you for taking the time to put together all these great resources and ideas. I learned some French in high school and college, and I spent some time in France. However, I’m not fluent or equipped to teach my 3 young children to speak it well. I’ve tried several books, some videos, some music, and even some Rosetta. However, you’ve listed some resources that are invaluable and undiscovered for me until now. We plan to use several of your tips. Thanks again …

    13. I did the same thing: married a francophone, I mean. We met my first day in Quebec, where’d I traveled to spend six weeks learning French. He spoke no English, I knew a few phrases in French, but I sure learned that summer :) I want to point out that “travelling to Canada’ will not help much to learn French unless you specifically head to Quebec. Sure, a lot of us speak French in other provinces, but you will not find the immersion experience you need.

      I look forward to checking out the videos you mentioned, for my daughters. We speak “franglais” in our home. My kids understand French but answer in English – until about highschool level. My son, at least (oldest) is confident enough now to hold a conversation in (imperfect) French.

      • annkroeker says:

        Kika, I enjoyed reading about your French-acquisition experiences with husband and kids. Your note about traveling specifically to Quebec is especially helpful. Thanks, and congratulations on keeping French heard in the family. Sounds like it paid off.

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