From 2019 to 2023 I took on the challenge of trying to learn French. I wasn’t learning from scratch, mind you; my schooling had provided me with some nine years of French classes (although, how much of it stuck is another story). This year I decided to cease studying. It was an easy hard decision. I don’t regret the time I spent learning what I learned. Let’s go on a journey from decision to start to decision to stop.
I don’t remember any series of events leading me to decide to start studying French. I’ve always had a base interest in (and envy of) people who can speak multiple languages, but I can’t really trace where the fascination came from.
It’s likely that I probably met or talked to some francophones from Quebec or abroad in the year of 2019, shrugged my shoulders, and decided to try. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s taking on things more challenging than I realize.
How I studied
When I get interested in learning something, I spend a decent amount of time doing some meta learning. I go look for forums and subreddits for that interest, find resources, and do my research. I look for common tools or approaches that come up multiple times, make note of them, and look for success stories of other people.
I love this phase of starting something new — it’s exciting. It can take me a while to exit this stage and commit to a method or two, but once I do, I feel confident in my decisions.
I began by identifying what parts of learning French I wanted. For me, I wanted to be able to speak and have conversations with people, and somewhat less importantly, to read it.
I started by using Duolingo - the first place most people go to pick up a language. It was fun for about a month, but I grew tired of it. Shortly after, I fired up Anki, a spaced repetition software (think: digital flashcards) and found two popular packs of anki decks for learning French. I would practice these everyday, just aiming to do around 10-20 new words a day. Over time, I would encounter every word, learning many of them to a point where the spaced repetition algorithm would not show the word again until at least a year had passed (several years, in the case of easy words).
Anki played a big role in learning vocabulary. I was impressed by what could be done with it, as well as the free resources that some people give away.
Some few months into my studying, I found a YouTube video where another learning shared their self-studying learning track. This introduced me to all kinds of useful resources.
Assimil came highly recommended by the author of the video above. It is a language learning workbook that involves a two-stage journey over some 100 lessons. I recall learning about it and taking it on around when the pandemic had started in 2020. Studying one lesson a day became something that I found calming and a good way to start my day during that year.
The format of Assimil is a series of lessons (which are composed of 8-20 sentences) accompanied by audio files of the lessons being read aloud. On one page you can read a short transcript in your target language and on the other, read the translation in your first language.
Then you work through the lessons like so:
The Passive phase (first 50 lessons):
- Listen to the dialogue with the book closed.
- Listen to the recording a second time while looking at the translation.
- Read the target language text aloud.
- Read the target language again, this time without looking at the translation.
- Listen to the recording twice: 1x looking at the English translation, and again but looking at the target language.
- Listen to the recording again with the book closed.
- Listen to the recording once more, pause the audio after each sentence and repeat.
- Read the comments and the notes that explain various points of the dialogue.
- Read / Repeat the exercises; complete them.
The active phase:
After reaching lesson 50, go back to lesson one. Re-listen to it and read the French as it plays. Now, try to translate the dialogue from your native language to the target language (without listening to the audio.). Compare your translation with the original.
I felt very satisfied when I finally finished the entire process, and I think it made a notable improvement in my French.
iTalki & Tandem
It was easy to practice with software and textbooks. The scary thing was to find some strangers to talk to. Eventually, I mustered the nerve and installed an app called iTalki and first tried paying a tutor. I didn’t find it super useful, and I knew there were also apps that existed where you could find someone to do a true language exchange with.
Eventually, I found Tandem, which is an app for finding people to do just that. Meeting strangers and talking to them for the first time is a noteworthy experience. It can be painful, but also fun. There’s no way around it; if you want to speak a new language, you just have to put yourself to it. If you keep throwing yourself out there, eventually you find people who are at roughly the same level you are at, and you can struggle together.
I managed to meet a few people that I connected with — some were far too good at English for me to feel like I had anything to offer, and some didn’t speak any English at all. Eventually, I met two people whom I enjoyed chatting with, and we would call every couple of weeks to catch up in our stilted language-swapping way. Looking back, I enjoyed having new people to talk to and being exposed to the culture of another language, especially while stuck at home during the pandemic. One of these people I still chat with twice a month, despite no longer practicing.
Podcasts & Radio
As time went on, I picked up a few podcasts and radio shows. Occasionally, I would listen to these actively, such as Inner French, and other times, I would put some radio (France Couture) on in the background. I liked both, for different types of learning. Inner French is a particularly good podcast — it’s not too fast and the subjects are interesting.
An exercise in getting uncomfortable
But to really speak—that was my goal! And it wasn’t happening much beyond a bi-weekly call. Eventually, in 2021, we got our vaccines, and we put our stuff in storage and moved to Montreal for two months. We didn’t move to Montreal for the sake of my learning French — that was a nice side effect of living in a new place. I had hoped, though, I would be able to do a part-time French course. It didn’t work out, between being offered online and having to work full time, too.
In the end, while in Montreal, I didn’t speak much French. I tried a few times, and as I had been warned by others, store owners and random people would usually switch to English when they’d hear me. I also felt uncomfortable that the few people that I would interact with (people working in public, in shops, for example) might feel like I was treating them as free practice if I insisted on speaking in my broken French.
Even still, just seeing how uncomfortable it is to speak another language was very humbling and gave some good perspective.
As 2023 kicked off, more and more, I realized that I wasn’t going to either pursue or find myself in situations where I would get to speak French. I had spent no small amount of time practicing diligently, but the opportunities to use what I had learned were not going to present themselves to me in any way. I realized that learning a language requires an active pursuance of opportunities to practice (if you want to speak with people).
When I did find myself with the opportunity to speak with people, I was beyond delighted to eventually be able to carry a conversation and be understood. It was thrilling.
But, part of getting older is also being more cognizant of where you want your time to go. I don’t regret the hours I spent — they exposed me to new people, music, media, literature, ideas, sounds— even just the learning and sounding out of new words can add a sheen to your daily life. I started to see, however, that I’d rather pursue projects and skills that are going to bring me into circles of other people without also having to require me to pick up my life and move to another province or country entirely. I was passionate about learning French, but not enough to uproot my life.
Learning a language pushed, squeezed and stretched my mind. It made me publicly uncomfortable. I even dreamed in French at times. All of it was exciting. More than all of that, though, it made the world a lot bigger, in a good way. I’m grateful for the time I had to do it, during the pandemic. It’s sad to say goodbye, so I won’t — au revoir is better. A Goodbye until next time.