Learning French

I wrote earlier about learning Chinese, but the first foreign language I learned was French. I did it at school and I first went to France on a school trip in 1964. I even have a French O-level (the exams you used to take in Britain when you were 15 or 16). However, although my written French was OK then, my spoken French was terrible. Partially because the way you learn languages in school emphasizes written stuff over spoken too much (probably because it is easier to test and grade).

But mainly because French as it is spoken is not at all the way it is written. For example, correct French for we are going to eat is “nous allons manger” but spoken is much more likely to be “nous, on va manger” which literally translated is “we, one is going to eat.” There is a future tense “j’attendrai” that expresses that you will wait, but spoken it isn’t used and you say it the English way “je vais attendre” or “I am going to wait.” That’s before getting to the fact that the French have lots of slang (argot) that you never get taught in school. Weirdly the French even have some words that are obscene depending on context. For instance, un baiser is a kiss, but baiser as a verb is pretty much the equivalent of the F-word and considered just as obscene.

I really only learned to speak French when I went to live there. The best way to learn any foreign language is to (a) go and live in the country (b) get a native girlfriend or boyfriend. Since I was married when I went to France, I was only able to do the first of these! When you go and immerse yourself in the language like that a couple of things are surprising. First, you will dream in the foreign language. Dreaming seems to be some sort of mental garbage collection, and there’s a lot of foreign garbage to be collected when you are learning so much. The second thing, which occurs when you’ve been there for a longer time, is when you can’t remember the word for something in English but you know it in the foreign language. I remember trying to think of the English for a purchase-order but I’d forgotten what we called it; but I knew it was bon de commande in French.

French has genders, but unlike German at least there are only two. Cute things tend to be feminine: un batiment (masculine, a building) but une maison (feminine, a house). But like most foreigners you perfect the sound halfway between the masculine and feminine articles (le/la or un/une) and assume anyone listening will hear the correct one.

But the biggest problem is that French has lots of silent letters that are written but not pronounced. It is fairly easy when reading to ignore them but it is hard when writing to remember just what to add back in. My written French is terrible even though I now speak it pretty much fluently. The silent letters result in words being spelled totally differently but pronounced the same. For example, all of the following are pronounced identically: “ver” a worm, “vert” green, “vers” towards, “verre” a glass (not to mention “verres” glasses). And just to add to the confusion “vers” doesn’t just mean towards, it’s also a verse of poetry and the plural of the aforementioned worm.

Another good way of learning any language is to listen to the news. In France there is a radio program France-Info that puts out the news every 7 minutes with other stuff in between. Newsreaders speak clearly, fairly slowly, don’t use slang and generally are easy to understand. Since you already sort of know what is in the news much of the time (and if you miss it it’s coming round again in 7 minutes) it helps a lot when you first are learning. Trying to understand a French sitcom is the absolute opposite: spoken fast, slurred words, slang, jokes, a nightmare for the beginner.

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