For some, like yours truly, learning a new language is exciting, fun and a welcome challenge. For others, however, it is a slow form of torture!
However, if you are one of the latter, there are tips for foreign language learning in the least painful and, hopefully, a somewhat enjoyable manner. I am going to speak specifically about French, but these suggestions are true for any foreign language you may wish to learn.
Why learn French?
First of all, ask yourself why you wish to learn French. These are possibly some of the many valuable reasons:
- French is spoken in 29 countries and is the fifth most-spoken language. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/french-is-now-the-fifth-most-spoken-world-language-and-growing-thanks-to-africans/
- It sounds so melodic and, well…so French! Très romantique – it is after all a romance language and, in my personal opinion, it is one of the best sounding accents. (Please do not share this opinion with my Italian parents!)
- Learning a foreign language, any foreign language, is said to have numerous health and cognitive benefits, including improved memory and attention span as well as delayed dementia in old age! (See https://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/blog/9-health-benefits-of-learning-a-foreign-language)
- Language is an integral part of every culture. By learning a language, you immerse yourself in that culture, which is really the way of life of a group of people (Have you ever wondered why the French use two forms of “you” – the familiar “tu” for friends and people close to you – or “vous” – the polite form for showing respect? This is similar to Afrikaans, whereas in English we now only use “you”).
- The values of a culture are indelibly linked to its language.
- The pride Francophones take in their language, though somewhat off-putting at first, is admirable when one delves deeper. Many a tourist has been snubbed in France when asking a question in English (or any non-French language for that matter). You may be lucky enough to receive a curt reply…in French. I asked a French friend why this is and why the French have a bad reputation for being rude to tourists and it is linked to a subtle reminder that you are in their country and should speak or attempt to speak their language. A tad OTT nationalistic or actually quite impressive?
Challenges along the way
Some of the difficulties faced when learning French include:
- Gender – all romance languages have masculine or feminine nouns, a concept foreign to and peculiar for English speakers who simply say “the table” and not “la table” (feminine definite article for a feminine object) or “the book” and not “le livre” (masculine definite article for a masculine noun). How does one ascertain the gender of inanimate objects? There certainly appears to be no logic involved…and indeed there is none! We are fortunate that this gender-based vocabulary phased out for English during the period of Middle English (see https://k-international.com/blog/why-do-languages-have-gender/). And we should be grateful that French does not have the third (neutral) category as in German! So, I’m afraid one must simply accept this and bravely soldier on in our language quest and acquisition. The best method is to learn each and every new noun with the correct gender. There is, however, some light at the end of the noun-gender tunnel. Some groups of words which share the same ending, indicate feminine nouns (such as -ade in la lemonade – the lemonade or la promenade – the walk) and masculine nouns (such as those ending in -age in le village – the village or le garage – the garage). Furthermore, an adjective in French must match the noun it describes in gender and number (singular or plural). The endings for masculine adjectives differ from those of feminine nouns, as do the plurals. This is another reason why knowing the correct gender is essential.
As you will realise with most languages, there are almost always exceptions to the rules (thrown in by some language masochist, I think!) Lingophobes, don’t be put off and lingophiles, welcome the challenge and fight on. My advice with regard to word gender issues is to keep a personalised A-Z (English- French) index book which serves as your dictionary and in which you colour code all feminine words in pink or red and all masculine nouns in blue. This serves as a visual reminder and will stand you in good stead throughout your French learning. I can honestly say that those who adhere to this, do well (few and far between as it is time consuming).
- False friends (les faux amis) – those nasty words that seem, by all means and intent, to clearly mean the same as the English word but in fact do not. Le médécin actually means “the doctor” (not the medicine), le magasin means “the shop” (not the magazine), le crayon means “the pencil” (not the crayon). The way to “cheat” these false friends is to contextualise – learn a sentence using this word eg: Le médecin me donne la médecine (the doctor gives me the medicine).
- Literal translation – so much can and does get “lost in translation.” The natural, innate desire to translate word-by-word must at all costs be avoided. It takes time and experience to look for meaning and not be blinded by literal translation. Idioms are a perfect example of this: In English it “rains cats and dogs”, but in French it rains “ropes” (Il pleut des cordes).
- Prepositions – French has different prepositions from those used in English. In order to say “in”, there are various choices – J’habite dans une maison (I live in a house); J’habite en Afrique du Sud (I live in South Africa); and J’habite à Johannesburg (I live in Johannesburg). But there is a rule for making this preposition learning easier –
dans + building, en + country (if feminine, which most countries are!), à + city. There is some logic to the madness!
Now that you may be despairing and feeling almost totally disheartened, there is some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of similarities between English and French:
- Cognates and near cognates – many English words are the same (cognates) or similar (near cognates) to their French version. In fact, as much as 45% of English words originate from French (see https://www.mayflowerlanguages.com/know-french-english-words/).
- Verbs – French has 3 groups of regular verbs (-er,-ir and -re verbs) and once you know how to conjugate one of each group (that is, give a tense, person and meaning to a verb), you can conjugate all the others that belong to that group – if they are regular verbs. The irregular verbs do need to be learned by heart.
- Past tense in French – unlike English, which has three different ways of saying “I ate, have eaten or I did eat”, French has only one version called the passé composé for all three versions.
In the beginning, French requires a fair amount of “parrot” learning – the learning by heart of verb endings, vocabulary and tenses. The true reward comes when you are able to start stringing together the smallest part of meaning – the word – to create sentences allowing you to be understood and to understand. Analytical skills are essential here as each part of the sentence must be correct to “fit” the sentence puzzle correctly: Je mange une pomme verte – I eat a green apple. The apple is feminine, therefore, the adjective matches it and the adjective comes behind the noun (unlike in English). Learn the rules, apply the rules and achieve the results.
The single best way to learn French:
Each of us has a different style of learning – some are visual, others aural, physical or verbal. Know which style suits you and learn this way (although language learning is definitely a combination of verbal, aural and visual learning).
Throw yourself wholeheartedly into learning French – live it, breathe it and eat it! If possible, spend some time in the country, eat the local food, live and work among the locals. If this is not possible, make French friends, chat to them regularly, listen to French music and watch French films. Apps and technology are also your (true!) friends in this regard.
It is my personal experience that, as Nelson Mandela said:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
If you really want to, you can indeed parler le français - Vive la France!