Learning French: How to Teach An Old Brain New Tricks

I started French lessons last week. It’s the fifth time I’ve started French lessons since I’ve been an expat in France. This time, I swear, I’m serious.

There’s a saying about learning French that I heard when I moved to Uzes three years ago.

“First, French sounds like noise; then it sounds like a language; then you hear the words.” I’m certain that saying didn’t mean it would take a year to progress from one stage to another, but that’s how it’s worked out for me. 

Learning languages isn’t new for me, yet my brain is much older that when I learned Latin in high school and Spanish in university. There are certain parts of catching onto the new language that I understand — like conjugation. It’s the sound of French, however, that’s my biggest problem. It’s much different from Latin, Spanish and English.

First there was noise

Landing in France in 2013, not knowing a soul and not speaking the language, I was lost. If I didn’t have a big smile and a heritage that taught me to talk with my hands, I would have been overwhelmed. The first year in Uzes, I faked understanding what people were saying to me. The few French words I learned helped save many a day. “Bonjour,” “bonne journée”, “oui”, “pardonne moi” and “s’il vous plais” were my passwords to survival.

Next there was a language

The second year in France, I began to decipher a few words from people around me. It was still pretty much gibberish. Interestingly, reading French was the one thing I was beginning to do. I could “see the words” in the written language. Many words were familiar from English, Spanish or Latin.

Then there were words

Hearing “words” in spoken French was a breakthrough for me last year. Taking lessons from a French friend, who was also a speech pathologist, helped me with French vowel sounds. No wonder I was confused. French and English vowels sound nothing alike. That’s why I couldn’t “hear” the words. That, plus the French “jam” words together, making the individual sounds even harder to hear.

Now lessons make sense

Returning to France this year I feel I am on the verge of learning and speaking French. I’ve hired a teacher recommended highly by friends who work with her and I’m beginning to speak — just a few sentences.

A good friend and fellow expat is learning French along with me. She’s a bit more advanced on the learning curve so she’s shared some of her “secrets.”

Five Secrets to Learning French

1. The French language is easier than you think. People here speak in very simple, straight-forward terms. They don’t use as much “flowery” language as we do in English. They certainly don’t use as many superlatives. For example, it’s overboard in many cases to say “Merci beaucoup.”  “Merci” works just fine.

2. There are fewer words in French. Only 100,000 words. I’ve heard that if you learn 600 French words you will have a good basis for the language. In contrast, there are over 1,000,000 English words.

3. Speaking French is musical. The sound of the French language is melodic. If the words you put together sound too awkward, the combination is probably not right. It’s a song.

4. Speak softly. This is hard for lots of Americans. We speak loudly. We like to be heard. French is often like a whisper. Especially some of the ending sounds of words.

5. No teeth. There are very few words in French that require you to open your mouth wide to say them. Lots of “oohs” and “ehhhhs” and “peauuuus.” Some French sounds are totally “foreign” to an English-speaker. Pronunciation is everything.

As Heny Higgins said to Elisa Dolittle in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

Putting it all together

This is the year it’s all going to come together for me. First of all, I’m staying here more than the six months I’ve been here each year in the past; I have some knowledge about the language, some learning tools, a great teacher; and there are several friends to join me in the task. With a little more practice and confidence, this old brain is going to stretch and strain itself. Then I’ll be confident enough to speak.

What are the “French secrets” that helped you learn the language?
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  1. Joan Nelson says:

    This is my third year of weekly, small group French lessons. Learning French is difficult and slow, but rewarding. Best wishes for your quick progress, and please keep us updated with new tips and discoveries. I’m working on the est-ce que now so when I hear it and need to respond, I don’t look like a deer in the headlights. I often think " so many letters-so few sounds." Here’s to us??for our effort and eventual success!

    1. Yetunde Oshodi says:

      Thank you for your comment Joan and keep up the good work. Learning a foreign language can be a challenge but the rewards are countless.

  2. One of my New Year goals is to learn some French words. I can read just a bit and understand.

    1. Best of luck to you! It takes time and patience which I have been lacking. Hope the New Year brings both. Thanks for your note, Debra!

  3. Joan, I’m looking forward to trying out our new skills when you return to France. And about the "est-ce que"… why does it have to be so hard!???

  4. Patricia Sands says:

    Great post, Deb. You will do it! Can’t wait to see you in May. Happy New Year!

    1. Thank you, Patricia. Perhaps you can put me to the test when we meet again in May. Happy New Year to you and yours!

  5. Cecilia Rawlins says:

    I learned a while back that young children absorb a foreign language like a sponge. That hit home to me when I lived in Japan. I also tllk classes and found very few opportunities to practice out in public. Japanese people want to use their English. iI learned very little and quickly forgot what little i learned.

    1. Guess I'm depending on "sponging" up the language because I don't work hard enough at it. There's just so much to do and so little time. But it's a challenge I will "master" sometime before I'm too old to remember my name! Enjoy your visit to France and come this way if you can!

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