Learning French as a second language is a never-ending journey.
I started learning French in elementary school, continued through middle school and high school, then stopped.
Why? Because the French language frustrated me. My interest in France was tainted by the fact that I couldn’t distinguish imparfait from conditionnel, plus-que-parfait from conditionnel passé, the proper order of pronouns in a sentence… I had done poorly on the French AP-college level exam in high school and put French out of my mind with no intention of picking it up ever again.
Fast forward to college. My university required all students to study a foreign language for two consecutive semesters before graduation. While registering for my junior year classes, I took a deep breath, shrugged my shoulders and chose to reapproach French.
Realizing that I fell back in love with French nearly too late, I studied abroad in Paris for a month during winter break of my senior year. Although the course I took was in English with other Americans, being able to read and speak French while ordering lunch at a restaurant or going out in Le Marais was essential to have the most enriching (and safe) experience in Paris.
I stopped French again for another three years—my daily life in New England didn’t prompt me to engage in the language. I did find plenty of fashion and art exhibits and author talks and academic lectures rooted in French culture, but my ability to communicate freely in French was suspended.
As an American in love with Frenchman and living together in Paris, I made the decision to study French *again* for the spring semester at Cours de civilisation française de la Sorbonne. The course started in February and ended mid-May—the exam takes place the following week after classes end.
I laughed. I cried. I smiled. I threw hissy-fits over the fact that I couldn’t understand why the French had grammar rules that were inconveniently not like American English that I already know.
Whether you’re planning to take a full-blown intensive language course or taking private lessons or online courses, these are some things to remember while studying French as your second language:
Simply comprehending the language isn’t enough—you need to be able to communicate clearly with real people in real life situations. Theory means nothing if you can’t successfully apply the concept. For example, I understand how to use passé composé or imparfait, but if I can’t properly answer my boyfriend when he asks “What did you do today?”, that’s a problem. In the end, practicing and learning from your mistakes is better than assuming you understand and never practice.
Grammar and spelling are important… (obviously)
… But so is your accent. Imagine how the French accent sounds (it’s recognized as the sexiest foreign accent for a reason). Now imagine an anglicized accent speaking French that has no regard for the language’s true nature. Even though it may not be possible to sound exactly like a native French speaker, it doesn’t mean that you can avoid putting in an effort to try. The total language experience includes the way the language sounds.
Make. The. Time. To. Study. Being in the country and hoping that you’ll magically pick up the language is naïve. If learning a second language was that easy, anyone who has ever traveled abroad would have a fluency in a second language, third language, etc.
Schedule the time to study your second language in your digital or paper agenda—it holds you accountable to cross it off the list!
Find ways to learn the language that are enjoyable for you. “Studying” a language isn’t just about buying a grammar book and doing written exercises. Supplement your language learning with apps, films, music or novels—by relating the language to your daily life or things you’re passionate about, it makes the language relevant and easier to mentally digest.
In this video, YouTuber Nonstop Paris has shared her French learning journey and the tools and tricks she’s implemented.
It’s not always going to be easy and there may be times when you’re feeling very discouraged and may want to give up. There was one day I was so frustrated about one lesson that I literally ran to the bathroom after class and cried in the stall (note: turns out that I was also PMSing). I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t grasping this particular concept fast enough. I was so fed up and second-guessing why I had even bothered trying to pick up French as a second language—I was telling myself that professional life will be in English, I already mainly spoke English at home with my boyfriend, so why bother?
The last thing you want to do is become a pessimist in the language learning process! When you’re feeling frustrated, step back for a moment and remember what brings joy to you about the language.
Never stop learning! Remember what I said at the beginning of this blog post? “Learning French as a second language is a never-ending journey.” There are still so many words, phrases, and contexts to understand! As you continue to engage with the language, you’ll only find yourself asking more questions and always learning more. Any language—even your mother tongue—is bound to evolve over time, so stay current by always finding ways to immerse yourself every day.
How Learning a Second Language Changes the Way You Think
If you’re on the fence about pursuing French, English or any other second language, here’s some research that proves how you can benefit from language learning:
- Why Learn a Foreign Language | Benefits of Bilingualism (The Telegraph)
- What does research show about the benefits of language learning? (ACTFL)
- Learning a foreign language a ‘must’ in Europe, not so in America (Pew Research Center)
- Infographic: Second Language Acquisition by the Numbers (Middlebury Interactive)