“On ne comprend jamais tout à fait une langue avant d’en comprendre au moins deux.”
~Note to Listeners: If you listened during the first few days of this episode’s release, there were gaps in the audio. This error has now been fixed. I do hope you enjoy the episode and I apologize for the technical mistake.
It took 43 years for me to finally learn the French alphabet, and when I say learn I mean how to properly pronounce each letter, even after taking French classes in college and then again taking French 102 and 103 back in 2016 at our local community college.
After sharing this with someone recently, they looked at me perplexed, but you see I never enrolled in French 101 as it was a fall course, and during the 2015/16 school year I was head-first transitioning into my new teaching position here in Bend, so waited until I was settled with my own schedule to explore French classes. Backtrack to college, as explained in detail in my first book, a similar situation; I began my studies during winter term rather than fall due to a shift in my life journey and needing to acquire the necessary prerequisites to study abroad in French the coming summer.
With that said, learning the alphabet, and singing the French jingle to help cement the sounds of each letter into my memory was one of the most exciting and appreciative moments of my novice French learning experience thus far.
As I shared above, in 2016 I enrolled in evening French language courses offered by our local community college. I shared in this three-part series – the first two parts draw from my experience as a student in class, and the third how I continued to learn on my own during the summer that followed. Life then seemed to take off and become busier and busier (work began on my second book, the cooking show premiered and between teaching full time and a growing blog that I was overjoyed was doing well, my focused turned to these two focuses and I was unable to continue my French studies); however, over the three years that followed, I had the opportunity to travel to France twice which further instilled in me the determination to not give up trying to become an intermediate speaker of the French language as each trip took me out of Paris and into the countryside, where I fell further in love with the French culture.
But why continue to learn a language some may say I don’t technically need to learn?
To the community here at TSLL, that is likely the silliest or easiest question to answer, and speaking for myself, there are many reasons.
- First, from a professional perspective, after reading one too many podcast reviews from listeners frustrated by my poor French, something I never professed to be any good at, only having a fondness and respect for the culture and language, I was well aware I needed to get serious about my French pronunciation.
- Second, and these are not in a priority order, I want to sincerely know how to speak with fluency a second language, and a second language I love used in a culture I adore and continue to be a student of its ways.
- Third, for ease of travel, as I prefer to travel outside of Paris into the small country towns and villages, and it is a high probability, in my experience, that less than half of the locals speak English.
So, to just put it out there, my goal after however many courses it takes is to reach B level proficiency. It is the B1 level that you must reach in order to gain citizenship in France, along with other factors beyond language, but regarding the language, I want to attain this goal for the three reasons I shared above as well as the opportunity, should I be courageous enough to some day live in France for long durations of time (my pup or pups would come with me bien sûr!)
With all of that said, I have a bit of a ways to go, but we all have to start somewhere, heading in the right direction, in order to arrive at the above goals, and enrolling in Washington D.C.’s Alliance de Française’s Zoom language courses has answered the question of how to learn well the language so I can become more fluent.
Beginning today is a return to the series I began in 2016, so today’s episode/post is labeled as Partie Quatre (part four). As I make my way through my courses – a new quarter/course each season – look for future posts/episodes to be shared. You can explore all of my French-themed posts and episodes via the respective links.
1.How to properly pronounce the letter ‘Y’ in French
Let’s begin with the alphabet. As I shared above, this was a day of ahas for me. I had NOOOOO idea that the letter ‘y’ was pronounced as it was. [igrec] Yep, [igrec] is the letter ‘Y’. It really is the little gaps of learning that I missed that are making all of the difference now in my comprehensive learning of the language.
2. Understanding the English language well is a solid base to learn the basic clause construction in a new language
I shared in Partie Trois that it was my sound understanding of the intricacies of the English language due to my having been an English teacher for 20 years and for 11 of those years an AP Language (rhetoric) instructor that initially made it frustrating as I realized how little I comprehended of a second language. However, this realization also involved and deepened my appreciation for all that I do understand in my native language and encouraged me to become an even more thoughtful and clear communicator.
With that said, knowing how an adjective, a possessive pronoun, articles, preposition and all other forms of words function in a sentence has made it easier to understand how and when to use these forms of words in the French language. These rules, generally speaking, are the same in French. Now all I have to do and am currently working on is memorizing what these words are.
Which is to say, learning French while applying my knowledge of English has actually enabled me to strengthen and better understand with even more clarity my knowledge of my native language. The quote at the top of today’s post speaks to this realization, translated as “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”
3. I finally understand how to use the salutation coucou
A simple thing to know, but every time my dear friend Veronique (who is Belgian) would text me over the years, she began with Coucou! With the context, I figured it was a salutation, but specifically what it mean and what the difference was between ‘bonjour’, I didn’t not know.
Now I do! Coucou is the informelle form of a warm hello to a friend or someone you are close with. Aha!
4. How to properly pronounce the season ‘Automne‘
Don’t pronounce the ‘m’. It’s as easy at that.
5. The correct use of Quelle/Quel (s) versus Quoi
First, whether Quel is masculine or feminine, singular or plural, it is pronounced the same, and the words asks the questions ‘what?’ or ‘which’, but Quoi also asks the question ‘what’. So how to distinguish between using the two?
Often we might hear Pourquoi – translated as ‘for what’ or meaning ‘why?’, but what I have learned that helps me distinguish when to use which is that Quelle/Quel/Quels/Quelles (a pronoun and adjective) will always be part of a complete sentence and begin said sentence where as Quoi, (an indirect object) can be asked solitarily, such as ‘Quoi?” with the understood subject being unspoken. For example, someone has stated something you didn’t entirely hear or believe, and you respond, “Quoi?” to either inquire as to what they actually mean or to repeat themselves whereas Quelle/Quel/etc. needs to be followed by a noun.
~Learn more about these two words with detailed examples on this post from Learn French at Home.
6. Keep a running list of nouns and always include the article (that designates gender)
This was a suggestion a fellow student in my course this fall suggested, and I have since begun to heed her advice. Whenever a new noun is taught, I write it down and include either un/une or le/la.
One of the differences between the French and the English language, as I shared in Partie Une, is that every French noun is either masculine or feminine, and you need to know the difference to construct your sentences properly should you be combining the article with a preposition (i.e. à or de), which you frequently will be doing or seeing in writing. You also need to know how to properly pronounce the difference of the articles définis (definite articles) between le, la, l’, and les which is something I took detailed bracketed notes on (le [lu], la [la], l’ [“l” sound blended with the vowel that follows], les [lay]).
7. Watching French shows and films regularly has helped immensely
In 2016 MHzChoice wasn’t an option as a streaming service, but over the past handful of years, with access to this foreign language online platform for watching shows (with English subtitles) from France (and other countries throughout Europe and South America), my ears are becoming more attuned to what is actually being said without looking at the subtitles. While I still very much need the subtitles, with each week that passes having taking my French classes this year, I am noticing my knowledge is strengthened. I am hearing words and knowing what they mean before checking the subtitles (and when I see that I was correct, I smile in celebration!)
This past August during TSLL’s 7th Annual French Week I shared a post that is now one of the most popular posts of all time on the blog that includes why I recommend this streaming platform and 11 shows I enjoy watching. I need to update this post as more shows have been released that I thoroughly enjoy. Look for that to happen soon, but in the meantime, be sure to stop by each Friday for the regularly posting of This & That as I include the new series I discover in this post.
8. Approaching a new language by teaching the basic grammatical components first has been most effective for my learning
As I shared in Partie Trois, there were two theories in how to approach learning (or teaching) a new language, and while both have validity, upon taking French 101 and now 102 for the third time, it has been my experience that the approach being used currently is the most effective for learning the language to communicate fluently.
Yes, learning a few key phrases is a great idea if you simply want to get by while you are traveling. I completely understand and agree with this method, but as a student who wants to understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’, learning the fundamental components – letter pronunciation, definite and indefinite articles, interrogative structures, prepositions, possessive pronouns, etc. – has filled the missing gaps I was missing and what made translating what I was reading impossible.
What has happened as we learn the above rules and constructions is that the phrases, the additional vocabulary are sprinkled throughout the teaching. Our instructor frequently pauses to ask if we have any questions – whether about vocabulary or otherwise – so we technically are receiving both approaches at once, but the priority is given to the construction and verbs and nouns come naturally from the subject matters we discuss.
9. Knowing the difference in construction between open (ouverte) and closed (fermée) questions
There are some phrases I have just retained over the years, not always understanding fully what they mean, but generally knowing when to use them. Qu’est-ce que is what such phrase, but I could not have told it was asking the question specifically ‘what is’ or ‘what is that’. But now I do know that Qu’est-ce que is the open (ouverte) question (Qu’est-ce que + subject + verb + complement). For example: Qu’est-ce que qu’il cherche? (translation: What is he looking for?)
A closed (fermée) question begins with the phrase Est-ce que . . . Essentially a yes or no response, thus why it is called a closed (fermée) question. (Est-ce que + subject + verb + complement). For example: Est-ce que il est dans le centre? (translation: Is it in the town center? [response: yes or no])
No doubt, French speakers are verbally saying aloud as they read this, well, duh Shannon, but these are the simple differentiations and pieces of knowledge I was lacking and have been lacking for years. Thankfully, I have an instructor who answers all of our questions, no matter how simple or obvious it may seem to a speaker of the language, and for that I am grateful.
10. Reviewing in between classes along with doing the homework is gradually strengthening language memory skills
Returning to being a student is a new routine to step back into, but what I have found helpful about being in these courses hosted on Zoom by Washington D.C.’s Alliance de Française is the accountability. Not that I didn’t have fellow students in the previous classes I took, but each of the students wants to be there, is eager to learn and in order to keep up, you need to acquire the past classes lessons so that you can move forward with the class. There is a steady pace of forward learning that is assumed you will attain, so you cannot hold back if you have questions. Understanding, clarifying if you don’t, reaching out to the professor in class or outside of class is expected so that the class can move forward as planned.
The fellow students in the now two courses I have enrolled in have been inspiring. We are of a variety of ages, professions and life experiences, and as I am from Oregon, from across the country (most are from the D.C. area as these courses only began being offered online during the pandemic – thankfully they have kept these virtual classes). All of us who continue to show up for each class are determined to learn and come with different experience with the language, but that is what deepens my understanding of this beautiful language even more. Their questions, while they may be mine, confirm or further clarify what I thought I knew, and moreso than ever in this third go-round of attempting to learn the language I am not afraid to ask questions when I am confused, even if it may be an obvious answer to other students.
11. In order to absorb and learn the language I need an actual instructor (and virtual isn’t a detriment as I thought it might be)
While I have used various apps and listened to various podcasts to strengthen my French language skills, what I have discovered is most valuable to my long-term and accurate learning of the language is working with an instructor in real-time who sees me and knows I am in the class so that I can engage directly.
While I had assumed (wrongly) that I needed to be in the physical room to learn the language, thankfully I discovered this is not the case as I feel I am learning far more and the language is much clearer based on the quality of the instruction.
12. Bringing my humility is key to better learning
There have been moments of complete perplexity, but as I shared above, I just kept asking questions, and thankfully, the professor kept hanging in there with me and explaining in a variety of ways until the lightbulb clicked.
The ego must be kept in check, and as adults who may be highly proficient in other areas of expertise, in this case where I am learning a language that has taken a long time to even become close to barely grasping, reminding myself to be humble and don’t be hesitant to say I am open to learning because it just doesn’t make sense as been the best medicine to take with me to each class. I also like to keep this quote shared by Amy Chua in mind to shift my lack of proficiency in the language into a positive, “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.“
And with that I will wrap up this quatrième partie of what I have learned in French language class so far. May the learning continue and continue to improve. À la prochaine!
~Bottle Shock, a film (2008)
~The Simple Sophisticate, episode #349
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