Learning a language on your own isn’t easy to do, let alone figuring out where to begin. I mean, how do people become polyglots? And how can I stop being the typical dumb American? Do I even have the “language gene,” because that sounds like a real thing, and I more/less flunked Spanish?
Naturally, I turned to research.
There are tons and tons of YouTube videos in which adorable people show off how they learn, what they’re learning, and where they study. It’s not worth listing any of them here, honestly, as they all say approximately the same thing.
The only noteworthy YouTube channel is Géraldine Lepère’s “Comme une Francaise.” She’s been teaching French about seven years, speaks slowly and clearly, and has a few good points for beginning learners. She’s also a Frenchwoman, so she shares quite a bit about culture and modern language.
Géraldine’s first question is Why do you want to learn French?
The simple answer is I’m planning a trip to western Europe in the next few years, and I want to be able to get around Paris as well as the more remote places in France. However, I want to be able to engage with the culture, the local peoples, and be as comfortable and confident as I can in new locations. It would be easier to just learn the words I’ll be using most for getting around the city and navigating museums, but I want to be able to really talk with people while I’m over there. Not simply “hi” and “bye,” I want to be polite and friendly as well.
Additionally, the more I plan and research places to visit, the more I realize how much I’ve already learned about French history through my Art History classes. I already love what I already know, and now I wand to be able to engage those things in its original context.
The answer: Practical French, according to Lepère.
Also, sidenote, whenever we played “Magic genie,” as kids, one of my three wishes was always “know every language of the world.” As a young girl, I was obsessed with expression, language, and communication. So the natural next step is to “take my learning into my own hands.”
There’s a brilliant Ted Talk by Lýdia Machová called, “The Secrets of Learning a New Language,” that re-motivated me for the 2021 year. For all the youtubers did for me, Machová really got me to think about myself and my own learning.
Machová outlines the four elements of polyglot learners:
- Enjoyment in the process – Whatever approach makes language learning into an enjoyable, pleasant activity you don’t mind doing every day
- Effective Methods – space repetition to move language into long-term memory
- System for learning – planning ahead and making time for learning the language while multitasking (in doing so, integrating your learning into your regular schedule)
- Patience – “It’s not possible to learn a language within two months, but it’s definitely possible to make a visible improvement in two months, if you learn in small chunks every day in a way that you enjoy. And there is nothing that motivates us more than our own success.”
Since seeing this video, I’ve been invested in finding answers – how do I learn and what would make it enjoyable? So then the thought occurred to me – how did I learn English? To hear my mother tell it, I was practically walking and talking out of the womb. I honestly can’t remember learning the spoken language, but my mom also tells a funny story about 5 year old me, returned home from my first day of kindergarten sobbing uncontrollably. Apparently, I was furious that I hadn’t magically learned how to read that day. It took more than one half-day in Kindergarten? Bullshit!
But I had to back up. I was ahead of the curve in kindergarten – why? This is where my journey into English really begins. I memorized the sounds and the words and the stories page by page of the children’s books at my grandmother’s house. Dr. Seuss and Little Golden Books were my jam. I memorized “Hop on Pop,” “One Fish Two Fist Red Fish Blue Fish,” and “Green Eggs and Ham” before kindergarten began. I knew the relative sounds of letters, I sat there with those books for ever, solidifying the memorization. I just kept practicing the same passages over and over. I could sight-read those specific words out in the world.
At home, I remember having a picture dictionary. It was a purple/grey and pastel yellow cover. I tore it up, drew in it, all sorts. It was my favorite book. I’d give anything to have that book nowadays. There’s no telling what it was called or who published it. I’ve searched everywhere and have given up, but I still have the memories. I literally read that dictionary all the time, any time, connecting pictures to words and words to meaning in relation to other words. Drove my parents mad trying to broaden my vocabulary.
What I don’t remember is ever being read to. It must have happened at some point, surely, but mostly I just remember being so motivated to learn to read. I’m taking this same energy, this same learning style and bringing it to le table français.
Realizing this, I knew I was on the right path when I cracked open my copy of Easy French Reader for the first time. With surprisingly minimal hiccups, I was able to read through the first entry and understood it. A surge of self-satisfaction flooded my brain. Holy shit, I’d struck gold! This is my “enjoyment” piece, and I grabbed onto it.
Immediately, I began looking for children books, more sources like the Easy French Reader that uses basic vocabulary and regular verbs for beginners, and side-by-side readers. I finally settled on Harry Potter, and although I’m very motivated to read it, I have a long way to go first. Technically, I didn’t read Harry Potter in English until the fourth grade – that’s ten years of working on English. I had to begrudgingly recognize that I’m not ready for chapter books just yet. So Harry Potter et la Prisonnier D’Azkaban is sitting on my shelf, reminding me to get a move on. It’s also a decent motivator, I can say. The goal is to be able to read that thing by midyear 2022. I feel that’s a decent time line as well as a great accomplishment to obtain.
So I had to back up. Start with the “Hop on Pop” equivalent of the modern French folk, memorize those, and get me a “child’s first” picture dictionary. Unfortunately, I discovered that children’s books – French, English, both, whatever – are expensive as hell! Seriously, those giant hardback picture books are $12 – $15 a piece, about the same price as my fully-fledged French textbooks! I just can’t afford $15 a book, especially when pronunciation is key and I’m still struggling with proper sounds.
Luckily enough, I discovered this glorious little app “Unuhi” that has beautifully illustrated children stories in a plethora of languages. The price tags are small, about $1.99 a story, and I got a bundle of 5 for $3.99. The biggest wins are that the pages show the English and French together and with a tap on the screen, a narrator reads aloud. It’s absolutely brilliant. I can continue to stay minimal with the physical books I own, can practice my pronunciation, and get the lovely classic kiddie stories everyone loves. I was overwhelmed with joy while reading “Le vilain petit canard” in bed last night. I’m so thankful to’ve discovered my “enjoyment” aspect as well as this lovely app!
I’m also working out of two main texts to learn the grammar and steady increase my vocabulary: The Easy French Reader and Easy French Step-by-Step, both by McGraw Hill. I also have to say they’re brilliant as well. They’re designed for self-learning, and this is important. The former comes with an app that narrates each passage so you can listen along and learn pacing as well as pronunciation. Some days I’ll read aloud, translating what I can along the way, other days I will listen to the passage and write down what I hear (this is the most difficult aspect for me at the moment). The later text is structured in a way that leads you naturally into the rules of the language and exposes you to random vocabulary. It’s set up exactly how I remember my Spanish classes, so it’s comfortable in its familiarity and builds on previous grammar lessons for a solid understanding of the rules.
Also on the bookshelf is French Grammar and French Grammar Drills for practice and repetition purposes. It’s nice to have a second insight into the grammar rules, as sometimes the same thing explained a different way clicks.
Just in the mail today, I received First Thousand Words in French that I plan to review nightly in bed, alongside memorizing the children stories on my phone. I couldn’t settle on a “child’s first French dictionary,” so I decided a thousand words in a solid picture book might be well enough. This book also comes with an online resource for pronunciation!
While taking AP Art History my senior year of high school, I discovered my knack for attributing tons of information to a single picture. Building on what I recognize as my learning strengths, I’m doing the same for learning French. I’ve determined the Enjoyment, laid out the Method, and now have my system in place. It sounds simple enough, but it’s taken me about 3 months to make these realizations. Now that I have them, I’m going to work hard and capitalize on them.
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Below is a list of resources I currently have stashed away. I know, it’s a lot, and many YouTubers say to only work out of one resource at a time, but A. I get bored and B. I had to figure out how I learn and C. most of these were less than $2 each at a used bookstore, so I figured I should grab them up for repetition practice.
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Amery, Heather. First Thousand Words in French. Tulsa, Oklahoma: EDC Publishing, 2015.
Applebaum, Stanley. First French Reader: A Beginner’s Dual-Language Book. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2008.
Bendon, Inc. French First Words Language Workbook. Ashland, Ohio: Bendon.
Colbert, David. Les Mondes Magiques de Harry Potter. Saint-Germain-du-Puy, France: Le Pre aux Clercs, 2002.
Collins Publisher. French Grammar: The Easiest Way to Learn a Language, 3rd ed. Glasgow: Collins, HarperCollins Publisher, 2016.
Crocker, Mary E. Coffman. French Vocabulary, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1998.
Crocker, Mary E. Coffman. French Grammar, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1999.
de Roussy de Sales, R. Easy French Reader: A Three-Part Text for Beginning Students, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 2021.
Kershul, Kristine K. French in 10 Minutes a Day, 8th ed. Seattle, Washington: Bilingual Books, Inc., 2015.
Kurbegov, Eliane. French Grammar Drills, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 2018.
Rochester, Myrna Bell. Easy French Step-by-Step. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 2009.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter et la Prisonnier D’Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.