J'en ai besoin d'améliorer mon français. Any suggestions?
May 10, 2009 12:09 PM   Subscribe

« J'en ai besoin d'améliorer mon français, » or: "I need to improve my French." I'm looking for advice from anyone who has worked on improving or regaining their nth language.

I'm closing out my graduate degree this summer, and it looks like my recent work placement may turn into a job (yay, work!). A degree of bilingualism is required (not sure of the levels, B/B/B definitely, possibly C/B/C).[1] I went through French immersion from K-12, but I'm 28 and Grade 12 was a long time ago.

So I'd like some help from the hivemind. I'm going through some of the previous French AskMe questions right now, but they look to be "I'd like to learn" questions. Some of them do seem promising.

If you are/were in a similar situation, what worked for you?

Where I stand
I think can understand 90-95% of spoken French other than figures of speech--that was my experience living in Gatineau, mostly from carpooling with my boss's québecoise boss during the OC Transpo strike.[2] Reading it is also not a problem. Writing it is a brutally slow process though, and I get the "brain freeze" initially when someone speaks French to me as I change gears. My vocabulary is full of holes I don't know about until I step in them.

I've got a Bescherelle and Schaum's French Grammar workbook, which has a 2-star review in rhyming couplets. There was a prof in my program who had a french discussion group going during the year, but he may not be teaching during the summer.

[1] The letters are written, spoken and comprehension--not sure of the order. Unilingual<A<B<C<Exempt.

[2] I've wondered a few times how often my brain is just recognizing that it's French & familiar, and not actually understanding the vocab.
posted by Decimask to Education (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The brain freeze, at least, goes away once you're surrounded by the language for a few days. If you're really going to be using your French on a daily basis, and not just keeping it around on the off-chance a monolingual speaker comes in, it'll start feeling natural pretty quickly.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:17 PM on May 10, 2009

Yes immersion or familiarity is the key. If I were you Id find some French talk radio stations online and-or French TV like news either streaming or downloadable. You dont have to understand everything or even try to understand. Just have the radio playing in the background whilst youre doing something else and let you brain passively absorb the language environment and 'tune' itself into French sounds and rhythms.
posted by stumpyolegmcnoleg at 12:31 PM on May 10, 2009

I've had an idea for a while but haven't implemented it: a French (or other second language) play reading group. You sit around with other people and read/speak/hear the language in a low-pressure fun way. Afterward you could have a small bit of socializing. Choose the degree of difficulty of your plays as appropriate, but it's OK if people don't understand 100% of the vocabulary.

Bonus if you divy up the play beforehand and compile a list of new vocabulary or extra-difficult passages for review beforehand.
posted by amtho at 12:35 PM on May 10, 2009

Best answer: I learned French through immersion, i.e., living in a French-speaking community and insisting people not speak English to me. This may not be an option for you, but I can offer some other tips:

1. Writing it is a brutally slow process though - Yeah, French is most difficult when it comes to writing it. But just as learning how to speak is predicated on your listening comprehension, you can improve how you write by reading more French. One thing that worked for me was trying to write from memory that I'd read. This can help you get a visual hold on the words.

2. when someone speaks French to me as I change gears - This is totally natural. I once recorded myself speaking French and watched it afterwards. That was eye-opening. The thing is, I thought I was speaking slowly and clearly. I wasn't. I was mumbling, tripping over words, slurring and such. In other words, you can afford to take your time to phrase each portion of what you want to say in your head as you speak - the pause before responding is probably not as slow as you think it is. Taking your time as you talk will make you more understood and avoid a lot of repeating yourself.

3. My vocabulary is full of holes I don't know about until I step in them. - Step into them pre-emptively. Read more French, maybe even material slightly beyond your level. Talk to more French speakers, or barring that, look up the definitions of words you anticipate using.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:35 PM on May 10, 2009

("trying to write from memory a passage I'd read" that is)
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:41 PM on May 10, 2009

Nthing the suggestion to immerse yourself as much as you can. One of my best language teachers talked about his method for learning language: just having language tapes on in the background while he was going about his day, making breakfast, brushing his teeth. If you focus on it, great, but even if you don't, having the sounds going on around you can make a real difference.

I'd check out the easy French news podcast from RFI. If it's too easy for you, there are other feeds there that may be more challenging.
posted by kristi at 12:43 PM on May 10, 2009

I went the other way around -- French is my mother tongue and I learned two other languages by immersion -- and I have to point out that French talk radio, French podcasts and certainly French TV would be difficult to follow at your stage of learning, because the speaker would go too fast for you. This is true in all languages, but especially in French.

I would therefore suggest to listen to audio books, because the actors have a great diction, and speak much slower than on the radio. You could buy a French classic, of course, but it might be easier for you to listen to the French translation of a favorite author of yours:
Livres Audio sur Amazon.fr
posted by dov at 1:05 PM on May 10, 2009

Best answer: Hi, similar situation here: I moved to Quebec for a bilingual job at 25, after having done French immersion school up until grade 10 (but having not really used it since).

It was pretty rough going at first - as Desimask says, your vocabulary is full of gaps that you don't even think about until you're already halfway through telling a story and you realize that you have no clue how to express the central idea. I would say it took about a year of solid practice before I could master random conversations with people in a crowded noisy bar after a couple of beers.

My main advice is to not expect to simply "absorb" the language by being immersed in a French speaking environment. You have to work on it. Some things that worked for me:

- language classes as soon as I moved there
- watching tons of French movies and television (the news is particularly good as it's topical and they enunciate quite clearly)
- reading French books and making a vocabulary list from words I had to look up (make sure it's a book set in the current time so you don't bother memorizing out-of-date terms)
- French newspapers every day - the dumber tabloid ones are good at the beginning when your vocabulary isn't as good

And of course, practicing with people as much as you possibly can. The number one error I saw people in my situation commit was to be too shy or too afraid of making mistakes to engage francophones in conversation. Yeah so it's awkward sometimes and you sound like a total idiot but it's SO worth it.

Having the immersion background doesn't mean that you'll be able to jump in and be super fluent from day one. But it's a huge advantage - not only will a lot of it come flooding back once you're there, but you also have the language grounding you need to get way better way quicker than someone picking it up for the first time. Good luck!
posted by vodkaboots at 1:13 PM on May 10, 2009

I learned pidgin German at home--- that is, a mixture of German and English until my dad learned fluent English by about age 5. Later, in high school, I could get by with what I remembered, but had problems especially with grammar; most of what I "knew" was by instinct rather than teaching.
"Mr. Seeba, how do you complete sentence number four?"
"With the phrase mit all der Junge"
"Correct. Why?"
"... I dunno. It's just sounds/feels right."

So I took immersion courses after college in Berlin. I had to focus on grammar and the technical aspects of the language rather than vocabulary.

Since I've been home, I listen to German music, watch the news two or three times a week (in German), and read (novels, newspaper, webpages).

I definitely second Dov's note of listening to your favorite authors-- I read Tom Clancy's books in German, and they're a nice way of taking a story or storyline that I was somewhat familiar with, but forcing me to learn the way the foreign language (German) got ideas across (in a non scholastic setting).

Just a note-- I had to make sure to give myself a couple of hours every coupla' days or week where I only spoke/listened/read German. Otherwise, it was very difficult to get my head into the language, and not keep switching back to English.

Good luck!
posted by Seeba at 1:22 PM on May 10, 2009

I'm going through a similar process of relearning Spanish after speaking Portuguese for the past several years. One of the most helpful things I did was listen to Spanish-language podcasts during my commute. Not necessarily learning-related podcasts, of course -- but anything of interest. Podcasts, unlike audiobooks, are short and current and plus you can get a variety of sources and this may be helpful...
posted by mateuslee at 2:09 PM on May 10, 2009

I would suggest an intensive 5-week long immersion at one of the universities that is part of the explore program. "Self-interest" prevents me from saying which one is recognized as the best in the country; send me an email if you want to know more.
posted by aroberge at 2:59 PM on May 10, 2009

just to add quickly, wouldn't it be "Il faut que j'ameliore mon francais" ? Im in a similar situation, and I just force myself to sit down for 30-60 minutes every night to study French. I do this by reading internet news and such, and making flash cards of phrases I know I wouldn't be able to conjure up on the spot. I really like reading news on rue89.com. And I try to watch as many french movies as possible, sometimes I watch them twice and see how far I get without looking at the subtitles. Check your local library for french films.
posted by osloheart at 3:27 PM on May 10, 2009

"Self-interest" prevents me from saying which one is recognized as the best in the country;

He's talking about Université Sainte-Anne, a very small university with the most beautiful campus in Canada, bordering on St. Mary's Bay, an extension of the Bay of Fundy. The 5 week program is exceptional, and the (French) small town atmosphere is like none other.
posted by fish tick at 4:54 PM on May 10, 2009

I had the same problem, where I could read and understand French easily but my writing skills were very poor. I realized that I was being very passive when reading/listening - not paying particular attention to verb forms, for example, just letting my brain figure it out based on context.

So, I started paying close attention to what I was reading and hearing. Being more active about it: "okay, that verb is congujated in the subjunctive because it's paired with 'avant que'..." I think it has helpd.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:31 AM on May 11, 2009

Best answer: "Il faut que j'ameliore" / "Il me faut ameliorer" = I must / I need to / I have to
"J'ai besoin d'ameliorer" = I need to / I have need of (literal)

Both would be correct, but the first is a little more authoritative.

Also, the "en" in the sentence is incorrect, as "mon francais" is the indirect object in this case thus the pronoun "en" is redundant...in addition, "en" is a pronoun which replaces the "de", and as we can see, there is both an "en" and a "de" in the sentence.
posted by nonmerci at 10:49 AM on May 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice and suggestions. Once I got back from my work term and into school again, I met up with a bunch of other ex-work-termers with the same goal. We're going to be setting something up, and at least one faculty members is interested in joining in.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go grind some French grammar. They should award pets and mounts for this.

posted by Decimask at 6:32 PM on May 21, 2009

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