Can I teach myself French?
November 28, 2009 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Can I teach myself to read French in five months?

Quite a lot of work done on the area I'm studying is in French, which I cannot read or speak. The only French I've studied was back at school, which I did for three years and barely passed my GCSE-equivalent exam. I wasn't good, but I have a basic grounding that I can build on.

My subject is African history, so I won't need to be able to read technical or scientific language. Five months would be a decent amount of time as I won't be doing much research until then. (This is a UK course, so I have lots of free time for stuff like this.)

Learning to read French isn't essential, but I think it would be a help by opening up a lot of French-language sources to me. Reading is all I really need to do for the work I'm doing at the moment.

Can this be done? If so, how?
posted by SamuelBowman to Education (16 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
American PhD students I know do this all the time. Maybe you could contact a university for an intensive course, or for recommendations for resources?
posted by runningwithscissors at 7:26 AM on November 28, 2009

If you've already learned any foreign language or studied linguistics, you can probably get to the point where you can get through most texts with the aid of a dictionary. I've personally never found French to be overly hard, especially reading it. Speaking it will require the help of a native speaker.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:31 AM on November 28, 2009

Best answer: Karl C. Sandberg's French for Reading is what you want.

I worked through it over a summer, and at the end I was able to stumble through newspaper articles and very basic academic texts in my own field with a dictionary.

If you supplement it with some texts from your specific field and a French grammar, there's no reason this shouldn't be possible.
posted by besonders at 7:37 AM on November 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I would say yes, definitely, if you are dedicated and organized and can devote a large amount of time to it.

The best way to learn a language is to expose yourself to material that is slightly above your current level. I.e., you can get the gist of the sentence but may not know every word or understand the grammar perfectly. I don't have any suggestions for material but kids books are usually a good place to start. And of course textbooks --stop by a bookstore and flip through different levels to get a feel for where you should be. Newspapers/websites can be harder than you'd think, I wouldn't try them except in small doses at first.

Set yourself deadlines for acquiring the material, and reading through it actively. Underline words you don't know, make a list of them, and review and test yourself on those lists weekly.

Get yourself a fluent speaker friend who can explain things to you. (via internet would be fine)

Good luck! If I were doing this, by far the hardest problem would be motivating myself.
posted by ropeladder at 7:41 AM on November 28, 2009

I was going to recommend Sandberg, French for Reading, but besonders beat me to it. I'll second it. I would advise supplementing Sandberg with an audio course, so you can at least begin to grasp phonetics and relate the written language to the spoken; it will save you much grief in the future if speaking French becomes important to you.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:45 AM on November 28, 2009

posted by zadcat at 7:50 AM on November 28, 2009

Here is a guy who taught himself French in one year without any formal instruction.

The article contains plenty of pointers, and reading is at the core of how he did it.

Bon chance!
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:00 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I recommend the French course from Assimil. It should be readily available in the UK.

I used it faithfully every day, and after about 6 months I felt quite comfortable reading and speaking French.
posted by Theloupgarou at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2009

Best answer: The only tip I have about this is to focus on learning the vocabulary which will occur in the texts you are studying. Sounds obvious when I put it like that but you don't need to learn the whole language, just a subset. When you have that, a dictionary will help you with words and phrases you don't know.

Some specific resources:

Anki and Mnemosyne have been mentioned here before: they are software to create flash-cards which adapt to how well you learn them. You have to create your own vocab lists but if you memail me I can send you mine (French). However, it is really, really useful to enter the words yourself to help with initial learning.

Michel Thomas's courses are pretty good, although not perfect. He teaches shortcuts to basic grammar and vocabulary but misses out some pretty basic stuff like names of months, days of the week, etc. Still, I found it useful.

I would also recommend 1001 Most Useful French Words and Mastering French Vocabulary although the latter is information-dense so you will need to be selective about which chapters you learn.

I live on the south coast of England and will be off to France this Spring and Summer to practice. I've been studying French for a year, and since February in earnest. I feel fairly confident about basic situations and can muddle through French newspaper articles and French Wikipedia articles as well. I'm neither the smartest nor most dedicated language learner so I'm sure with effort and application your five months objective is entirely possible.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 8:50 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Forgot to mention, this Firefox add-on is useful for translating text, you can check pronunciations with this (somewhat robot-y sounding but helpful) web service, and Systran have widgets for Mac OS and Windows Vista's sidebar which provide convenient dictionary functionality (search their website or Google for the specific products, but they are free downloads).
posted by BrokenEnglish at 8:56 AM on November 28, 2009

I haven't got any specific books to recommend without searching, but I've found the very best way to help adults learn to *read* French (podcast lessons and the like teach you to speak/comprehend) is to have them buy novels that have English on one page and the French translation on the other. The words might not always match up one-to-one, but the concepts will, and you'll be learning to recognize whole phrases, rather than "verbs" "nouns" "adjectives" etc.--those will come naturally as you read along.

Possibly look for some novels or non-fiction concerning African history (though that's a pretty broad topic--can you be more specific?). Also wander the net (or your neighborhood, depending on where you are) for foreign-language bookstores.

Also, visit Le Monde a lot; follow their articles that concern world news and see if you can't suss out phrases and meanings via your own contextual knowledge. You can use Google Translator to translate pages via URL, so long as you recognize that it's not going to be precise. (You'll get a laugh or too, at any rate.)

Bonne chance! (Not bon chance, btw - "chance" is a feminine noun *g*)
posted by tzikeh at 9:00 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am Canadian but I learned my French in France. I take it as a compliment that my French is at the point now where I get confused for actually being French when I go to Quebec.

I learned French from simple sentences and an extremely basic vocabulary to fluency in speaking, reading and writing in about 4 months of immersion during an internship in France. I was the only truly English/French bilingual at my place or work and residence although there was enough English for me to get by initially.

I started with a book of grammar exercises (Schaum's I think) and bought the Bescherelle and a good technical translation dictionary (necessary for my work). What really helped was immersion. Studying for 6 hours is good, being stuck thinking, working, eating and traveling in another language means 16+ hours per day are in French.

For me, hearing it as much as possible was important. I think it's also important to use mixed media. Maybe French radio and movies, so you get news and entertainment. The differences in inflection, speed and diction can be surprising.

Find someone with whom you can practice, preferably a native French speaker.

Bonne chance!
posted by KevCed at 10:11 AM on November 28, 2009

I think you can . I took french in high school and still remember a fair bit of it.

'French IS very easy to learn if you know english . If you work at it i think it can be done in 5 months.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:19 AM on November 28, 2009

My hot tip: when you look words up as you read, write them down. Then use them in flashcards.

There's something about writing which helps you remember, and then you also build up a vocabulary of things that occur in the material you read.

Oh yeah, you can definitely do it. I had a similar mission in Portuguese. If ALL you want is basic reading comprehension, then learning common conjugations and building a vocabulary will get you a very long way.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:05 PM on November 28, 2009

You can do it, but plan on spending a lot of time on it... a couple hours a day maybe.

Technical French would be easier-- technical terms tend to be recognizable; everyday words are not. So supplement your textbook with some of the material you want to read-- if nothing else to learn the specialized vocabulary for your field.
posted by zompist at 10:29 PM on November 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the help, there's some fantastic advice here. Cheers!
posted by SamuelBowman at 2:33 AM on November 29, 2009

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