expressing myself in a second language
February 24, 2014 1:37 AM   Subscribe

I am a university student who takes french as a minor alongside law. My law essays are well received, and even when I miss the mark on the question my professors say I have expressed myself and written a good essay. In french, the opposite is true. I'm struggling with basic structure and linking of my ideas in this second language. Any help or advice?

More details on my situation, I'm a second year student, and I've been studying french since I was 11. I have a GCSE and took It as part of my IB at HL, which is an A level equivalent. My reading comprehension is at least as good as my peers, as evidenced by getting Bs in work translating from French to English. Every other area however I struggle in, such as giving oral presentations, composing in french, translations into french from English and even grammar tests.

Although I am a confident speaker and can make myself understood my speech is littered with errors.

I'm hopeful that at least some of my doubts are linked to imposter syndrome. If I pass this year I will be spending the next in a french speaking country studying law in french, and I am hoping this immersion will really help!

My major issues with composition, based on feedback and my own perceptions are:
1. The use of anglacisms and English sentence structures.
2. The lack of french sentence structures.
3. The inability to link together ideas, making my work fragmented and difficult to understand.

What can I do to improve in these areas? Has anyone been in this situation and improved?
posted by Braeburn to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds as if your French to English translation skills might actually be too good in one sense; your brain has been able to rely on them instead of turning the corner into actually thinking in French.

If that's so, you will turn that corner naturally in due course. I'd guess maximising your exposure to real French, especially oral, is what would speed things up; next year's immersion will surely do it if you're still having problems at that stage - make it as total as you can. In your position I would be optimistic.
posted by Segundus at 2:24 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

For 1. and 2.: Translating a foreign language into your native tongue is a very different skill than reading in that foreign language. They are both difficult skills, and it's really cool that you're good at translating. It sounds like you now need to focus on learning how to just read and think in French without always translating for yourself back into Egnlish.

If I were you, I would spend 15 minutes a day either reading something in French (newspaper articles are good for this) or listening to a French audiobook or a French talk radio station, etc. When you do this, focus on understanding what you are reading (or hearing) without translating back into English. Give yourself a hard limit: you're allowed to look up 3 words in your dictionary during this exercise, that's it. This will probably be hard at first: be patient.

The more you immerse yourself in French sentence structure without translating back into English, the more natural it will feel to use it when you speak and write. This is a long-term project though: you won't get there overnight. Your time studying in France will definitely help, but it will make your studies there easier if you can improve your writing before you get there.

For 3. One of the frustrating parts of learning a foreign language is that for a really long time, you can't communicate in that language at the same level that you can communicate in your native language. It sounds like this is a part of your problem: you are expecting to be able to write at the same level in French as you can in English. Don't beat yourself up about this so much.

And, on a practical level: a short clear sentence is better than a long confusing one. Look at your long confusing sentences and try to break them up into shorter, clearer ones. You will probably feel like you are writing like a 5 year old. That's ok. Go back and study all of the connecting words again (I don't know French, but I mean words like "because" "and" "therefore" "if" "when" "although" "on the one hand...on the other..."). Make a list of them. Every time you start a sentence, look at your list and figure out if there is a word you can use. This will all feel really odd and mechanical for a while, but if you keep it up, you will eventually be able to see the fruits of your labour.
posted by colfax at 3:46 AM on February 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

You just need more practice. It takes a long time to gain true fluency when you're not fully immersed in the language. It is a lot of work to move from advanced to fluid (not even fluent just fluid). As someone who knows a lot of so-called polyglots, people like to overestimate their language ability. I can easily read spanish but if I'm honest with myself I can't express everything I can in English.

You learn by doing. I love grammar books but that's not how I advanced my spanish structure, it was by reading a whole lot, and listening a lot, and speaking and writing. When you don't need a language to survive you have to really push for those gains.

The key is spending time everyday doing active learning. Not just passive (like listening to some songs while you study). I garuntee you most others are not as awesome as they may claim.
posted by Aranquis at 3:48 AM on February 24, 2014

Immersion is the key. I'm someone who's relatively bilingual in French and English, although my English is far superior to my French (much to my francophone mother's dismay!). Even though I grew up speaking French regularly, the lack of immersion in my every day life has meant that my French has atrophied somewhat.

I'm not sure what country you're going to (France?), but do your best to listen to some media from that region on a daily basis. It doesn't have to be much more than 20 minutes or so, but it really helps to immerse yourself and get yourself THINKING in that language.

In terms of the sentence structure, you just need to go back to grammar stuff and look at how the sentences are built. It's not totally different from English but it's different enough to be frustrating. If you speak any other Latin languages (Spanish, Italian, etc), those will follow French sentence structure more carefully than English. But it's really important to learn why you say things in THIS order in French versus THIS order in English and the best way is immersion (to get used to it) and brushing up on your grammar (to understand the reasoning behind it).

(Don't freak out at having trouble translating INTO French, by the way. That is the hardest thing for a non-native speaker to do. I took two and a half years of Italian and stopped after Translation I because it was exceptionally difficult to translate from English to Italian.)

A lot about French is really memorization and practice to the point where you're thinking in French and aren't even thinking about the mechanics any longer. So practice, immersion and brushing up on the grammar are all important things that will help you out a LOT with your sentence structure and overall ability to communicate.

Bonne chance! :)
posted by juliebug at 4:04 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

French has a very formal approach to written style. I used to joke that the goal of a well written sentence in French is to have the most clauses possible. If you do word for word translation from a "well written" French essay into English it's going to sound like pretentious gobbledygook. The only way you are going to get there is by reading and writing constantly.

It's not really grammar - it's style that sounds like is your issue. Just read and write and you'll get there. But yeah n-thing don't write in English and translate it.
posted by JPD at 4:23 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Practice and confidence lead to fluency. As others have noted, you'll need to think in French. But you'll also need to gain confidence to be able to express yourself.
What helps:
- read the news in French
- listen to French radio / podcasts while you do your daily chores
- talk to yourself in French (in your head is fine)- start simple, like: "Well, I should really wash the dishes but first I need to get the dish liquid and the sponge."
The content is simple, you likely know the words by heart. Talking to yourself about what you are doing/want to do/think about a particular thing will help to improve your ability to form proper sentences. Once that part gets easy, you can ditch the simple words and formulate the argument.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:01 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

For 1.) watch French tv or French radio and consciously listen for how they put together phrases.

Like "oh wow I would have said j'habite dans Paris and they say je vis à Paris"

Eventually you will get an ear for the language.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:25 AM on February 24, 2014

I'm guessing that if you did IB HL French and did well enough to bother continuing, you can string a sentence together and presumably also an essay, but not a particularly good essay. That makes me think it's not so much that you need to read the newspaper (though that would help), but that you don't have a ton of exposure to writing in French at the standard that's expected of you now. Really what you need is the French equivalent of the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books, whatever that is. (Unfortunately, The Paris Review is a) a literary magazine and b) in English.)

Watching soap operas really did wonders for my German. Obviously, it didn't help my academic German a whole lot, but I think it did make me more comfortable speaking German, as I was hearing a lot of colloquial, if fake, speech. The good thing about soap operas was that most of the German ones are like 20 minutes long and run every day, so it's the same sort of commitment as to the news in podcast form (though I guess you can't watch on the bus, but maybe you can with a smartphone--I have no idea how much data it would eat).
posted by hoyland at 5:28 AM on February 24, 2014

If you think podcasts might help, you could try Radio France podcasts. I can't vouch for them from experience.
posted by Segundus at 5:55 AM on February 24, 2014

Assuming you can string sentences together and read text you could pick up a writing (style) guide in French. I've only ever looked at English ones but they are normally aimed at native speakers looking to refine their writing style or to develop an academic writing style for the first time. A good one should talk you through various options and allow you to see why one is much more appropriate than another. When I was a student I used to help other students to develop study skills. In particular the the non native speakers seemed to find it helpful to see different ways of expressing something in front of them and to be told explicitly why one was preferable to another. I assume such things exist for budding French academics as well.

Secondly, you could try to find introductory reading for your core courses in French. To start out one short article or a chapter in a textbook. Reading a tabloid or magazine on the internet for ten minutes/day won't help you, you need academic texts. You'll be able to 'read' the words but you'll not 'understand' because all your thinking on the topic is in English. So it'll be quite tedious, but only by reading at that level will you get comfortable with that kind of language.

Try to read one paragraph per day. Your first goal is to understand what they are talking about. The second, more important, goal is how they say it. If it helps make a verbatim translation into English to really notice the sentence structure and kind of words used. Once you've done the whole article go back to the beginning and start again. This time you know what it is about and can focus on how the ideas are expressed. Then find another article, same topic. Repeat.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:15 AM on February 24, 2014

Immersion. For myself, the best strategy is watching French movies and TV shows with subtitles - DVD versions rather than iffy closed-caption stuff.
It really gives you a feel for the way the language flows, and will help you rearrange your brain to french patterns.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:23 AM on February 24, 2014

Re: immersion, do you have particular hobbies or interests? Try reading about them in French, in books, magazines, websites, etc.; it's easier to read something when you have a personal interest in it.

A bit of grammar might help, as a shortcut to learn some of French's resources. You might print out this page about connecting words to remind yourself of what is available. Do you have a good French dictionary (not French-to-English)? Get yourself a Petit Robert and try to use it to look up words instead of a bilingual dictionary. Online you can use the insanely complete (but pretty intimidating) Trésor de la langue française.

Since you want to study law, you might do as Stendhal and read the Code civil bit by bit to get yourself in the mood.

I personally really liked the grammar course I took (as a native speaker) with Grammaire pédagogique du français d'aujourd'hui. The FSL students in the class also seemed to appreciate the approach used in that book. I think it might suit you well, since it focuses on sentence structure. CCDMD is another good resource.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:14 AM on February 24, 2014

I'm going to offer up two different suggestions:

1. Copy. Find some really well-written French and copy it out. Do a paragraph a day, more if you can. There's a method called scriptorium that recommends reading the sentence aloud, speaking it aloud as you write it, then reading it aloud again from what you've written. This will give you a lot more practice in writing and speaking more complex ideas using native, well-formed French.

2. Use lang-8. You can post a sample of your writing for feedback from native speakers (and you return the favor by correcting posts from others learning English). You may be getting enough feedback on the papers you're submitting, but if not, this is another great way to get specific corrections on your writing.
posted by kristi at 11:51 AM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I took French in high school and college, and maxed out at what I could study at the community college level, meaning the only way I could advance is to go to a bigger university and/or actually go to France for an extended period... neither of which are an option right now.

So, for maintenance? Movies and podcasts and, as unusual as this may sound, Let's Plays* (youtube recordings of video games with player commentary). While all 3 are good for sheer oral exposure, the latter two are likely to be more useful because you hear real people talking with everyday speech patterns and slang and all sorts of neat idiomatic things. Not to say that movies don't have those, of course...

You don't even have to be closely paying attention. Just put 'em on as background noise while you do other stuff. And don't worry if you can only get about 30% of what's being said on the first go, it'll creep up as you go along.

* Man, I thought Let's Plays were just an American/English-speaker thing. Didn't even know there was a significant number of French gamers who partake in this until recently! Of course, it helps if the game being played is also dubbed in French if it has voice acting, but even if it's not you will always have at least the on-screen copy and subtitles for visual reference.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 4:32 AM on February 25, 2014

« Older ouch.   |   How do we get our kids to lock the door? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.