Je ne parle pas français
May 4, 2020 6:21 AM   Subscribe

I recently finished a French for academic purposes course and can now read (with difficulty) pretty dense texts. I've also done the Language Transfer audio course and I listen to simple audiobooks in French. How do I improve my (pretty non-existent) speaking skills? Would joining a regular beginners class help? But I am worried it might be too slow/basic grammar wise. Is this something I can work on myself?
posted by bigyellowtaxi to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
See if there is a chapter of Alliance Francaise near you. They have them all over the world. Many offer social/cultural events and lectures in French, where members speak French to each other. Most events have a small fee, and many are open to the general public but I think a few are members-only. I paid about $40 for my membership.

They also offer classes, and tend to focus more on speaking and conversation vs strict grammar. You can take a placement test if you think beginner's would be to slow.

I also found speaking out loud, even by myself, helps. I do flashcards out loud, or describe to myself what I'm doing. It won't get you real conversational practice but it helps move from an academic studying of grammar, or from just reading/listening, to actively putting together real-life sentences.

A lot of people do online language exchanges, but I haven't tried that so I can't recommend one.
posted by sillysally at 6:58 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

[Of course much of that will have to wait due to Covid, although my local chapter is offering on-line chat sessions right now so it's still worth checking out.]
posted by sillysally at 6:59 AM on May 4, 2020

Have you looked for language exchange meetups in your area? This sort of thing.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:09 AM on May 4, 2020

For instruction, if you can afford it, is excellent. Community teachers can be quite affordable, and teachers, while slightly more expensive, are still much cheaper (and more effective!) than classes.
posted by wooh at 7:22 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Depending on your financial wherewithal and how seriously you want to pursue this, I would recommend one-on-one language tutoring/classes. This doesn't have to be in person, even beyond the current pandemic -- there are lots of online resources (like italki) where, especially for big languages like French, you can usually find reasonably priced video lessons.

There was a recent answer in another language-learning question that I strongly agree with, which is that "you will get good at what you practice."

Production, i.e. speaking and writing, and comprehension, i.e. listening and reading, are related but different skills. The most common pattern for most/many language learners is that their comprehension skills will outpace their language skills, since for most people it is easier to passively understand something than to actively produce a form from their memory. (I like to say it's sort of analogous to the difference between multiple-choice and free-response exams.)

So I think if you are interested in learning to improve your speaking skills, you have to speak, and ideally you need someone to speak to that can also point out systematic errors (since the vast majority of time in real life you are speaking a language, it is to someone). It's not that the language skills are totally unrelated -- listening in particular is of course going to help with getting a more native-like intonation and rhythm and exposing you to patterns of spoken language that aren't in writing. But fundamentally I think you need to speak.

As for individual vs. group, I have taken group classes and especially if you're doing it for speaking purposes I personally don't really like them at a beginner-early intermediate level. I think that that level, you don't individually spend enough time speaking and if the teacher (understandably and reasonably) isn't correcting every single error, it can be easy to pick up bad habits from other learners.

(At a more advanced level, when the speaking classes are mainly just about having lengthy conversations/discussions, there is minimal formal grammar instruction, and conversations can be had fluidly, I think group sessions are a lot more valuable -- speaking with/understanding multiple people at once is another language skill that also takes practice.)

Language exchange partners are a low-cost/free way to do this, but you want to make sure that your partner is about the same level as you in their English/your native language, and you need to be on the same page about error correction -- do you want them to correct you every single time? Or only for systematic errors? (The answer shouldn't be "never," as that way you'll persist in making errors that will be harder and harder to correct as time goes on.)

Finally, as a small little tip, if you are a user of virtual assistants like Siri I would change it to French. You're still not going to be able to have actual conversations, but it's useful in getting down some everyday vocabulary -- what's "set the timer for" in French? how do you say all the things you need to remind yourself every day? practice telling the time (and ideally in a 24h clock as is the norm in most French-speaking societies), etc.

Bonne chance!
posted by andrewesque at 7:23 AM on May 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly the easiest way to do this would be to declare every evening from six PM to nine PM French speech practice time and go around talking to yourself in French, doing all your thinking out loud. "Maintenant, je vais à la cuisine pour décongeler le dîner de yuppie tv congelé au micro-ondes avant d'ajouter quelques légumes surgelés et je suppose que je ferais mieux d'ajouter de la sauce au curry de cette bouteille dans le réfrigérateur... Pourquoi diable la sauce au curry n'est-elle pas dans le frigo?"

If you are looking for fluency in getting the words out what you need is to simply start talking and say any and every inane thing on your mind. You don't need a listener to do this. You're trying to train your verbal fluency and that means talking.

Of course you won't have anyone there to correct your accent, or to ask you questions or introduce new words, but this is the way to improve your speaking skills. You'll make the neurological pathways you need so that you don't stutter and hesitate retrieving words. If you get used to maundering in the language you are learning you'll be a lot less likely to clutch when having to actually use it in front of other people and you'll need less time later getting instruction.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:27 AM on May 4, 2020 [7 favorites]

Pimsleur is good for learning to converse and they have an app with a monthly subscription now so you don't have to shell out hundreds of dollars for CDs
posted by Jacqueline at 7:57 AM on May 4, 2020

I recently watched Terrace House (Japanese show) to remind me of conversational Japanese. Maybe there's similar French reality TV that would be fun to watch, sans subtitles.
posted by pinochiette at 8:29 AM on May 4, 2020

I've taken classes at The French Class in San Francisco. She offers both classroom and Skype lessons. I've taken Skype lessons a few times and you can tailor them based on your needs - I have focused on conversation, grammar and business French. It's pretty reasonably priced.

I've done Berlitz too, which was quite expensive.

French Today is another useful site and she offers speaking drills of common verbs in various tenses. I thought these were kind of nonsense at first but I realized one of my biggest verbal shortcomings is instant conjugation. She offers remote lessons as well.

Netflix has lots of French language content and you can turn off/on subtitles as needed to improve your ear. I do various combination - French audio and French subtitles, French audio and English subtitles, and sometimes English audio and French subtitles.

Also, check out craigslist. I've seen ads for people offering lessons or you can post your search for an instructor or talking partner.
posted by shoesietart at 9:38 AM on May 4, 2020

I've favourited Jane the Brown's comment but wanted to add that a way of extending that. I read the newspaper aloud to myself. It really helps me get used to myself speaking French and I can pretend I'm having an intelligent conversation with someone on current affairs.
posted by mkdirusername at 9:49 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

An easy and cheap way to practice and test your pronunciation is to talk into voice-to-text software, set to the foreign language.

You can use microsoft word voice-to-text, but I find it a bit glitchy. So I use the memo app on my iphone. I just talk into it, as if I am writing a memo in the other language. If my pronunciation is right, it recognizes what I'm saying. If I'm off, it won't.

I got this idea from a German course. The teacher has some videos here with good ideas for practicing on your own, that are applicable for all languages. Helpful when you can't actually meet up with other people.

Overcoming fear of speaking a foreign language
Using Alexa to practice speaking
posted by EllaEm at 10:23 AM on May 4, 2020

In addition to the suggestions above:

If you talk to yourself (in whatever way), try to do so in French. Look up words if you have to, and write them down someplace. And if you journal, do that in French too.

This was the suggestion given to us by one of my Spanish language school professors last year, and it definitely helps.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:56 AM on May 4, 2020

I made a lot of progress in French by watching movies and shows with French-language dubs (or subtitles), whether I was watching intently or having something on in the background while I did other stuff--I think there is kind of an osmosis effect with passive listening. This was especially useful with contemporary things that will often feature slang. Netflix is currently streaming the French cast version of The Circle, which is entertaining and features a lot of colloquial language and slang.
posted by witchen at 11:38 AM on May 4, 2020

Best answer: I was in kind of a similar situation, in that I had a master's in French history but I hadn't spoken French all that much outside a classroom, and not within five years. The good news is that in my 30s, I now speak French better than I ever did, even as a university French minor, so it can be done! (Do not ask my bank account how much it cost to get to that point.)

I just paid tutors to listen to me talk once a week. It gave me some feedback and just the motivation to work on my French a bit on my own as well. When I started, my skills were REALLY unbalanced - even after months of oral tutoring, I took a Canadian government exam and managed to score barely intermediate in speaking but better than some native speakers in reading. It took a few years, but now I feel comfortable taking classes where I can converse easily with the other students and the grammar sections are relevant to me. (Some of that may be due to forgetting my grammar over the years!)

I really believe that having someone to communicate with is important. It introduces a level of difficulty that you just don't get with Duolingo/Rosetta Stone/watching TV. There is SOMEONE STARING AT YOU and they THINK YOU ARE AN IDIOT. (They really don't, but you're going to feel that way at some point, might as well do it now.)
posted by pierogi24 at 2:45 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I like to practice language skills by talking to my google home and have it translate what I'm saying or have it find and cast pictures/movies/songs/videos of the things I ask it's not perfect but desperate times...
posted by AnneShirley at 7:23 PM on May 4, 2020

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