Effective Language Learning – Pardon My French

I’ve had an interest in French for a while. I got a basic grasp of the language during primary school, and never learnt enough in secondary school to comfortably have a conversation with someone. I started becoming interested in improving again about two years ago, and since then I’ve tried several different approaches. I’d like to share what has worked for me and what hasn’t.

My initial approach involved all of the usual things well-intentioned newbies do: I signed up to some evening classes, printed off verb tables to review “when I had time” and resolved to “sometimes speak French” with friends who were already fluent in the language.

While these all worked to some extent (I went to two out of ten evening classes, memorised a few verb conjugations and exchanged a handful of sentences in French with my friends before reverting to English), none were really a success. Frustration set in, and soon I was back to square one.

But then I stumbled upon a post on Tim Ferris’ blog, entitled ’12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You’ll Ever Need’. Though initially sceptical, I found a lot of the advice useful and set about trying it. Here’s what I’ve found the most useful and effective, as well as some other things I’ve discovered since.

Listen to Stromae’s Formidable enough times and you’ll never forget how to conjugate être in the imperfect tense.

Immerse yourself

Almost every language teacher will recommend immersion as the best way to learn. That doesn’t necessarily mean travelling to a place where they speak the language though — there are plenty of other ways to achieve it.

The first step is to make a habit of engaging with things in the language you’re trying to learn, and the only sustainable way to do that is to enjoy it. For me that meant finding some good French webcomics and books, which I now read along with others on an almost daily basis.

It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, but try to consume media in your target language wherever possible, instead of watching films/TV in your own language. There are lots of great French YouTube channels (Nus et cullotés, Norman, news, …), TV shows (Braquo), films (qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon dieu, Amélie, …) and books (Le Petit Prince, Le Petit Nicolas) which will help you achieve a feeling of immersion at home. And since this is about having fun, you won’t even realise how much you’re learning — listen to Stromae’s Formidable enough times and you’ll never forget how to conjugate être in the imperfect tense.

Practise speaking

It’s important to practise speaking as early as possible — before you feel ready — because you’ll never actually feel ready. Speaking will force you to make mistakes and discover gaps in your knowledge much more quickly than anything else will. While it can certainly feel difficult and draining at first, there is no substitute for it. After all, what is the goal of learning a new language if it isn’t to communicate with other people?

This can be made fun by combining it with something social. There are great free language exchange groups on Meetup.com and Couchsurfing, where you can meet people who speak the language you’re learning and want to learn the language you speak. The great thing here is that there is an incentive for both sides to speak bits of both languages, and I’ve found it to be more constructive than learning with someone who is already fluent in both languages.

Streamline rote learning

The least fun part of learning a language is memorising grammar, but it has to be done. Everyone hates staring at pages in a book or on a screen for ages only to forget everything soon after, but luckily there’s a better way.

Enter Spaced Repetition Systems.

I wish I’d known about these when I was a student. Spaced Repetition Systems (I use Anki) are like flashcards, but smarter. They’ll track the cards you struggle with, and show you those more frequently. Cards which you consistently get right will be pushed to the bottom of the deck. The really smart thing here is that these tools try to show you each card again just before you’re about to forget it, allowing you to spend as little time as possible memorising things while remembering more! You can make your own flash cards, or use pre-made ones. I use this deck for verbs, but there are also decks for vocab and phrases here.

Commit to doing the boring things

Even though you’ll now be able to do rote learning more effectively you still have to… well… do it. It’s no use having a “learn regular French verb endings” item on your to-do list if you (like me) never get around to doing it. Commit to spending a small amount of time studying these at regular intervals. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 5 minutes every day or 20 minutes once a week, but put it in your diary and make sure it happens. The only way I’ve found to get myself to do this is to use a tool like Beeminder, which is built to help you commit to goals and overcome short-term laziness in favour of long-term benefits.

Experiment — and fail.

There are many ways to approach language learning. The right method for you depends on how you like to learn and what stage you’re at. If a method doesn’t work for you, try not to be discouraged and give up on learning altogether, but switch to a different method. Sometimes the marginal benefit from a certain method might be so low that you’re better off doing something else for a while and coming back to it later (e.g. you’ve memorised present tense verb endings and some basic vocab — get out there and practise speaking before you memorise anything else!).

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of advice or apps for language learning and it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of changing your approach too frequently. I’d highly recommend reading the post on Tim Ferris’ blog which I mentioned at the beginning of this article as a start. The key apps I keep coming back to are Beeminder and Anki as mentioned above, and Duolingo. Here’s a detailed review of Duolingo as a tool for learning French from scratch, by someone who went through all the lessons on it from start to finish.

What have you found most helpful? I’d love to hear about it. More importantly, bon courage!

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