Monday, July 23, 2018

How I learned some French

Is language learning interesting?  I mean, other people’s language learning?  I mean, mine.  I am not sure.  Maybe someone will find this useful.

I spent the last year working on my French.  Here’s what that meant.

Where I Started

I had taken French for a couple of years at the Alliance Française in Chicago, a slow once-a-week course, and I vacationed in France frequently.  A year ago in May, I took a week of French at CAVILAM in Vichy.  CAVILAM is an endless rolling French course.  Take a test Monday morning; start class at the appropriate level a couple of hours later.  Whee!  Just plunge in.

To my surprise – those Alliance Française classes, those were several years ago – I tested at level A2, “Basic / Elementary” in the framework commonly used in Europe, and a big step above A1, “Basic / Beginner,” what I had expected.  In American terms, I had made my way through the first semester of college French, however raggedly, and was ready for the second semester.

That test was amusing.  The first piece was five true-or-false questions.  Listen to a sentence, read another sentence about the first.  True or false?  My responses were:

Q1.  Hey, I understood that!
Q2.  Hey, I think I understood that.
Q3.  Well, I can make a guess.
Q4.  No idea.
Q5.  Hey, trick question – that wasn’t even French!

So, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 in a few minutes.  I guess the rest of the test was to identify lucky guessers.

Class in Lyon

In August, I took another placement exam, this time for the Alliance Française in Lyon.  Again, A2.  I spent September studying French for about six hours a day, half in class and half in the library.  To many people, this would sound miserable, although I will bet that many people who read Wuthering Expectations would like it pretty well.  Throughout the fall, I kept pushing hard on French study, sometimes in class, sometimes on my own, until I had completed what was effectively second-semester French.

I spent the winter and fall studying French by means of reading in French.  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

To skip to the end, my level is still A2.  My reading level is higher.

I had accumulated a number of ideas about the obstacles adult learners face, or create for themselves, in language classrooms.  It is possible that knowledge is a form of inoculation.

I cannot say, for example, that I was bothered by being among the older students in the class, thirty years older than the youngest, who seemed to be accomplishing more with less effort.  Eh, good for them.

Adults in the Language Classroom

I knew that adults often have, compared to children, more anxiety about making mistakes, about looking like fools.  Perhaps I had imagined my way through this fear already, or perhaps my temperament is otherwise – it is clearly otherwise, see Wuthering Expectations for no end of evidence – but I jumped in, volunteered, babbled until silenced, whatever I needed to do.  I had one great teacher in Lyon, who tailored her corrections to each student’s specific weaknesses.  “Anglicism,” she would tell me over and over, “anglicism, anglicism.”  I was ambitious.  “Let’s see if this word works – it might!”  But the important thing is I wasn’t shy.

Is the brain of the adult learner, the actual capacity to learn, different?  I don’t know.  Win some, lose some, I think.  The adult’s capacity for imitation is probably lower.  And my hearing is worse than it used to be, that was clear enough.  But I had learned a lot of ways to compensate – to study, to organize, to theorize.

I would do this again.  I would do it with a language new to me.  Spend the first week of a vacation in Italy in a language class, for example.

Next: I slowly shift back to literature.


  1. That does sound like fun! And (of course) welcome back. Literature ahoy!

  2. Thanks for sharing! I’m looking forward to your next installment. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish as a retiree, so this was of particular interest. Previous experience: French in jr high, high school and college, 2 yrs of Latin in high school, 1 1/2 yrs of Greek in college. Got through first year Spanish at local community college, class meeting 2x week for 2 hours with excellent teacher. One problem was in a pinch my foreign words seemed to be in one big drawer and my memory would rummage about and come up with French word (not necessarily even correct word) versus Spanish. Now in second year, there seems to be a separate Spanish drawer even if that means coming up empty. I’m much better at reading/writing than speaking/understanding spoken language, but that was true in high school and college as well. Do you know Edmund Wilson’s essay on learning Hebrew later in life? It gives me courage as does your account. Onward!

  3. Thanks!

    We are not typical tourists, thank goodness. A week of French vacation in Vichy, studying French, as prep for the rest of a vacation - a good idea. Fun, even.

  4. Congrats on your French studies! If you are interested in reaching B1 level, know that apart from being a book blogger, I'm also a French tutor. I'm French native, though I live in the US. I give all my classes through Skype, and take the student where he/she's at, with whatever goal they want. I'm very familiar with the DELF/DALF levels. Actually, one of my students just passed C1 level with a very good result. Let me know if you are interested

  5. Very interesting, especially your comments about being an adult learner, which has some resonance for me with my recent drawing class. A colleague of mine spent a lot of the last few years learning Italian. From everything he said, nothing propelled him further than the time he spent actually in Rome - and after that, his determined reading of Italian literature. He can now read nearly as easily / widely in Italian as in English - he read all of Ferrante's Neapolitan novels in the original, just for example.

  6. I do not know the Wilson essay. Thanks for the pointer.

    All of the little bits of language learning accumulate. The skills to some degree work across languages. My Spanish comprehension has been better since I have been studying my French. Ear training, I guess.

    Emma, thanks for the offer. How interesting. Maybe at some point.

    Rohan, your description of your colleague's experience is quite close to mine. It is where I am heading.

  7. I think your French is a lot better than what you let on in this post.

    Congrats on all the hard work. It's a difficult language to learn but it's a beautiful one.

  8. Of course this is a father speaking, but if he is barely above a beginner, I'd be very surprised. The time we spent with them in Lyon he functioned quite well--never got us lost, fed us well in restaurants, talked to people on the street. One generally wishes ones abilities were better, but his are very functional.

  9. Maybe. Looking at, for example, this more detailed description of the levels, I look more B1-ish. "I can understand [television etc.] when the delivery is relatively slow and clear." Ah, that is a big qualifier.

    According to that site's description, my reading level is B2/C1, which seems unlikely, and makes me distrust the whole thing.

    But, maybe.

  10. Thanks for sharing! I find this inspirational; I have vague aspirations of resurrecting my school Spanish that I seem to have mostly forgotten. But that thing about some adults being afraid to make mistakes--so me. It was only the immersive start of a semester in Italy that overcame my fear of speaking Italian to native-speakers--but then it became a fun challenge: Can I get through this conversation without the Italian switching to English? But despite that, even now I'm too shy to try out my Spanish with my native-speaking colleagues--and they're nice people! Maybe your inspiration will rub off... (Also, I agree--I really think learning one language helps with others. Almost all the French I can understand is due to Spanish/Italian.)

  11. Parisians always switch to English, instantly. The Lyonnaises were more likely to let me struggle.

    I found it easier to hear German, to pick out words, because of my efforts with French. I didn't know what the words meant, but I could hear them as words. Clearly ear training.

  12. Florentines tend to switch too, but I liked to go to the local food market, where I could almost always complete a transaction entirely in Italian--not many tourists shopped there, so the conversations were more likely to stay away from English.

  13. Right, it's the tourists in Paris, and I suppose Florence, or not just the tourists but the faster pace in Paris - "C'mon, get moving!"

  14. Another advantage of an adult learner may be knowing some grammar. It certainly streamlines learning direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns when you don’t have to learn the concept of what they mean. And definitely having met the reflexive in French made it easier in Spanish, and so on.

  15. Yes, we lose that imitative capacity but we know how to learn rules.

  16. I'm coming late to these posts on your French immersion, but how delightful, the whole thing. You give me courage to work on Italian. Though I took French classes in elementary school up through the first year of university, I allowed my French to lie dormant for many years. What really brought it back was reading literature, starting very hesitatingly with Simenon's Le Haut-Mal. The first pages were a struggle, but I marveled at how quickly I then proceeded. I'm fluent enough now that if a Parisian switches to English, I keep on in French and usually manage to pass (though I have to say: having a French spouse has helped immensely).

    I'm now having a similar experience with the piano after a couple decades away. The shock of appearing to have forgotten everything was nearly too much to bear, but perseverance is paying off, slowly but surely.

  17. Strange what sticks around or can be dug up after total neglect.