Tuesday, July 24, 2018

How I read some French

What do I do, I read, right, so I was reading French from the beginning.  French books and French bookstores identify reading level clearly, so the only question was how old I was.  At first I was maybe 9, maybe 10, but with effort I aged quickly.

Another barrier adult language-learners face is a reluctance to read children’s literature.  Overcome that neurosis, is my advice, although with French I would add first that a number of important authors have written for children, so read those; second, a number of French children’s books are of such high cultural significance that you ought to read them anyways, Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (1943) being the most famous example although René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Petit Nicolas (1959?), a kind of French Peanuts in prose, was even more instructive.  Goscinny is the creator of Asterix, also essential.

The latest Asterix volume, the 37th, now written by someone else, was released in October, and I saw it almost literally everywhere, read by almost literally everyone; it was easily the best-selling book in France in 2017.  When was the last time we had a book like that in the U.S.?

And third, the important thing here is forward motion, to read anything readable, anything not so difficult and frustrating that I stop reading.  My breakthrough came in November, after less than three months of intensive French, when, trying a Maupassant collection, I discovered that I had turned let’s say 12 and that I had entered the collège as a 6ème, or in U.S. terms that I was in junior high.  I have no idea what is read in American junior highs now, but in France, they read literature.  I love literature.  Balzac and Hugo, Molière and Maupassant, Michel Tournier and Marguerite Yourcenar.  I could – I did –  read Molière in French.  Kinda dumb Molière, one-act prose imitations of Italian farces, but still, real Molière, in real French.

This felt like some kind of accomplishment.

More breakthroughs: the first time I decided I did not need a book in English over lunch – my French book would do.  Reading without a dictionary, an exercise I still regularly use.  Each increment of pages: twenty French pages in a day, thirty, sixty.  My first book longer than two hundred pages.  I have yet to read one over three hundred.  Five hundred – that hardly seems possible.

As a matter of energy expenditure, I could feel my improvement.  At first, ten pages in an hour, of a book written for 10 year-olds, exhausted me.  But soon enough it was twenty pages an hour, and of something harder.  Now, twenty pages of struggle an hour is for Flaubert.  Something simpler, like the Jules Verne novel I am now reading, I merely read, although slowly.

So now I can read in French, more slowly and less accurately than I could read in English translation.  There are more books that I can read, but I was hardly running out of books.  What good does that do me?  Why did I bother?  Let’s not pursue this idea.

I fear that my new skill could easily rust with neglect.  It is necessary that I read French every day.  Almost every day.  If you see, in my Currently Reading box to the upper right, that there is nothing French, please, give me a poke with a sharp stick.  “Get reading!”

Tomorrow: what I read.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences! This gives me some hope... I have always wanted to learn French, though now I've settled for reading only. It's just making the time that is the challenge.

  2. Learning to read French is easier than learning French, there is no question. But still, yes, the time, it takes a lot of time.

  3. That was interesting. Perhaps inspiring. I would like to find some scraps of time for studying a language.

  4. The Alliance Française classes I took in Chicago, where I started studying French, were pretty scrappy. A couple of hours on Saturday morning, with ten week quarters, so plenty of "vacation."

  5. I too have yet to break the 300 page barrier in reading in foreign languages, but this is such a great description of the process. I found Madame de la Fayette's books a great way to start reading actual literature in French, as they were short and somewhat repetitive in vocab, while being obscure enough in English that I hadn't already read them. Alas, Malraux's La Condition humaine is currently proving too much for me, even though I've skimmed it in English.

    Btw, the French seems to have bled over--it's Gabriele D'Annunzio you're currently reading, not Gabrielle.

  6. Ah, thanks for the correction.

    Madame de Lafayette - an impressive start! Her books are assigned at the lycée level. I am still in the collège, although higher than I said above. A 4ème, or perhaps a dim but persistent 3ème.

    I have maybe become a little too obsessed with reading level, but it has worked for me.

    The Jules Verne novel I have going will just barely break the 300 page barrier, so that will be another little milestone. The reading level is pretty low.

  7. Exciting, isn't it? Your post reminds me of the similar progress I made with Russian. A few decades ago I occasionally made my way through the occasional work in Russian just to keep my hand in; it required lots of dictionary work and was kind of a hassle, but I was pleased with myself. Then in the late '90s I got serious about Russian lit and started pushing myself; for a while I read mainly poetry, which is nice and short and gives immediate rewards, and then graduated to longer prose, picking up more words and idioms along the way and thus needing fewer dictionary breaks. But my attitude was still "I'll read Very Great Books in Russian, and things that haven't been translated if they sound really interesting, but it's easier to read translations if it's not a Very Great Book." So I read War and Peace in Russian, but Gorky in English (even though the translation was awful). The breakthrough came when a Russian friend insisted I read Grossman's Life and Fate in Russian even though there was an acclaimed translation; I did, and realized 1) I could do it! and 2) it was so much better in Russian -- not only did the translator leave stuff out and mistranslate stuff, the texture and flavor of the Russian was intensely pleasurable. Plus it turned out to be a Very Great Book! So now I read everything in Russian, and (surprise) it's gotten easier and easier -- the other day I read 60 pages of Turgenev. So keep it up, and you too can wind up with shelves and shelves of books in a foreign tongue!

  8. French has likely, over time, been better served than Russian in English. More good translators, more readers with some, or lots, of French. Still, yes, what you said, definitely.

    The first time I read 60 pages of French in a day, it was not anything nearly as difficult as Turgenev. It was Gaston Leroux's Le Mystère de la chambre jaune, a detective novel, and hackwork. But I was surprised that I was able to do it. Anything similar since has been with a mystery, too.

    Now that I think of it, Simenon's Maigret novels could serve as good benchmarks, since they're all the same length and difficulty. How fast am I reading, with how much effort, how many trips to the dictionary, etc.

  9. Great advice! So much fun for me to read about your pathways through language learning. Do keep reading French--based on how much Spanish I've lost, I can definitely attest to the fact that it goes quickly without practice.

    I tried this path with Italian--start with a children's book, Pinocchio, but too much vocabulary. And perhaps too long for a first try? But I intend to start with children's books and other, lighter, novels when I finally get back to Spanish.

  10. Poking around French Amazon, I find an abridged Pinocchio for 9 year-olds. The real thing must be pretty high level, actually.

    It was so helpful that the levels of the books in France were well-labeled. So many school editions, just what I needed.

  11. I’m enjoying reading about your explorations in reading French and seeing how you have gone about it so methodically. My approach has been more hit or miss, trying several times over the years to rejuvenate my school French with reading some each day. A short book of Colette’s about animals worked nicely, but then, what to read next? Pere Goriot was too much of a stretch for my skills, and I wandered off to other things. A dual language copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters later rewoke my interest, since when the English text left me baffled, I could often puzzle it out from the French. A few years later, a book I picked up at a sale called Easy French Reader with short readings increasing in difficulty worked well in short daily increments and even the comprehension questions for each section which I tried to answer in French were helpful, I think. The book progressed from a section about two students in Paris to short vignettes about French history and finally to short stories by Daudet, Zola, Theuriet and Maupassant. Like riding a bike with no training wheels, wobbly though I was. After that, I turned to a little blue book originally from my parents’ shelves, French by Yourself: A Quick Course in Reading for Adult Beginners and Other by Marc Ceppi (1951) which has short selections from French literature and like you, I started with the poetry. Then I wandered off into learning some Spanish, although I hope to return to French sometime. One thing that strikes me is great respect for your increasing endurance as a French reader. 15 minutes/day was about what I could manage.

  12. Colette's Dialogues de bêtes is a collège-level text, and I will likely read it soonish. The Balzac and Montesquieu are lycée-level. So who knows when.

    There is something to be said for a methodical approach. It was easier being there, in France, though. I was just doing what everyone else was doing.

    It was a big breakthrough, realizing that I could just read French, on the train or a flight or whatever, if it was not too hard, a Maigret novel or something similar. I was slow - I am slow - but I am really reading, just cooking along.

  13. Almost everything will rust with neglect. Keep at it. As I noted in a comment i just left on your previous post, Simenon is what helped me most in de-oxidizing my rusty French.

    I have no idea what is read in American junior highs now, but in France, they read literature.

    And HOW. My French goddaughter, now 14, is more well read than I was at twice her age. Her school gave her a list of 40 or 50 books she might want to read over the summer, with the expectation that a student would pick two or three. She's up to 30, and still has a few weeks before la rentrée. They're books like Madame Bovary and L'Ecume des jours and L'Étranger and John Steinbeck's short novels. And she's reading Jane Austen in English.

  14. Man. Well, that is what I am talking about with French humanities education. Whole 'nother world. Two or three is well ahead of most American students.

    I wish I liked Simenon more! He is OK.