French is really hard and I am bad at it


This blog post would also work if I just published the title without any text in the body, but I’ll elaborate just a little.

I have now been living in Geneva for nearly three-and-a-half months. I arrived with a flimsy and uneven understanding of French; I had casually done Duolingo French on and off for the past year, and I also had a grasp on some fairly unusual French vocabulary words, thanks to handling graphic design in three languages for my former job in the environment and forestry sector. (Who else could tell you, without a moment’s hesitation, that the French term for ‘tenure rights’ is droits fonciers?)

All this to say: my French reading comprehension is fairly good. Everything else — particularly listening — is very, very bad.

I enrolled in French classes almost immediately after I arrived. Since the first week of August, I have been attending evening classes twice a week, with only the occasional week off here and there for public holidays and school breaks. I’d estimate that I’ve completed 42 hours of formal learning thus far.

There are six levels to mastering French: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. I am currently at level A1.2. Yes, there are decimal levels. I have to make it all the way through A1.4 to graduate to A2. Even B1 feels like an impossible dream.

(Side note: apparently there is a new law in Switzerland requiring work permit holders and their spouses to be able to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in French, or, in the case of other regions, German/Italian/Romansh. On the one hand, as the employee of an international organization, I am technically not subject to this rule. On the other hand, what else am I going to do with my free time? Sit at home and watch even more old episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine?)

Some days it feels like my French will never improve, but some days I am surprised at what I can suddenly understand: the occasional short phrase a stranger says into the phone. A sign at the supermarket. A successful exchange at the train station ticket counter.

What else am I doing to improve my French? Here’s what I have tried:

  • Language exchange partners. Geneva runs an official matchmaking program for people interested in language exchange. When I first arrived, I was immediately matched with Astrid, a lovely French woman who was also fluent in English and German. We met twice, but ultimately couldn’t get our schedules to line up. I’m currently matched with another partner, Momadou, but we’re having similar troubles setting up a second meeting. (Update: Momadou and I have also since ghosted each other.)
  • TV and movies. This is probably what will work best for me in the long run. I will watch a French-language program three times: first with English subtitles to absorb the content; again with English subtitles, this time paying close attention to how the words match the subtitles; and finally with French subtitles, focusing on listening comprehension and pronunciation. I have really enjoyed French-Moroccan comedian Gad Almaleh’s standup special on Netflix and the new French spinoff of the baking competition comedy Nailed It!. These contemporary shows are also super helpful for learning slang and understanding how ordinary people actually talk.
  • Websites and apps. Duolingo and Memrise were helpful at one point, but now that I have realized my most acute challenge is in the area of simply not being able to understand people when they speak quickly, these apps, which tend to focus more on vocab and short phrases, are no longer as useful. I do think I will turn back to them eventually once my listening gets better.

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