December 2021 update: My French has improved since writing this post in January 2021. I have posted a new version of this post here.
Let’s discuss a light topic today: learning French. This January marks my 18th month of formally studying French; I moved to Geneva with close to zero knowledge of the language, and am now at roughly the B1 level, judging by the standards set out by the CEFR.
But what does B1 mean in practice? Here’s a real-life example from today.
Today, Geneva saw its first snow of the year. The snow wasn’t that heavy, but unsurprisingly public transportation came to a standstill and all the roads around my office were closed. After waiting for half an hour for a bus that never came, I ordered a taxi. It arrived after a few minutes, and our conversation (in French) went as follows.
Taxi driver: Hello!
Me: Good evening!
Driver: It's for you, right, Madame? (Making sure I was the one who actually ordered the taxi)
Me: Yes yes, that's right.
Driver: You're going to [address], Madame?
Me: Yes, that's right.
Driver: It took me a long time to get to your location. It's snowing so much!
Me: Thank you so much.
Driver: My pleasure. It's not normally like this, the roads.
Me: Yes, and there's no bus.
Driver: There's no bus because all the roads are closed around here! %%^&O&%^^$#$%@#$@#. I think there have been some accidents.
Me: Waouh, that's crazy! (Understood the gist of what he was saying)
Driver: %$%^&((&^%$$$$$%@@*(&. Are you in agreement, Madame?
Me: .... Sorry, what? (This time completely clueless)
Driver: (More slowly) There is another %%&&$^%$^ ahead. Shall we turn around and try a different way? Try to find a road that is not closed.
Me: Okay, yes, maybe that will work. (Picking up that %%&&$^%$^ probably means road block or traffic jam)
End scene. I think what separates B1 from A2 is that I can engage in and understand conversation that is slightly more complex than making appointments and providing basic information about myself, but when unfamiliar vocabulary and rapid speech are thrown in (B2), then it’s much harder to keep up my end of the dialogue.
Whenever I talk to a native French speaker, I find myself having to ‘fill in the blanks’ on words that I do not recognize, and so much of it is guesswork: they’re probably saying X, right? Based on the context, it would make the most sense to assume that they’re saying Y. Most of the time, I am right, but then I usually don’t have the words to respond eloquently except to say, yes, agree, okay, etc.
In my French journey so far, I have tried four different methods: immersion in a francophone environment (18 months and counting); in-person classes (8 months); one-on-one conversation practice via italki (8 months and counting); and virtual classes via Lingoda (1 month and counting).
Is there a particular method that works better than others? The short answer is no. I think they are all useful tools in their own way, and they can complement each other rather well. Here’s a bit more about my experience with each method thus far.
(By the way, I paid 33 Swiss francs, or about USD 37, for that 2-mile taxi ride. I also gave the driver a 5 euro tip because the weather was so bad. Welcome to Switzerland!)
In my view, it is unlikely that an adult can become fluent in French simply through living in a francophone region. Oui in France has an excellent blog post expanding on this very subject. French is hard. The pronunciations are weird, the grammar doesn’t work the same way as English, and a lot of the rules don’t make any sense.
As an English-speaking expat, opportunities to speak French at length can actually be surprisingly rare. Here in Geneva especially, many people will switch to English quickly after you make a few stumbles in French or just seem nervous/confused. If I didn’t make the effort to study French and take classes, I would most likely remain at the same level for years and even decades: able to call to make a doctor’s appointment and order at a restaurant, but no more.
The city of Geneva offers matchmaking services for language exchange. I had three French-English exchange partners, and all three ended in abject failure even before COVID. First there was French Astrid. She and I met twice, and she gave me an old book called Living and Working in Switzerland, but our schedules had no overlap after I started working. Then there was Senegalese Momadou, who was also fluent in Spanish, but he was too busy with his thesis as a graduate student. Finally there was Swiss Alina, who was nice but literally could not stop smoking, which was very European but unfortunately a dealbreaker for me.
Honestly, I think the reason this never worked out was the fact that we weren’t being paid. People are flaky as hell. There’s very little incentive to take time out of your day to go meet someone and help them practice your language for free, and often life gets in the way and priorities shuffle.
If anything, learning French through immersion is more confusing and convoluted than learning through class. In French class, you can at least start with the basics: hello, goodbye, numbers, colors. In immersion, you’re just thrown into the deep end of the pool right away. You need to know the French name for ‘mattress’ at the store, AND you need to be able to read and sign a French apartment lease, AND you need to know how to count. Which do you focus on first? Priorities!
Ultimately, the only “extras” that I get with immersion are that I can understand the question ‘would you like a bag?’ at checkout, and I know how to pronounce the names of places. But I’d say that’s only about a 5% advantage over living in a non-francophone area.
Cost: About CHF 30 per two-hour class, 2x / week
As soon as I moved to Geneva, I started taking classes two nights a week at a local school for adults, Ifage. I remember feeling humiliated, flustered and utterly defeated the very first day, because the teacher spoke in French and only French. The textbook was also only in French. I was incredulous: how was I supposed to understand the course materials and learn anything if I didn’t speak ANY French at all to begin with?
This method was painful, but it worked. Within a few classes, I was able to understand the gist of the teacher’s instructions and the new vocabulary words introduced each class. I also felt better after I found out that a lot of the people in the class had been in Geneva for a while already; one person had lived here for ten years and was just now starting classes.
The benefit of these classes was that they built a very solid foundation for grammar and pronunciation rules. I quickly learned that if a word starts with a vowel, it’s usually pronounced in one breath as the word preceding it, as if they have merged into one. Grammar-wise, we moved steadily from the present tense to the past tense, then the future, then the imperative. (I still haven’t learned the subjunctive tense, lol.) We learned how to conjugate reflexive verbs and to negate actions.
I was just a month or so into A2 when classes shut down due to COVID. We were on break for three months or so, then came back to finish out the semester in person during the summer. I decided not to continue with the next level for a few reasons. First, the second wave was obviously coming, and I wasn’t comfortable going to in-person classes anymore. Second, they did offer virtual classes, but could I justify paying expensive Swiss prices for virtual classes that could be delivered from anywhere in the world? And third — these classes were just tiring. A solid two hours at night, after an already long work day, that prevented me from eating dinner on time. I complained incessantly about how exhausted and burned out I was.
Looking back, though, I’m glad I started my French learning with this approach, because all of the time and mental energy I invested into these classes helped me build a strong base. It helped me understand fundamentally how French works and how to structure ideas and sentences in a way that is uniquely French. That was essential.
1-on-1 conversation practice with italki
Cost: USD 6 per 45 minutes, 1x / week
In May, while still on break from in-person classes, I decided to start taking French conversation classes on italki. Rather than formal, structured classes, these were just free-flowing one-on-one sessions to practice French. The drawback to in-person classes was that there was very little time to speak, and when we did have the chance to practice speaking, it was with other classmates, and we were all just bad, period. There was no possibility of improvement.
I found my teacher’s profile through specifically searching for people who were natives of Switzerland. It was important for me to learn not French French, but Swiss French. There aren’t that many differences, since Geneva is so snugly ensconced in the arms of France, but it was still important to be familiar with Swiss accents and Swiss nuances. For instance, my teacher and I often laugh about how Swiss French speakers tend to go into high-pitched, trilling falsettos as a way of showing politeness (see this video for a sense of what I’m talking about; it’s supposed to be exaggerated for comedic effect, but that’s actually how a lot of people working in customer service actually talk).
The first time we met on Skype, I was terrible. I had been in Switzerland for almost a year at that point, and despite being able to read most signs and newspapers, I couldn’t carry on a conversation to save my life. It was a shocking wake-up call: I couldn’t speak in French. Couldn’t assemble a basic sentence beyond my name is Summer and I live in Geneva. I was effectively mute.
Since then, we have met almost weekly. At the beginning, she helped me practice scripts for everyday scenarios, like calling to make a haircut appointment and checking in to a hotel. Later, as we got to know each other better and as my French progressed, the conversation became more like checking in on a friend. I recount to her mundane events like going to the dentist. She tells me about her search for a new apartment.
This is honestly the most important thing one can do to improve their French, in my opinion. Speaking French as much as possible, for as long as possible, with native speakers. Don’t worry so much about using perfect grammar. Getting the right pronunciation is more important. I often don’t understand French speakers, but very rarely do they not understand me, because I work very intentionally to replicate the filler words, the sounds, the accents that I hear from French speakers. If they can understand you, then you’ve succeeded.
Virtual classes with Lingoda
Cost: 6 euros per one-hour class, 3x / week
Last autumn, I began musing to my French conversation teacher that I felt stuck again. Like my knowledge of French had plateaued. It was exactly the point of frustration that I was describing earlier regarding the difference between B1 and B2: yes, I could call the plumber and get him to come to my house, but when he started explaining what was wrong with my plumbing, I was lost.
It made me feel deeply incompetent, like a child, and there was of course also the element of race: as an Asian-American who grew up in the South, the fear of racism, of tribalism, is something that’s burned into me from childhood. The secondhand fear that I felt when the school bus would pass by a construction site, and the white boys would poke their heads out the window and yell at the hardworking crew, “go back to Mexico!” After the 2016 election — and after the terrorist attack in Charlottesville — I understood finally that so many of my fellow Americans were merely tolerating my existence in their country. If they could expel me, deport me, get rid of me and my family in some way, they would.
I don’t want to be tolerated. That’s not enough. I want to be accepted. In the United States, if someone treated me questionably, made racist assumptions about my ability to speak English, I could at least push back with, “I’m American, you asshole.” Here, I don’t have that card. I am a foreigner, and I don’t speak French well, and sometimes it makes me feel so insecure and alien that I question what I’m doing here.
Phew, that got heavy. All this to say — I won’t be able to feel at ease until I reach C1 in French, probably. Full fluency, that is. That’s why I signed up with Lingoda earlier this month. I like how its classes are fully structured and fleshed out by theme, and I have full flexibility in booking classes at times that work for my schedule. For instance, last week I attended a class on combining pronouns: for instance, how do you say, ‘I gave it to him?’ or ‘we offer them to you’? That’s the type of material that I need to learn.
There are a lot of teachers on Lingoda, and I’ve encountered four of them so far. The styles are quite different. One was from Cameroon and very efficient, but rather brusque. One was from Côte d’Ivoire and very friendly and engaged, but also made some weird comments about China when he learned that the other student in the class was Chinese (for instance, saying that China was famous for the kimono and sushi). One was French and sweet but very nervous and seemed confused about grammar. The last one was also French and was just perfect, full marks. I’ve made a note of her name to keep taking more classes with her in the future.
Because the quality of the teachers on Lingoda seems to be a bit lower than what I was used to in the physical French school environment, I would not rank Lingoda as my first choice for starting out French from scratch. If budgets allow, I’d recommend taking virtual classes with a professional language school instead, maybe something like the Alliance Française if that’s an option.
Here are a few other tools that I rely on regularly for improving or just maintaining my French.
The “19h30” news programme with RTS, Swiss national radio. It lasts for about half an hour every night, there are subtitles (though not always accurate), and the speakers are very clear and easy to understand because they’re Swiss. I’m told RTS is sometimes geoblocked outside Switzerland, so an alternative is the YouTube channel of French news station RMC.
The Easy French channel on YouTube. Consists mostly of on-the-street interviews with pedestrians in Paris; great way to learn popular slang and brush up on listening comprehension, because they speak very fast, but there are subtitles in both French and English.
The French in Plain Sight channel on YouTube. Very helpful French tips from the perspective of a native English speaker who understands the struggle very well.
The baking competition / comedy C’est du gâteau ! on Netflix. It’s a French remake of one of my favorite reality shows, Nailed It!, in which terrible home bakers compete to create terrible and often unintentionally hilarious cakes.