20-month progress update on learning French

Photo by John Murzaku on Unsplash

I started taking B1 French classes on Lingoda in January, and according to Lingoda I have now completed 17 hours of group study, which doesn’t feel like a lot. To be honest, I haven’t been the best at keeping up with these classes. Depending on the fluctuating state of my mental health, my pattern has been to take 3 classes in a week, skip a week due to fatigue, then take 3 classes again.

Meetings with my 1-on-1 conversation tutor on italki have also been sporadic. My tutor took off the entire month of February to chill by the beach in Argentina, which I fully support. She has since returned, but we have been meeting less than once a week because again, fatigue.

Lingoda has been an interesting experience because the quality of each class is so different. You’re almost always with a different teacher, and your classmates (of up to 4 other people) are always a rotating cast as well. I’ve observed that Lingoda French students generally fall into one of two camps: expats like me who live in francophone countries and are scrambling to shore up their French for the ease of daily life, and people in other countries — mostly the U.S. and Canada — who took French in high school or college and are trying to pick it back up.

The latter group is usually better at grammar and writing, but are often nervous when speaking and have trouble with pronunciation. (Especially people who are native/fluent Spanish speakers, because the two languages are deviously similar and yet different in so many ways!) The former tends to be better at speaking spontaneously and getting their ideas across, but can struggle with grammar and spelling.

I would put myself in the former camp. When I’m at the store and trying to tell a salesperson what I’m looking for, I’m less concerned about whether I’m conjugating the subjunctive tense correctly or assigning the right gender to a noun, and more concerned with whether they understand the point that I’m trying to convey. I make mistakes all the time when speaking, yet no Swiss person has ever corrected me. I assume they’re just too polite to do so.

This prioritization of speech over grammar, however, has led to a trade-off where I’m always the worst student in the group when it comes to grammatical exercises, of which there are SO. MANY. There seems to be an infinite number of verb tenses in French. Indicative. Subjunctive. Compound past. Future simple. Conditional. Imperfect. More-than-perfect (what the fuck?).

I refuse to believe that even native French speakers can get it right all the time. Judging by the number of native English speakers who write things like he came to Sharon and I’s wedding and he should of called me, I suspect that many French people struggle just as much to master their own language. Therefore, I am not that embarrassed by my poor conjugation skills.

To help polish my writing skills, however, I’ve taken to writing short French passages on italki lately. The cool thing about their community feature is that you can respond to a large number of system-generated prompts, and native speakers will correct your grammar for free. (I sometimes return the favor and correct passages written by English language learners.)

These corrections have helped me gain a lot of helpful insight into exactly where and how my French skills falter. For instance, here’s a passage I wrote today on how to protect the environment through everyday actions.

Pour protéger l’environnement, il faut utiliser moins de plastiques dans la vie quotidienne. J’essaie de faire du cafe et cuisiner à chez moi, et je ne commande l’alimentation a l’emporter souvent. Quand je voyage, je prends mes propres ustensiles au restaurant. Je fait du recyclage les papiers et cartons, les boteilles PET, la verre, et l’aluminium. C’est pas necessaire être parfait. Si tout le monde essaie un peu, on peut ameliorer l’etat de l’environnement beacoup.

A native French speaker made the following corrections:

Pour protéger l’environnement, il faut utiliser moins de plastiques dans la vie quotidienne. J’essaie de faire du cafe eté et de cuisiner à chez moi, et je ne commande l’alimentation a l’emporter souvent pas souvent à emporter. Quand je voyage, je prends mes propres ustensiles au restaurant. Je fait du recyclage les papiers et, les cartons, les bouteilles PET, lae verre, et l’aluminium. C’est pas necessaire d’être parfait. Si tout le monde essaie un peu, on peut beaucoup ameliorer l’eétat de l’environnement beacoup.

(Translation: To protect the environment, we need to use less plastic in everyday life. I try to make coffee and cook at home, and I do not order takeaway food often. When I travel, I bring my own utensils to the restaurant. I recycle paper, cardboard, PET bottles, glass and aluminium. It’s not necessary to be perfect. If everyone tries a little, we can improve the state of the environment by a lot.)

Based on this and other corrections I’ve gotten, my main takeaways are:

  • My French spelling is pretty bad. Which is funny, because I’m neurotic about spelling words correctly in English, but the skill has not transferred over. I am especially bad at spelling words that contain a lot of vowels.
  • I am also pretty terrible at assigning the correct gender to nouns. Above, for instance, I have misgendered the word glass.
  • I frequently forget whether letters should have accent marks over them, and also whether those marks should lean to the left or to the right.
  • I also suck at using prepositions. If I want to say “in”, should I use en or dans? When am I supposed to use de in front of a verb? No clue.

I’ve really enjoyed these daily writing exercises and intend to keep doing them. I’ve kept up a 10-day streak so far!

On a different note, I’m still frustrated with my listening comprehension. When I watch a press conference organized by the government, I can more or less understand 80% of what is said because it’s all in clear, proper French. However, when I’m watching one of those “man-on-the-street” interviews with everyday pedestrians in Paris, I frequently have to rely on the subtitles to parse what was said. And it’s not even that they use a lot of slang. They just talk really fast and seem to clump all the words together. A lot of the sounds get swallowed; instead of “il y a” you just hear “ya”, for instance.

Man, if I only had the foresight to study French in high school rather than Spanish. My life would be a thousand times easier right now.

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