In my life, there have been few decisions more impactful than when I decided to learn French.
Indeed, my French journey has taken me through nearly every significant language learning event you could think of.
All of those diverse experiences with the French language and culture have taught me countless lessons which have gone on to influence how I've learned many other languages, as well.
Today, I'd like to share three lessons that learning French has taught me; lessons that I hope, in turn, will help you get the most out of your own French-learning experience.
1. How to Learn French Outside of the Classroom
I first began learning French in the same environment as many language learners do: a high school classroom.
Within that classroom, it was my teacher who decided what I learned about the French language, when I learned it, and the methods I used to make that knowledge my own.
While that was enough for many of my classmates, it wasn't good enough for me.
I loved French, and I was going to take every opportunity to learn it, even if that meant I would have to strike out on my own.
So I did.
In one of the most important language learning decisions of my life, I decided that I was going to take control of my French destiny by learning as much as I could outside of the classroom, even in my free time.
This was huge for my motivation. At home, I could pick and choose which activities I used to learn French. If I didn't want to use a certain textbook, I didn't have to; if I didn't want to memorize grammar tables, I didn't have to do that, either.
What I did do was follow my motivation. Fortunately, around the time I decided to learn French on my own, I realized that I could watch France 2, perhaps the biggest public television channel in France, from the comfort of my own home.
This gave me access to a near-constant stream of new and interesting French content—talk shows, documentaries, news broadcasts, and movies.
After my discovery, I spent months at a time practically glued to the television; every night, I'd throw on France 2 and take pages upon pages of notes.
I was hooked.
It didn't take long before my French skills began to eclipse those of my classmates; though we initially had similar levels of exposure to the French language, my avid TV watching soon gave me so much French experience that it would have taken my classroom-bound peers years to catch up.
If you want to learn French, you don't need to necessarily spend all of your nights and weekends watching France 2, as I did (though it certainly helps!)
How can you do this?
2. Cover all 4 Language Areas At Once
French can be a difficult language to learn because of one simple fact: the written and spoken languages are quite different.
While languages like Italian and Spanish have a written language that is a reasonably accurate representation of the spoken language, French does not. Written French looks almost nothing like spoken French sounds.
If you want to learn French well, then, you have to quickly develop both your listening, reading, and writing skills so that you can create a strong mental "bond" between the written and spoken language.
If you don't do this, it can have some serious consequences for your French progress.
Remembering back to my high school days again, we had an actual French student who took the class with us. He was a native speaker of the language, but had moved to Italy before he got very far in his formal education.
This meant that while he spoke the language perfectly, he had a very difficult time writing it.
If that can happen to a French native speaker, you can be sure that it will happen for you, too, if you don't make the key choice to learn the language holistically, and develop your listening, reading, and writing skills in tandem with one another.
How do you get started?
Seek out resources that have both audio and written components, rather than just one of the two.
This includes materials such as:
These resources are great because, in a majority of cases, they give you written and spoken language that are one-to-one equivalents of each other; you can be sure that what you're hearing is what you're reading, and vice versa.
Practicing listening and reading simultaneously with materials such as the above will help you mentally "link" French speech and writing in your head. With enough experience, you'll be able to mentally "see" written French as you hear it spoken, and mentally "hear" spoken French as you read it.
3. Live the Language and the Culture
As a beginner learner, it's easy to see French as something that exists solely within the walls of a classroom or between the covers of a textbook. The language we get from these sources can often feel processed, or sanitized, like a wild animal put on display in a zoo.
While learning the language in the classroom, as in watching the animal at the zoo, we forget that there's a lot more than what is being placed in front of us—animals have natural habitats and social groups, while French has a living, breathing culture.
To get the most out of your French learning experience, you need to escape the proverbial zoo and go experience the French language where it truly thrives: among French speakers!
Note that I didn't say you need to go to France. Certainly, going to France (or any other French-speaking country) will help you learn the language, but even then, what you really need to do is interact with French-speaking people. That's what makes the most difference.
In my case, it all began when I met a French girl while vacationing in Prague in 2007. I didn't know it at the time, but that girl would become my girlfriend, and we would go on to date for a number of years. I even moved to France for a time during our relationship.
Aside from the obvious benefits of having a French speaker around at all times, getting to know my girlfriend taught me a surprising amount about the French culture that I probably could have never learned elsewhere.
Getting really good at these things isn't essential if you just want to be competent speaker of French, but if you want to become native-like in your skills, then getting first-hand experience with these important cultural details is key. And believe me when I say that you can't really learn these things from a book!
Time to Start Your Own French Journey
Ultimately, your experience with the French language will not be the same as mine.
Though there will be some experiences we share with the language, there are just as many that will be unique to you. Also unique will be the lessons you take away from the French-learning experience as a whole.
In sharing these three lessons from my own French journey, it is my hope that you one day go beyond the French that's confined to your textbooks and online courses, and truly experience the wide world of French that lives beyond those things—in the hearts, minds, and ways of life shared by actual French-speaking people.