Becoming Fluent in French: Listening is learning

In a previous job my manager commented that I was a “bursty worker.” I asked her what she meant so she explained that she’d observed that I would go at a project 110% and then take some time to recharge: I worked best in short (or sometimes sustained) but focused bursts. Luckily for me that was not a criticism and I was appreciative of her insight as it enabled me to consider the way I work and structure my day in a way that worked to my advantage. When I put my head down I really got on with it but inbetween times you’d never have known I could be super-productive. And so of course this is also my approach to learning French.

I realised this while out cycling with a friend who commented that she was impressed with my French speaking considering I wasn’t immersed in the language in the same way that she had been when she first lived in France many years ago. I appreciated the compliment: I have come a hell of a long way since we arrived here – almost two years ago to the day – when I knew little more than very basic holiday French, “l’addition, s’ilvous plait?” being about the most advanced thing I could say.

But being a “bursty worker” I think I give the impression, certainly to the likes of James who tends to focus more consistently, that I’m not really trying. To try and introduce more regular learning I started going along to the French class in the village (which I jokingly called the “English class” since most of the classes I attended, at least to start with, we mostly spoke in English!) but time pressures took over so that dropped off the radar. I was picking up a few useful verbs and phrases and if I spent 30 minutes between classes (I went biweekly) feeding my Anki flashcard deck, the information stuck. Despite calling it “the English class” I picked up alot of useful French as well as finding out some interesting stuff that was going on locally and learning about cultural nuances that other Brits have obvserved in their time living here. I doubt I’d know about apperro or that it’s considered rude to take wine along to a dinner invitation, if it werent’ for that class

I really should get back to it. It’s on my to-do list to pick it up again once school starts again, of course, and then I need to decide whether to stick with the beginner class, which is great, or to put myself out of my comfort zone and go to the next class up. The next class is more about conversational French. Basically, they talk – in French, obviously – for the duration of the class. I need this. I need to attune my ear more to the language. I know there are still gaping holes in my vocabulary and I expect it will be that way for a good number of years yet but while I can talk reasonably coherently if I need to go to a shop or the post office or do something practical, what I’m really struggling with is conversation. That’s partly because I seem to struggle to understand what anyone is saying to me and also because my mind just hasn’t reached a point where I can frame a question! It’s near on impossible to have a proper conversation without asking the other person a question or two.

So the next phase, along with a next push a building vocabulary, needs to focus on listening and comprehension. Advice offered to someone asking in a Facebook group about improving their French was very much focused on immersion, so having the radio on, watching TV (or films) and, of course, getting out there into the local native-speaking community. Given my time constraints all that seems more easily said than done!

My favourite “talk” radio station here is Culture, which seems to be the French equivalent of Radio 4 with a little more emphasis on art than politics and while pretty high-brow is also relatively easy to understand because they all speak so clearly. Then there’s TV. Well, we don’t have at TV. Furthermore I don’t seem to have time to watch TV. Perhaps I should be watching French TV now rather than writing this for the blog? Whatever. Not having a TV makes finding a channel or a programme I like a bit tricky. We used to watch Spiral on the Beeb (Engrenage as it is here) and I liked that, but my head isn’t in the space for settling down in my free 40 minutes of an evening for a gritty streetcop/crime thriller serial. I’d rather watch Mr Tumble, but as far as I know that’s not available in French.

There are some great podcasts I was listening to, so high on my list is making time of an evening to get back to listening to those. I particularly liked Learn French by Podcast and Learn French with Daily Podcasts (also called Daily French Pod). Another one to add to my list is Learn French with Alexa. I haven’t listened to myself (yet) but I’ve seen it recommended in a few online groups so will give it a try.

My other thought on improving my vocab was committing to learning one verb a week: yes, just one. If I’d been doing that from the outset I’d be up to 234 so far, which would be great. I wouldn’t be struggling so much with conjugation either! Maybe I already know that many, but I doubt it. One verb a week seems like a simple idea and, if I manage to commit to it, will certainly help to propel my speaking forwards, especially now the penny seems to have dropped in relation to the past and present tenses. I’m also starting to get my head about the importance of know which group a verb is in. All the native French know this and it’s key to understanding grammar and conjugation. I’d honestly never heard about it until I came here and never really grasped the importance of it until a few months ago when a neighbour was explaining a particular verb to James. It was one of those moments when something clicks. This is probably common, but with language learning I’ve noticed my brain just totally filters out any information that it’s not ready for. There’s not putting it all into a big pot then then drawing it all out. It’s one step at a time, in the same way that when you build a house you don’t put the windows in and the roof on before you’ve built the walls!

So that’s where I am with it. Moving forward but slowly. With a little more free time on the horizon it’s time to get back on track and have another burst of learning. I may even try and revive my Year Ahead Blogging Plan.

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