Musings on Learning French

One of my goals for 2014 was to learn French. I went into it feeling fairly confident. After all, I learned to speak fluent Spanish and they’re both Romantic languages. Besides, it’s the age of apps and there are way more resources now than there were back in the late 90’s when I learned Spanish. The big difference is that with Spanish I was living in Mexico for almost 2 years then later got a refresher while living in Uruguay and Argentina for another year. This time around, with French, I don’t have the benefit of being able to pack up and move to a French-speaking country. The other possible disadvantage, as people are all too eager to point out, is that I’m a significantly large number of years older than I was when I started learning Spanish.

In more than one way, the experience has been humbling. Progress has been spotty and slow. I’m nowhere near where I imagined I’d be at the beginning of the year given the time I’ve put in. On the other hand though, it has been exhilarating starting over with learning something new. There have been many moments where I remember just how much real effort I had to put into Spanish. It’s easy to look back on it and think “ah yes. I was young and living in Mexico, the language practically taught itself to me.” But really that wasn’t the case. As I spend time learning French, I’m brought back to the many, many hours spent with my head buried in Spanish grammar books, making and studying flashcards and pocket-sized lists of words, and probably most importantly, fumbling through conversations with unsympathetic interlocutors over and over, just trying to make myself understood.

It makes me wonder, have the 15 years that have passed since then really significantly dulled my language acquisition skills? Had I approached Spanish as casually as I have for many of my efforts to learn French, would my learning have been just as slow? Probably close to it. I don’t feel more forgetful or more hardheaded, I simply feel that I haven’t created the opportunities to cement what I’m learning in my mind by going out and actually speaking French. It seems that the consensus among linguistics experts is that my ability to learn a language has actually, physically, deteriorated. I’m still not willing to believe that though.

Apart from the language itself, a rewarding part of learning French is the chance I’ve had to dive into French culture. I’ve tried some French recipes, which for a practical non-cooker, has been a stretch, but surprisingly fun. I’ve watched tons of French movies and YouTube videos. I’ve tried listening to French podcasts and radio stations with varying degrees of cognition. I’ve read books and poetry by French authors (mostly translated to English). I still have not, as I mentioned before, reached out and talked with real, live French people. Which brings me to the conclusion of these musings.

My goal at the beginning of the year was to learn French in 2014, then Russian in 2015. Instead, I’m going to spend 2015 working more on French. I’m going to try to take some of the lessons I’ve learned, and will write about here soon, to heart and be more deliberate with my practice. Most importantly though, I’m going to get out and speak some French.