I first learned French at school although if you have read the ‘About Me’ section of this blog, you will have read that my first experiences learning French were not very positive. I started at age 11 and stopped at age 18. Generally, in UK state schools, class sizes are too big for language learning and not enough time is dedicated to it, so most of us leave school and cannot have a conversation in a foreign language with a native speaker. In my experience, I had an awful French teacher too who made me not want to continue to learn the language and after several years, I couldn’t really speak it anyway because we were frightened of speaking and making mistakes because she would make us feel stupid. If we made a spelling mistake, she would call us “dyslexic” and joke about it! I’m sure in today’s education system that she would never be allowed to do those things!
Because of the above, I studied Spanish with a better teacher from age 16, then Italian and Portuguese from age 18. After doing many other language courses over the years, I came back to French 18 months ago with a lot of language learning experience behind me. I originally booked an Italki skype lesson with a non-native French teacher. I sent her a message at first to say I was very unconfident because of my school years. I was hoping that being a professional teacher and the fact I’d sent her this message meant that I’d have a patient and sympathetic teacher. I was wrong! She was not very motivating and was very critical of my mistakes and said “you have a lot of things you need to improve on”, which of course I knew as I did say I was almost a beginner! Then she asked me to read a text. However, she interrupted the whole time and wouldn’t allow me to read a complete sentence. I felt very discouraged and my confidence was knocked again. I waited a few more weeks and booked a lesson with a different teacher, Kim, a native speaker with a lot of experience. I was very happy with her patience, methods and approach and I have continued to have regular lessons with her.
Once I reached B1 level, I then started having informal skype lessons also on Italki as well as continuing my formal lessons with Kim. The informal lessons were with Esteph and each time, she would send me a magazine or newspaper article on a different theme. She would then ask me questions about the theme, ask me to read the text aloud and she would correct my mistakes. She would ask me lots of questions about my opinions and experiences to do with the theme of the article and this really helped to expand my vocabulary.
Once I had reached a solid B1 level, I decided to go to France for a few days with the intention of speaking French the whole time. I went to the lovely little town of Carcassonne outside of the main tourist season. Carcassonne has a medieval castle towering over the whole town. Low season was the best time for me to go as it can get very crowded in summer. There are lots of medieval buildings around the town, interesting churches and museums and on the old bridge there is a tiny 16th century church. I found the church by accident and went inside and had the place to myself!
My hotel was quite basic but adequate, about a 15 minute walk away from the castle. As it was low season, the owners had time to talk to me every day. I told them I was learning French and they then spoke to me in French the whole time.
I am a vegetarian so buying food isn’t always that easy outside of my own country and I’m not always familiar with local dishes. This gave me another challenge though each day when I had to discuss food options. I found a lovely little cafe called Cafe Bastid where they made me a lovely egg-based dish with salad and some cheese. It was delicious! I may not have got that if I couldn’t speak French.
I also like buying some reading material in other countries. It has to be on subjects I am interested in to ensure I will read them. In Carcassonne, I bought a book about the daily lives of women in medieval times and a National Geographic magazine, both in French of course! These are both subjects I am very interested in so I was glad to find them on my short trip.
The trip has also highlighted areas I need to work on for improvement (I would like my French to reach the level of my Italian or Spanish). I still can find it difficult to follow everything being said when native French speakers speak to each other, but then again that depends on the vocabulary being used and I’d like to be quicker at thinking in French but I know that will improve soon, as I remember being at that stage with my better languages. Overall, I was very glad to take this short trip and luckily from the UK, the flights to France are very cheap. Apart from helping out some Spanish tourists with directions in Spanish, I spoke French the whole time to everyone I met and at the hotel and I was very happy to know that I was able to do everything I wanted without difficulty.
These are the resources I have used to learn French:
- Italki – My main resource for Skype lessons with Kim and Esteph.
- Verbix – for verb conjugations
- TV5 Monde – Short videos, grammar and reading exercises for French learners at all levels from A1. I regularly watch the videos and there is also a transcript with exercises and my tutor Kim uses one of these videos to discuss in each lesson. I watch the video before the lesson and there are exercises which vary depending on the student’s level.
- Lawless French – A website with texts, grammar and audio-based resources to suit all levels.
- French Voices Podcasts – A series of podcasts that you can listen to for free and download the transcript. There are further payable features if you wish to use them. The topics are varied and interesting and involve the host interviewing a native French speaker about their passion or their area of expertise. I’d recommend this for levels B1 and above.
- EuroNews in French. I find this news site very useful as it has video reports along with written transcripts!