A reader, Kevin, writes: ‘My question to you is this: Can one learn to speak fluently in French without having to actually live there amongst French natives if one “immerses” oneself in these self help books, CDs, etc and use a tutor once a week? I know this is not an easy question to answer but after reading your blogs I felt compelled to ask you this question. Many of the thoughts you wrote in your column are exactly what I am experiencing.”
In other words, can one create some kind of immersive environment at home and derive the same benefits that one would get by spending time in a French-speaking country like France or Quebec?
The short answer is no. There is no way that any sort of homemade solution can come close to recreating the real thing. Yes, one can cover the walls of the house with posters and listen to French music and movies all day, but, frankly, there’s no comparison.
Immersion means the language comes alive. It is real. A visit to the supermarket, a meal in a restaurant, a ride on the public transit system or just a simple walk on the street are all instant lessons in the real use of French. And, above all, you associate the language with actual events and gestures,
That said, I would emphasize that just being in a country is no guarantee that you will just absorb the language without an effort. You still have to work at it. But, if you are truly interested in learning, nothing beats immersion as a learning environment.
For many of us, however, immersion is not an option for the time being. So, how much spoken French can one learn outside of the immersion environment? And how should one go about it?
I believe that with the Internet and today’s technology, one can become very good at actually speaking French. Then, when you do go to the country, you will hit the ground running.
How is this possible? The first thing to keep in mind is what we are trying to accomplish. We are talking about speaking the language and not so much about writing. This is a very important distinction because the spoken language is very different from the written form.
Kevin, like most language learners, probably has a whole shelf of books, methods, software, cassettes, CDs, DVDs in addition to many websites on French. And he uses a tutor once a week. Good stuff, but what is maybe lacking?.
My thinking is that not enough emphasis is being put on authentic spoken unscripted material. Nearly all the French one finds in methods is really written French even if it tries to reproduce the spoken language. Of course, it is proper French, and some people do speak that way, but authentic unscripted French can be very different.
At this point, we have to talk about social register. What kind of French will Kevin be speaking? Will he be making formal speeches, giving lectures, media interviews and conferences in French? Or will it be something more casual, like ordering a meal in a restaurant, making small talk around a table on conversing in a store? Will he be using the language professionally?
This is important because it determines the complexity of the French he has to learn and above all the kind of vocabulary. I’m going to assume that Kevin’s goal is really quite basic, that is to become comfortable in simple ordinary conversational French.
He wants to be able to talk about himself, his family, his livelihood, his accomplishments and, of course, he wants to do things like make a reservation in a hotel, order a meal in a restaurant, buy food at the market, etc.
The good news, or what I call the big secret to speaking French, is that this kind of French is very simple and requires a small vocabulary.
The secret to speaking French without immersion
When you study a transcription of real unscripted spoken everyday French, you observe that a) sentence structure is very simple; b) the vocabulary tends to be very limited and c) the language is very repetitive. The same could be said of ordinary English and probably of any language.
Yes, you can get by in French with a few hundred words, but the major complication is that you must totally master these words in their many uses and how to say them properly and spontaneously. For example, all French conversations will use the three key verbs, être, avoir and faire. You’ll see the key pronoun ça, the two most important prepositions de and à in various forms. And you will also see filler words like voilà, bien, ben, bah and euh.
An example of unscripted spoken French
Let me illustrate this by looking a a transcript of an unscripted recording that one can find at an outstanding website that I highly recommend : Sample of unscripted French
(The numbers are mine.)
Je suis vendeur, (1) vendeur à la FNAC (2). Oh ça fait, euh,(3) quoi (4), huit ans, neuf ans que je fais ça (5). En fait, au départ, j’ai commencé, euh… Ils m’ont recruté comme vendeur rayon disques, disquaire, parce que j’ai toujours aimé la ‘sique. (6). la musique, plutôt tendance pop, rock. Mais j’aime beaucoup aussi la variété.
Voilà, euh, petit à petit, j’ai évolué dans la boîte (7). Et maintenant je suis responsable, mais plus (8) au rayon disques, je suis responsable du rayon informatique. Parce que petit à petit, je me suis mis. (9).. euh… à apprécier l’informatique. J’ai un peu touché ça d’une manière personnelle. J’ai eu des formations aussi. La boîte m’a (10) payé des formations et maintenant, euh, bah,(11) d’abord je suis passé vendeur (12) et maintenant donc responsable du rayon et puis, euh, pour l’avenir, qui sait ? On verra.
Donc voilà, on verra, on verra bien ce que l’avenir me… me donnera. Mais pour l’instant je suis bien où je suis.
Since you should not have any problem understanding this text, I won’t provide a translation. The speaker is talking about his job. Here are some observations:
Notice how often our three key verbs, être, avoir and faire appear. See the very straightforward and simple sentence structures. Notice the extensive use of the passé composé because the speaker is talking about specific past events. Note how expressions and words are repeated. As I have pointed out, all of this is very typical of spoken French.
Let’s look at some specific points:
1. Notice here “Je suis vendeur” and not “Je suis un vendeur.” The article or determiner “un” is not required here, unlike English. Then vendeur is repeated to go with à la FNAC.
2. FNAC is an acronym for Fédération Nationale d’Achat des Cadres, a major chain of stores specializing in electronics and books.
3. First occurrence of many euh. This is the equivalent of “um” or “eh” in English.
4. quoi here is also a filler.
5. The pronoun ça is used twice in the same sentence with the verb faire.
6. la sique is a common abbreviation of la musique. Here the speaker corrects himself.
7. la boîte is slang for “the company.”
8. Notice how plus is pronounced “plu” because it means “no longer.” See my post on this very subject.
9. This is an excellent example of the use of the pronominal form se mettre meaning “to begin to.”
10. In La boîte m’a payé des formations… the indirect object pronoun m(e) means “for the benefit of”. A translation would be: “The company paid for my training.”
11. Notice the filler bah, a variant of ben or bien.
12. Je suis passé vendeur is synonym of Je suis devenu vendeur in popular French usage.
As you can see, this example of unscripted spoken language is not that difficult at all.
The fundamental problem is that until quite recently we did not have access to materials that really reflected how the language is spoken. If you try to speak the language the way it is written, you will quickly become discouraged and will have problems when you encounter native speakers.
What should Kevin do to enhance his speaking skills? First of all, work with materials that illustrate the spoken language. Soap operas, talk shows and interviews are good sources although they are not always the best examples of unscripted speech. Again, I strongly recommend the website mentioned above.
Secondly, Kevin should observe carefully how the language is used and incorporate expressions or entire sentences into his own speaking style. For example, he should listen to the recording above at least 25 times and do 25-50 voice-overs in the course of a week. Then move on to other recordings.
Doing this systematically with a wide range of recordings that illustrate different speaking registers and accents in addition to working with a tutor, Kevin will be well prepared for that day when he finally makes the big plunge and heads off to Quebec or Europe.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.