How Do You Think In French For Fluency?

All teachers of French say, “Don’t translate. Think in French if you want to speak fluently and correctly.” Well, this is easier said than done. Just exactly what does it mean, to “think” in French? And, more importantly, how do you go about it?

I don’t think that those teachers are referring to that rather mysterious process of forming ideas in our heads. Rather, they are referring to avoiding word for word translating from the learner’s native language into French.  This inevitably leads to disaster.

Instead, the learner must develop an intuitive feel for what sounds right or natural in French. Sort of, “What would a native-speaker of French say here?” This is not easy. Truth be told, most adult learners never really get there. Some do better than others, of course. But most adults never come even close to sounding like a native speaker.

What is the problem?

Let’s jump right in with an example.You’ve arranged a meeting with someone for you and a friend. You’ve left a message in the voice mail of the friend. You don’t hear from this person for a few days, and finally you connect. You say:

“You didn’t get back to me. I assumed it was OK.”

Of course, this is just one of multiple ways of saying the same thing.  You could have said:

“I didn’t hear from you. So, I figured it was OK.”
“You didn’t call me back. So, I assumed it could work.”

Now, how do we say this by “thinking” in French?  For fun, let’s see what Google Translate gives us:

Vous n’avez pas revenir à moi. J’ai supposé que c’était OK.

This is atrocious French, as I hope you can tell. If you were writing French, you could figure this all out and probably concoct something passable. But you are having a conversation. You have to come up with something, preferably correct, instantly.

If you have to think out the line word by word, it will never work. I can see the gears turning in the speaker’s head.

“Let me see, now. ‘You’ is the second person subject pronoun, so that’s ‘Vous.’  Or maybe I should use ‘Tu.’ I’ll go with ‘Vous.’ Now, ‘didn’t’ is probably the passé composé, so that requires the auxiliary verb ‘avoir’ that I have to conjugate with ‘vous.’  That’s ‘avez.’ But it’s negative, so it’s ‘vous n’avez pas.’ So far so good, you know what? French is not that difficult after all. We’re moving right along. Now, for ‘get’…”

Well, if that’s how you approach speaking French, you’re doomed.  The idea of ‘”thinking” in French is to spontaneously recall a verbal “image” of what a native speaker of French would say in a situation like this. Here, for example, is one way of saying this in natural French.

Je n’ai pas eu de tes nouvelles. Alors j’ai cru que ça te convenait.

Just as in English, there are different ways of saying the same thing. Here are a couple.

Comme tu ne m’as pas donné signe de vie, je me suis dit que ça t’allait.
Tu ne m’as pas répondu. Bien, je me suis dit que tu étais d’accord.

The point of all of this is that native speakers of French would spontaneously come up with these formulations or something similar, and certainly not that Google Translate gibberish.

This is what thinking in French is about. You are able to spontaneously create sentences within the range of what native speakers would expect to hear or create themselves.

How do you get there?

This is the big question, and this is much of my business. There is no magic solution, no silver bullet, no microchip that can be implanted into your brain to suddenly make you think in French. It requires a lot of work. But it is possible.

Without going into a lengthy dissertation about language teaching methodology, I think there are a number of key things that one should do:

1. Massive exposure to authentic spoken language.

There’s no getting around this. You must listen to a ton of French. Now, instead of just listening willy-nilly, you should adopt a systematic approach with the help of a teacher or a coach to guide you through the intricacies of the spoken language.

This is where immersion is so important. There is nothing better than hearing the language all around you. Your ears are being continuously bombarded. That’s exactly what you want.

If you are working with recordings, focus on examples of interactive speaking. Soap operas and talk shows are excellent for this although the language is not always the most spontaneous.

After a while, and with the right kind of guidance, you will be able to imitate what you hear; isolated words in the beginning, then groups of words and finally entire phrases.

2. Corrective feedback

When it comes to actually speaking the language, you cannot correct yourself. How can you tell that you are not sounding like Google Translate? You need someone to keep you on the right track.

This person may be an language exchange buddy or a paid professional coach. But don’t believe that you can learn without external correction.

This is very important for people who are learning on their own. Don’t believe that hype about voice recognition software giving you perfect pronunciation.

3. Isolate and drill the problem areas

The areas of difficulty in French for speakers of English are well known. The pronunciation of the French r, u, eu, eur, euil and the various nasal sounds is difficult. Verb conjugation is hard, but it is so important.

Concentrate on these difficult areas. This is where individual assistance is very important. Focus on the things that you find difficult.

4. Use the right tools

You’ll need a good dictionary, some sort of grammar reference and lessons, If you are taking a class, then the teacher will point you in the right direction.

There is an extraordinary amount of material for learning French on the Internet. And best of all, most of it is free.  Podcasts, authentic recordings, videos and all kinds of great content are available for nothing.

Don’t forget that you could also find a teacher and an language exchange partner online.

You might want to invest in a recorder or use your smartphone or your computer to record your voice.

Flashcards, electronic or paper, work for some people.

The question of how much grammar is controversial. Some people like grammar because they like to learn rules for things. Other people find grammar boring because it seems very abstract.

I tend to like studying some grammar because it gives me insight into how the language really works. But there is no doubt that to speak French fluently and correctly, the key is really to imitate good models.

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