How To Become Bilingual In French

So you’ve decided to become bilingual and speak flawless French. We’ll assume that your French is already very good, but you want to be one of those rare people who can switch effortlessly from one language to the other. What would you have to do to get there?

But first of all, let’s get one thing out of the way, By far the best, the easiest and the least expensive way to become perfectly bilingual is to grow up bilingual. Many if not most bilingual people learned the other language at a young age at home, in school or while living in the country of the language.

But what about the rest of us adults who were not blessed with a bilingual upbringing and want to learn French to the highest professional level? What does it take to acquire perfect accent, sophisticated vocabulary and impeccable grammar in a second language?

Rather than just give you my take on the question, I suggest we start with the experience of French actor Marion Cotillard who won an Academy award for her role as Edith Piaf in the 2008 film, La Vie en rose. She has since gone on to develop quite an American career for which she had to improve her English. At the end of this recent (November 2012) interview, she explains how she acquired her American accent.

If the link no longer works, here is part of what she said:

“Well, first of all, I love English language, so it makes it easier. And also when, when I was in Los Angeles in 2008, and I met with Michael Mann and he – we did this movie together, I really had to work on my American accent. And I worked for four months, every day, with a dialect coach, and I improved my English a lot. I still have a lot of work, but I feel much more comfortable than a few years ago when I got here and I couldn’t express myself properly.”

(In passing, French has two words for actor: acteur/actrice and comédien/comédienne. The two words are synonymous today, but there was a time when comédien was reserved for stage actors. Although it is related of course to the English word “comedy,” la comédie in French has the broad meaning of acting in general. This is why the most famous French theatre house is called La comédie française. French parents who scold their children for “acting up” will say: “Ça suffit. Arrête de jouer la comédie.” (That’s enough. Stop acting).

A comedian or one who tells jokes is “”un/une comique” or” un/une humoriste” in French. A movie star in French is “une star” (a grammatically feminine word even for men). In Quebec French, “star” has been translated into “une étoile.”)

I’m not sure I believe that Marion Cotillard actually met with her dialect coach every single day. Let’s assume an hour and a half a day five days a week for four months. That’s about 120 hours of one-on-one coaching with one of Hollywood’s top dialect coaches. How much did it cost? I have no idea, but I wouldn’t want to be person who has to pay the bill.

What can we learn from Cotillard’s experience? What should be the key elements of a road map to perfect or professional-level bilingualism for the adult learner? Looking at what Cotillard has said and using my own observations, here is my take on what it takes to become really bilingual.

The 5 secrets of becoming bilingual

1. Immersion in the country

To reach the highest level of proficiency, some form of in-country immersion is necessary. The Internet has changed a lot of things and has certainly made the world a smaller place, but nothing replaces being surrounded by the language. The best form of immersion is to live, work, love or study in the language.

With immersion, the language is everywhere. You hear it all the time. You have many opportunities to use the things that you have just learned. Walking down the street or going shopping can be a language lesson.

Although many people are not able to go off to live in a French-speaking country, the key element here is that you must at some point be immersed in the language. It can be even be for short periods such as a weekend in Quebec or France

2. Motivation and attitude

This is a no-brainer. Marion Cotillard mentions that she loved English and needed it for her acting career. You can’t get better motivation than that. If you are not seriously interested in the French language and French culture, forget about becoming bilingual.

3. Predisposition and talent

Cotillard is a professional actor and has been trained in a variety of vocal techniques. For her role as Edith Piaf, she had to master the working-class Parisian accent of the singer. Compared to most of us, she had something of a head start when it comes to imitating a new accent.

Similarly, some people have a knack for learning languages. They tend to have a very good memory, a talent for mimicking voices and a gregarious personality.

4. Private coaching for correction and improvement

Since I do a lot of language coaching myself, this point caught my eye, of course, In a previous post, I pointed out that to take your French to a very high level you need to invest in private tutoring or coaching.

The reasons for you getting a language coach are the same for athletes, musicians, actors and even surgeons. Firstly, you can’t correct yourself. No matter how good you are, it is the corrective feedback of a skilled observer that will help you eliminate those little mistakes that you are totally unaware of.

Secondly, a good coach will show you where and how to improve your language skills by helping you expand your verbal repertoire and develop your own speaking style. Instead of always using the same old words and expressions, you will learn how to express yourself in a variety of ways. This is very important when it comes to using idioms and navigating different registers of speech such as slang and colloquial language.

5. Intensive training for momentum

Marion Cotillard says that she met with her dialect coach every day for four months. Even if it wasn’t every single day, that still is a lot of one-on-one contact. Notice that this was only for work on the American accent. We can assume that Cotillard also took a lot of private classes in general English.

Why four months of daily training for such an accomplished actor to acquire an accent? The answer is simple: that is what it takes to retrain the brain, the ear and the vocal apparatus. Actually, this is not really very different from the way we acquired our first language. Constant daily repetition was and still is the key.

Most of us, obviously, cannot do four months of daily private coaching. Many people will meet with a coach once a week. This is good, but is not enough to get a real momentum for change going. Twice a week is much better. The key point here is that you need to increase the intensity, even if it is only for a short period. For example, if the circumstances allow, five daily sessions in a row with a skilled coach will create the momentum that will permanently take your French up a notch.

Conclusion: a road map for bilingualism

Marion Cotillard’s experience gives us an idea of the effort and cost required to develop a perfect accent in a foreign language. Although most of us can only dream of attaining such a high level of proficiency, we do have a sense of what we have to do to improve our French.

The road map has three key success factors: immersion, motivation and individual coaching. Since motivation is sort of a given, immersion and individual coaching are the variables to focus on.

Although I admit to personal bias – and for reasons given above – I believe that the one thing that makes a huge difference is personal coaching. This is exactly what the professional actors use.

In a future post, I will explore language coaching and inexpensive alternatives such as conversation exchange.

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