Many adults who can speak French fluently complain about being stuck in a sort of permanent intermediate-level state. They can understand what is being said fairly well, but when it comes time to actually speak, things tend to fall apart.
How can you break out of this intermediate-level rut? What can you do to boost your French to a higher level?
I’d like to look an effective strategy that I use in various languages. This is based on working with idiomatic model phrases and chunks of language.
The idea of learning model phrases is associated with the audio-lingual method of language teaching that was popular in North America in the 50s and 60s. This teaching method emphasized memorizing certain model phrases and learning how to vary them by substituting key words.
This approach has pretty much disappeared in classrooms in favour of the communicative approach which emphasizes learning to communicate globally in the target language.
Although those boring grammar drills and lists of phrases have received a bad rap, there is currenlly a resurgence of interest among academics in the “set phrase” approach under a new disguise called “formulaic language.”
The approach is based on two observations. Firstly, much spoken language is made up of set patterns or phrases that speakers recombine endlessly. Certain words tend to go together in what is called collocations or formulaic patterns,
The second key observation is that many successful language learners have reported the usefulness of memorizing entire chunks of spoken language taken from movies, television programs and the Internet.
How can this approach be implemented? First of all, it is important to keep in mind that this model phrase approach is used only to complement any other method or system that the learner is using. We are not reverting to the old audio-lingual approach.
Basically, the idea here consists of making up lists of authentic phrases that are focused on specific areas of difficulty in the target language. Then, using paper or electronic flashcards or just lists, these phrases are studied or memorized.
For our intermediate French speaker, for example, we would make a list of sample phrases that highlight how certain words in French can have the same spelling but different genders and different meanings. Typical examples are: le tour, la tour, le moule, la moule, le manche, la manche, le poste and la poste.
Many learners, of course, are totally unaware of these words and mix them up. Let’s look at two phrases that highlight the differences between le moule and la moule.
Vous aurez besoin d’un grand moule à tarte. (You will need a large pie dish.)
Nous avons reçu un arrivage de moules fraîches. (We’ve received a batch of fresh mussels.)
Imagine that we have a series of similar examples that highlight these contrasts of gender and meaning. And at the same time, we pick up elements of grammar and vocabulary.
The same idea can be applied to any problem area in our target language. Just keep in mind that this is just a learning tool and not a general method for learning an entire language.