We know that learning to speak French well requires a lot of practice. This often takes the form of some kind of repetitive exercises for purposes of memorization. The idea is that if we repeatedly and systematically see, hear and speak forms or patterns French, we will spontaneously remember them and thereby improve our language skills. Pretty simple, isn’t it? It would seem so, but in this four-part series of blog posts I want to look at some of the technical aspects of repetition. More specifically, I want to focus on best practices and the effective use of various visual, listening and speaking tools.
Let me first remind everyone that the focus here is on improving your spoken French. Writing French well is another ball game that I’ll address some other time. The ultimate goal here is that speaking fluently and accurately become second nature. There are a number of things we want to avoid: major mistakes of all kinds, getting stuck or lost for words and interference from our native language.
Repetition and massive memorization for instant recall
Speaking a language requires a lot of memory work. There are thousands of words, meanings and rules or constraints that determine how these words are used or put together correctly.
But memorizing all this is just the beginning. The real challenge is instant recall. You have to figure out what you’re about to say without having to think too much. Then you have to pronounce everything as best as you can. All of this has to be done with instant recall or as little hesitation as possible. Plus, if you don’t know a word or a grammatical form, you need some way of getting around it without getting stuck or ending up searching too long. Finally, you should be able to recognize your mistakes and correct them on the fly.
How is all this done? Let’s see what native speakers do.
Repetition and native speakers
Nearly every time I get on a local city bus, I’m greeted by a «bonjour» or «bonsoir» from the driver. When I exit, I may also get an «au revoir» or a «bonne journée» or a a «bonne soirée». Out of curiosity, I once asked a driver if she ever counted how many times she used these words a day. Here is her answer:
Je n’ai jamais compté mais je salue tous les passagers.
Just for the fun of it, let’s say conservatively that this driver greeted 300 passengers a day, five days a week. That’s at least 1500 greetings a week.
Similarly, as I was sitting in the waiting area of a medical clinic, I listened to the receptionist interacting with visitors as they arrived. The dialogue went something like this:
− Bonjour madame, j’ai un rendez-vous à 9 h 30 avec le docteur Tanguay.
− Bonjour, quel est votre nom?
− Marie Gravel.
− Un instant, oui je le vois, à 9 h 30. C’est bien exact. Est-ce que je peux avoir votre carte d’assurance-maladie?
− Oui, bien sûr. Voilà.
− Très bien. Un instant, il faut que je sorte votre dossier. Voilà. Asseyez-vous et on vous appellera.
− Merci bien.
− Je vous en prie.
I wondered how many times a day or a week this receptionist repeated this dialogue. Let’s say 60 times a day or at least 300 times a week.
I also speculated how this dialogue could vary in an infinite number of ways. From one country to the other. From one receptionist to the other or maybe just from one day to the next. For example the second line could contain one of the following:
− Vous êtes ?/ Comment vous appelez-vous ?/ Vous vous appelez comment ? / Votre nom ? / Votre nom de famille et prénom ?
The last line could contain:
− Merci à vous / De rien / Il n’y a pas de quoi / C’est moi qui vous remercie / Ça fait plaisir./Il n’y a pas de quoi /
In Quebec, one might also hear «Bienvenue.»
The point here is that speaking a language in natural situations is extremely repetitive. The takeaway here is that if by hook or crook you could find a situation where you can use French regularly, your speaking skills will improve by leaps and bounds. This is the idea of immersion. Combine this with some formal instruction and individual coaching and you have a winning formula.
The problem in all this of course is that the vast majority of adult foreign language learners are not lucky enough to find themselves in this kind of learning situation. I would guess that most readers of this blog are not in any kind of immersive situation where they are surrounded by French. Interaction with French may be limited to the classroom and some kind of conversation exchange activity. Otherwise, it’s basically passive activities such as listening to the radio, watching television or reading books or documents on the Internet.
Given all this, how can we best utilize the various learning tools that we have? Stay tuned.