Right off the bat I’m going to say that you’re never too old to learn to speak French well. But it does get harder with age.
Today’s post is inspired by a Youtube video of a six-year old girl from Queens, New York City, who speaks seven languages. Or, to be more exact, the parents believe that a child can learn many languages when exposed at an early age and are providing tutoring in all these languages. All of this at the cost of $1,500 per week.
During this same week I heard an interview in French of Bob Rae, the interim leader of the Canadian Liberal Party. His French was excellent, not perfect, but certainly up to the task. It represents, in my mind, what most adult learners can achieve with time, effort and, undoubtedly, a fair amount of money in private instruction.
Deliberately exposing a six-year-old child to a regimen of learning seven languages simultaneously may seem a bit of an exaggeration to some of us. But if there one thing that is certain in the world of learning languages, it’s best to start at an early age.
How important is age in learning to speak French fluently?
Academics argue over the existence of a so-called “critical period” up to around 15 years for optimum language learning. After that, some say it may be nearly impossible to learn a language to native fluency.
While the academics duke it out, we all can observe that the vast majority of perfectly bilingual or multilingual individuals learned their other languages at relatively young ages and in some form of immersion, be it at home, in school or in the neighborhood. Being exposed to a language at an early age is a definitely winning combination.
Where does that leave the rest of us who are not under the age of 14 and who do not live in a French-speaking environment? For the many adults who are studying French, what can they realistically expect to achieve in terms of actually speaking the language?
The bad news is that the chances of becoming perfectly bilingual are extremely remote indeed. You will have an accent that says that French is not your native language. But that’s not all bad as long that it doesn’t get in the way. And it can be improved.
But the really good news is that all the other parts of French, the grammar and the vocabulary, can be learned to high levels of perfection.
Why you can learn to speak French fluently at any age
If you disregard the physical aspect of actually speaking the language, learning to speak French is basically an intellectual exercise. There is a bunch of words to learn and a bunch of sometimes complicated rules that determine how these words are put together.
I persist in saying that everyday spoken French is actually not that difficult to learn for the following two reasons:
1. Spoken language is actually very simple. When speaking, people tend to use basic structures all the time. If you were to watch a day of varied television programming, you would probably hear all you the spoken French you would ever need.
2. The core of the spoken language consists of around 300 basic words and some fundamental grammar rules that bind the words. Master these and you can get by in most day-to-day situations.
Does all this mean that you learn 300 words, sit in front of a French-language television channel for a day and end up speaking French? Obviously not. If it were only that simple!
The real challenge in all of this is learning how to how to assimilate all this material and spontaneously regurgitate it in correctly formed sentences with decent pronunciation. It’s not easy, and most people give up quickly.
To make things more difficult. your native language-let’s say English-will always be tripping you up. You will want to translate things from English. In essence, you will be trying to speak English in French. This will never work.
All of this is very frustrating until you start to develop an true understanding of how French really works. Suddenly, all the pieces start to come together. You understand what is being said around you, and, more importantly, when you open your mouth the right things come out.
Let’s take a look at a couple of concrete examples:
1. In spoken French, the most common sentence form is ce “it” plus the verb être “to be” in the sentence c’est “it is.” This present tense form is by far the most common. You will also hear the imperfect c’était, the past ç’a été and, somewhat rarely, the future ce sera. The plural forms exist but are less often used.
Unlike written French, the spoken language uses this all the time and much more often than the English equivalent “it is.” Once you start to listen for it, you’ll soon be hearing things like c’est bon, c’est beau, c’est bien, c’est surprenant, c’est simple all the time.
2. One of the most discouraging aspects of learning French is the complex verb conjugations. But when you look at that conjugation table, keep in mind that two thirds of those forms are rarely used in everyday spoken French.
You learn, for example, that the first person plural pronoun “we” is nous in French and this is used in verb forms like:
nous allons (we go / we are going)
nous sommes (we are)
nous pensons (we think / we are thinking)
nous voulons (we want)
That’s correct, but in the spoken language, you will see that this nous form is very often replaced by a third person form on, as in:
on va (we go / we are going)
on est (we are)
on pense (we think / we are thinking)
on veut (we want)
These are much simpler than the nous forms that are used only in special situations.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to learn before you can start speaking fluently. But the point that I want to make is that spoken French is much simpler in many ways than the written language.
Traditional French instruction is biased towards the written language. While there’s nothing wrong with reading classic French novels, fairy tales or newspaper articles, they are not the best examples of everyday speech. You must watch a lot of television and movies with subtitles, listen to the radio or read comic books.
One of the goals of this blog is to demystify spoken French. This language is not hard. It may be tricky, and pronunciation is the big problem, but it’s not impossible to learn to speak French fluently.
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.