Your French is quite good. Congratulations. But you still need a language coach.
Would you write an official letter in French and send it off without having it checked by a native speaker? No. At least, I hope not. You know only too well how easy it is to make mistakes that go undetected.
And moreover, you are aware that it is not easy to write idiomatically with the right tone of voice and politeness in a foreign language.
Even professional writers have their work checked by editors whose job is to improve and polish a product that is probably already very good. Simply put, you cannot correct your own work.
What about speaking French? This is a different kettle of fish. You are on your own. You don’t have much time to think about what you are going to say. Or to look things up in a dictionary or a grammar book. And there’s nobody to correct your speech before it comes out of your mouth.
In the best case scenario, if you really speak French fluently and accurately, all goes well. Tiny mistakes are hardly noticed, and everybody can concentrate on the business at hand.
But what do you do if the French is not perfect? I suggest you do what athletes, actors, singers, writers, even some surgeons do. You get a coach or a mentor. This person is often a teacher, of course, but the role of a coach is not exactly the same.
The primary role of a coach is to give you corrective feedback. He or she is there to catch any mistakes that you might make. And above all to help you take your performance skills to a higher level by pointing out areas of improvement.
Students come to me because they have problems speaking French properly. Time and time again, I see people who have studied French for years and still do not feel comfortable speaking it. They are self-conscious and very aware of their inadequacies. They can read and write French, but they just can’t seem to get the hang of speaking it comfortably.
This is often a serious matter because many of my clients have to pass a government exam that includes a speaking test that is often the major cause of failure.
Part of problem, I explain to students, stems from the fact that the amount of personalized attention you can get in a class is necessarily very limited. If there are 15 people in a class, how much time can a teacher devote to working just with you? And what about classes with 35 students!
Then there are people who try to learn languages on their own with books, tapes, software, CDs and the Internet. That can work, but the plain truth is that the vast majority of people quickly give up.
Whether you are taking a group class, a private class or are working on your own, there comes a point where you should get some form of private attention if you want to really want to speak French well.
The language coach is there to correct you
You cannot correct yourself. Sure, you might be able catch a pronunciation error or you might suddenly realize that you should have said “je suis parti” when you said “j’ai parti.” But most of the time you are completely unaware of your mistakes. Here, for example, is something a French-speaker said in English last week:
The accident arrived yesterday.
Most English-speakers would have said: “The accident happened last week.” The speaker made this mistake because in French, the verb “arriver” means “to happen” as well as “to arrive.” The person simply mixed up the translation.
Here is a common mistake in English:
He is not associated to us.
I would have said: “He is not associated with us” Again here the mistake comes from the fact that in French “être associé” (to be associated) takes the preposition “à” (to), and the speaker had translated directly from French.
Let’s look at a similar mistake made by an English-speaker in French. Here is something I heard recently:
Est-ce que c’est votre premier temps ici? (Is this your first time here?)
A more correct form is: Est-ce que c’est votre première fois ici?
Why did this person use “temps” instead of “fois?” They screwed up with the translation of “temps” which can mean “time” but only in the sense of chronological time.
French verbs are a major minefield for learners. Learning when to use the imparfait and the passé composé is difficult. The compound tenses are a major challenge. As for the subjunctive mood, most people simply never get there.
The role of a coach here is to catch these kinds of mistakes. I really like to work with advanced students because we don’t have to worry about the more elementary mistakes.
At this level, it’s more cleaning up the little things and polishing so that the language is as perfect as can be.
A coach is necessary to help you take your French higher
Correcting mistakes is just one thing. The next challenge for which a language coach is absolutely indispensable is learning how to speak idiomatically and in more complex ways. This is not easy.
The problem here is that the speaker is speaking grammatically but somewhat awkwardly or clumsily. It’s understandable but not natural-sounding.
This is where I will say: “What you’ve said is perfectly correct, but in French we wouldn’t say it this way. Here is what most people would say…”
This is very important because native speakers tend to expect to hear things said a certain way. These same speakers will often simplify and slow down their speech if they detect the slightest difficulty on the part of the non-native speaker.
Much of the work here involves the use of idioms or expressions like:
Avoir du pain sur la planche (to have a lot of things to do)
Chercher midi à 14 heures (to bark up the wrong tree)
Mettre la main à la pâte. (to get involved in something)
I like to show students how to use interjections and metaphors like:
Un froid de canard (really cold weather)
Être pauvre comme Job (to be dirt poor)
The other problem here is how to express complex ideas. Often, speakers will feel the need to switch to English or whatever native language because they do not know how to express something adequately in French. This is what I call “running out of gas.”
Here I like to work with authentic documents such as writings and recordings that illustrate how native speakers say things spontaneously. Then we work on incorporating these findings into the student’s speech.
As you can see, this is high-level work that can only be done in a one-on-one situation. The bottom line is that to achieve the highest levels of proficiency you require direct interaction with a trained coach.
Actors call on dialect coaches or drama coaches when necessary because they know that they cannot do it alone. Likewise, I highly recommend that you spend some time with a coach to tie up those linguistic loose ends and to take your French to the next level.
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 Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.