So You Want To Learn French?

When you grow up speaking a language it all happens so smoothly that you don’t feel like you are learning anything.  You start hearing the language, then little by little you start pronouncing words “the wrong way” and before you know it you are a perfect little talking machine.

Soon enough your mother wished you didn’t speak.  Just kidding!  When you learn a language as an adult, however, it’s a whole different story and that’s why we call it a “foreign” language. It’s foreign to our brain, and it’s tougher to learn, isn’t it?

What’s the Difference Between your Native Language and a Foreign Language?

After age 6 we function much more at conscious level than we do at a subconscious level, and that’s the primary reason why it’s so easy to learn a language as a small child.  As a child we learn a language from mouth to ear, being forced to find out what is what, and how it’s called.  We learn how to recognize the pattern or the language by repetition.  We are bathing in the language and the culture of the language every day.  This is how we learn a language from infancy.

As an adult, however, most people wanting to learn a foreign language won’t experience any of such circumstances unless they go live in the country and totally immerse themselves in it.  This is how I learned English.  When you learn a language in school, you might never get to a level of fluency until you get to go live either in the country or with a group of people speaking the language.

A couple of years ago a college girl used to ask me to look at her papers and she would get mad at all the red marks I’d put on it.  She was just about 6 months from a Master’s degree, yet my French was better than hers by the time I was eight.  I’m not saying this as a mean joke, it’s just the truth and it’s the proof that you won’t learn a language fluently no matter how far in education of the language you think you’ve gone in school in a foreign country.

Was this girl dumb? No, not at all.  Was she being forced to learn French? No, not at all either.  She just had learned as much as it was possible academically.  What she needed is go spend a couple of years in France to polish what she had learned in school and become fluent in the language.

So, basically if you think that you can become fluent at any language just learning it in school, it’s most likely not going to happen.  Because of my experience with this college girl, I now know this for a fact more than ever.

So what does it Take to Learn a Foreign Language?

The best way to learn a foreign language is immersion.  The good news is that it doesn’t have to be immersion in the country, but immersion with native speakers.  That’s how I’ve  learned Spanish in New York and became fluent in less than two years.

The reason I was able to learn so fast is because even though I wasn’t in a Spanish speaking country, I was immersed in the language on a daily basis doing voluntary work with Spanish speaking natives.

I first observed and listen for a few months, and then I started to speak.  I had no choice; those people didn’t speak a word of English or French.  The human brain is wonderful that way; it knows how to adapt with what it has available.  In this case it was my ears and my tongue and of course the fact that I love languages, which helped, I admit.

A Language is Part of the Culture of the People who Speak it

A language is part of the culture of the people who speak it, that‘s why it’s impossible to fully learn to speak a language in some school in another country, because the culture part is totally missing.  You have words in a book and you kind of know what they mean.  You more or less know how they are pronounced; provided that you have a native teacher or someone who knows darn well the language, but that’s about it.

There are many ways in which the phenomena of language and culture are intimately related. Both phenomena are unique to humans and have, therefore, been the subject of a great deal of anthropological, sociological, and even memetic studies. Language, of course, is determined by culture, though the extent to which this is true is now under debate. The converse is also true to some degree: culture is determined by language – or rather, by the replicators that created both, memes. Library.Thinkquest.org

The reason why a language is part of the culture is because, well, it was born among the people of such culture. And no matter how old is that language, the culture is still alive and well, no matter how much people think they’ve changed over the centuries.

For example, why does French have a formal and non-formal way to address people?  Well, because in French you do not ever call a stranger by name as long as you are speaking to anyone above the age of 18 years old, basically.  When I say name it’s both first and/or last name. As far as strangers are concerned it’s only Monsieur or Madame… such as bonjour monsieur or au revoir madame.  Now, if you are sitting in your doctor’s office the assistant will come to the door and say… Madame Martin!? And then keep calling you with both the “madame” or “monsieur” title in front of your last name.  But never will they call you by your first name, unless you are on a close friendship basis.

I grew up seeing my mother who knew her neighbors for decades, and never, ever head them or her calling each other by their first name. EVER!  It was “Madame Nuccio” for the 30 years that she had lived there.

Thank goodness this doesn’t apply for friends and family.  As a matter of fact, when it comes to family and friends there is even more closeness than in a lot of other cultures that I’ve got to know.  For example, males of the same family, and close net relationship will kiss on the cheek, just like females.  But part of the French culture that is showing in its language it’s that there is a huge distinction between strangers and friends and family. And respect is shown very emphatically in the language.

Funny movie clip of French versus British food!

Let us know what you think in the comment area. I always appreciate your feedbacks…

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29 Comments

  • AdrienneTwitter: adriennesmith40 says:

    I took Spanish in junior high school Sylviane because at that time it was the only foreign language offered. I was horrible at that I admit and the only thing I remember is how to count to 10, say hello and say my name.

    My first office job was at US Steel and I worked as a secretary for the brick layers. The majority of the labors were Hispanic and they would talk about me in front of me. But my boss and their supervisor knew exactly what they were saying because they spent so much time with them. I never was able to pick it up and have never had a desire to learn a second language since.

    I think that French though is a beautiful language and I love to listen to people talk along with their accents but that’s about as far as it goes for me.

    I do see though that you can learn another language so much better by either going to their country or perhaps hanging with a crowd that only speaks that language. I would think that would be the best way to really learn. Okay, in my opinion but you’re definitely the pro on that subject girl.

    ~Adrienne
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    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Adrienne,

      I hear you, not every body is interested in languages and not everybody can necessarily learn them easily, either. My mother for example (before she fell ill) could speak fluent Spanish and decent Italian, but never, ever, could she learn English. One day she even purchased an expensive learning system that turned out to be the worst waste of her life 🙂

      Hispanic men tend to be macho and womanizers and I can totally see them speaking of you right to your face in Spanish. A few years ago that happened to me in a store with some guys that were kind of checking me out. I waited a while and turned around and said something to them in perfect Spanish. Ahahahha! You should have seen their faces!!! I know they learned their lesson that day!

      I know they did, because that happen to a Spanish guy I know one day, he was speaking of a woman with a friend and the woman turned around and spoke in Spanish to them. He told me that they were very, very embarrassed. I love that!

      I don’t care what language you speak, you can NEVER assume that no one will understand you 🙂

      Thank you for coming, dear 🙂 and have a great week end!

  • Louise says:

    Hi Sylviane
    Thank you for this post. I love languages and was lucky enough to grow up in Switzerland speaking German at school and English at home. I agree with you that it is virtually ipossible to learn to speak a language like a native without spending a very long time living in the country. However it is possible to become very proficient and speak a language fluently. Interpreters will only ever translate into their mother tongue,no matter how fluent they are in a foreign language.

    There have of course been some very famous gaffes over the years, caused by misinterpretations of a language. The one that springs to mind is “Ich bin ein Berliner“, which I think was said by JFK in Berlin. It translates into “I am a donut”. He was of course trying to say that he is a person from Berlin. So you have to be careful with literal translations as they can get you in trouble 🙂
    Louise

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Louise,

      Ah, tell me about literal translations, theymean nothing, most of the time, but can be really funny, right?

      Sometime when I read the french translation of some manuals it really makes me laugh, as I can tell that whoever translated it didn’t master the language. I have worked as an interpreter/translator for French, English and Spanish but since I master them all well enough I am sure I didn’t make anyone laugh 🙂

      Thank you for your input, Louise (your name is French 🙂 )

  • Ken Pickard says:

    Sylviane,

    Like Adrienne I too took Spanish in high school. I think learning a second or even a third language help you adapt to a mutli cultural world. Here in Silicon Valley in California we have a lot of different ethnic groups.

    In fact I currently work for an Asian dominant (90%) company. It’s tough some times when you can’t understand all the chatter in the break room. But I have gotten used to it.

    I agree that the best way to learn a language is to live in a country where it’s spoken. if I ever moved to another country i would definitely learn the language.

    Ken Pickard
    The Network Dad

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi ken,

      Indeed nothing replaces living in a country to learn a language, and I can’t understand how people living a foreign country wouldn’t even speak the language, though. But gosh do I know quite a few people just like that!

      Thank you for coming by, Ken, very much appreciated.

  • Sue PriceTwitter: suejprice says:

    Hi Sylviane

    I learned French at high school. When I first went to France in my early twenties I could not understand a word at first but then I started to understand. I can still count and name vegetables but not much else. Although if I watch a French film with subtitles I do find myself not reading some of the time.

    My daughter in law speaks 8 languages. I think that is awesome. I really admire people who speak multiple languages.

    Thanks for a great post Sylviane.

    Sue
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    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Sue,

      I’m sure you’ve learned more by being in the country a while than you did in school. That’s why you started understanding more and more while in France. Of course, a language you don’t know well, you’ll lose if not used. That’s what happened to me with Korean. Almost everthing I knew is now gone 🙂

      Thank you for coming, Sue.

  • Oliver Tausend says:

    Hi Sylviane,

    interesting insights about learning French and the French culture. I love it when people in France greet us by saying “Bonjour messieurs-dames”, for example in a shop, and “Au revoir messieurs-dames”…

    When it comes to learning foreign languages, I have the following theory: No one would speak his or her native language if they were forced to learn it the way foreign languages are taught in school. Would you have learned French if you had been graded at age 3 ? I wouldn’t have learned German that way.

    To learn a language we need to speak and be encouraged to do so. The opposite of encouragement is fear of making mistakes. As parents, we are just supposed to repeat correctly what the child said, no blaming, no pointing out mistakes.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Take care

    Oliver

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      You are exactly right Oliver,

      Imagine if we had been graded when we’ve learned our native tongue. NO way!
      As a matter of fact when I was two I used to pronounced “cafe au lait” facolait and my father loved it so much that he would say it like this too, and my mom would get mad at him! How cute is that?

      Of course that doesn’t mean that didn’t get it eventually anyway 🙂

      Thank you for your input, Oliver 🙂

  • Carol LynnTwitter: carollynnrivera says:

    I took French in high school and college and I was always pretty good at reading it but never got so great at listening or speaking! I could read a whole book in French but as soon as someone opens their mouth it sounds so fast that I only pick out a few words. And they’re usually the unsavory ones, lol. Those stand out!

    It’s true though, that being immersed really makes a difference. Actually when I was in college my professor never spoke in English so it forced us to figure it out. But after that I didn’t really have occasion to use it so I forgot a lot.

    Funny thing is, my husband’s family is Hispanic and they speak to each other in Spanish all the time and yet I think I’ve only learned about 4 words and 3 of them have to do with food 🙂 I don’t see them a lot though, so they’ll have to forgive me! My husband learned English from watching Sesame Street because his family only spoke Spanish.

    I tried learning it using the Rosetta Stone program once. I didn’t get too far, just wasn’t that interested at the time, but did you ever have any experience with that? It’s supposed to be a good program.

    As usual an entertaining post! And I tried to translate the video and got a few words here and there 🙂
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    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Carol,

      Wow, I see that you’ve got quite acquainted with the french language! Very smart of your professor to refuse to speak English. It may be the hard way, I guess, but it’s the best way too.

      I can relate with your husband as I learned a lot of English and English expressions watching movies. This is the second best thing after being in the country.

      I’ve never used Rosetta, yet, but one of my goals is to learn Italian one day and I may get it for this. It better be good as it’s darn expensive!

      Thanks for your visit 🙂

  • Aayna says:

    I have been planning about the idea of learning french for a long time, but I never took any initiative to delve into the subject. Glad, I read this post and got acquainted with a lot of underlying information on the subject. Thanks for sharing this helpful information.

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      You’re welcome Aayna,

      I hope you will take on the task soon. I’m sure you’ll have fun, and learning a foreign language is always a positive thing to do 🙂

  • richa says:

    I learnt French for a year, two years back and it was great fun learning it. I also had French in my masters and I am so proud I was the only one to get cent percent marks in the subject. I loved it but couldn’t continue with it as I got a job and couldn’t manage with the timings. It has been 2 years now, and I have forgotten some of the things I learnt :(. But I have made it a point to continue with it whenever I can. This is a great post you have shared. Merci 🙂

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Richa,

      I’m glad you were able to learn some French and hope you can maintain what you’ve learn so you won’t lose it 🙂

      Thank for telling your story 🙂

  • dipa says:

    Wow! How many languages do you know? French is a beautiful language-very soft to speak and a pleasure to hear. We had some German in school-always found it quite hard to master-though. Wish i had persisted back then- for today it is much in demand for translation jobs! Nice post thank you for sharing.

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi dipa,

      Well, I speak French, Spanish and English and really enjoy it. I hope you can learn another language and have fun with it 🙂

      Thanks for coming 🙂

  • Fatima says:

    Learning a foreign language adds value to your resume and gives you a competitive edge. Also, travelling becomes more fun if you know the language of the place you are travelling. I completely agree with what you have stated here, Sylviane. Thanks for the share.

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Yes, learning and knowing another language can be a lot of fun and a real asset. I am glad I can speak three languages for now, but I am still one language behind, and it’s Italian 🙂

  • Kristine says:

    Bonjour! I know that learning French can be challenging but I am immensely interested! I downloaded several lessons on iTunes and I listen to the conversational phrases every night. It’s been a long time dream to travel to France and I want to be able to relate comfortably with the locals. Merci!

  • Joy says:

    Bonsoir Mademoiselle 🙂 Learning a new language is interesting to me but I don’t necessarily intend to be completely fluent, acquiring the accent would be great though to make the experience a little more realistic 🙂 I have always been intrigued about speaking French but I want to be self-taught for now. Thanks!

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Teahing a language yourself is the best way to learn, in fact, as long as you hang out with natives of that language.

      Thanks for coming, Joy.

  • Annie AndreTwitter: annieandrehacks says:

    Sylviane, this topic really fascinates me.
    I have a funny story about My first language.
    Thai and French both learned at the same time. Then My Thai mothe dies when i was 4 and we moved to the US and i didn’t speak any Thai and irregular French with my father. It wasn’t until i went to high school in Montreal where i starte speaking again. It’s so weird to tell people My first language is not english even though I speak english the best.

    If a parent wants to teach their kids a foreign language, you could start at a very early age. I have been speaking french to my daughter in California since she was born. I know one set of parents who taught there baby Japanese in California despite both the parents did not know any Japanese. They used videos and software and bought japanese cartoons and movies for their child. It got to the point where the child could not learn anymore from the parents and i think they sent their child for private lessons.
    There are so many different ways to learn a language. And you are right, you can immerse yourself in another language without leaving the country. In California it’s easy to immerse yourself in Vietnamese and Spanish.
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    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      I know what you mean. I know someone whose first language wasnt’ French (it was spanish) but she spoke French much better. Situations like that is something people usually don’t think about.

      What happened to this person is that she spoke Spanish with her parents as a little child, but then, since she was born and raised in France she spoke French everywhere even with her sibblings and school.

      then, her parents died and she basically she didn’t have any reason to speak Spanish anymore at all. So, even though her first language was Spanish, her “real” language was French.

      I didn’t know you’ve lost your mother so early in life, Annie. As a young child you can learn any language so easily 🙂

  • Shane Curtis says:

    Learning French is really hard for me. I was trying to learn about it but I fail to learn because I cannot get the perfect accent.

  • Abhishek says:

    I must admit, I am only good at English and Hindi. I try sometimes to learn some other language like French or even some of the regional languages we have, but never able to do so. Lack of time is the biggest constraint I face. But I make it a point sometimes to turn to Google and try learning some French and Spanish too. I have some European clients, so it helps if I have some basic knowledge of the languages. I wish I could master at least 3 languages, apart from English and Hindi.

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Abhishek,

      Learning a language takes time and will, of course, and it’s not easy for everyone. For some people it is and for others it’s not. But again it comes down to how much you want it.

      Thank you for your input 🙂

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