dimanche 10 janvier 2010

6 months of learning French and thoughts on learning a foreign language

So... it's been 6 months since I started learning French (OK 6 months and 1 week). I have been very slack in doing my weekly updates and that's because I've been very slack in studying the past 6-8 weeks or so.

Anyway, I'd like to reflect on my time learning the language (so far)... I hope I'm not repeating anything I've said in previous posts.

Given my age and experience learning languages, I came to the conclusion that the method used in schools was largely ineffective. A few years ago I did an adult evening college course in Spanish and I really didn't learn anything, despite having done a bit of Pimsleur beforehand. I hated that before I had even grasped anything from the first chapter of the textbook, we moved onto the second chapter the second week.

I hated that somehow we were just supposed to grasp concepts of conjugations even though I had never learnt anything like it before. In short, I really really hated the method.

When I was a child, I had swimming lessons for six years (unbelievably) and yet never learned how to swim. When I reflected back on that time it occurred to me that being in a classroom situation wasn't conducive to my type of learning. I really needed 1:1 time. It wasn't until I was in my mid 20s and a good friend taught me that I finally learnt how to swim for the first time.

This time I was determined to do it right and to do it right without spending a whole heap of money, I had to teach myself. That way, I'd go at the exact pace I wanted without waiting (and being annoyed at) slow people in the class, or feeling dumb because of the smarter/faster people in the class.

I did a lot of reading about second language acquisition as well as how babies/toddlers learn a language.

It became clear to me that unlike the methods used in high schools and adult courses, it's far more important to work on pronunciation and input first, rather than trying to read and speak straight away.

I know there's no way I'd ever have a native-like accent but at least I could work on having correct and accurate pronunciation. To read all the French words with French pronunciation rather than an English one, I liken this to writing with your left hand (if you are right handed). I started listening to songs and finding their lyrics (without worrying too much about what the words meant) and then making connections between the two, to know how to pronounce all the vowels and syllables.

When I say that it's like writing with your left hand.. what I mean is, at first it's painful and you keep wanting to switch the pen back into your right hand... but after a while you get used to it. You get used to the fact that you rarely pronounce the last consonant at the end of a word unless it has liaison with the next, that ang, eng, and ong, are similar but not the same, and definitely not the same as in English, etc etc. That you always pronounce 'i' like a short 'ee', 'u' almost like 'ew' etc. The fact that there are accents helps too.

When I attended my recent French evening classes, most of the people in my class were reading words and pronouncing them like you would in English. This sounded horrible to my ears!! At the beginning, I listened to heaps and heaps of songs and watched heaps of videos on YouTube because having accurate pronunciation was extremely important to me (because I wanted to seem competent and eventually fluent in the language, I didn't want to simply know how to speak it).

Even now, I still ask native French people how to pronounce certain words and being on LiveMocha helped immensely. Anyway can read another language that's written in the same alphabet, but to pronounce it accurately is far more difficult.

I also only ever listened to native speakers and refused to listen to French Canadian things. As a baby you pick up on the accent from those around you. Since my parents are not native English speakers I picked up the accent from my teachers and classmates, and thus, have a native (Australian) accent.

Regarding the input thing, I was reading an article (that I can't now) about a language teacher in Thailand teaching his students Thai... and he didn't allow them to speak for one year (?) they were only allowed to listen. It sounds a bit ludicrous but when you consider that that's how babies learn, it makes sense. Babies can't talk until they are around 2 years old, yet they absorb everything around them. At first they'll have a few pronunciation errors and grammatical errors but by the age of 4 or 5 they speak be speaking with a perfect accent and perfect grammar. Magical, isn't it? ;)

By the age of 4 or 5, most kids already know a lot of vocabulary. They have had input input input from the day they were born.

How can you expect to learn a language with only 1 or 2 hours' week study? Just like an Olympic athlete will never get anywhere if they only train for 1 or 2 hours a week, I don't think you could get very far just turning up to class, going home and doing a bit of homework, and then coming back to class a week later... That's why at the beginning I used every spare moment I had to do French. If I wasn't sitting in front of my computer watching YouTube or reading articles online or chatting to new French friends, I as listening to Pimsleur or something else or French songs on my iPod. I'd bring my iPod everywhere with me - while I jogged, whilst commuting on the train, whilst driving... Actually there really wasn't any spare moment in my day where I wasn't doing something French related! Later, no matter how tired I was, I forced myself to do some Assimil every night before going to bed.

Of course now I've fallen off the treadmill so to speak but don't worry, I'll be getting back on it quick smart! I am starting a new French class at the AF Sydney next week as well!

So, everyone has commented to me how great they think it is that I've come so far with only 6 months' of learning. I am pretty confident in saying that for an average person they would have needed to study for a minimum of 1.5-2 years to get to the level I'm at. For other people it would've taken even longer (due to the ineffective teaching/learning methods used).

People asked me at the start why I didn't join a class straight away and it's because of all the reasons I listed above. However, now that I'm at an intermediate level I feel more confident in joining a class and participating with others and getting more speaking practice. I'm pretty sure the drop out rate after doing a beginners language class is pretty high, and that's because some people expect the teacher/class to do all the work for them, that they just turn up and do a bit of homework. I fully believe that if you want to get anything out of life you have to put in a lot of effort. It's not enough to just sign up for a class (in anything) and turn up and get some magical results. Anything that's worth doing is worth doing well IMHO.

Also, I think you have to want something badly enough. I think of all those people that talk about wanting to do something but don't make any effort towards their goal and expect miracles to happen.

Anyway, enough raving from me...

Bon courage!

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