As we had nearly a year between the trip booking date and our departure, Henry Warner made it a goal to focus on improving his French. We had heard and read that it was not uncommon on a canal cruise to encounter French natives who spoke little to no English. Since the bulk of the time one is not close to a large city or traditional tourist site, we would presumably be interacting more with “real French people” – which was actually a big part of the appeal for me.
While we have never had a problem traveling and staying in France before, I was determined to make this experience even better! As any experienced traveler knows, just attempting a few words in the local language usually brings out the smiles of the locals (and usually much better English on their part than foreign language on our part). A few key words and a dictionary will usually get you through most interactions. And besides, it can be fun to try the catfish eyeball stew instead of the fish soup you thought you were ordering!
While I speak reasonably decent Spanish, I am autodidacte (self-taught) in French. To the uninitiated, one might assume that it is an easy leap from Spanish to French, both being Romance languages. Henry Warner can assure you that this is a falsehood. While there are many common root-words between the two languages, that is also true of English and French.
Thinking that you can perhaps substitute a Spanish word for an unknown French word more-often-than-not, yields poor results. Many examples abound, but here are a few. To eat is manger in French (pronounced mon-sjay) and comer in Spanish (pronounced kom-err). Not very close! The irregular verb ‘to do’ is faire (pronounced fare) in French and hacer (pronounced ah-ser) in Spanish.
Here’s an example of how Spanish substitution can kind of work. The French word régresser (pronounced ray-gres-ay) means to regress. The Spanish regresar (re-gres-ar) can mean to go back, to regress, to return. But then here’s an example of how an English guess is a better substitution: amusing is amusant in French and divertido (also entretenido or gracioso) in Spanish.
When you throw in a few more differences like every letter in Spanish is sounded (with rare exception), but in French nearly every consonant at the end of a word is silent, all verbs ending in ‘er’ are pronounced ‘aye’, the ending ‘ent’ when conjugating ‘they’ in the present tense is silent and a host of other grammatical rule differences rapidly leads one to the conclusion that learning French is pretty much a stand-alone project.
Up until this point, the crowning achievement of my French proficiency had been to struggle through a French primer Max Le Chat (suitable for 5 to 6 year old French children) using a heavily worn paper dictionary. While I was able to complete the translation of the quite thin paperback and understand the gist of the plot, it resulted in a ferociously marked-up book. Henry Warner knew that unless he wanted to limit his French conversation to small children and their cats, a dramatic improvement was needed.
The first, and most important, decision was to simply make the commitment. As I am retired, I resolved to target one hour a day on French improvement. As of this writing, I am approximately 8 months into my 12 month learning period and I am happy to report that I have discovered/fashioned a system that is producing good progress for me. As any student of a foreign language well knows, it is one thing to be at a level whereby you can translate a written piece, at your leisure, with the aid of a dictionary. It is quite another thing to be at a level whereby you can freely converse with a native speaker in real-time without any translation aids. We all want to be at the latter state. Short of moving to a foreign country while we are young, how to get there?
Below Henry Warner has summarized some of the tools and key elements I have been using to improve my French skills. While I am far from fluent at this point in my learning journey, I am happy to report that I can now carry on a basic two-way conversation in French. Language students all-too-well know the feeling of helplessness that results when one rehearses in his or her mind a question to ask, only to receive an answer that is totally uncomprehended. Sort of like after serving in tennis, only to miss every return shot. Often I need to ask a French speaker to répétez lentement, s’il vous plait, but at least I can usually keep the volley going.
- Commit at least one hour a day.
- Borrow/purchase an Ebook reader (I use a Kindle). Download the many works available for free in French (or your foreign language choice). Download a French-to-English dictionary on your reader. Start reading totally in French. Begin with easy primers and readers. When you don’t know a word, simply highlight it for the translation. No more fumbling page-by-page through a paper dictionary! My eBook dictionary even does a reasonable job with conjugated verbs. Don’t start with the thought that one primer will make you fluent. It won’t. Often you will highlight the same word many times. But you will progress and you will build your vocabulary.
- A great website I found is called ‘News In Slow French’. It has some free content and more content for a reasonable fee. Basically, current events are presented and discussed by two native French speakers – slowly! The text of the presentation is given, along with key words translations. I find it useful to repeat each episode multiple times until I can follow the presentation without referring to the written text.
- Another great website I used was ConversationExchange.com. This website allows you to post a short profile about yourself, then contact native speakers in other countries who want to learn English. By using Skype, you can talk and even do a video call for free. The convention I settled on with my contacts was to spend half the time talking in one language, then we switched to the other language. Typical sessions were an hour to two hours. These conversations were especially helpful, as there is no substitute for listing to a native speaker and trying to respond.
- I also joined a local group in my city that meets once a week and speaks exclusively in French. This group consists mainly of non-native speakers trying to improve their skills, so we frequently lapse into dictionary word look-ups and debates about the proper French word to use.
- Some other very helpful tools Henry Warner has been using are the free iPhone app Google Translate and the Ultralingua French Dictionary and Thesaurus app. Ultralingua is not free, but is highly recommended for any serious student. In addition to a comprehensive dictionary, it provide many idiomatic expressions and complete conjugations of all French verbs.
- Another tactic I have been developing is is to practice translating into French commonly encountered situations and signage that one encounters in daily life. Often I will say something to my wife in English (naturally it did not take too long before this started to drive her crazy), then ask myself ‘how would I have said that in French’? I then attempt a translation, then follow it up with a Google Translate check. Or if I pass a sign, for example, that says ‘Employee Entrance’ I ask myself the same question.