“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
I know what you all really want: you want a French memory chip that you plug into the back of your head that makes you fluent in an instant, just like that (*snaps fingers*). Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn a language as fast as Keanu Reeves learns Kung-Fu in The Matrix? Then again, would you feel the same satisfaction as if you had done the hard slog of 600+ hours of study to get that wonderful finishing line we call fluency? Would it feel gratifying “doing” a marathon by taking a taxi?
I sometimes get slightly irritated when I see book titles like “Learn French in ten minutes a day”, or Tim Ferris’s famous blog post, How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour (which is worth reading by the way, but only if you already have a couple of languages under your belt, or at least an excellent understanding of grammar – be aware the title is, unsurprisingly, just hype). I find these titles annoying because I know just how much work it takes to learn a language: I’ve learned to speak five. I finally realised something, though: all of these “learn it quick” books, blog posts and methods are really attempts to address the same issue: motivation.
The real peril when learning French (or any language) is getting demotivated before you get to the magic.
Being fluent in French isn’t something that’s just going to happen to you. Paraphrasing Da Vinci, you need to happen to it. And to do so, you need to stay motivated.
The book that promises all it takes is ten minutes per day isn’t lying exactly. It’s just being economical with the truth to keep you from running a mile in horror in the wrong direction. Six hundred hours?! Books like this present an “easy in”. They address the motivation issue head on by persuading you (quite truthfully) that you can make worthwhile progress in learning French by doing something rather than nothing. Now, the most diligent student in the world is only going to rack up 60 hours in a year doing ten minutes per day, and, sorry to break it to you, but that is only just going to get you to what we call “survival French”. (Enough scrappy French to not die of starvation if you were parachuted into the middle of a French village, for example). You won’t be writing sonnets in French, let’s just put it that way.
Every language student wants the same thing: we want to be able to speak fluently in another tongue. The good news is, just like a marathon, anyone can do it – whether you walk, run, or crawl, you’ll get there so long as you persevere. The length of time it takes depends on how intensely you decide to go the journey.
Unlike a marathon, learning French has no real finishing line. (Have you finished learning English yet? Do you know every word in the dictionary? What about in a medical dictionary?) French fluency isn’t some mark in the ground you suddenly cross and stop. Yes, there is a moment, a wonderful, magical moment, when you suddenly realise you’re speaking French without consciously thinking about how to speak (the learning stage we call unconscious competence), but this is far from the end of the journey. It’s really just the beginning.
Learning French is a long journey, and the secret is to stay motivated. The only thing that will stop you from becoming fluent is stopping trying.
But how do you stay motivated?
The key to wanting to speak French is… *drumroll*
… being around others and hearing them speak.
Here are my tips for staying motivated while learning French
1. Book holidays, preferably learning holidays, to a French-speaking country at least once a year. (You can google plenty of cheap ways to holiday abroad if you’re cash-strapped).
2. Make French friends and find opportunities to be exposed to people speaking French.
3. Give up trying to have a perfect accent. Maybe you’re good at accents, but it really doesn’t matter in the end.
4. Stop worrying about making mistakes and looking silly. The biggest fool is the one that doesn’t try. The worst that can happen is you sound cute making a mistake.
5. Make sure you know exactly where you are on the French learning journey by taking regular French tests.
6. If you’re single, having a French boyfriend or girlfriend is probably the single most motivating factor in learning French.
If your motivation stalls, no amount of exposure at home (French TV, books, movies) is going to work because you simply won’t bother. Well, maybe a French film might for a while, but what you need to do is kick-start your motivation again.
Book a trip, at least a weekend, longer if you can, and get yourself surrounded by the language. You’ll soon discover your desire to continue your language learning journey has fired up again.