Real Language Stories: French, Fast and Slow
For David Guy, learning French took a false start, a 44 year break, 9 months from A1 to B2, and 4 years to C1.
Note from Elise
This post is the first in the “Real Language Stories'' series, in which real language learners share their journeys with their first foreign languages in their own words.
Have a story you’d like to share? Email email@example.com to learn more.
My language learning journey started in an American high school. I studied French for four years. I was a serious student. I had always felt drawn to the language by way of my family history — my ancestors on my mother’s side were French, and many generations of her family lived in French-speaking Quebec, Canada. Learning French was, to me, a way to connect to that heritage.
Unfortunately, my French classes didn’t do much in the way of fostering that connection. They did a lot more to foster frustration.
I always did my homework and I scored well on exams. I could read at a basic level and, given enough time and a dictionary, I could write some simple sentences. But after four years, I could neither speak French nor understand spoken French.
My teachers were totally focused on grammar and particularly on conjugation. My classmates and I churned through what seemed like endless conjugation drills and quizzes. The best part of the class was a “language lab” once a week in which we listened to the most ridiculous and boring dialogues ever written, all in excruciatingly slow French. Even though I was a diligent student, I could not pay attention to those insipid dialogues. And even if I had, I still wouldn’t have understood much unless I could have found a French person willing to pause for two seconds between each word.
I found the whole experience very frustrating, but I decided that, some day, I would really learn French and achieve my goal of connecting to that piece of my family history.
A second start
“Some day” arrived 44 years later. I had retired from my career as a software engineer and wanted a new intellectual challenge. Learning French was the perfect project and would fulfill my lifetime objective of learning French.
When I shared my new goal with my wife, a retired French teacher, she said that while she would offer encouragement and answer questions, she was not going to teach me French under any circumstances. I was fine with that (not that I had a choice) and started with Duolingo. I started to use Duolingo and every other free app I could find, but only for about ten minutes a day. After a year, I had learned some basic vocabulary but otherwise hadn’t made any progress and I decided to get serious.
I bought two textbooks with workbooks and audio CDs for A1 and A2 level French from the Saison series of Didier. I actually date the beginning of my time learning French from that point. I don’t count that first year because I learned so little (and spent so little time learning).
I read the textbooks, did all the exercises, and listened to the CDs. After working my way through those two books, I bought the next in the series, which was at B1 level, and continued to plug away at French.
This took about five months, and during that time, I never attempted to speak French. I started to get bored.
These textbooks were far better than my high school texts, and the audio was definitely more interesting (it would be impossible for it to be less interesting), but the primary focus was still on grammar. I was “learning” French, but I was losing motivation. I felt as if it would take me forever to become fluent, especially since I hadn’t tried to speak at all.
So I decided to sign up for a two week intensive course at a language school in Montpelier, France. The school recommended a minimum of one month, but I couldn’t afford that. Two weeks would have to do. I had three months to prepare for the course — three months before leaving for France.
I also asked my wife if she were willing to speak French with me. She agreed and we started having conversations in French a few times a week, and four years later we’re still having those conversations. I would never have gotten to my current level without those talks, and without her patiently answering my questions.
Moving past textbooks
I also decided to explore YouTube for new material. In hindsight, that was a blindingly obvious thing to do, but I had been stuck in the view that you learned a language with textbooks. I discovered Johan’s channel Français Authentique and started watching all his videos. Johan is a disciple of Stephen Krashen and believes that the primary way to learn a language is through comprehensible input — material in your target language that you can almost perfectly understand.
After learning about comprehensible input, my learning strategy changed dramatically. I started watching interviews with Krashen and reading his studies on language acquisition. I completely abandoned my textbooks and grammar study and spent at least two hours a day watching YouTube videos in French and listening to podcasts in French. I also started reading Le Petit Prince in French, because that’s the book everyone recommends for beginners (by the way, it’s not a good book for beginners).
I spent three months listening to a lot of French, reading a lot of French, and having a lot of regular conversations in French with my wife. I started to listen to podcasts while doing all my chores. My listening comprehension and reading improved dramatically. On the other hand, my speaking progressed very slowly. I could have a conversation but only with lots of pauses. My speaking wasn’t fluid at all and I made lots of mistakes.
Once I finally arrived at the language school in Montpelier, I took a placement test that consisted of a grammar test, a reading test, and a conversation with a teacher. I was flabbergasted to be placed in a B1.8 class (out of B1.1 - 10).
At the school, we had three 50-minute classes per day, plus an hour of homework (always writing an essay). During class we spoke a lot, usually in small groups or pairs. We also watched videos and took quizzes on the content. In addition, my wife and I stayed with a “welcome family” — in our case, an elderly divorced woman. She prepared dinner for us every evening and we always had a 60–90-minute conversation with her during dinner.
B2 and beyond
After two weeks, I took tests in reading, listening, writing, and speaking. I was evaluated at B2 overall, with very high marks on listening and reading. All that time spent listening and reading definitely paid off.
One of my teachers said that she had never seen anyone’s speaking improve so dramatically in such a short amount of time. According to her, my speaking level had gone from B1 to low B2 in two weeks.
Obviously, the conversations with my wife and the intensive speaking practice during the two week course were critical, and my experience was certainly not a perfect experiment because I was not a true beginner. I had four years of high school French 45 years (!) earlier. But I believe that my relatively rapid success (A1 to B2 in 9 months) shows that an input-heavy method really works. Once I started spending 75% of my time listening and reading, my French ability started to improve exponentially
But what about getting beyond B2?
I still rely heavily on input, but I make a point of practicing speaking regularly, too. I found online language partners with whom I have conversations for 30 minutes in French and 30 minutes in English every week, usually three conversations a week. I continue to read and spend even more time listening to podcasts. I started watching French shows on Netflix and on YouTube. Once again, my wife helps enormously because I found shows that she also likes so we watch an hour of French content most evenings. She’s developed a strong attachment to a few French TV shows. I basically immerse myself in French — at least as much as one can “immerse” while living in the USA.
Four years after that language school experience, I believe I am at a C1 level overall. So, 9 months to B2, then another 4 years to C1. I guess I’m a slow learner, but I still spend 75% of my time on input. A month ago I started my next adventure, learning Italian.
David Guy grew up in Massachusetts, USA. After dropping out of a PhD program in English Literature he became a software engineer who enjoyed a nearly forty year career in the software industry before retiring. An avid cyclist, hiker, and traveler, David has been happily married for 46 years.
This post is the first in the “Real Language Stories'' series, which tells the real stories of how language learners of all stripes (and all levels) learned their first foreign languages. Have a story you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.