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My Quest to Learn French

Acquiring a new language is a challenge after 50, but it's also a pleasure. Here are 10 tips to help you reach the next level.

By John Birmingham | May 11, 2012
teacher pointing to chalkboard during french class
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For most of the last decade, I was editor of a business magazine with a Paris office, which I visited twice a year. The office manager always sent a car to pick me up at the airport, and during the 40-minute ride into the city, I often tried to talk with the driver in my so-so French.

 
These conversations usually centered on traffic and weather, but I somehow clicked with a driver named Ludovic, and our easy rapport made up for the limits of my vocabulary. It also helped that we knew a few people in common. Luvovic had chauffeured three of my American colleagues frequently over the years, and even though he couldn’t understand a word they said, his impressions of them were astute. Still, one thing mystified him: Why did they keep coming to France without bothering to learn the language?
 
To me, the answer seemed simple. Whenever I was in Paris, I promised myself I’d study French as soon as I got home, but I never found the time.
 
Ludovic had a different take. “I think it's difficult for Americans to learn French,” he said, not unsympathetically. “But there is one who proves it’s possible — who speaks French incredibly well — and that is Jodie Foster.”
 
This was 2007 (The Brave One had just hit the theaters). A year later, the stock market crashed, the print media business tanked, and I lost my job. Suddenly I had all the time in the world. Of course, I wasn’t alone. Newly unemployed, many of my former colleagues got right to work, polishing their resumes and networking via LinkedIn — no doubt a smart strategy, but I went in another direction. I signed up for a French class.
 
Before I go any further, let me assure you: I am no Jodie Foster. Even today, countless classes later, I hem and haw when someone asks me if I speak French. (My wife, Lola, grew up near Paris, so the question tends to come up.) Although my vocabulary has improved considerably, my ability to keep up an end of a conversation still varies, depending on who I’m talking with and what we’re talking about.
 
Friends occasionally ask me if the effort is really necessary. Given that my wife is Parisian, couldn’t I pick up the language through osmosis? And they have a point: My favorite phrases still come from Lola.
 
But the courses have given me a lot — and not just grammatical lessons like the difference between l’imparfait and passé composé (past tenses I once used interchangeably). As I’ve inched ahead, there have been small revelations, when I caught on to the wordplay of a Serge Gainsbourg song, for example, or read a passage by Marguerite Duras and recognized not just the words but also the beauty of the prose. (If dropping these names sounds pretentious, my apologies; when it comes to French, there’s sometimes no getting around that — just ask the new Madame Draper on Mad Men.)
 
Beyond that, I’ve learned that there’s a colossal gulf between beginner and bilingual. An attempt to cross it may prove to be an endless journey, especially if you’re over 50, but you can expect rich pleasures along the way.
 
So if you know a bit of French and would like to advance to the next level, I recommend getting started right now. Here, from a fellow student, are 10 highly subjective tips that might help your cause:
 
1. Find an Engaging Teacher
 
My two favorites are a study in contrasts:
 
Anna Caroline is sensitive, compassionate and ethereal — she could have been a model for the romantic illustrator Raymond Peynet.
 
Nasser is brash and outspoken, a provocateur with a booming voice whose style at times reminds me a little bit of Ali G. (Don’t take that the wrong way, Nasser — I’m a huge fan.)
 
Yet they share wit and intelligence, and both care deeply about what they do. What’s more, those qualities are immediately evident. My advice: If on day one your teacher seems merely competent, switch to another class.
 
2. Make Sure You’re at the Right Level
 
Fledgling French speakers often become incensed when faced with a student who’s out of their league. I remember the reaction when a woman showed up at my intermediate class sounding suspiciously glib. Within minutes she was bantering effortlessly with the teacher, leaving the rest of us in the dust. We were about to run her out of town on a rail, but luckily for her the teacher suggested that she move to the advanced level.
 
Don’t wait for the teacher to weigh in. On opening day, take a close look at the text you’re going to study. Then talk with other students during breaks to gauge their French. If you discover you’re at the very top or very bottom of the class, arrange for a transfer. (The sweet spot is the 66th percentile: Speaking slightly better than two-thirds of the class puts you in a comfort zone while the remaining third presents a healthy challenge.)
 
3. Do Your Homework
 
An obvious point? Not to everyone. Some of my classmates maintain that the keys to learning a new language are speaking and listening; the rest, they insist, is superfluous. Maybe that’s true for toddlers, but older students need an edge, and a word or phrase really sinks in when you hear it, say it, read it and write it. Homework is an essential part of that process.
 
4. When You Learn a Noun, Memorize Its Gender
 
Mistakes can be funny and sort of charming, albeit embarrassing. Back in the 1990s I took one of my French nieces to a New York restaurant, where I made a gallant stab at translating the menu. I thought she might like the shrimp salad, but instead of saying “la salade de crevettes” I suggested that she order “la salade de cravates” — the necktie salad. You can imagine the reaction.

But when you get the gender of a noun wrong (if I’d said, for example, “le salade,” using the masculine “le” rather than the feminine “la”), nobody laughs. The same way no one is amused when you scrape your fingernails against a blackboard. So pay close attention to gender: It gives the word a certain soul, which shouldn’t be violated.
 
5. Learn Multiple Ways to Say the Same Thing
 
This is a good way to move beyond the textbook basics you might dimly remember from high school. Take, for example, these common phrases:
 
Il est en pleine forme. (He is in full form.)
 
Il a la peche. (He has the peach.)
 
Il pete le feu. (He farts fire.)
 
Although the word-for-word translations (in parentheses) make them seem unrelated, all three sentences have roughly similar meanings: He’s in top form, feeling great, full of energy. Building a stockpile of such expressions helps you understand French at two levels — literal and figurative — while absorbing the language as it’s actually spoken.
 
6. Read comic books.
 
Just to mix it up, I took a course in bandes-dessinees (literally “drawn strips”), which includes comics and graphic novels. These books, better known as BDs, aren’t as intimidating as text-heavy tomes. The adventures of Tintin or Asterix are good places to begin. Then check out Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, which recounts the story of her childhood in Iran during the 1979 revolution and later the culture shock of her move to Europe. It’s a sophisticated memoir that's surprisingly easy to read.
 
7. If You’re Ready for More Challenging Text, Don’t Start With Proust.
 
My teachers rhapsodize about the passé simple, a tense used only in formal writing. Sorry, I’m not there yet. I’d rather get my feet wet by reading (slowly) a popular magazine like Paris Match or a contemporary novella with a conversational style but not too much slang.
 
You might try, for example, Justine Levy’s Rien de Grave, a highly readable roman a clef that rode a wave of gossip when it came out in 2004. The author, who is the daughter of celebrity-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, based the novel on her marriage to Raphael Enthoven — the son of her father’s best friend — who left her for supermodel turned pop singer Carla Bruni, France’s erstwhile first lady. All very French, as they say. (For the other side of the story, listen to Bruni’s hit “Raphael.”) You can find inexpensive French editions of this book and others on Amazon and elsewhere online.
 
8. Create a French Playlist
 
Mine relies heavily on the beautiful Francoise Hardy, who wrote many of the ballads she’s known for back in the 1960s and sings them slowly and distinctly, in flawless French. But suit your own taste. The idea is to find songs you enjoy hearing over and over.
 
9. Immerse Yourself
 
A couple of my classmates have recommended the four-week total-immersion course at the Institut de Francais in Villefranche, on France's Mediterranean coast, and I’ve been tempted, partly because the location is spectacular. But the program is expensive — more than $3,500 at current exchange rates. And so are big brand names like Berlitz Total Immersion (which costs more than the Institute de Francais tuition and a round-trip ticket to Nice combined) and Rosetta Stone (an aggressively marketed software package that strikes me as overpriced). Meanwhile, by reading, listening to music, taking classes, watching You Tube videos — and I haven't even mentioned movies — you can achieve a semblance of immersion. Which leads to my final tip:
 
10. Turn on a French Radio Station
 
This one comes from my Aunt Ruth, who worked at UNESCO’s Paris office for many years and now lives in a Life Care community in Vermont. When I talked with her about my classes during a recent visit, she recommended playing the radio or recordings of spoken French as a sort of background noise. “You don’t have to concentrate on it,” she said. “The sound trains the ear and helps you become accustomed to the language.”
 
So that’s my next step. If you want to try it too, go to the France Inter website, which offers podcasts and recorded interviews as well as live radio programs. There’s even a short profile of Jodie Foster.
 

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