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Kevin Teh
Engineer @ Alan
22 juilConférence

How I finally learned a second language in my thirties

languages

A big part of my journey joining Alan in Paris has been learning French. Alan uses English as its working language, and does not require its employees to know French, but learning French has been one of my major priorities regardless. I plan on staying in France for the long term, and it's always been clear to me that speaking the local language is an important part of fitting in and feeling at home.

Learning new languages has never come easily to me. In fact, I've failed to become fluent every other time I've tried to learn a new language. My latest attempt to learn French began in earnest while I was 33 years old. Given my not so young age and my dismal track record, the odds seemed pretty stacked against my success. However, I'm happy to say that I've managed to overcome them and become fluent in French. Often when I tell people when I moved to France, they are surprised that I moved here so recently and at how well I've picked up the language.

I wanted to share the approach that I used with others who would also like to learn how to read, write, speak and understand French.

Like child's play

My track record of language-learning failure showed me that learning French was not a task to be taken lightly. What gave me the hope to succeed in spite of all of my failures was the realization that I had learned English quickly and easily as a child, and that I did so faster and better than most other children. I reasoned that since there was nothing inherently more difficult about learning French than learning English, it must be possible for me to learn French too.

I have heard many people say that it is much more difficult for an adult brain to absorb a new language than a child. I don't know if that's true, but children certainly seem to acquire language a lot more quickly and successfully than adults do. Since my only successful language learning experience was learning English as a child, I adopted as a principle that I would approach learning French the way a child would.

From this principle I concluded that I would not take any French classes. After all, French children don't learn French in French class. They just speak their kid French and gradually refine their skills by listening carefully to and imitating other French speakers.

I would also need to stop using English as much as I could. French children use their French at every waking moment. When they have difficulty expressing themselves, they don't have some other mastered language to fall back on. Similarly, I would have to stick to French as much as I could even when things got frustrating. I would have to use English for work or when talking to friends and family back home, but other than that I would spend as much of my life as possible in French. Moving to Paris definitely helped on this point.

French dictionary page 3

Reading

I read somewhere that when learning a new language, you should start by reading essays, which definitely rings true for me. The reason to start with essays and news articles in particular, is that they are short and are written as clearly as possible so as to convey their information effectively. In contrast, when reading fiction, you have to read between the lines to appreciate their full meaning, which is a very difficult thing to do when you're still learning the language.

Even if you don't know any French at all, you can get the gist of an essay or news article just by translating the sentences one at a time. It's time consuming at first, but after going through a few articles like this, you'll quickly find that you can recognize and understand a majority of words.

The Google translate browser extension is a really useful tool that can speed up this process a lot when reading websites. The tool lets you translate any phrase instantaneously just by highlighting it. It saved me a lot of time I would have otherwise spent hunting for words in a paper dictionary, or copying and pasting the text into some other translation service.

Sometimes Google translate isn't enough to understand a word or phrase. Many words are not used the same way in French as they are in English, even when they look the same. Often there are different ideas and thoughts associated with a word in one language, but not the other. For example the word précis in French means precise, but it also means specific. To get a better grasp of these subtleties I often use linguee.fr which shows side-by-side comparisons of text snippets with the search query and professional translations of those snippets. By searching on linguee.fr, you can see how translators will translate a word differently depending on the idea that is being emphasized.

I will look up words as often as I need to to remember what they mean. Early on, I would beat myself up for not knowing what a word meant, because I knew that I had already looked it up several times. Eventually I realized how silly and pointless that was. It's not like I'm in school anymore, where I only have one chance to get the right answer on the final exam. In the real world, I'm free to look up a word ten times if I need to, and ten times is usually more than enough. Agonizing over not remembering what a word meant only slowed me down.

Listen

Listening

After a few months, I was able to understand most newspaper articles without any translation. I was still far from being fluent though. For one thing, I couldn't understand anything anyone said. It's surprising how a word that looks the same in French and in English will sound completely different.

There are a lot of factors that can make listening comprehension in French difficult. There are many homophones (different words pronounced the same way), in French. For example, the words "cent", "sang", "sans", and "sens", which mean "hundred", "blood", "without", and "taste/smell", are all pronounced exactly the same.

Another challenge is that French speakers often will not clearly pronounce every syllable, and Parisians in particular are notorious for speaking quickly. To provide just one basic example, in written French negative constructions begin with the word "ne". But in spoken French, the word "ne" is just about always omitted. So instead of saying "Je ne pense pas", which means "I don't think so", they'll say "Je pense pas".

Je lis, tu lis, nous lisons.

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I've watched many hours of French Youtube videos to practice my listening skills. Most videos have subtitles, which are usually auto-generated. Watching videos with the subtitles on has enabled me to transfer my reading comprehension skills over to my listening comprehension skills. When my listening comprehension skills improved I was able to understand audio podcasts as well. Now, when I'm travelling I make sure that I have some French podcasts loaded on my phone ready to listen to. There is a ton of engaging video and podcast content in French out there and it makes learning the language interesting and enjoyable.

Being able to understand what French people are saying has been a lot more difficult than understanding what they are writing. When I first moved to France, I was terrified when anyone tried to say anything to me. I would have no idea what was being said or how I should respond. Now, with a bit of focus, I can always work out what people are trying to tell me, even if I have to ask them to repeat themselves from time to time.

The most difficult listening comprehension task is trying to understand a group of native French speakers bantering to each other. I'm still having trouble with this one. If you can track the breakneck dialogue, piece together the swallowed words and work out what the slang means, you can understand anything.

Talking

Speaking

One thing that makes speaking French a challenge is that there are so many words that exist in English too, and in order to pronounce them correctly, you'll have to unlearn the English pronunciation. Naively, you might try to pronounce the words as you would in English, but doing so gives little chance of being understood.

Early on, I practiced my French pronunciation at home by doing all of my reading out loud, and paying close attention to make sure that what I said matched what I was hearing from native speakers. Don't worry too much about pronouncing everything perfectly. It's inevitable that you'll have a bit of an accent and I hear that an English accent is actually quite charming.

I don't want to get sidetracked by going into too many fine details, but I discovered one pronunciation trick that was so helpful that I have to share it. The French "r" is notoriously tricky to say for an English speaker. Having to pronounce a single letter "r" could completely derail my flow mid-sentence. But, I discovered a trick that makes them a lot easier to handle. Whenever I get stuck, I just pronounce the word with all of the "r"s removed. For example, I would pronounce "regarde" as "uh-gahd". It gets around the problem of having to pronounce them and what you end up with is a recognizable pronunciation that is remarkably close to the correct one. As I feel more comfortable I'll gradually reintroduce the rumbly "r" sound into my pronunciation.

As part of my no-English policy, I took the decision a few months after moving to France to only speak to my girlfriend in French. This has really helped me improve a lot. One of the most helpful things you can do is to find a French speaker who can support you as you stumble and fumble your way through expressing yourself in French.

I've also found it very helpful to form sentences in my head completely before attempting to say them. That way I can express my thought all at once. I've found that people lose patience with you quickly if you leave long gaps in the middle of each thought you try to express.

It's also best to keep your sentences as short as possible at first, since it leaves a lot less room for error in your pronunciation. It really remarkable how much can be expressed with a few choice words helped along with a bit of gesturing and facial expression.

It can be hazardous to directly translate a sentence from English. For example, if you were to say "Tu pourrais dire ça," ("You could say that") as a clever way of saying yes, your interlocutor will not grasp your meaning. When speaking, I think it's better to not be too adventurous and stick to expressions I have heard said by others.

Writing

I haven't needed to write much in French beyond text messages with friends and a few emails. Writing is generally a lot easier than speaking because you don't have to do it real time and you can use translation and autocorrection tools to help you. When I need to get the phrasing of a sentence just right, I find it helpful to look at translation samples at linguee.fr.

Conclusion

I began to learn French 21 months ago, and moved to Paris 10 months ago. During that time I've gotten a good handle on the language. My French still isn't perfect. I misgender nouns all over the place, and I don't always use the subjunctive everywhere I should. It takes a lot of concentration and thought to lay out complex ideas in words, and there are cases where my words fail me altogether and I am unable to express my thoughts in French. I'm not worried about it though, because I've gotten past the most difficult part. I can understand what people are saying and writing and I can make myself understood in kind. I've made a lot of progress, and I know I'm on the right track. It's a great feeling to know that I can still learn fundamental skills even though I'm not a kid anymore. With patience and continual conscious effort, I'll eventually get there, bantering along with all the rest.

Kevin Teh
Engineer @ Alan

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