Whatever level you are at – intermediate or advanced – you may sometimes find it difficult to be understood when speaking French with native speakers. Your pronunciation may not be entirely clear on key sounds – for example the [ə] in ‘je’ for “I”, the [e] in ‘été’ for “summer” and the [ɛ] in ‘j’ai’ for “I have”). Or you may be using a sentence structure that is very natural in your native language, but much less natural in French. And it can be even worse when you mix these 2 cases sometimes. Everything is possible.
In a few seconds the discussion you have with a waiter, a seller, a new acquaintance or a co-worker can then take a rather unpleasant turn. The listener seems lost, uncertain. He or she stops talking to you. Actually, it is as if you have both lost the connection. And you don’t really know what mistake you made or how to continue or even restart the conversation.
This is precisely what happened to one of my students, Paul, a few weeks ago. He was speaking with a farmer at a local market in the south of France where he lives. He suddenly noticed a change in the farmer’s expression – the farmer frowned and tilted his head (meaning “what? huh?”). He just hadn’t understood what Paul had said. He hadn’t wanted to embarrass Paul by making him repeat what he said – or he just didn’t have the time! Paul was super disappointed. He hadn’t been able to continue his conversation and felt embarrassed. He said to me, “But I’ll never make it, Pauline, I’ll never be bilingual!” – in a pretty excellent French, by the way. You can’t be excellent all the time!
Learning a language means creating great opportunities in our social, cultural and professional lives, and it also means encountering obstacles that seem difficult to overcome at the time.
You want to speak French. You know the vocabulary. You know the grammar. You know the sentence structures. So what’s the problem? Your memory? Not necessarily.
Here are 3 tips to redefine your learning strategy.
1. Strengthen your active listening
To do so, you need to listen more closely to the sounds of the French language in isolation as well as to the native speakers, at normal or reduced speed.
Why is that? Some French sounds simply do not exist in your native language. Or they sound vaguely like them but are actually very different. So you think you can hear them correctly, but you can’t distinguish the nuances enough between them. As a result, the sounds you produce are closer to the sounds of your native language – you know them by heart – but are farther away from the sounds that the French are used to.
It’s subtle, it’s nuanced, and it requires some effort. It’s up to you to know what you really want – but it works. This work of clarifying your listening comprehension will incredibly improve your oral expression.
Audacity is a free software that allows you to record, play, import and export audio data, visualize sound frequencies and above all slow down reading without changing intonation.
Take this test: First of all, listen to your audio file without the transcript and stop as soon as you don’t understand. Listen to the passage again, slow down the playback speed and analyze the sounds in more detail. Try to transcribe what you hear. Then compare with the transcript.
2. Imitate native speakers
When you speak French, you cannot concentrate on all aspects of the language at the same time. You have x years of practice in French and you also have y years of intensive practice in your native language. And of course x < y. It’s just math! Even in several languages! Your usual patterns come back quickly, and in case of emergency or panic, this familiar memory is what you will call upon first, even if you don’t mean to.
In short, your native language constantly interferes with your oral communication.
What can you do about it? Try the Shadowing Technique or parroting, a method developed by Alexander Arguelles that allows you to reproduce and optimize the imitation process of any learning method.
Take an audio or video clip (music, podcast, Netflix series, etc.), a transcript, and repeat what you hear as faithfully as possible. In the same way as when you imitated the adults around you when you were younger – or even much younger – you are here tapping into the power of imitation, the same power that enabled you to learn your native language.
This technique allows you to clarify your mistakes using the differences between the written and spoken word, to integrate the intonations specific to French and to express yourself more fluently. Finally, with practice, you will have that typical French accent you are looking for. You will be able to switch from one language to the other. It is you who will choose, not the language that will choose for you.
3. Do martial arts (or get inspired by them)
At the very moment you start speaking, you have already thought about a lot of things to build correct sentences. You stress a little because you want to answer quickly to avoid interrupting the flow of the conversation.
You want to do well. Too well. But, honestly, when you were learning to drive, were you driving at 100 mph all the time? Here, the strategy is to accept to slow down. I’m not telling you to slow down when you’re talking to natives. I’m telling you to slow down when you’re training. Exactly as if you were practicing martial arts.
The praise of slowness came to us, among others, from Kuroda Tetsuzan and Yang Luchan, both masters in their respective disciplines of sword and Tai Chi.
Have you ever observed people practicing Tai Chi? They train in slow motion so that they can better execute these same movements in real situations, at real speed, or even faster speeds.
Take your time. It helps integration, and therefore memorization. In slow motion, you also rarely put yourself in a state of stress. On the contrary, you gain confidence. Finally, you focus naturally, without effort. You are present in what you are doing and this quality of presence allows you to “live” the French language instead of trying to “think” it at all costs. Your interactions in real situations will be even more correct and spontaneous!
Use these three tips into your French learning and I can guarantee that your French skills and confidence in them will improve dramatically and quickly. And If you come to La Rochelle and are interested in a French immersion course, please let me know! I will take you to a Tai Chi, Qi gong, baguazhang class, among others. Fun and learning assured!
In the meantime here is my favorite TaiChi video: Master Wang Bo lives and teaches in China. I had the chance to meet his daughter, his direct disciple, who lives and teaches in Paris. Martial arts are a source of inspiration in all my learning.