Learn French When You Are Already Old And Only Speak English

by Sarah Broussard Weaver

By this point in your life, you may already have a multilingual child. Meanwhile, you’re peppering your conversations with phrases like faux pas and bon appétit, but let’s face it, you’re probably pronouncing them incorrectly. So when you’re ready to sound like a true Francophone, here are the steps you’ll need to take:

1. First, you must realize the possibility of this thing. This can really happen. It is happening every day. You have heard the French phrases sprinkled in movies and television; you think the Eiffel Tower is insanely gorgeous and romantic. You have never been to France and yet are in love with it; you feel inferior knowing French people think Americans are fat, lazy and stupid. You have fervently wished you had been taught French as a child, saving you from the trouble now. Come to terms with the fact that it is too late for that. Forgive your parents for their shortsightedness. Realize that you are not dead yet. Your brain still works, at least slightly. You are not too fat to go to a French class, unless you are bed-bound like Gilbert Grape’s mom.

2. Assess your finances. Do you have the $150 to $500 it would cost to take or audit a French class at your local community college? The price difference depends on your state of residence—some states’ community colleges are cheaper than others. I am sorry to say, if you do not have the money, your path will be a little harder. Learning from a book or video will not help you as much as talking back and forth with someone who speaks French and can answer your questions about why a particular verb is so stupid. (Answer: That is just how it is. Alternate answer: L’Académie française has willed it so.) Remember those answers, which can be applied to everything in this adventure. Try to find a cheaper or free community class or group at a city recreation center. The more enthusiastic your teacher is about French language and culture, the more fun this will be for you, her student.

3. Do not be afraid to speak out in class. You will not learn unless you speak. Everyone else in the class is as ignorant as you are; if they weren’t, they would not be there, but instead in a higher-level class. Listen, but also speak. Do not hesitate to speak to your teacher, even if she has native fluency. She has heard every butchering of the language possible—you are nothing special. Get over yourself and your fear and open your mouth.

4. Immerse yourself as fully as possible. Join the French Club if it exists. Talk to your teacher about starting one if it does not. Listen to French music in your car; you will not understand the French music, but your ear will pick up how the words are pronounced. Find time to watch one French movie every week. One day, as your lessons proceed, you will gasp as a song you have heard 30 times suddenly has three recognizable words in it. Go to a French bakery and order un croissant au chocolat. Eat it while murmuring “mon Dieu” to yourself. Acknowledge that a country that has blessed the world with this marvelous food deserves your attention.

5. Try to read things beyond your level. Puzzling them out is good for you. After you have figured out as much of the sentence as you can, use a French dictionary or online translator to check your work. Be aware that the translator is sometimes flawed, especially if a word that has dual meanings is involved; it is the quickest way to check yourself and often helpful, however.

6. Don’t give up. The verbs are terrible, yes. A lot of things are senseless, yes, but look at English and its idiosyncrasies and foibles. Be thankful you didn’t have to learn English from scratch as an adult. Appreciate the sound of the French language; long to sound these words out yourself. Remind yourself: This is indeed within the realm of possibility.

7. Read Le Petit Nicolas. It is humorous, which will keep you entertained. One day, after three or four semesters of French classes, you will realize with a frisson of joy that you have read two whole sentences without looking anything up; you understood each word in your mind as if it were English. Rejoice in your genius, and then realize you have a lot left to learn.

8. Be realistic. You have not yet begun the future tenses. You hesitate so much when speaking that your teacher wishes for Calgon to take her away. Recall that in the last class, you accidentally said a vulgar word—it is similar to another word—to your teacher. Allow yourself to dwell on this until you blush anew. This will humble you. Continue to plug away.

Bonne chance! Look that phrase up; this is the beginning.