If I had to mention something I am certainly not talented at – aside from singing -, it would be languages. My country’s disastrous language education did not help. As my 11th grade German teacher explained quite concisely: « A French student is not taught German so that they learn to speak it ».
What is France’s problem with languages then? Is our broken English a product of our aversion to globalization? Is our German poor, because of an enduring ‘Germanophobia’ after two World Wars? Facts do not support either of these hypotheses. A Chinese friend recently told me, to my surprise, that she thought it was easier for her to learn English than it had been for me; because it was a completely new alphabet for her, there was no possibility of confusing English with her mother tongue. It is true that as French is a language that is both very close to and very far from English, it can indeed get confusing. English conjugations are a blessing compared to French ones (that certainly considerably enrich our language but could also be considered a crime against humanity). That being said, English words are stressed whereas French words aren’t. While it is true that English and French have many words in common, there are several “faux amis” such as ‘deception’ which in English means ‘dupery’ whereas the French ‘déception’ is to be understood as ‘disappointment’… that’s enough for anyone to get mad. And added to this, the natural French tendency to not dare to try, here is, Madam, Sir, the perfect cocktail for one not to improve.
Anyway. To me, the main reason for our love-hate relationship with languages, and particularly English, lies elsewhere. I hold school responsible for this. The French schooling system is known for its very academic, traditional, ‘you’re-gonna-learn-this-by-heart-and-not-think-about-it’ approach. Though it may be quite efficient for mathematics; it is an uphill battle when it comes to learning English. This explains why we end up with French Presidents who say « Sorry for the time » when apologizing for the weather, or « You can be, do what you want to do » in a supposedly inspirational speech.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to study in a bilingual primary school, with a native English teacher who had a very personal way of teaching. Stephen initiated us very early to the sarcastic British sense of humor, a mix of pitiless French bashing and jokes that he would utter in complete deadpan, his eyes sparkling with joy and mirth. He taught us vocabulary by use of hand-made drawings, making us play rugby, and by giving us dozens of British songs to learn. Secondary school happily destroyed my level in English by its merciless French teaching method, but I thankfully retained the ability to sing ‘Message in a bottle’ (The Police), ‘White winter hymnal’ (Fleet foxes) and ‘What a wonderful world’ (Louis Armstrong) (those give you a very good insight in Stephen’s taste in music).
A few years later, after high school studies in a so-called ‘international section’, a two month-long exchange in Australia, and a year of university with all my classes in English: a friend from Honduras and I stopped to randomly talk to a woman who has asked us a question in the street. After a fifteen minute conversation, she asked us where we were from, and looked startled when I answered I was from Lyon, France – ‘You’re French? But you speak French with an accent!’
My first reaction was to laugh, astonished. And then I remembered that French people would now often start to speak English to me, ask me with genuine curiosity how long I have lived in Great Britain, or even have this flattering but surprising question ‘But are you sure you are from France? You have a British accent!’
For someone who was used to having a Frenchy-arguably-Australian-ish accent, this was a revolution. But after thinking about it, I started to realize that indeed – completely unconsciously, I was now speaking French with a bit of an accent on some words. So now that my level in French is even decreasing, that my level in English is certainly not perfect, and that after eight years of studying German, I am still not able to ask where the toilets are, I am the last person who should give advice on ‘how to learn a language and improve’. But considering that the situation would have been worse without those, I’m still gonna do it.
First, learn some songs. Pick up one that you particularly like, print the lyrics, translate them yourself, and learn it, while you’re queuing at the supermarket, sitting in the bus or walking to school. After I left primary school, my Father would walk me every morning to secondary school; and every morning, we would rehearse English and German songs that I loved and that I would translate with him. Years after, even though my German is still as poor as a college student, I can sing Nena’s 99 Luftballons by heart. What is great with songs is that they endure. I would strongly advise you not to try Adele’s – no one sets fire to the rain or rolls in the deep in one’s everyday life -, but Abba’s are quite easy and catchy.
Second, watch movies. And put subtitles in the language that you’re trying to learn; if not, it won’t help. I would particularly recommend animated cartoons; their stories are easy to understand, so you can more focus on the language – plus, if you’re 30 years old without kids and your friends catch you watching Cinderella in secret, you can argue that it’s because you want to improve your English/German/Spanish/Khmer and show them my article as an excuse (do not say thanks, my pleasure). After years of watching cartoons and animated movies to improve my English, I can say that the best choice, without any doubt, is ‘Shrek’. First because it’s brilliant; the characters speak a very clear English, with different levels (Donkey’s accent is quite hard to get, Shrek is very understandable but quite familiar, the Queen speaks more formally); and it’s a clever criticism of authoritarianism, discriminations and sexism. It’s brilliant.
Eventually, read books, and books that have been written in the language that you’d like to learn. The best choice you can make is to read books that you’ve already read many times. This way, you’ll already know the story and will be free to focus on the words, sentences and idioms. A few years ago, I decided to reread ‘Harry Potter’ by Joanne Rowling, in English this time, and wow – I couldn’t have taken a better decision. It helped me a lot, because the puns and writing make the book a thousand times better in English than it is in any other language, because it is catchy, entertaining and captivating, and because Rowling’s style is both very good and very pedagogical.
Here are three simple, fun, not time-consuming, and almost magic means of improving in any language you’d like to learn. They are way less expensive than travelling or going on exchange, and way easier than finding a native speaker to talk to – even though I strongly advise you to do that -, and they’ll make you want to improve. Because even if you’re the laziest person on Earth, you’ll want to finish this funny movie, to finish this fascinating book, to learn this moving song! Wanting to improve is probably the best thing that can happen to you.
That being said, it is now to be done. My plans for the Summer include using the Harry Potter Method to improve my Spanish and German and re-watching the whole Shrek series because let’s be honest, my English still sucks – and I also really want to watch Shrek.
Feel free to add, on Facebook or in the comments, your most useful tips and life hacks to learn a language, and good luck with that!
Credits: super kuka, Nightflights, and Harry Potter wallpapers on wallpapercave.