In this series, my goal is to make you feel better about the French you can speak and to overcome your inferiority complex. I’ll try to explain why the French are so rigid about their language and how you should react like a French person would (hint: say “Merde”)!
In the second step, you learned about the French background regarding their language and some actions you could take to adapt to the local culture (for example invest in a good autocorrect and work on your pronunciation).
I hope you realised that your own mindset is very important and why you shouldn’t feel discouraged if people correct you or switch to English when speaking with you.
Now that you’ve learned to accept and even embrace your “foreigner” status, let’s see how this will be useful in your daily life so that you can start speaking French with confidence.
Why you shouldn’t care if you make errors when you’re talking to someone
Making mistakes is normal and it’s how you learn
French is a complicated language with a lot of subtleties and even native French speakers get it wrong more than you think! Every day in the streets, on TV and in the newspapers we hear people fumble, use the wrong word or the wrong tense and we generally understand perfectly. Sometimes there are misunderstandings and we have to repeat or rephrase for the other person to understand.
You often hear that you should “learn naturally like a child“. Of course it’s a good idea to increase the amount of exposure to create some kind of immersion in a French environment but please remember how many times your parents corrected your mistakes when you were a kid! How many years did it take for you to learn your native language to the level you want to achieve in French?
As an adult, you can speed up the process by learning strategically but please be patient with yourself. It may feel frustrating at times but:
Focus on the positive, make notes of your most frequent misunderstandings and frustrations and take care of these ones first.
As you make errors in context when you speak, it will be easier to remember the correct way when you study that particular topic instead of studying exclusively from a textbook detached from reality.
When you work with your French coach, identify the priorities, practice on the situations where you don’t feel comfortable so that next time it happens “in real life” you’ll be prepared.
Your coach should be able to listen to your needs and guide you to create your own way to make progress instead of following the textbook one page after the other.
What you want to say matters
I’m sure you’re knowledgeable and passionate about something, and you’re probably curious about many things… Although it can be interesting for a while to just learn with books, humans are “social animals”: we need to interact with other human beings for society (and workplace) to function properly and for our own entertainment and well-being.
The tool that allows us to interact is mainly language. Speaking a language is about communicating. It’s more important to get your point across than to speak perfectly. When you’re in a conversation, focus on the communication and forget the grammar book!
Imagine yourself interacting in French confidently… What new perspectives and opportunities would it open up? How would YOU feel?
What you say may be lacking in style and precision at first but at least the other person gets the message. Of course, if you’re taking a test like DELF, DALF, TCF or TEF, you need to find the right balance between correct grammar and fluency because you’ll be evaluated on both.
How to improve your fluency: take baby steps and keep going
Learning French is not a sprint, it’s a marathon
Speaking as early as you can and as frequently as you can in your learning process will get you used to using the tools you have to express your ideas.
Have you ever heard of running programs such as “Couch to 5K? They get you started with going out of the house. They’re not even talking about running yet. Then you start walking with a few seconds, then minutes etc. Then you alternate running and walking. Next thing you know you’re easily running 5K and often more!
Start small: simple sentences, short amount of time and slowly increase as it gets easier. Stay humble, be patient and be consistent and you’ll soon start to notice your progress.
How to think in French?
One advice you often hear is “think in French“, not in English or whatever other language you speak. Easier said than done, right?
I know what you’re going through, my polyglot brain often gets confused and translates from one language (sometimes not even the closest one to the target language…) to another. It’s not ideal and you certainly shoudn’t do it all the time but sometimes it helps so don’t beat yourself up about it. Slowly, allow your brain be more spontaneous, don’t “listen” to yourself speak but go with the flow, especially in the situations you’ve practiced many times.
You just need to trust yourself and realise that your brain has already automated some words and sentence structures. You don’t need to resort to translation to use those. Yes, YOU CAN DO IT, trust me!
What neurosciences teach us about the brain
Neuroscience studies show that when learning something new, it only takes 3 repetitions for your brain to start noticing there’s something recurring happening. Our brain need a lot of energy to function that’s why it tries to automate as many processes as it can (that’s why you don’t need to think to walk and why you never forget how to ride a bike although you can feel rusty when it’s been a long time you haven’t done it). Automation doesn’t require as much energy, you’re on auto-pilot and the brain can focus on everything else. As you keep repeating the same patterns, it creates neurononal connections and every time you use them, the connection will be faster and require less energy.
That’s why you should focus on 2 things when you’re learning a language: identifying patterns and practice-practice-practice.
If your goal is to be fluent in French, you need to practice speaking so that your brain creates those neuronal connections and the muscles of your face, tongue and throat get used to contract the way they’re supposed to to form the sounds.
“Just keep speaking”
I must confess I love this moment in “Finding Nemo” when Dory sings “just keep swimming”.
Well, that’s exactly how it is with learning French. You may be lost and confused but if you keep swimming and know when to ask for help (you know how Dory and Nemo ask the shark, the turtle and the little fish?), you will get somewhere.
To do that, you need to have some grammar foundations and be aware of what you can and can’t do. A coach will help you assess where you’re at and determine goals and actions to get to where you want to go.
To express what you can’t do, you need to find workarounds, periphrases, be creative! Don’t be shy and use hand gestures, drawings, Google translate or Google image, whatever works…
Take a deep breath, say “merde!” (“fuck it”, pardon my French), start speaking with the language tools you have and be creative!
Listen to your body
Sometimes, after a while, you can feel your brain “snap”, that’s how I describe what happens in mine, when suddenly I can hear sounds but they don’t make sense and there’s a blank in my head when I try to speak. Listen to the signs, don’t force it and take a break to reset whenever you need.
If you can’t step out, take a few deep breaths and maybe some water. Keep practicing and you’ll be able to increase the amount of time in between breaks.
As you can see, there is no quick and easy fix to become suddenly more confident but by implementing some changes in your mindset and your leaning process you will increase your confidence step by step with a lasting compound effect.