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French field trip - Secrets of effective language learning

We have just come back from our wonderful trip to France. It was two weeks of driving around the East and the South-Eastern part. For this particular trip, I had a special goal: to verify my French speaking skills in real-life context. 

I had had French at university for 3 years. It was academic grammar-centered course, and I had to spend a couple of years after that to teach myself to speak just a bit. I could read but I have always lacked everyday vocabulary, listening and speaking skills.

When we decided to go visit our friends in Toulouse this year, I made a plan for myself on how to improve my French so that I could actually speak to people. All my previous experiences taught me one important thing. You need to learn CONVERSATION: set expressions having some particular social function. [bctt tweet="Just learning grammar and words without a system leaves you helpless, without the ability to communicate." username="StordarLearn"] If you are interested, here is what I did:

- 15-20 minutes of dialogue (!) listening every day. I tried to pick dialogues from everyday context, e.g. shopping, travel, food and restaurant vocabulary. Absolutely wonderful Coffee Break French Podcast - it has been my lifesaver;

- I had 8 weekly speaking sessions with native speakers for listening and speaking practice (I always hire teachers at www.italki.com - there are so many tutors from all the world for any price; mine lives in La Reunion;) );

- I learnt a lot of conversational phrases, like 'I am not sure' or 'Let me think' using flashcards and communicative skills textbooks (like 'Communication Progressive du Francais' by Claire Miguel (CLE)).

I felt a bit stressed as I had last been to France two years ago with some French-speaking friends. This time I was with my boyfriend who doesn't even like speaking English and knows 2 or 3 words in French. But it turned out to be a lot of fun. Honestly. It is wonderful to have access to real people speaking your target language. It feels so real. You feel that all your efforts have paid off. So, I'll repeat, it's a great opportunity.

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For example, we stayed in a castle. Our host there was so nice, and, regardless her poor English and my low confidence, she told us a lot about the life in France and Lyon, in particular. Great experience!

But I would like to tell about some things you should know. Be wise about your language travelling, try to make most of it with my simple advice.

Don't overestimate the value of learning from native speakers.

It's most productive to start your practice with native speakers when you have reached Intermediate or higher level. As a beginner, you will benefit much from a teacher who speaks your own language. They can explain basic concepts better than a native speaker.

Going to a country where they speak your target language works the same way. It only makes sense when you already know something. You will practise, not learning a loot of new things, which is less stressful.

If you already speak some language, you will have time for the culture of the language you are learning rather than being stuck with basic grammar points.

I know many people who believe that the best way to learn English is to buy several weeks from a school located in the English-speaking country. It is not quite true. Don't forget that most of such school accept students all the year round. It means, if you come just for 3 weeks, you will be sent to a group which has been working for a while, and they will not create a course just for you, you will just cover some lessons from the whole course. That's all.

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But I still think it's worth going to such a course. Because the most valuable practice will be happening outside the classroom. You can get plenty of practice at social activities (evenings or weekends) organised by almost every school. Grocery stores or information desks at the railway station provide great practice opportunities. Making new friends will certainly help a lot. This is what matters most of all. And this kind of practice is precious!

How it will work for you when you are there

Social communication (cafes, shops, transport) becomes much easier after 3-4 days. Be sure to say 'Bonjour' and 'Merci' everywhere - the French use these formulas a lot. Being quiet is not great in France. If you start with small 'Hello', 'Thank you' and 'Goodbye', you will be feeling more confident every next time which will help you to relax.

You will stop being frustrated and it won’t take much effort. Now, you can get to know the people and culture. Now, you are ready for longer conversations.

France is very easy for speaking practice. Try to speak more. For that, go to small family shops instead of supermarkets - you will have to speak to a person standing in front of you with a smile, no way to escape 🙂 The French like to communicate a lot in social situations. So, discuss your shopping, ask for some recommendations - they will be ready to help, and you will get a wonderful chance to speak a lot.

How to prepare yourself the best way

Listening skills will be probably most important in the trip. It's really important to understand what they say to you. When you are practicising,  concentrate on young people and children speaking. Find Youtube videos with authentic youngsters’ talk. If you can understand them, you will understand anybody. It’s freakingly hard to decipher what they say.

The great resource for this is Easy French Youtube Channel from the Easy Languages project. It's a series of dialogues shot by French students in the streets of France. It's quite hard to understand because they speak in their normal way (grr, fast!), but it boosts your listening skills immensely (not good for beginners, I am afraid).

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One of my hardest language experiences: wine tasting at Beaujolais Nouveau Fair in Beaujeu village during the annual celebrations. I am not a wine expert at all, even in my own language. But I managed somehow to choose wonderful Rose for our birthday party.

Also, mind the one major difference between a classroom language and real communication in your target language: monologue and dialogue. When we learn a language, we either listen to some prolonged monologues or have some speaking practice where people listen to us. They wait for us to develop an idea. When you have to communicate in a real context, it’s mostly short functional phrases. Nobody gives you time to think. And honestly, if they are not your friends, there few reasons you would be listening to or making a real monologue. 3 to 5 words, that’s all you got. Monologues are old school. Concentrate on listening to short phrases and conversation techniques.

So, the dialogues it's what I concentrate on when I teach English to people. My email course 'Learn English Conversation' reflects very much all the work I have done for developing my communicative skills in five languages. You can join here for free:
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How to motivate yourself for communication in a foreign country?

Be ready for everything and don’t be afraid of anything. Nothing in the world could prepare me for a dialogue in the car parking we had during our trip. The guy just stopped by and asked me a simple phrase: ‘Is your car for sale?’ I felt like an alien. 3 years of the university course and 5 years of (well, lazy, yeah) self-study, and phew)) he had to repeat 4 times until I understood. So, surprises are cool. It was frustrating at first, but it was a huge motivation to get more real-life practice like this.

And the most important thing!

Find somebody how will be proud of your progress and your achievements. It’s the best motivation possible. It could be anybody: your accountability body, your partner/spouse, your kids. Somebody should appreciate that you can speak a language they don't. Somebody should be proud of you. If your partner makes fun of you or under-appreciates your progress, have a serious talk. You have done a lot to learn and speak a foreign language, you do deserve to see your progress from the outside with somebody else’s eyes. It’s hard to appreciate it all by yourself from the inside.

So, I am extremely happy about my results from this trip. I can't say I have learnt a lot of new words, but my confidence has risen significantly. We have seen many corners or France off the beaten path. We have talked to many people we wouldn't ever meet another way. As I don't need to become fluent in French, I will keep it at a conversational level. I have two new languages in my to-learn list for the next year! But I am proud of myself, I hope this experience has taught you a lesson or two too.

Do you have any funny travelling stories? Let's chat in the comments!

And of course, you are more than welcome to join my FREE email course 'Learn English Conversation'. No theory, just everyday phrases and my communication experience from visiting more than 20 countries. It's time to speak English!

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Comments
  • Absolutely amazing article! You described really good things because people afraid to speak with natives even if they have studied language for a few years at the university. Actually this fear disappear when you start to speak and see results. It is motivate definitely!

    • Thanks a lot! It was quite emotional to me, this whole trip) I hope this experience will help other learners of any language, not only French. On the whole, it's wonderful to get a chance to practise in the country of your target language! Sonia, it's time to go to England or the USA 😉

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