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French, my love

How it appeared in my life

I first came into contact with French when I was a child and my parents brought home a cassette with a musical. It was the famous Notre Dame de Paris and somehow I liked it very much. But most importantly, I fell in love with the sound of French. Totally and completely. Soon I read the novel by Victor Hugo (in Russian, I was just around 10-11) and started dreaming of going to Paris and seeing the cathedral with my own eyes.

Unfortunately, at that time no one could introduce me to French, so I just kept listening to the songs trying to guess what they meant. At school, though, during literature lessons or while reading Russian classics I often heard references to French. In the 18th century it was the language of nobility spoken in higher echelons of society. And I remember how I “envied” those times and those children (future great writers like Pushkin and Tolstoy) who had French gouverneurs and gouvernantes. I picked up some words like “papa”, “maman” and “my tante” from Russian novels but I couldn’t guess how other words were pronounced.

Another big impression of my childhood was a film called Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu in the main role. I liked it so much! It’s so poetic, with such beautiful music and a plot full of chivalry… It was dubbed but I could hear the original sound in the background and distinguish some French words. Like with the musical, I then watched and rewatched the cassette for years. (I still do and still in Russian =)) Because the original has a very different rhythm and metre and I’m used to the old one).

At university

When I came to university, my dreams came true. I started learning French and after my third year I went to France. It was to take part in a voluntary camp to help rebuilt a wall around a church. What an unforgettable trip that was! I still have very bright memories from it. I finally got to visit Paris and its famous cathedral (I could hardly go away from it). I was charmed by the French countryside and I think I can even still feel the fragrance of the air, the sounds of crickets and the August heat… And of course I bought both books, Notre Dame de Paris and Cyrano de Bergerac in French =)

More than that, it was my first trip abroad alone. And I still don’t understand why I wasn’t scared. I didn’t even plan a hostel in Paris for the night because I thought we would walk all night with the other two girls from our team =) We ended up sleeping at the train station in very uncomfortable positions. I don’t know why (in Moscow central train stations will be crowded day and night) but we were almost alone all night. It surprised me greatly. Photos from the camp:

Anyway, the trip helped me to overcome the language barrier in both English, which was the language of communication, and French, which I practised whenever I could but it wasn’t easy because I didn’t understand it well.

I should note, though, that learning French at university was relatively easy. Surprisingly, over the four and a half years of studies we did only two textbooks at our main course. Apart from the introductory units, where we were introduced to all the system of sounds and spelling rules (which helped me a lot to learn to read), the textbooks followed text-based and translation approach. The textbooks didn’t even have any audio exercices. Sure, our professors talked only in French with us but I still think it’s ridiculous. A teacher’s can never be enough for developing students’ listening skills. Why didn’t we do proper listening? What about different accents and genres? News, debates, dialogues, conversations, interviews, stories? We weren’t even given them as homework. That remains a mystery to me.

On my own, I mostly listened to songs and tried to sing along looking at the lyrics. Finally I could understand the songs from Notre Dame and I sang them again and again… But I was lazy: I skipped all difficult parts and didn’t translate them =) I tried to find something else to practise listening, but it wasn’t easy. So my listening skills remained rather poor after university. Something around B1, I think.

Actually, I was confused about my level of French by the end of university. On the one hand, I had had quite a lot of French – on average we had at least 5 one-and-a-half lessons a week and several subjects (General French, Reading, Professional French and Professional Translation). And that is for 4.5 years! I got an excellent mark at my final exam. On the other hand, I could feel that I wasn’t fluent, I couldn’t understand films or news or read books easily. I got overwhelmed by the pace of natives’ speech and couldn’t follow it properly.

After uni

Since I graduated in 2011 I’ve made numerous efforts to study French or refresh it but I never got to doing any exams. In 2011-2012 I had private lessons with a tutor with the aim to prepare for DALF C2 (I was very ambitious, yes). But he was a rambler (although, to give him his due, an excellent speaker) and the only positive thing of our lesson was my improved listening skills. The preparation proved too difficult, especially in writing, so I gave it up.

Then I tried

  • teaching French (2014-2016). I thought I could do it, but it didn’t turn out to be very successful. Well, everyone makes mistakes;
  • reading fiction – Un peu de soleil dans l’eau froide (somewhat confusing) by Françoise Sagan, Le voleur d’ombres (very nice) and La première nuit (good modern language but I didn’t like the plot) by Mark Levy, L’Ultime Secret (same problem) by Bernard Werber, La Terre des hommes by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (it was so difficult in structure that I had to look up Russian translation, but the book is incredibly good, simply a marvel) and Fort comme la mort by Gut de Maupassant (ok, but I don’t really like love stories) and Lettres de mon moulin by Alphonse Dodet (a wonder, not a book!)
  • studying with Frantastique for 3 years (2016-2019). These are mini lessons said to be adaptive to the level of the learner. It was fun and original at the beginning but boring by the end (they simply ran out of lessons of my level in a year and offered to restart my progress and add another year of subscription for free);
  • a B2 course at Institut Français (2016, couple of months of weekly 3-hour-long lessons) – too difficult. The only thing the native teacher did was talk, expecting us (four shy girls) to just talk back and get into a discussion with him. And then we read our home exercises to him… Already being a teacher at that time, I was outraged by this obvious lack of teaching skills and soon left. But my listening skills were better;
  • a B1 course at at Institut Français (2017, six months of weekly 3hour long lessons) – much better, and it was a couple of years later. But the teacher seemed to me a very illogical lady. I couldn’t understand why we were doing what we were doing at our lessons, or how the stages of a lesson were connected to each other. But in general she was a nice lady and I was a strong student. I almost abused this fact – I spoke at lot, at length and at the expense of other students. (However I couldn’t see how she could teach the others to become better speakers too);
  • Reading fiction with translation (when I felt lazy). Surprisingly, here I absolutely loved everything I read. The books are funny, original and written in a very good language (all of them classics): Knock ou la Triomphe de la Médecine by Jules Romains, Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur by Maurice Leblanc, Boule de suif and Nouvelles by Guy de Maupassant, Le Passe-Muraille by Marcel Aymé and Vol de nuit by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry;
  • watching short videos and taking notes. I started with Karambolage (short, nicely animated videos). Then I explored TV5 Monde (Apprendre le français, 7 jours sur la planète);
  • listening to podcasts on the RFI – Les villes du monde, 7 millards de voisins and Autour de la question;
  • doing different grammar exercises and studying with books (mostly without any system). Well, I’ve gathered a nice collection of books =)
  • watching several films (they were haaard to understand and I can hardly remember them) and YouTube;
  • some speaking with natives but not much;
  • taking lessons on italki (most recent endeavours – 2020-2021). I had classes with a French native teacher, a very nice lady called Sophie. I was surprised to hear that I’m more like a C1 student. But that was judged by my speaking. As for C1 reading and listening, I found them still difficult. Sophie was very kind to let me speak a lot and direct our classes where I wanted, but most of the time I felt that they were not very structured and I could do more for my homework.
My wonderful collection of French textbooks =) For the most part they are pristine =))

Then I couldn’t take lessons on italki and was left stranded without my lovely teacher (I miss her a lot). I just watched or listened to something this year. 

So you see, I have done something for my French over the last 10 years. But it’s always been erratic and unsystematic and I haven’t got any clear results let alone any certificates. Anyway, my irregular studies have helped me not to forget the language and even improve my speaking, reading and listening skills. 

My goals for French

Ideally, I’d like to take my French to C2. However, it’s a lot of time and hard work and for now I don’t see any applications for this. I don’t really need this level. I just love the language. The better I know it, the more enjoyable it becomes. Probably, it’s this contradiction why in ten years since uni I haven’t got my C2. 

But even with C2 aside, I’d like to watch and understand documentaries or podcasts on history, culture, travel and science in detail and be able to discuss them. For now it’s difficult. I like to watch videos about French regions (Le Pays préféré des Français) but every time there’s a casual talk between two natives I miss quite a lot of information. I definitely need to work on my listening skills.

Interestingly, I haven’t watched any series in French. Or many films. I should probably start moving in that direction. Especially, because it’s good practice for listening (and an excellent test of listening skills).

Also, because I learnt French academically, I know quite a lot of its grammar but not as well as English grammar. I like grammar and I like to be flexible with it. Again, this has little to do with speaking. It’s more about the structure of the language. On the other hand, knowing grammar helps me enjoy a language more when I read or listen to it, because then I can identify different grammatical structures and appreciate them. 

It would be interesting to compare the French and English grammars across all levels because. When I taught French, I had a feeling that the French grammar is more difficult and there’s more of it. I’d like to verify that hypothesis =) For this I need to compile a list of grammatical structures across levels A1-C1.

Finally, I need to come up with a clear system for my studies and stick to it. Now I’m thinking.. if I had had this system in the past and spent just an hour a week on my French, I would have probably done all my books quite thoroughly and would have been a strong C1 long ago! (Because that would have been at least 540 hours of studies and you need about 200 hours to go from level to level).

I hope this blog will help me. This is a very convenient way to organise some knowledge, keep notes of new vocab/interesting ideas or improve writing skills. I think I will start making something like a portfolio of my French here.

So, to sum up

  • French is still my favourite language but I have nowhere to use it, so I’m forever stuck with irregular studies;
  • Still, I’d like to study it more often because it’s very inspiring;
  • I need a system of studies to brush up on what I already know and give more practice to what’s rusty. And to stick to this system to make steady progress;
  • My priority is to improve my listening skills and grammar;
  • My nearest goal is to watch/listen to documentaries and news and understand them close to 100%;
  • It would be good to watch more films or try series in French, I’m not very familiar with this kind of listening;
  • I’m going to use my blog as a portfolio of my French (it will be under the tag of Learning French).

Et voilà!

Cover photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash

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