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Learn to Speak French - A Guide to French Immersion

Updated on September 11, 2013
Montreal Place Jaques Cartier
Montreal Place Jaques Cartier

When I first began to learn to speak French it was in the context of my elementary school. For 6 years I had mandatory French class, spanning from the elementary to high school. And in that period I became very good at grammar, but I could hardly speak French at all. Besides the usual Bonjour, Comment ça va? etc…. there just wasn't much I could say. This wasn't unique, no one else could say much either, and I had traditionally achieved very high marks in French, this I think was partly because I enjoy the organizational framework of grammar so I am capable of memorizing quite a bit. Later in life I was to seriously question the teaching methods and curriculum of my school board when it came to teaching second languages. For me as an adult I came to seriously want to learn to speak French and with such a desire I had to find ways to accomplish it.

paris
paris

One thing I did was to choose a university in Montreal to attend thereby beginning my French immersion experience. I hoped this would help to teach me the language quicker. And it did but not enough, for Montreal is not Paris, it has a thriving English speaking community, including English colleges and Universities and plenty of people for whom English is a native language. When I moved I quickly realised that immersion would be more gradual than quick as I was attending an English University and the people I made friends with tended to be native Anglophones as well. After some French courses at school I became competent in reading and writing but again that all important oral element was missing. So I had to find a solution. French immersion I felt was important but I didn’t think it mattered very much that I lived in a francophone city, I needed to converse and I needed a place to start. So I began looking for people who would do a language exchange with me, basically I would teach them English and they would teach me French. Various places on the web helped me in my search, I utilized craigslist and kijiji and found people there placing ads who wanted to learn English. From those ads I met an exchange student from Paris and we started getting together once a week to practice. I want to ad a disclaimer however, she spoke very quickly and in accent that months in Québec had left me unprepared for, however it was important for me that I didn’t simply learn Quebecker and so I made an effort and after a little time I was able to understand her accent quite well. The next place I searched was on a website called meetup.com, this is a global network of groups of people getting together for a particular purpose, whether its language practice or something else. I found a conversation circle that met twice weekly to practice French and English and I began attending. This one was a bit tougher as the level of French most people spoke was closer to intermediate and I was still a beginner. Feeling lost at first I kept trying and after only 2 sessions I was speaking tolerable broken French. I realized that French immersion was not something that necessarily depended on living in a particular place, it depended a lot also on being able to find people to practice and communicate with. That said I highly recommend anyone wishing to learn to speak French to find a conversation circle or a language exchange partner in your area and start practicing. Below are some tips on how to go about learning to speak French with the idea of French immersion in mind.

Montreal le Vieux Port
Montreal le Vieux Port

Learn the Grammar

Before you begin trying to speak a language you should at least know what you want to say and how to say it. Start simply by learning how to introduce yourself, ask questions and give basic answers. My first conversation circle was devoted entirely to asking and answering questions and it was very random. Write down on cue cards the basic grammar and vocabulary you know and try to formulate sentences with it at the conversation circle. Do this each time you attend and change the grammar on the cards from week to week so that you learn more as you go along. If you have no idea on where to find resources on learning grammar, then realize that the internet is a great place and it is no longer necessary to spend money to learn to speak French. Here is one site that gives you tips and examples on grammar to help you get started.

Speak French With Me

Map of Quebec

Find a Buddy/Conversation Circle

Again I have to thank the internet for this one, finding a language exchange has now become very simple. You can use classifieds websites like craigslist or if you live in Canada kijiji, or Gumtree if your based in the U.K.. Usually there is a section called community that you can check and post your own ads for free, this can be an effective method for finding a one on one partner to help you. If you like a more official group setting then the website meetup.com has groups from all over the world meeting for every possible reason. Just input your location and the kind of group you are looking for and it will find it for you. For me personally I like both group and individual practice but I find group practice to be harder especially if you are really just a beginner, however if you are willing to put in the hard work it is definitely worth trying.

Paris
Paris

Have Patience

This is the hardest one for me to follow, I wanted to learn this language so badly so quickly that I lost sight of the fact that these things take time. Just remember, you will make mistakes, you will get confused and frustrated, just don’t give up. Really that’s the best advice I can give, if you really want to learn and if you really want to learn for free than it is more than possible, you just simply have to keep going.

Practice Your Accent

This is important but can be really tough. French has a very specific way of pronouncing things, and it can be difficult. You must learn how to roll your "r"s, how to soften your vowels, and many other things besides. I realize that there are many accents in French and it can be difficult to pick which one to emulate. Most people would want to learn Parisian, for me that is not important, after living in Québec I find the Montreal accent easier to understand. (I may be the only one who thinks so). I would recommend watching French films to try to pick up the pronunciation. You can read a guide on pronunciation as well but I honestly find that a guide is of little help in the long term, people who are fluent in a language do not follow any kind of guide, they simply speak. So you really need to hear them speak a lot to understand how they do it. I have an example from my own life about the fallacy of pronunciation guides. I grew up in English speaking Canada but had the luck to spend one year as a young adult living in Sussex England. Being me and being endlessly curious I began to try and learn their accent. I did and can now happily switch accents in English when I want to but I did so not by following any kind of guide, I merely spent a lot of time listening and then with practice it all came naturally.

Conclusion

I hope the above tips have been helpful, please let me know what you think in the feedback comments below.

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    • NatalieArias profile image
      Author

      Natalia Arias 4 years ago from Montreal

      I am glad you liked it, I will be writing more in a similar vein in the future, but I am also posting articles on french grammar and culture and history on my own blog which you can find linked to here.

    • Journey * profile image

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks very much for this article. I am hoping to learn some French at some point. Voted useful.

    • NatalieArias profile image
      Author

      Natalia Arias 4 years ago from Montreal

      I understand exactly what you mean, and I am in the same position in Russian. A lifetime in North America meant that my native language was bound to suffer, but I did spend months of my life vacationing in eastern Europe and years surrounded by Russian family and friends. So I definitely am not afraid to speak and speak it well, without errors for the most part but my grammatical skills and paper writing skills leave much to be desired. But it is my goal one day to fix that. French for me is much tougher, I have no background in it, and in the various accents can leave me confused. But I am determined, I'm pushing myself to see if I can get tolerable fluency by December.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 4 years ago from Maine

      Great article and I agree that language is taught ALL wrong. It bores most kids and drives them from the classes. While learning a language's grammar and rules is important, speaking the it is what's most important - at least in the beginning. I was lucky enough to spend time with and Aunt I barely knew when I was 10. I learned a little, mostly good French manners. That was enough - but the accent was etched into my ear. I returned at 13 and got slightly better, but when I was 16, my aunt sent me away with a family to be an au pair for a month - they didn't speak English (many Europeans choose Spanish and German instead of English). I learned by total immersion. After graduation from University, I went back and lived on my own in Paris and my best friend didn't speak English either. While my grammar and writing skills leave a lot to be desired (I never did a paper in school that I didn't need to redo for a better grade), I never developed the fear of speaking. My vocabulary and accent are excellent. If teachers would engage on a fun, speaking level, I think more kids would learn to love languages. Getting bogged down in details before you ever learn to speak is not the way humans learned their native language and not a good way to learn your next several languages either!

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I never emigrated from France. I'll try to be back to my French, I don't actually need encouragement.

      As for the paragraphs, I mean your text from "writing but again that all important" to "the idea of French immersion in mind." If you break your thing in smaller pieces, it's more intelligible.

      It's not really much of a grammar remark. :)

    • NatalieArias profile image
      Author

      Natalia Arias 4 years ago from Montreal

      I am not quite sure what you mean about making reasonable paragraphs in English, please specify, I would love to know how my grammar needs improvement. But when you said that your French is very impoverished now I completely understand, when I was little (4 years old) my family immigrated to Canada from eastern Europe. As a child I spoke Russian but then once I began attending school in English my Russian stayed at the level of a 4 year old and was an embarrassment to me. Years later I wanted to change this and so I began making a lot of friends who were Russian, I got my mother to teach me to read and write as well. 6 years of almost daily practice later and I had a very high standard of Russian, surprising to everyone who knew me. I am now trying to do the same with French. Don`t give up, if you really want to do this, you can. good luck :)

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      My learning French might look crude.

      There were television shows in French. There was a French dictionary at home. I was a child.

      This unbelievably simple.

      My French is very impoverished now, owing to circumstances, but it still is.

      Would you think about making reasonable paragraphs in your English? ;)