When American friends (in the US or in France) innocently ask me how they might improve their French at home, they don't know what they're in for. Miss Bossy Polly-Know-It-All has lots and lots of suggestions. So like it or not, they have to either hide from me immediately or else sit down for a spell, for an earful of my clever ideas. What, did they expect a two-sentence magic-bullet answer?
You, too, may now either return to whatever you were reading and exit this page; or if you like, turn off the phone and let me give you my short-list of relatively painless how-to's.
1. First off, I always recommend watching French television as much as possible (not not NOT American programs dubbed in French, of course. Duh. Besides being totally annoying watching the lips move out of sync, you aren't going to learn anything.) Any show with real human beings speaking real French. Preferably the more hi-brow programs, news, and the like. Although I admit that when I was briefly bedridden a few weeks ago I got hooked on a French Jeopardy-style game show, and learned a lot.
NDLR: Back in ye olde days when I was teaching ESL in Boston, I recommended that my students -- mostly visiting Venezuelan oil execs -- watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood for homework. Okay, the subject matter wasn't enthralling for these macho guys (they preferred spending their evenings ogling the ladies at the Kit-Kat Lounge), but Fred Rogers always spoke very clearly and used simple vocabulary easily understood by foreigners. I'm trying to figure out what his counterpart in France is.
French TV is available in the US on TV5, available only by cable or satellite. Online, however, you can click onto some of the French TV station websites such as TF1 or France2 and check out snippets of news and other programs.
2. Recorded books. Les livres audio. Depending on your level of French, choose a simple children's book or a classic novel. Some are narrated by famous actors and actresses, such as Catherine Deneuve. The key is to listen to the recording AND read the words at the same time. In France, Radio France has a great website listing where to find livres audio. Also check local libraries. In the US, check your local Alliance Francaise library to see what they have in stock.
3. Similar to listening to books on tape but more immediately accessible via internet are various information sources in France that have an "écouter cette page" icon. While these are destined for the visually impaired, they are also a helpful way for non-francophones to hear the spoken language while reading the words, and offer a more quotidian, practical vocabulary. The Mairie de Paris website, http://www.paris.fr/, has lots of these. Just find a subject that you're interested in, from recycling to gardens to traffic, and click on the megaphone icon. The voice is a bit cloyingly mechanical, but overall very helpful. Many different subjects, and the site is frequently updated.
Caution: if the word has been misspelled, the voice pronounces the word as it's spelled, not as it was intended. Thus achat, inadvertently misspelled acaht, was pronounced a-kat. But that's rare.
4. French movie DVDs. However you choose to find them, from Netflix or your local video store, or, as always, your local Alliance Francaise. In the US, they mostly have English subtitles. If you can find them with French subtitles, give it a try. A good language workout and you're not spending too much time translating, but absorbing language by context. In France, they mostly have French subtitles anyway, for the hearing-impaired.
"But... but, I want to improve my spoken French," whine my pals. (The ones who hadn't fallen asleep yet.)
Quiet down, kiddos. How did you learn to speak English in the first place? By hearing and listening and imitating. And by the time you learned to read English at age 6 (or 4 or 5 if you were very precocious), you already had mastery of over ten thousand words and understood their syntax, all just by osmosis, all in context. And repeating, for sure.
5. So if you're a glutton for punishment really want flash cards and an at-home language lab, try some of the user-friendly online homework helpers for high-school French textbooks, like this one, from McDougall-Littell. There are many others. Of course, it's no substitute for learning from the real text, but just extra help, like training wheels.
6. Memorize a French poem. Yes, by heart. Yes, out loud. Preferably a Jacques Prévert poem. One website, called Fichiers Audio , has the written and audio versions of works by Prevert and other poets, plus other audio-visual helpers.
7. And if reciting Prévert poetry gets you in a romantic mood, you can always go for the tried-and-true method (but with its own risks) of learning French on the pillow. Meet someone French at Meetic.
There are your FREE insider's tips. Worth a mint.
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