Monthly Archives: July 2015

On the joys of learning French and other language exploits

Several years ago, before my first trip to Prague, I picked up a Berlitz Czech phrasebook and began what seemed like an innocent attempt at learning a few words and phrases.

However, like a lot of things I dip my toes into, learning Czech became somewhat of an obsession. Thus begun a fascination with learning languages and the constant bewilderment that acquiring a second language is so undervalued in New Zealand.

It is true to a large extent that to know the people and the country you really need to know the language. I have found the intricacies and idiosyncrasies in languages reveals a lot about how native speakers think and evaluate life, along with the history of the people.

My impediment was this strange notion that “I’ll learn another language when I’ve learned English properly first”. Yeah it’s silly, especially considering the fact I have more of an appreciation for English because I have studied another language.

French impressions — at 3 weeks

If you climbed a mountain then the surrounding hills will seem like a doddle. Czech was the mountain for me. It’s so completely different in structure, pronunciation and scope than English. Czech is highly inflected language — nouns are declined more often than not. Verbs are all conjugated to the point where personal pronouns are largely unnecessary and adjectives, pronouns vary according to which of the 7 cases you are using. It can appear to be a mammoth task to learn Czech, especially straight out of the gate as your second language.

So to my delight, French has been a walk in the park. I can see there is a lot of complexity in the language going forward but right off the bat, French has similar sentence structures to English and of course English is basically a mix of French and German that has evolved over the past 1000 years.

There are plenty of words in French that have similar meanings in English (cognates). I am finding that learning these cognates can be a great way to acquire French quickly.

The really fun part about French, in my humble opinion, is the pronunciation. As a dabbler in languages over the years, I love pronouncing Italian words and sounding Italian when I speak. The entire word is spoken definitively whereas in French the words flow off the tongue (and the back of the throat in the case of the ‘r’ sounds) much more delicately. For the most part, the ends of French words are silent and soft. It really is a joy to speak.

The magic of auxiliary verbs

I share the observation by Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months fame) and Tim Ferriss that a great way to get a grasp on a lot of a language early on is to master auxiliary verbs combined with the infinitive of the verb you wish to convey. That way, the only conjugation you’ll need is for the initial verb, which is easy to remember and master early on.

Auxiliary verbs convey a sentences function, which could be tense, modal aspect… In our cases, the modal verbs are: I must, I can, I will, I may.

English French Czech
I must go to the cinema Je dois aller au cinema Musím jít do kina
I can eat the meat Je peux manger la viande Můžu jíst toto maso
You must listen better! Tu dois mieux écouter! Musíte naslouchat líp!
Can we have some water? Nous pouvons avoir de l’eau? Můžeme dostat nějaké vody?

The initial modal verb in the sentences above allows us to use the infinitive verb to convey the meaning we want. In the first example, I merely have to conjugate the I must verb. I could say I must go, I must eat, I can drink, can I drink… Numerous meanings and sentences by memorising the conjugation of a handful of verbs and then tagging on the infinitive (eat, drink, watch, go…)

In French the verbs to go (être) and to have (avoir) have numerous functions as auxiliary verbs by forming the immediate past (passé compose). Instead of the infinitive verb, and easy to grasp past participle is used instead (as is the case with English also):

I ate breakfast -> J’ai mangé le petit déjeuner
Here, the J’ai is the present tense of the to have verb. Mangé is the past participle of to eat, so the sentence literally says: I Have eaten Breakfast.

I went to the restaurant -> Je suis allé au restaurant
In this example the past participle of to go (allé) is used to convey the meaning I went.

The simple future tense is also easily formulated from the verb to go:

We are going to the market -> Nous allons au marché
As we say it in English, the nous allons refers to we go

I’m not going to let that happen! -> Je ne vais pas permettre ça !

That’s my experience with French after only three weeks. Here are some cool resources that I am using :

  • Memrise — A spaced repetition app that keeps you locked into the daily revision and learning targets with a points system. Social networking also a key feature.
  • FluentU — a range of video, audio and flashcard resources designed to teach you in a more dynamic way than just books and CDs.
  • Coffee Break French podcast — superb resource with lots of free lessons and a premium feature. Progresses season by season from beginner to advanced French.
  • Benny’s insights into French — Straight from the Irish Polyglot’s mouth!

Concluding thoughts

Clearly, French is a popular language with a lot more complexity and richness than presented here by a mere newbie, but I have to say it is proving to be a rewarding experience.

In many ways I’m glad I studied such a relatively difficult and completely foreign language first. Czech is still my first love and I enjoy it immensely. As Benny Lewis is fond of saying, you’re first language will be your hardest because you’re learning how to study a language as well as the language itself.