Off the tongue: learning French on-the-go

2 months ago, I couldn’t speak a lick of French. I’d been studying for a few months, but I hadn’t actually been practicing, so I still couldn’t do anything with the language. And I might actually still be in that boat had I not been in a place where I could test it out, but since I have been, I’ve thankfully been making progress (and sometimes shockingly fast!) thanks to a couple of amazing smartphone-based tools.

Because, you see, I’m not the type of person who can just pick up a language on the fly; I hear the words, I forget the words. I have to see them and I have to understand them, before anything can sink in.

Disclaimer: maybe it’s a bit late to be posting about my experience learning French while travelling, now that I’m in an Anglophone country…. but here and there, I still have my chances to practice, and soon enough I’ll be back, so I’m still keeping up my studies (though admittedly, with slightly less enthusiasm than when I was forced to use it on a daily basis).

And so when you’re travelling through West Africa, attempting to learn a new language (or three) with an iPhone being your sole electronic device, you have to get a bit creative.

The backstory: as a Canadian, I obviously learned French in school. But it’s not compulsory after 8th grade, and I dropped it. And since then, I’ve forgotten everything I had ever learned. So before I came here, about a year ago, I bought the Rosetta Stone series (bad call; don’t do this). It may have taught me some basics, but it’s all useless vocabulary: la balle jaune est sur la table, for example. Who cares if the yellow ball is on the table?! I want to eat, find hostels, take the bus, and maybe talk about family, work, and school, when I get the chance. What does a yellow ball have anything to do with anything?! And for the amount of money I shelled out for it, I was certainly expecting a little more.

Furthermore, by the time I finished the third level, the concepts were becoming complex enough that the simple “immersion” technique of RS just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I could match the proper sentences to their photo counterparts, but I was rarely sure why they went together. Often, I could just identify that there was one photo with a yellow ball, but how was I to understand that it had been on the table, vs some other state of being, etc.

Now, I’ve mentioned a couple of times in other posts that the French language still proves to be a source of frustration for me, so clearly my French isn’t exactly perfect. But, I’m certainly getting by. And not just for the basics anymore; I can hold a real conversation simply for the sake of talking! I have actually surprised people after telling them how short a time I’d been studying. Huge progress for the girl that sucks at languages.

Thanks Tiff!

So how exactly did I pull this off? Two things: CoffeeBreakFrench and Duolingo.

Actually make that three things; I also have a lovely notebook my friend Tiff gave me, in which I write down all the words, phrases, and rules that I have learned. If not for future reference, the process of writing it down really increases my chances of actually remembering it.

20140504-234418.jpgSo what’s this CoffeeBreakFrench business? CBF is a podcast from Radio Lingua that I download to my phone through iTunes (or you can get them directly here). They are 20 minute shows that slowly teach you the basics (ironically, the “teacher” and “student” are both Scottish, and can be a tad annoying at times, but they do grow on you!) In the beginning it can be slow and tedious, but they give you a lot of tools for expanding your growth beyond their lessons. I like it the best because they really break it down for you into manageable parts, and help tie different concepts together. I listen to a few each time I’m travelling between cities. It kills an hour (or two if I’m feeling keen) but doesn’t burn though my precious battery!

NB: though it may sound like it, I swear I have no affiliation with CBF! Maybe it’s my old promo-personality coming out 😉

In tandem with this, I started 20140520-104811.jpgusing the Duolingo app. This was great at the beginning, while the podcasts were dealing with more of the common phrasebook type stuff, as I could also focus on some more grammatical things at the same time. However, this eventually lost it’s appeal, as it’s a bit more time-heavy and also being screen-based, I tired of it quickly (and the battery can’t handle that sort of intensive usage). As well, it does also suffer a bit from the same “I know the correct answer but I don’t know why it’s the correct answer” type of thing that Rosetta does. But to get me started, it was useful, and best of all, free!

So if you’re looking to learn a language and want to do it from just your phone, that’s my winning combo. I’ve given myself a really solid foundation now, from which I am able to build upon to become fluent.

Oh, and I guess key #4 would be the mini French-English dictionary I picked up in Dakar. That’s pretty useful for expanding vocab as you go 🙂

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