We’ve all seen the books: “French in Ten Days!” “Learn French – It’s Easy!” …that kind of thing. We know it’s all mockery and snake-oil. For unless you are blessed with a French mother, learning a language like French, like learning a musical instrument, takes years of hard work and practice. Certainly I have no gift for languages; everything comes hard.
Having said that, here’s something that I’ve discovered that has made learning French a bit less difficult: reading friendly texts in French. Here are three of mes amis:
Premier Ami, La Bible. I started on French with a beginner’s text book, learned basically how French nouns and verbs work, and memorised a starting vocabulary. From this shaky start I started reading a French Bible. In a burst of optimism, I bought La Bible en Français Courant six years ago, and started reading a bit each day from the gospels. Being familiar with this, I was able to “reverse engineer” the text to work out what the French words must mean. I experienced the enjoyable illusion of “reading French”, all the while rapidly learning new vocab and sentence structures.
Later I found the 19th Century translation, La Bible Louis Segond. (Louis Segond was a Swiss pastor who translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek.) I discovered that the older French, being far less colloquial and idiomatic, was correspondingly much more simple to read. If I had known, I would have started with the Segond’s translation. Here’s a sample:
L’Eternel est mon berger: je ne manquerai de rien.
Il me fait reposer dans de verts pâturages, Il me dirige près des eaux paisibles.
Il restaure mon âme.
Un berger must be a shepherd. Manquer is to miss or lack. Reposer is rest, diriger is to conduct or lead. Un âme is a soul, etc.
Deuxième Ami, Les nouvelles (Les actualités). I discovered the wonderful free DuoLingo app about four years ago, and diligently worked through the French course over about twelve months. This taught me a lot more vocab and grammar in a very pleasant format. At the same time, I downloaded Le Point, a French news app. Some articles I found far too hard: especially political news and opinion pieces. But some articles, especially the report of a world event, or the description of a new movie or product, I found relatively easy. It is the context that helps. If you know that the story is about a battle in Syria then the words soldats, guerre, mort, attaquer, tuer et blesser are going to be sadly recognisable. If you are reading a film review, then the words jouer, directeur, une affiche, un billet, un acteur, une actrice, et un film d’amour will also be readily understood. The known context is a very helpful hook.
Troisième Ami, les livres classiques. Recently I started ploughing through the dry-as-dust ‘French Verb Drills’ by de Roussy de Sales. He works you through long lists of verbs in their spoken and (never spoken) literary forms. At the same time, I started reading Les Cinq Filles de Mrs Bennet (Orgueil et Préjugés). There you go, two more words. It is an old translation, into plain unidiomatic and literary French, of a book that I have read in English four or five times. You will recognise this straight away:
C’est une vérité universellement reconnue qu’un célibataire pourvu d’une belle fortune doit avoir envie de se marier.
Here is a wealth of words for the reader familiar with Jane Austen’s classic: vérité (truth), reconnue (recognise), que (that) un célibataire (a bachelor), doit (must), avoir envie (desire) and so on. And so I have the pleasure all at once of reading French, of reading an old favourite through new eyes, and of learning a whole heap of language at the same time (in conjunction with my dusty Verb Drills!)
For me, simple language immersion is hopeless. Hours of reading French texts—on its own—will get me nowhere. But with a bit of prior hard work on lists of vocabulary and verb tables, you will make rapid process with a little help from your friends: texts that you can hook into because you know them really well, or because you have a reasonable grasp of the context.
The next step for me? Watching the French news on SBS to train my ears, and then one day, when time and money permits, the dream of spending three months in France to get the speaking going and to consolidate all that I have learned. In the meantime, Je vais continuer á profiter de mes livres préférés en français!
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania.