After taking four years of high school French, I had such a poor understanding of the French language that I could hardly manage a conversation. I was such a sad excuse for a French student that I thought I’d never touch French again — thank goodness I was wrong.
I was registering for classes my sophomore year of college and toyed with the idea of minoring in a language. I already spoke a second language, but after a brief interview with the head of the Chinese language department, I was deemed to be “too fluent” for lessons. So I promptly signed up for French 201.
A year later, I found myself at the San Francisco International Airport, clutching a plane ticket to Paris in one hand and my trusty copy of “501 French Verbs” in the other. If you’re a stranger to the French language, just know that conjugations make French students cry.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from the French classes I’ve taken back home, besides the difference between the imperfect and past tense, it’s that the only way to learn a language is by full immersion. Here are some tips I’ve found useful with becoming fluent in French:
Make mistakes (with a glass of wine)
Some days you will feel like the poster child of learning French, and then there are days when all you will want to do is to curl up in bed with the lights off. It’s okay. Take a deep breath. The point of learning French is to make those mistakes and learn from them; there is no humanly possible way to be fluent the first time you speak French.
After a week of awkward and rocky interactions with my host family, I came home and had a glass of wine with my host mom. We ended up having one of the best conversations in French of my life. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe I was finally getting all the mistakes out of my system. Regardless, it’s the little victories that make it all worth it.
Enrich your life with French
No matter what it takes, try to incorporate as much French into your life as possible. When I realized I was more serious about learning French, I changed the language on my phone to French, I started reading Harry Potter again in French and I watched Netflix shows with French subtitles. It wasn’t much, but these little details helped make me more comfortable with French. This is also a great source of vocabulary, which is particularly useful in holding conversations.
The first week of switching the language on my phone to French, I almost couldn’t do it. I had to remember through muscle memory where things were and what words corresponded to which actions. But slowly through repetition and sheer desperation, I started understanding the basic French vocabulary for working my iPhone. That doesn’t mean much when you’re missing a whole other portion of the dictionary, but it’s somewhere to begin.
Insist on speaking French
One benefit of living with a French host family is that they usually don’t speak a lot of English. When I moved in, I told them to speak to me exclusively in French because my goal was to be fluent by the end of the year. If I really didn’t get an expression, my host mom would bring out the heavily-used English to French pocket dictionary and look up the word.
As the only fluent English speaker in the household, dinner can get lonely sometimes. I’ll try my hardest to follow the conversation, but it gets so exhausting that my eyes will accidentally glaze over for just a second. By the time I tune back into the conversation, I’m completely lost because I missed a vital conversation point. At that point, it’s quite hard to jump back into the conversation and my French mom will have to update me. Even then, I don’t know all the vocabulary and all I can manage is eating green beans at the table.
Fortunately, soon enough your body will adjust to the temperature of the water and you’ll be able to swim comfortably in the waters of French. All it takes is a little bravery.