A Road Map for Learning French to Fluency – Getting Over the Intermediate Wall

There are two wonderful moments in the process of learning French. The first is when you spontaneously understand when you are being spoken to. It’s the wow moment when you suddenly realize you didn’t have to translate or strain to understand. Everything was crystal clear.

The second wonderful moment is the reverse of the first. It’s when you open your mouth and out comes effortlessly a well-formed phrase that is totally understood by the person you’re talking to. It could be just ordering something in a restaurant, buying tickets for a show or asking for directions. You see that the other person understands you totally and responds immediately. No puzzled look on their face as they try to figure out what you are saying. No asking you to repeat what you just said.

Unfortunately, it’s not always like that. A lot people learning French get discouraged by the complexity of the language. They hit a wall and give up. At best they end up in what I call the intermediate rut. It doesn’t have to be that way. French is not an easy language. But no language is easy. Every language has its challenges.

Something that a lot of teachers don’t emphasize enough is that once you get over the intermediate wall, French is actually not that difficult. It becomes easier and even fun.

How do you get there? How do you get over the wall? How do you go from being at an eternal intermediate level to real fluency where you feel comfortable speaking French? Here is what I call a road map to true speaking fluency:

Maintain a positive attitude

Make no bones about it; French grammar is complicated, especially when compared to English. It’s easy to get discouraged and give up. Keep your eye on the prize. Perhaps you are learning French just for the pleasure of culture and travel or meeting people. Or maybe it’s for professional purposes. In this case, keep in mind that true fluency in French is so rare that it becomes a valuable career-enhancing skill.

Whatever the case, fluency in French will open up a vast world of culture and knowledge. Some people even believe that learning a foreign language is an excellent way to exercise the brain and slow the onset of dementia. Who knows? In the meantime, there is no doubt that speaking French fluently can only enhance your quality of life. No one ever regrets being multilingual.

Master the basics

French grammar is very complicated, The verbs are a nightmare. There is something called the subjunctive mood that few people ever understand. Or the passé simple that is used in writing but never in speaking. And every rule has a ton of exceptions that you have to learn by heart.

This is true, but there’s a secret I tell my students: you don’t have to know it all before you can speak. There is a core set of basic elements that you have to know really well. The others you can work on as the need arises.

Verbs are a major area of complication. Again, you have to really master the basics. Don’t try to memorize all those verb conjugation tables. Only certain tenses are really important. For example, you can avoid the future tense most of the time by using the verb aller as in je vais partir instead of je partirai.

The four most important verbs in French are: être, avoir, aller and faire. They come up in every conversation. Make you sure you know them really well.

Don’t worry about your accent

If you are learning French as an adult, you’ll just have to accept the fact that you will probably have a tell-tale accent in French for the rest of your life. You can work on it, but it won’t go away totally. Actually, it’s not such a bad thing. If your grammar and vocabulary are impeccable, people will be really impressed. I guarantee you that people will congratulate you on your French.

Immerse yourself

If you want to speak French fluently, at some point you have to spend some time in a French-speaking area. This may be France, Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec and certain parts of Canada. There’s nothing like seeing and hearing the language around you. The language comes alive. Things you have only seen in books all of a sudden become real. So, plan a trip to a French-speaking destination.

In the meantime, there is much you can do to add some French to your life. The Internet is a fabulous gold mine of resources. I highly recommend you join a French-language meetup group on the Internet. They get together regularly to practice speaking. On the Internet you can also find language-exchange sites where you can practice with other learners.

Another excellent idea is to rent DVDs with French subtitles or sound tracks. You can switch between languages and repeat passages until you understand everything.

Probably the best form of immersion is to actually work in the language. This, of course, is not easily done if you don’t speak the language really well. Consider volunteering in a French-language environment.

Always carry a notebook

You should always have a little notebook with you in which you can write down things you see or hear. You can also make a note of phrases or idioms that you want to remember or work on.

Make a habit of using something every day

You’ve heard the expression “Use it or lose it”. That’s true, but there’s another variation “Use it to learn it”. There’s a rule of thumb that says that if you want to learn a word or phrase, you have to use it at least three times. Every day make a point of learning something new. This is where the notebook is handy. Look up a word in the dictionary. Choose an idiom that you like. Or maybe you heard a neat turn-of-phrase that you would like to make your own. Whatever you do, make the point of using that element at least three times that day.

Listen actively and imitate

One of the best ways of attaining fluency is to imitate speakers that you respect. Listen carefully to how they speak. See how they put words together to build sentences. Pay special attention to how sentences are connected together in order to keep everything flowing. See how they use idioms and play with language. If you hear something you like, write it down and put it into your language notebook later.
Stanley St- Yves Aleong is a teacher of Spanish and French, especially at the advanced levels. He lived in Europe for three years and has developed a learning system based on wall charts for the study of French, Spanish and English.

For more information on methods for learning advanced Spanish, visit http://www.langcal.com/

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