Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Teaching Myself French

After a European vacation earlier in the year, I realized my American unilinguism was stupid. I’ve started teaching myself French the only way I know how: with apps.

In May, my wife and I went to France and Italy for a few weeks. Besides the amazeballs wine, food, history and beauty, I was humbled by the ease at which our friends in Europe switched between languages. I’m from the States. Multilingualism is an afterthought. A grasp of english and a mouth-breathing ego carry most folks from kindergarten to grave. The European paradigm was humbling. I felt viscerally foreign. American.

But it was also inspiring. So in July, I started teaching myself French.

Besides my own time, this is a straight-up zero-budget project. So without money, books, tutors or oversight, I did what any self-respecting n00b would do: fired up ye olde app store.

First app: Duolingo

  • Immediately useful. You “taste” the language right away.
  • Starts right in with patterns. Word memorization is de-emphasized. Assumes nothing and does not apologize for it.
  • Fluid and zippy interface. Colorful, approachable. Gamey.

Second app: Memrise

  • More traditional approach: memorization, grammar, building blocks.
  • Builds a broader vocabulary from the start. Gets into more complex phrases quicker. Harder.
  • Clunkier interface, but very responsive. More diverse audio samples (a good thing).


Both emphasize audio. I find this critical, because spoken and written French are basically different languages. Little is phonetic, and verb forms written differently are pronounced the same. Dictation, predictably, is a struggle as it’s the crossing of these streams.

The major downside to the app-first approach is lack of human interaction. Both push you right into the weeds of rules without explanation. Time after time my question is not “how do I say this?” but “why do I say it this way?” Adjective placement varies, noun gender feels arbitrary, and question structure continues to confound.

Ironically, the best thing about the apps is their web complements. Both offer a richer, explanatory and contextual web application that provides interactivity and detail not present on the tiny screen. Example: Duolingo provides commenting for every phrase. Like PHP, this community conversation is a trove of useful doofus-friendly detail.

But it’s not enough. I purchased my first helper book to provide the formal explanation the apps lack. And I still wish I had a human over my shoulder.


OK, I guess. I can frame short sentences: Bonjour. Le chat a mange une souris. Je suis un americain enneyeux. Etc. But little meaningful writing, and not much reading comprehension, and a live conversation would terrify me.

I’ll keep going. I’m not sure I can ever be fluent without engaging in real-life conversations, but I can at least have a strong academic understanding to, like, read wine bottles and stuff.

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commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Thursday November 13, 2014

Reading this just made me smile : -)

…my wife works for an American company (I’m British, so’s she – but she lived in the US for a while, and might have some stars and stripes going on there. Oh, and likes things containing peanut butter, which is always a giveaway).

Anyway, she was on business in Luxembourg, and I joined her out there for a few days (including watching some of her colleagues in action with the natives), and shifted from feeling really hopeless with my French (my German is way better), as I realised there’s a whole nation moving round Europe who just exist to make me feel better, to feeling almost bi-lingual ;-)

I shall give your Apps a whirl, anyway (Sometimes my French is good enough that they can’t tell if I’m British or Dutch) : -)