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.