This is the first time I’ve blogged about French. I tell the story of how I managed to get reasonably fluent in the language. It’s the second post in my new “Dr Popkins Method?” series of articles. If you prefer video, you can scroll straight to the bottom for the link to the companion vlog about my experiences learning French and Welsh. This post follows the same plan but has a bit more detail (and only covers French I’ll cover Welsh in separate, later article here on the site very soon).
I got the idea for this series in Tenerife, where I shot the first video. That cinematic masterpiece ended with rather comic – and totally unscripted – fall into the pool. I had the camera running as I was shuffling along the edge, trying to work out the best position for a dynamic dive in as a finishing shot.
The best laid plans….
The “Dr Popkins Method?” project
The reason I was paying my first visit to the Canary Islands was to attend a retreat with a group of very talented group of language learners and teachers, vloggers and bloggers.
They were pressing me to tell more about how I’ve got fluent in my ‘best” foreign languages and got a basic working knowledge in several others.
Did my approach amount to a method which I could package to help you better than I have been doing so far on this site and the YouTube channel?
I’m a bit uncomfortable about this as an exercise for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s true that I’ve got a doctorate, but I’m a doctor of Russian history not applied linguistics. On the other hand, I have qualified to teach Welsh and English to adults. I also have the research skills that you need to complete any PhD successfully and use those skills both in preparing materials on this site and before I give talks at events such as the Polyglot Gathering.
Second: yes, I’ve got vast experience of being a student in all types of language classes and in successful self-study.
But it’s that very experience that makes me suspicious that there could be one method in language learning.
That and the general critical approach that is another thing that goes with the territory when you’re a PhD, academic historian and lawyer.
Still, l’ve risen to the challenge.
There posts are very much my personal history.
General conclusions are for a later stage. Still, useful pointers may emerge for you (or maybe you’ll be more struck by the contrast with your own experiences – let me know in the comments below).
A familiar schoolboy story
My story of French at school is a familiar one.
There were no foreign language taught in the schools I attended before I went to secondary school (aged eleven).
Then we had five years French, culminating in the GSCE “O level” (one of the exams that evolved into what is now called the GCSE exam).
We had to start German in the second year and I dropped it like a stone as soon as I could, after two years.
The only reason I kept going with French, I suppose, was because at my school it was compulsory to do at least one foreign language till aged sixteen.
At sixteen, I passed O level French with a “B” (the highest grade was an A, the subsequent A* grade had not yet been introduced).
On paper, that was not too bad but the truth was that I couldn’t speak or really understand any real French.
This became painfully clear on a number of family holidays to France during my secondary school days.
There, my intense embarressment and shyness didn’t help either.
For me, French to “O” level had been just another subject. The language I’d had to keep going with (because you had to do one language).
That was the only exposure I got in those years. It was before the internet and before home video recorders were widespread. So French video was totally inaccessible. You could pick up some crackly radio broadcasts and, of course, buy French books, but I had no particular interest.
Interest sparks and a need emerges
It was in the last two years of high school (aged 16 to 18) that I become quite excited by the idea of learning French and started to see the appeal of languages in general.
That was a paradox as I had decided not to carry on with French for “A” level. I was studying History, Government and Politics, Economics. I loved the subjects and a had a good time. Looking back, though, we shouldn’t have been allowed to specialise so much.
I can’t really recall how or why this shift towards enthusiasm for languages took place, but the motivation was suddenly there.
I was studying a lot of French and wider European history all of a sudden and this cultural context may have been part of the picture. Also, several of my group of close friends were studying French, German or Latin for “A” level and getting to travel and explore books and films in their languages.
Maybe, at some level, I’d always liked the idea of being able to speak in a foreign language. Who wouldn’t?
It was just that I couldn’t see how you could get there.
I’d approached French like all my other subjects – as abstract knowledge.
While getting fluent in a language certainly needs to involve a lot of study, it is also very much a practical skill.
In the autumn of my final year at school, I accepted the offer of a place to study history at the University of Oxford.
One thing, then is certain. I now had a clear need for the language. At the end of the first term at Oxford, I’d have to sit a major exam on a text in French.
I started to do extra work on the language during the lunch hour, with one of my French teachers from the lower school who had very generously offered to help
The summer after A levels, I continued to work on my French. I can remember sitting on the bed of the farmhouse my parents had rented for our holiday, somewhere deep in rural France.
I was feeling overwhelmed at the obvious impossibility of remembering all the words you’d need.
I also felt somewhat angry at the university for expecting this obviously impossible task.
I was, though, starting to get into “France” and was busy reading a new door-stopper of a book all about that country (then in the early stages of Mitterand’s regime).
The great leap forward: French “on the side” in Oxford
The French text we were examined on at the end of the first semester was Alexis de Tocquevilles L’ ancien régime et la révolution, which weighed in at about three hundred sophisticated, native-level paperback pages. The English translation was out of print (again, in pre-internet days, that meant there was no practical way for me to get hold of it).
In second and third term, the exams passed, we historians were under much less pressure (people studying other subjects had there first big exams at the end of the first year, when we had none).
I now had the language bug big time.
I was a little envious of those who were doing modern language degrees. There were also one or two students who’d taken a year out before starting university and had gone abroad and learned languages.
I was determined to get fluent in French. I took control of my own learning and threw myself into self-study.
The summer before I’d been overwhelmed by the immensity of the task. At least I’d understood that knowing a lot of words is central to real progress in language learning.
Now, in extensive language section of Blackwells bookshop (now a shadow of its former self) I found a book of French vocabulary for A level organised by themes and decided to use it to help me tackle the problem systematically.
In the course of the next nine months or so, I proceeded to learn the words off by heart. I did this by making flashcards with individual French words on one side (or phrases, there were some of these in the book) and English on the other. I colour-coded the nouns (red ink for feminine, blue for masculine).
I kept the cards in small brown envolopes of twenty and worked on them using “spaced repetition”. The system was known of course then but I can’t remember reading about it. It was something I stumbled on unwittingly. It just seemed common sense to me, given my bad memory.
I also bought “Teach Yourself French Grammar” and worked through that in the same way, making flash cards twice the size of the vocab ones. These had explanations and examples on one side and a prompting question on the other (in English). I was using the “testing effect”.
I started listening a lot to French radio, which you could pick up on and off on medium wave in the evening (I have just discovered why tonight, as I write this post).
For the second and third semesters, I also took a once-a-week lunchtime class but, aside from that, wasn’t doing any speaking or production.
I wasn’t trying to do much reading either for the first year or so. It was vocab, grammar and listening.
The thrill of seeing that I could speak and understand French
In the long vacation at the end of first year, I went on a holiday with my parents to France for the last time.
This was the sixth consecutive summer we’d spent three weeks in France.
The three weeks in the gîte passed much as normal, with no real need to use the language and with me incapable of creating any situations where I could use it.
But then, at the end, we stayed for three or four days as the guests of a French family (work colleagues of an old family friend).
The family could hardly speak English. Thanks to all my efforts, I was now by some margin the best of the four of us in my family in French, so was doing a lot of interpreting as well as free speaking.
It was all very rough and ready but – zut alors! – I was communicating in French. It felt great and confirmed that a lot of listening, the grammar and a lot of words could make difference, even though hadn’t been practising much.
I kept going at French throughout the second undergraduate year in much the same way.
In my third year, I was able to read the language well enough to choose as my specialist “Further subjet” an option called “Literature, Politics and Society in the Third Republic 1871-1914”.
For this, I had to read several French texts as well as a lot of secondary literature in English about the period.
It was one of the highest marked papers in “Finals” (the graduation examinations).
In summer 1988, a few weeks after finishing university, I went off to Wales for nearly a year to learn Welsh. I also started learning Russian. More about those experiences in later posts.
Taking French further in my graduate student days and beyond
It wasn’t the end for me and French, though.
In summer 1989, back from Wales and waiting to return to Oxford to begin my post-graduate research, I enrolled on a summer course at Grenoble University.
This was a two or three-week course. We lived in the university halls of residence.
My plan was to try to find a job there till the end of the summer. In that, I failed miserably (it was difficult to find something for so short a period), so I was back in Yorkshire for the last six weeks before returning to university.
I was only back in Oxford for four semesters before my studies took me to Germany, Finland and Russia.
Those four semesters as communism collapsed in country after country in Eastern Europe.
I attended events at the Maison Française d’Oxford cultural centre and made several French friends. I met one of them regularly to practice French. I even considered going off on the Erasmus post-graduate student mobility programme to spend a semester at Sciences Po in Paris.
In the end, though, I went to Freiburg… After all, I already spoke quite a lot of French. German was beckoning, but that’s another story.
I was now able to read French fluently and hold conversations. In the years – now decades – since then, that’s what I’ve kept doing, every now and again.
French is still very much my fourth foreign language, quite a bit behind my Welsh, Russian and German.
One reason for that is that it’s never been a priority.
Another is that I’ve never spent an extended period in France.
Indeed, since the Grenoble courses in 1989, I’ve only even been to France at all five or six times. I went twice from Germany (1993, 1994) to visit one of the French friends I’d made in Oxford. Then there was a fifteen year gap until a visit for a week in New Year 2009. Spring 2011 saw me over in Brittany for a few days to take part in Ar Redadeg, the sponsored run for the Breton language. In summer 2016, on my residential Basque course, I crossed into the “northern Basque Country” (from the Spanish to the French state) for an afternoon.
A couple of years ago I did an online evaluation with the Institut Francais. That showed me on the B2/C1 border. At some point, I’d love to take my French further to do the DALF C1 exam. I’ve got the books 😉
In the meantime, I listen France Inter radio a few times a month as I got about my household routine. How much easier that is now I can stream the channel on my internet radio or phone.
When I do get back to French big time, I know what my challenges will be: the colloquial language, including slang, plus writing, which I’ve never much done and is always the skill I find hardest. Maybe it’ll make more sense to start with the B2 exam.
So that’s my story with my first langauge love. I’d love to hear how YOU got started with your language(s), too. That’s what the comments section’s for down below 🙂
Next up: how I learned Welsh. Check out my French and Welsh stories in the video: