My goals with French

French has turned out to be a lifelong enterprise for me, which will probably never end until I die.

I recently heard Kerstin Cable, in an interview by Géraldine Lepère, talk about the importance of specific long-term language goals as well as a plan to reach them. A goal to get “fluent” is way too vague. French has turned out to be a lifelong enterprise for me, which I started when I was a teenager and will probably never end until I die. After listening to Kerstin, I thought about French and realized that I have quite a few specific goals which I would like to meet in my lifetime. In case anyone is interested, here they are. Writing them down like this will help me to think about my goals for each of my other languages. Reading about them might help you to think about your own goals for each language and make them clear in your mind. 

First, I have several goals which I can group together. These are the ones I’ve been working on for the past several years. Essentially, when I graduated from the university (Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, USA) with a Bachelor of Arts in French, my French skills were actually rather weak. My teacher said I was only “moderately fluent.” (I could probably converse at a B1 level.) I didn’t like to practice conversation because I didn’t like hearing myself speak French: my own pronunciation sounded ugly to my ears (and I wasn’t yet able to pronounce the French “R”). Another problem I had was that I didn’t have interesting things to read (such as graded readers or LingQ). That means my vocabulary was too small to read the news or French literature. These are things I feel in hindsight that I should have been able to do when I graduated. After that, I didn’t use French for over two decades, but I started it up again a few years ago and have been learning it ever since. 

So, my first set of goals involves achieving skills I felt I should have had when I graduated. Over the last few years, I achieved two of them: I built up a strong vocabulary through reading novels and I built up my conversational skills to a high-intermediate (B2) level. 

These give me the foundation for my next goal, which I’m working on now and which I’ve come close to achieving: comprehending (audio) news broadcasts. I’ve been using LingQ and Fiverr to help me. I pay someone on Fiverr to transcribe short news videos from YouTube and then I use LingQ to help me read the transcripts, after which I rewatch the videos. The videos are about Francophone African news, so the journalists have a variety of French accents. Now that I’ve been introduced to a few different accents, Standard French sounds a lot easier! And for the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to live news audio broadcasts. I understand a lot, but there’s a lot I still don’t understand. At this rate, I should be able to understand most of it soon. 

My next goal will be to improve my pronunciation. For this, I purchased a Mimic Method course by Idahosa Ness, and I’ll also listen to YouTube videos about the differences between written French and spoken French. I’ve started learning German, and this has helped my French “R” tremendously, but I don’t pronounce it consistently yet. After that, I’ll start reading famous French literature, starting with Jules Verne and Molière. That will complete my first group of goals, after which I’ll have achieved what I had hoped to achieve when I finished college. To recap, those goals are: vocabulary, conversation, listening to the news, pronunciation, and reading French literature. 

I have four more goals after I complete these goals. They’re more like wishes, but certainly achievable. I can meet them in any order, but the following order seems to go from the easiest to the most difficult. 

(1.) I’ve been studying the French education system, and I’m impressed by it. The French study history and geography almost every year–from the beginning of elementary school through at least middle school. They also study a lot of math and science. Most students are required to study philosophy during their last year of high school. And all students in a general high school are required to select a study track: either languages and literature, or economics and social sciences, or physical sciences. And each year builds on intellectual skills learned the previous year. If a student is lazy or distracted one year, they will be at a disadvantage the following year. By graduation, French students in a general high school have achieved the broad liberal arts education that US students get in college. Some high school graduates are qualified for white collar or gray collar work, or so I’ve heard. I would love that kind of education! So, I bought some schoolbooks via Amazon France and plan to read them. I’ll probably choose the economics and social sciences track with a specialization in geography, if I can find all the schoolbooks I need. 

(2.) One of my dreams is to use at least one foreign language in a career. My current, tentative plan is to become a multilingual tour guide when I reach retirement age. Therefore, my goal is to make YouTube videos where I talk in French about the local history around where I live. I can probably try to do it now, but I think it will be easier after I’ve read some history schoolbooks in French. Some science schoolbooks can help me, too, if I talk about local geology in those videos. 

(3.) French is my most advanced foreign language. I’ve observed that the confidence I gain as I improve my French makes it easier to improve in my other languages. It’s like cutting a trail with my French that makes it easier for other languages to follow. French becomes a template for the other languages, like a prototype. Therefore, the more advanced I can get in French, the better. My goal, then, is to reach the C1 (low-advanced/moderately scholarly) proficiency level in French. Achieving all of the goals above might bring me up to C1 automatically. If not, I’ll be nearly there, I think. 

(4.) Finally, another dream is to take university classes in another language. Since they’re expensive, MOOC’s (free, non-credit university courses) will suffice. They’ll help me to maintain my C1 level and they’ll be easier to complete if I achieve C1 first. 

The goals I’m working on now will provide me a solid foundation for the final four goals. I’ve achieved two goals from the first set so far and I’m close to meeting the third. This makes me happy. I recommend you make long-term goals for each of your languages (or at least your most important language or two). Have you met any goals already? Are you close to meeting any others? Answering these questions can increase your confidence (maybe) and it will also give you clues about the skills you should work on now in order to meet your next goal. 

Templates and Innovation in Language Learning

Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2.

Generally speaking, the first language you learn on your own (not from a class or teacher) is one of the hardest because you don’t know what works for you yet. You need to experiment until you find materials and methods that you can sustain and persevere through (and preferably enjoy, at least a little). You also need to learn how to adapt the way you learn as you become more advanced in the language: What you listen to and read at the intermediate level is different than what you listened to and read as a beginner. And you need to learn how to manage your motivation and habits through a roller coaster of emotions until you achieve the proficiency level you want. But once you’ve been through it, you can use your first foreign language as a template for languages you learn afterward. 

In my case, I studied French and a little Spanish, Japanese, and Russian in high school and college. I was going to teach French, but then I changed my mind. I didn’t study French for over 20 years after that, but then I suddenly had a strong motivation to learn it. I had a Bachelor’s degree in French on my resume, but I had forgotten it and couldn’t use it. (Unfortunately, my teacher said I was only “moderately fluent” when I graduated: I could carry on basic conversations, but my vocabulary was still too small and I didn’t like to speak it because I thought my pronunciation was bad, especially the letter “r.”) My plan was not only to revive my French, but bring it up to a fairly high level, so that my resume could properly reflect my skills. 

When I returned to French, I was surprised to learn that I still remembered most of the grammar, but only the most basic vocabulary. I had studied a half-dozen languages on my own during those two decades, but only achieved a high-beginner level in them (partly because I kept changing my mind about which languages to learn, partly because I only had books and audio courses to work with—no conversation partners, etc.). My plan was to use reading and listening to build up my vocabulary, which would have the extra benefit of reviewing grammar without effort. I focused on meaning, not form, this time around. I started with graded readers, then graded readers with audio, then LingQ, and finally novels for older children (starting with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and building up to novels for children by French authors). 

Meanwhile, I discovered the online polyglot community and learned what other resources were available to me. I hired italki tutors for Skype conversation practice and took advice from Olly Richards about how to prepare for conversation. I quickly achieved B1 (low-intermediate) conversational proficiency–and eventually, after a lot of reading, B2 (high-intermediate). 

Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2. And once I reach C1 (low-advanced/academic-level) in French, it will serve as a template for bringing other languages up to C1. 

My successful template for French was to work on form (grammar and pronunciation) first, then switch to meaning (reading, listening, and conversation practice). I used courses such as Michel Thomas to help me with the grammar. My goal as a beginner is not to make my grammar perfect, but to learn enough to express my ideas in conversation. Over the past two years, I brought my Spanish, Japanese, and (briefly) Russian up to B1–and Korean will likely reach B1 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, I’m slowly building my Japanese up to B2. Japanese is more difficult than French because of the complex writing system and different grammar, so it’s taking longer. 

What if the template is hard to apply? Then I innovate. I use trial-and-error, but eventually I sometimes have to create my own materials and find my own way to make them work. This was the case with Korean. I tried a wide variety of beginner materials (Pimsleur, FSI, textbooks, etc.) but couldn’t find anything I enjoyed enough to continue studying for very long. In fact, courses that were relaxing and fun in other languages were stressful to me in Korean. Finally, I discarded them all. 

Now I skim through textbooks and grammar reference books, looking for grammar which I’m likely to use frequently in conversation. I write grammatical constructions in notebooks and create my own sentences aloud in Korean. I skim through topical vocabulary books and create paper flashcards for words I think I’ll use frequently, then talk to myself in Korean. Meanwhile, I read just the dialogs in beginner textbooks and listen to the audio recordings of those dialogs over and over until I understand them easily. I prefer textbooks whose audio is recorded at native or near-native speed. 

This innovation has been working well for me in Korean. And lo and behold: Korean has become a second template which I can use for other languages, especially languages that have few irregularities (few apparent exceptions to the grammatical rules or few additional rules which are needed to account for the variations in word endings). I’ve been using my Korean study methods for  Japanese with a lot of success, and I think I can apply them to other Asian languages I might learn in the future. 

Russian was a source of frustration for me because of its many irregularities, because of the need to match prepositions with cases, and because occasionally a different case is used than I expect. I studied 13 or 14 Michel Thomas CD’s, and these gave me the confidence first to talk to myself and then to practice conversation with tutors. But then the tutors corrected seemingly every other sentence. I tried out many italki tutors and got rid of half of them who corrected me the most or who were not good at conversation. I finally achieved B1 conversational proficiency but was completely demoralized and worn out in the end. Now I don’t know when I’ll ever have the strength to return to Russian, even though I love the way the language sounds. If I do resume it or learn a similar language, I’ll need to use trial-and-error or even innovate in order to master enough grammar so that I will be willing to continue conversation practice again. Then Russian will become a template for other languages with complex, irregular grammars. 

Once I master kanji, I’ll be able to use Japanese (for learning kanji), Korean (for learning grammar), and French (for learning conversation) as templates for Mandarin Chinese, if I choose to learn it. (Yes, Mandarin does have grammar, it just doesn’t have word endings.) 

If you’re working on your first foreign language but plan to learn more, take heart: You can use your current language as a template for future ones, making the next ones easier. If you’ve studied several languages but are now struggling with one that you find too difficult, try different materials and methods and then, if needed, innovate. There’s a lot of frustration in language learning (sometimes with the language, sometimes with the available resources, and sometimes with yourself), but a lot of fun along the way–particularly as you find yourself able to use it in more and more situations. Templates and innovation will allow you to learn a wider and wider variety of languages, if you choose to do so. 

Good news for dabblers

After a few rounds of dabbling, either the commitment will come or your interest will disappear.

If you have trouble sticking with one language long enough to get good at it, it might not be as bad as it seems. Learning a language until mastery takes a long time–exactly how long depends on the language and other factors–and this requires commitment. The commitment usually isn’t sufficient in the beginning. Thus, it’s easy to find yourself changing languages frequently. This month you’re studying Italian, the next Russian, and the next Japanese. 

There are unusual individuals who can start a long enterprise from scratch and remain committed from day one, for as long as it takes. Others have a motivation so strong that the commitment comes easily. Yet others have outside support (from a school or parent, for example). But most of us don’t fit these descriptions. What do we do? 

If there’s a language you really want to learn but you are having trouble being committed to it, my advice is to dabble in it. Then dabble in other languages. After that, dabble in this language again, and try to stick with it longer. Then dabble in something else. Always return to this language. After a few rounds, either the commitment will come or your interest in it will disappear. Once the commitment finally arrives, make this language a priority and a habit. Make studying it even a little everyday a part of your life, like eating or sleeping. 

Each time you return to this one language, you’ll no doubt want to review what you studied before and then continue the same textbook, course, or app. By all means do that, but also study from a different course or app at the same time. Why? Because you need to make each round of study a new experience rather than trying to repeat an old one. Mere review is demotivating, but experiencing the language in a new way is invigorating. Furthermore, you might learn that you don’t like your previous course or app as much as you thought you did. 

It is my hope that your dabbling in various languages will lead you to fall in love with at least one of them, and then you’ll be on your way toward commitment. Even with a strong interest in a certain language, it might take several rounds of dabbling in it before you find the strength to maintain a habit and persevere until mastery. 

Streaks versus habits

The habit will carry them forward, but the streak will eventually end.

We sometimes hear of people who studied a particular language course (such as Duolingo) or used a particular study tool (such as Anki) for X days in a row without missing a day. It’s called a “streak.” Examples are a 60-day streak or a 100-day streak or even longer. I applaud those who achieve it, but I don’t have any negative opinions toward those who try and fail.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” (Will Durant, sometimes attributed to Aristotle). This famous quote reminds us that a habit is a key to success, not a streak. When a foreign language learner achieves a streak of longer than 20 days, they have probably established a habit. The habit will carry them forward down the long road toward a high proficiency in a language, but the streak will eventually end.

The problem with streaks is perfectionism. If a learner sets a goal of a 90-day streak and then misses days, they could feel disappointment and guilt–even embarrassment, if they told others about their goal first. And then when they try again, self-doubt can creep in which may or may not eventually lead to quitting. In my case, perfectionism tends to lead to procrastination, which in turn leads nowhere.

Progress in a language comes from habits, not streaks. Missing days–even a few days in a row–is not necessarily enough to prevent a good habit from forming. And it’s certainly not fatal to a language project, which is more like a marathon than a sprint.

It’s not even necessary to achieve a 20-day streak in order to establish a habit. There are probably plenty of things that each of us does only once a week or once a month which have nonetheless become habits. The requirement for establishing a habit–as the quote earlier states–is to do an act repeatedly. When it comes to language learning, even a few minutes a day can lead to gradual improvement. And it doesn’t even have to be every single day.

New Year’s resolutions are not much different. If you make a resolution at the start of the year, you have the whole year to meet it before you have really failed. If you fail to establish a habit in the first month or two, that’s no reason to give up until the next year.

By all means, aim for a streak. But the streak should not be the real goal. A habit leading to eventual completion of the course or some other quantifiable accomplishment is the underlying goal that matters.

A honeymoon for language success

The languages for which I’ve completed a honeymoon phase successfully are the ones I’m strongly motivated to study.

It’s common knowledge in the polyglot community that motivation is the key to success. Good study habits might be more important, but I believe it’s impossible to establish a habit without some kind of motivation. Famous polyglot Alex Rawlings recommends writing a list of 10 reasons why you want to learn a language. It’s not easy, or even always possible! But if you can write such a list, those reasons will keep you motivated.

Barring that, what helps me to stay motivated is to start off with what I call a “honeymoon phase.” Others have remarked that when you start learning a foreign language, it feels like a honeymoon. That is, the language might be new and fun to you as you learn interesting things about it and hear yourself speaking it. Disappointments, frustration, and boredom might not have surfaced yet. Thus, it feels a little like a honeymoon.

However, I use the term “honeymoon” for a deliberate language-learning phase at the beginning of my studies of a new language. During this phase, I attempt to fall in love with the language before I become committed to it, set goals, or even study it seriously. This phase even helps me to decide which language I want to study next.

There are some things I do during this phase–but not all of them:

  • Find out where it’s spoken.
  • Find out what sounds and tones are in it (phonetics)–usually via Wikipedia.
  • Listen to news broadcasts and other audio in the language.
  • Watch videos to sample TV, movies, vblogs, fairy tales, etc.
  • Sample music–both modern and traditional.
  • Watch traditional dances.
  • Watch videos for very small children, and see if I can pick up a few words.
  • Listen to podcasts for beginners learning the language.
  • See what the writing looks like.
  • Study the language with short audio courses such as Speak … with Confidence or Dr. Blair’s … in No Time or … for Children.
  • Find out what kinds of courses and references I can use to study it (but don’t start them yet). Keep a list. Think about which course I’d like to start with after the honeymoon phase is over.

There are also things I don’t do during this phase:

  • Spend a lot of money.
  • Study a serious course.
  • Read a lot about grammar.
  • Try to master all of its pronunciation at once.
  • Memorize vocabulary.
  • Study with a tutor or language exchange partner.
  • Take a class.
  • Make commitments with myself.
  • Set goals.
  • Ask others to keep me accountable.

These are all things I do once the honeymoon phase is over, if I decide to continue with that language. I might decide not to continue, as a result of not gaining enough appreciation for the language or culture or finding it hard to find courses and references I can use to learn it.

The languages for which I’ve completed a honeymoon phase successfully are the ones I’m strongly motivated to study, while those for which I haven’t completed it are lacking motivation. If I lack motivation, I tend to quit it sooner or later.

Are there any languages that you think you might persevere in and be more successful at if you either (1.) write a list of ten reasons to learn it, or (2.) spend a few weeks deliberately playing with the language but not studying it seriously? Are there languages that you have quit learning that you would like to try again with one of these two approaches?