Friday Feels…Motivated: On Learning to Read in French

I’m quite a determined person (read pig-headed and stubborn). Sometimes, like everyone, I get a distracted and lose sight of my goals but in general, if I decide I’m going to do something, I will do it. It might take me a week, or month, or even several years, but I’ll get there in the end. Of course, it takes longer when motivation dips in the middle. Especially when the dip lasts, say, almost two years, but dips always rise again at some point and that’s just what happened with learning to read in French. Reading Dijana’s post last week on reading in foreign languages has pulled me out of the bunker and given me a renewed vigour. But why did I lose it in the first place? And what am I doing now to rejuvenate it?

The Best Laid Schemes o’ Mice an’ Men…

Actual footage of me running

During the planning stages of moving to France, I had a lot of ideas – things I was going to do, things I was going to learn, things I was going to experience. It was exciting. One of them was that I was going to compete in a triathlon, because I’d have much more time to train you see (hahaha, we’re such fools at times). Another thing I was going to do was to learn to read in French – and be reading novels within a year to 18 months. Of course, like all good plans, things didn’t quite happen like that. As in, it didn’t happen at all.

Moving, starting a new life in a new country with a new language, starting a business, meeting new people, learning a new culture, all that took it out of me a lot more than I was expecting. It consumed my whole being. I fell off the grid – my writing was forgotten, this blog got lost in the ether, my reading in English disappeared let alone in French, and the fantastic amounts of exercise I was going to do…well, ley’s just say that eating became a sport.

I did start reading in French though. I’d sit down dutifully every day with a book and my trusty dictionary, but after a few short sentences I’d be completely exhausted, overwhelmed, and more than a little lost. The thing about reading in a language you hardly know, when you’ve got to look every other word up in the dictionary, is that you’re not taking the story in. You’re reading words, not sentences and certainly not paragraphs and narratives. You’re so focused on understanding the basics that you can’t see the picture as a whole. You can’t see the wood for the trees, as the elusive ‘they’ say.

I tried, after a while, to just read. I shelved my beloved dictionary amid cries of despair and abandonment, and decided to just read what was written without stressing about it. After all, when I don’t understand a word in English, I don’t run to the dictionary – I carry on reading and grasp the meaning from the context. Besides, looking up words is near impossible in French, what with the excessive amount of conjugations there are – half the time, the word wasn’t even there. Of course, the big difference is that in English, at least I understand all the other words, and I understand all those little, unassuming connecting words that you don’t realise are oh-so important until they’re gone…or until you can’t understand them.

Of course it didn’t work.

So I gave up, or rather, I tumbled into that dip and curled up at the bottom with my eyes screwed tight. My plan wasn’t working.

After a few weeks hibernating in my new-found hole, I came to two conclusions:

  1. The books that I was trying to read were too hard. I needed something simpler – shorter, even. I had to accept that the books that would be an easy read in English were simply too difficult in French. I had to accept my limitations – in French, I cannot possibly be the voracious reader than I am in English – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
  2. I needed to improve my general French before delving into French literature – after all, children learn to talk before they learn to read, right?

A New Plan

File:Quebec Autoroute 30 - French Road Work Sign.jpgFast forward almost two years, and things have changed. I left it, giving it some time. I developed my verbal language skills first and whilst I’m still far from fluent, I’m certainly a damn sight better than I was. I also didn’t pressure myself to read anything, whilst often reading snippets here and there – road signs and notices in shops, naturally, extracts from the newspaper, instruction manuals and directions for use. All those little things, as innocuous as they seem, add up. Every little helps, as Tesco keep telling me.

And when, upon reading Dijana’s post, my determination shot up again, I looked at it a bit differently. Rather than jumping in head first and landing somewhere quite out of my depth, I’ve bought some children’s books instead. I’ve got a selection of short stories too, and ones with a parallel in English so I can check whether what I understood was what was actually written! I’ve followed a few French blogs and I’ve promised myself that I’ll read at least one page of French per day, slowly building it up until I can read a whole novel, whereupon a friend suggested that I read a book I’ve read and loved in English – at least then I’ll know what’s going on, I’ll know if I’ve got the right idea.

It’s easier now – probably due to a mix of my own improved language skills and a selection of easier reading material. It’s hard going, that’s for sure, and tiring, but it’s something that I know, ultimately, that I really want to do, something I’ll be pleased I put the effort into. So thanks, Dijana, for that boost in motivation – it came at just the right time, and it’s pushing me in just the right direction.

Have you learned to read in a foreign language? What tips would you give to a newbie?

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  1. Try reading poems in the language that were originally written in. Here you’ll see the real power of reading it as it ment to be. I can still remember the revelation I felt when I read “The raven” in english. The real Poe. Although the translations in macedonian and serbo-croatian I have read were actually pretty good, reading it in english was the real joy.

  2. All I can say is that it’s a long process. Conversational French will be quite different from French literature or even popular fiction. Imagine how we write in English, a bit more poetic than how we speak. The same is true of another language, especially if you attempt the classics. The construction of each sentence could be very different from a regular conversation, which makes it near impossible if you don’t have the language down pat, and even if you do. When it’s not your mother tongue, it’s just plain hard. That’s not to say it’s impossible because it’s not. But it will certainly take some time to accomplish the goal, more than 18 months for most of us. This advice comes from a Spanish Lit. major. 😉 Good luck!

    1. You’re absolutely right. I was a little naive when I came up with the 18 months thing – in fact, I was naive about pretty much everything when I first moved here. The massive life change took more out of me and took more time/effort to process than I was ever expecting.

      The reading is going well though. I’ve found reading online or on my Kindle is easier than paperbacks because I can click on words or phrases that I don’t understand. It’s still tiring, without a doubt, and I can’t read French in big stints like I do with English, but I can see improvements in myself every day, so that’s great. I’ll get there.

      Then the next big challenge will be to write a blog post in French…

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

      1. Little by little, you’ll get there. The important thing is to keep at it.

        I bet you could write a blog post in French already! You’d better do the intro in English though, so the readers who missed this post won’t be baffled. 😉

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