Smart Living Tip: How to Master a Language

Monday, March 21, 2016

Use it or lose it. Mastering a language is an ongoing process, especially if you keep taking breaks inbetween.

Recently a friend asked me how long it took me to feel comfortable speaking to people in French. The thing is, even though I can hold a conversation, and even correct my French boyfriend's spelling faults from time to time, I have by no means mastered the language.

Learning in a class environment definitely helped for me. Four years of regular French classes, from beginner to upper intermediate levels, set a good foundation to get me started. It also helped that I really enjoyed the French language - its different sounds intrigued me, its culture and history fascinated me. Looking back, I'm amazed at my own enthusiasm.

Several methods that helped me 'master' French at a beginner level included:

  • Listening to anything French - Podcasts, the radio. Never mind that I couldn't catch a single thing they said, but once in a while, there'd be a word or two I thought I understood. Kids' stations or popular books also help. 
  • French magazines for beginners - Our school had us subscribed to French magazines for beginners, published by Scholastic, an educational publications company. They were the thinnest magazines ever, but helped immensely with reading comprehension.
  • Penpals - My first French friend was Xavier, who lived near the Alps, and with whom I emailed/slow-mailed back and fro for two-three years. I remember taking ages writing each piece, with the trusty dictionary by my side at all times. It was a good experience to gain insight into a 'real' French family life. We ended up meeting up briefly in real person years later, when we were both almost finished with university. How funny it was to see and hear your longtime friend for the first time! It was almost like your favourite book character coming alive.
By the time my high school French classes were over, there was a need to test myself in the real French world. Mastering a language once you have reached an intermediate level, it was time to practise, practise, practise: 
  • Exchange programme - One whole year would have been awesome, but I didn't want to miss out on my last year of high school away from friends. Instead, I opted for a short two month trip during my Summer holidays, at the end of the year. This is how Charente-Maritime became my French home region, living with a wonderful family, and going to the local school. Except for English classes, it was my rule to only speak French. Two months is not long! Who said the French are arrogant? They just want to see that you're at least trying - to speak their language and learn their culture. Isn't that the case the world over? There were no major obstacles in communicating, even in my broken French. I even managed to dream in French by the end of the stay - a personal proud moment. 
Some of the friends I met then are still friends now, ten years on. First overseas trip alone, total French immersion, friends for life - I definitely scored several birds with one stone on that one.

Now, the difficult period of my French mastery. I stopped having classes. Non ! There was no one to practice with, regularly. I started to forget words, then grammar. You use it or lose it, and I was losing it. After a long period of losing, it's harder to pick it back up. There are now holes in your language, and you're not totally sure how to fill them up, not quite an intermediate, not quite an advanced. Somewhere in between. But start, before you start losing too much self confidence. 

Re-mastering a language after a long limbo: 
  • Local classes/groups - The important thing is get back into the swing of things. Take regular classes again. Search for discount deals on Groupon. You may need to start from a level down from where you once were, but you'll get there again. Join the local French meetup group. Start tuning back into those French radio stations, pick up those dusty French novels again. 
  • Language exchanges - Search out a native speaker who wants to improve their English and become tandem language buddies. You talk half the time in one language, then swap over. If your city has Franglish that's great, but I got frustrated with only having time to introduce myself over and over again. This is definitely easier when you have a decent level of language mastery because otherwise it will become slow and boring to keep the conversation going. It may also take time to find an ideal buddy with whom you get along despite the language blunders. But when you hit it off, I guarantee that there will be great laughs. 
My road to mastery is far from finished. I still make silly mistakes I know I shouldn't, so have enrolled into classes to focus on polishing my skills up. 

The secret of mastering a language is to keep practising. Read a page a day, learn five words a day, listen to podcasts, watch movies, use apps, write emails, texts, Skype a native speaking friend and/or teacher. Anything, just do them regularly. Keep up the good work. 

C'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron.

Image from Splash/Anna Vander Stel 

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  1. Awesome Vivian! Your advice has been one of the key things keeping me going through the difficult moments of language learning. And this article is spot on. For a long time I felt sad when I listened to songs or conversations, or watched tv shows and could only understand one or two words. But it really sneaks up on you, the developments you can make this way. After some months it was three or four words, and then, recently ntire sentences started to sound completely normal... yay!

    Thanks, Viv!!!

    Beijos do Brasil ;)


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