Unfortunately, I never had the foresight to enroll in French lessons at school . Since my early years of schooling took place during the GDR era , Russian was my first language. In seventh grade I picked up English. However, when I could have chosen a third language in ninth grade I opted for advanced mathematics instead. The desire to master French grew only when I was in my early 30’s. Today, almost three years later, it is time to take a look back at which learning methods work and which ones yield only mediocre results.
The following methods have been utilized :
French A1.1 – Community college course
If you have no idea of a language, I find it quite practical to have the basics explained to me by a professional. In Berlin, there is an extensive network of community colleges and therefore also a regular offer of courses in all levels (and a variety of languages). Courses are usually given by native speakers. So that in addition to learning the basics you also gain some insight into the teachers’ home region. Plus, prices are quite low with about 7 euros per week for a two-hour unit.
However, community colleges also come with the disadvantage of the class level rather adapting to the weaker students. In my group of 12 (all women) I had some who even after 10 weeks had a lot of trouble to reply to simple questions such as Comment tu t’appelle ? That would probably change with increasing levels , but I decided to change my learning method after the end of the introductory course.
DVD course (in my case: “Français 1” by Digital Publishing)
Books , DVDs, or online-based courses have the great advantage that you can determine your own pace . I liked DP’s programme because for a relatively affordable price (back then 80 euros ) it offers a comprehensive learning experience with reading, translating, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar practice . Plus on their website there are additional options, such as learning with a private tutor.
The main disadvantage is that the software ties the learner to a (Windows) computer. So I could not practice French during my trip to Africa. In addition, you can jump into any of the chapters. Which means that the learning success strongly depends on whether or not you are able to discipline yourself to repeat boring or particularly hard lessons until you’ve truly learnt the contents.
Babbel was my first attempt to transfer learning French to a mobile device . The advantages are obvious: most people always carry their phone (or tablet) with them; using your twenty minute commute is a good way of getting some regularity in your learning schedule.
The Babbel vocabulary apps are available in different languages and completely free of charge. Approx. 3000 words are taught through thematic lessons. A lesson contains 10 to 12 words. In this app you may as well jump arbitrarily . Each lesson is structured in the same way: seeing, hearing, writing, inserting into a cloze, speaking.
The simplicity of the app is also its weakness: it employs a lot of multiple choice questions, so that too often the solution can be determined through excluding illogical answers. The vocabulary trainer which should query the weakest vocabulary as in a file card system does not work properly after about 500 words. Which is just when things get interesting.
Duolingo entered the language learning universe last summer and has since captured it by storm. Users can either register on the website or download the app. The app also partially works without internet access.
Duolingo is somehow a combination of the DP CD course with Babbel and other extras on top. The course consists of various lessons that are either dedicated to one aspect of grammar or a specific theme (animals, religion , color, …). However, lessons must be fully completed at the lower levels to unlock the higher levels. The lessons have different lengths, but always include translating (in both directions), listening, vocabulary training and speech (microphone can be switched off). In addition, there is a training mode to reiterate all the contents of the past lessons. On the website “immersion” allows the user to further train their translation skills.
This brings me straight to the best part of Duolingo: It’s completely free. No fee-based add-ons. Nothing. So how is the platform financed? Through the immersion feature: companies looking for translations contact Duolingo. In Immersion the texts are translated and the translations voted on by the crowd until a relatively high-quality translation is achieved. Pretty cool, huh?
Granted, not everyone is as excited as I am. First off the platform was only available in English . However, the goal is that at some point you can learn any language from any language on Duolingo (like Klingon from Elvish). That leads another drawback: the more exotic the languages , the more frequently you stumble across errors in the lessons (mind you, most of this is made by users for users). This issue is tackled through a readily accessible reporting tool and a very active forum. In the app the forum is also the only way to get any grammar explanations. Some people find this irritating. I think it’s actually quite pleasant, because I prefer learning by trial and error instead of cramming grammar.
So after almost three years – with a few interruptions – of learning French my will to master the language remains unbroken. But I also realized that despite all the tools available only going to where the language is native will bring me a huge step closer to my goal.
PS: If you are interested in a rough estimate of which language level you are at, I recommend languagelevel.com (which is where the cool featured image in this blog post comes from). Alternatively many language schools also offer (online) placement tests.