If you want to learn to speak French like a native speaker, go straight to the source! Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker who has spent the last three years teaching French through his wonderful blog, French Together. French Together is one of my favorite blogs for learning French online, so I was absolutely delighted to get the chance to ask Benjamin a few questions.
No matter what level you’re at in your study of the French language, Benjamin’s insights are sure to be illuminating and inspirational!
1. You’ve mentioned on your blog that traveling abroad to teach French was a life-changing experience for you. Would you like to share a little more about that experience?
Sure. In 2012, I went to South Korea to teach French and English as part of the Service Civique (a volunteering program). I mainly decided to do that because I wanted to travel and discover a new culture, but I ended up enjoying teaching a lot. I stayed in Korea for six months, and this wonderful experience gave me the desire to live abroad and help people better learn languages.
2. What have you found beginning students struggle with the most when learning French? How do you recommend they overcome these obstacles?
After teaching French to many students and talking to many French learners, I am convinced that the biggest struggle is motivation. Most students consider French to be a complicated language and simply don’t believe they will ever speak it. This idea that learning languages is complicated and that one needs a special talent to succeed is the main reason why students fail. That’s a shame, because everyone can successfully learn French given the right tools and methods. What I would recommend French learners to do is to actually focus on how to learn French before they even start learning the language. Something as simple as using a Spaced Repetition Software would allow many students to double the amount of vocabulary they learn everyday for example.
Many students also struggle with pronunciation, and that’s completely normal when you learn a language you are not used to. The best way to improve your pronunciation and understanding of the French language is first of all to regularly listen to spoken French. It’s also important to avoid simplified English pronunciation like “bawnjour” that are supposed to be easier for English speakers to pronounce. The problem is that these pronunciations are often far from the real pronunciation. If you learn them, English speakers may understand you, but French speakers won’t. If you want to learn the pronunciation of a word, listen to a recording (you can find recordings on Forvo or Rhinospike), and try to imitate what you hear. You could even record yourself and compare the pronunciations. This takes more time, but you will be happy you did it when the time to speak comes.
Talking about speaking, lots of French learners are terrified at the idea of speaking French. Again, that’s completely normal. But it’s important to remember that speaking is one of the best (if not the best) ways to learn a language. When you speak French, you improve your listening skills, you train your brain to use the language, and you even learn grammar, because you automatically imitate what you hear and learn from the way people speak.
That’s why I recommend French learners speak as soon as possible. If you know how to introduce yourself in French, you are ready! You can find people who will be happy to talk you via websites like Couchsurfing. Your first conversations will be short and slow, but you will quickly make progress. You may even make French friends and this could give you a huge motivation boost.
3. What has teaching French taught you about your language that you hadn’t noticed before?
It taught me a lot about the way the language works. As a native speaker, I never think about the construction of the sentences I use, I never wonder whether I should use “le” or “la” or whether a word is feminine or masculine. This all comes naturally. Teaching French taught me to care about that. I now take a lot of time wondering how the language works and taking notes when I find a great explanation of a concept so I can later use it to help make French easier to learn.
4. What is your favorite French lesson to teach? What do you enjoy most about it?
Besides showing students how they can better learn French, I really enjoy grammar hacks. What I call grammar hacks are rules that make learning and understanding French grammar immediately easier. I love it when student can suddenly understand a concept and immediately apply what they learned.
For example, many students never know whether a word is feminine or masculine. What they don’t know is that the gender of French words is mainly determined by its ending, and that you can actually guess the gender of a noun with over 80% accuracy if you know what endings are masculine and what endings are feminine (you can find the list of endings here).
I also enjoy teaching from real French, that is French the way it’s spoken by people in the streets. I like to use TV series or music to motivate students and then explain the different sentences.
5. What would your advice be to a student who is just beginning to learn to speak French and would like to one day become fluent?
Believe in yourself. You may have failed at learning French before, you may think you are too old to learn a language, you may think French is simply too difficult. But the truth is, you can and will speak French fluently one day if you work hard and don’t give up.
Photo by Miroslav Petrasko