A week of French

Last time I posted, I posted about a week of immersion-only study. Here, I’m going to break down how it went. I’ll be breaking down what I did, observations about the process, whether it was particularly useful, and optimizations I think would benefit this study method. Let’s get into it.

What did I do?

Given that this was immersion only study (read input only study) my options were fairly limited. I had a choice between either listening or reading. Initially I figured that listening would be a good place to start. The study methods of Matt vs Japan and AJATT were influential here.

I started out by listening to YouTube videos I found from lists of popular content creators via google searches. I also watched some French TV on Netflix for a bit.

I quickly realized that this choice wasn’t going to work out well. There are several skills at play with listening. There’s the raw listening element (can I hear the words). There’s also the vocabulary element (do I know the words the speaker is using). There’s also the grammatical element (am I able to parse the grammar into meaning). There are additional factors within each field, too i.e. accent, dialect, slang. These factors made listening virtually impossible. I’m sure with a longer time period this would work better, but for a week it’s probably not possible to gain much from listening to material aimed at natives.

I switched to reading after that. Reading was a much more solid choice. I could read at my own pace and I had time to compare vocabulary and grammar between stories to deduce what the elements of a sentence were or what a word might mean. More on that later.

Children’s books were easily available through google searches and were at a high enough level that there was plenty for me to latch onto while also not being too abstract e.g. material about philosophy or history. I definitely recommend reading for anyone who’s willing to try this and has no background in their target language.

The process essentially boiled down to picking out words or morphemes or grammar which I thought I roughly, or precisely, understood. This probably sounds vague. It is. My goal was really to focus on messages (comprehensible input) so I wasn’t concerned with whether I was parsing it precisely. If I thought I got the message the text was conveying, I slapped it into my SRS, Anki.

Why do it this way? For part of the answer, go check out the comprehensible input link above. For the rest: it just seemed intuitive. Throw together a small database of messages you understand and the words associated with them. When an unfamiliar message in familiar words appears, consult your database and the context and see if you can deduce anything further from that. Same applies to grammar. Two words always appear together? Maybe there’s some grammar behind that (see personal pronouns and verbs in French).

Did it work?

At the outset, I will categorically say that this works. I went from not understanding anything in French to reading some sentences in a way which was consonant with the developments and outcomes of the story. This is of course to say that I relied a fair bit on the pictures in the books to understand context and inform my reading of the material.

It was exceptionally fun to start something from nothing and feel essentially zero pressure to comprehend anything clearly. If you see a word you think you understand, note it down. If not, skip it. Contrast his with my Japanese study which is almost the opposite (focusing on unfamiliar composition as well as message) and it was a refreshing experience. I was actually neglecting my Japanese (whoops) in favor of French sometimes.

Now for the caveats.

It’s time consuming. More-so than more formalistic kinds of study. You spend a lot of time trudging through stuff you don’t understand. You spend even more time ‘sort-of’ understanding. I’m sure if you maintained this study for a year or so, your reading comprehension (and listening, when you start) would advance rapidly. In a week? There’s kind of a limit as to how much you can progress.

It actually took a lot of discipline not to ‘cheat’ and google the grammatical rule or vocabulary when I wasn’t sure. It’s a mild form of torture to leave yourself in limbo if you’re a bit of a perfectionist.

You will get things wrong. Frequently. There were numerous times a word I thought I understood turned out to be another word (which I still don’t understand) because reading the word the same way in a different context was nonsensical. If you can cope with that uncertainty, it’s alright.

How would I make it better?

The biggest optimization would be to organize the study more effectively. One way to to do this would be to catalogue everything you read over the week. At the end of each week, reread the stories for details you missed and to see if you understand it any better than last time. This would take a long time but if you have the patience I imagine it might be beneficial.

I’d also recommend making a small database of ‘unclear’ words/grammar. By unclear words, I mean words/grammar you almost understood the message of but it was slightly too advanced for your comprehension. I’d then create a few guesses of what the word/grammar could be and cross-reference it with other material whenever it appears and see which reading best makes sense.

I’d also recommend doing a bit of formal study, ironically. I’m sure you’d progress faster with a mix of grammar study and immersion study. I think they’d probably compound each other. That said, this was totally doable without any grammar study, it just takes longer I guess and is a bit more fun.

Would I recommend this?

Probably. For anyone who isn’t good at language learning. Do this. It’s a lot more fun than you’d expect and it’s actually a pretty quick route to building a basic level in a language, I found. Can I speak any French? Nope. But I can read a little bit and I have a feel for what it’s kind of about.

For intermediate/advanced language learners, try this with a language you’ve literally never tried to study before. If you subtract all your bad habits or personal biases in your ‘main’ study language(s) from the equation, you can focus more on the skill of immersing. It’s also nice to see how much you can do relative to a language you have zero experience with. It also gave me a new kick-in-the-butt to focus more on my Japanese. It reminded me that I really do enjoy language learning, in spite of the frustrations that come with intermediate/advanced language acquisition.

Most of all, it was pretty fun and quirky. It gave me some interesting conversations and a bit of a laugh while I was doing it. That’s the most important thing above anything else. If the process is enjoyable, it’s only a matter of time before you accumulate enough hours to acquire some ability in a language (or anything, for that matter). Give it a go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *