Don’t Splash on Me

I’ve never properly learned a foreign language. Okay, I had three years of Latin in high school (from a not very adequate teacher, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention) and a couple of quarters of German at UC Berkeley, but English has always been enough for me.

A year or so ago, at the tender age of 70, I decided I’d like to learn French. I had been hankering for a language learning experience prior to that, and had rejected Hindi and Thai as too challenging. French seemed (and seems) about right. The vocabulary is dead easy. The irregular verbs and the pronunciation, not so easy.

So far I’ve been using DuoLingo. It’s free, and it’s well structured. I can see I’m making progress. But the DuoLingo system has started to annoy me. There’s a lot of repetition and very little in the way of explanation. I’m a top-down learner: Having concepts explained to me clearly is my preferred way to learn.

Also, DuoLingo tends to assume you’re going to travel to France. The examples lean heavily toward phrases you’ll use in hotels, shops, and train stations. But that’s a side issue.

In looking around for an alternative to DuoLingo, I’m finding a great many online opportunities to learn French. Unfortunately, a regrettable number of them teach by immersion. “We’ll just drop you into the great big tub of French, and you’ll learn naturally! That’s the way you learned language when you were a kid! It’s easy and fun!”

Well, no. It’s neither easy nor fun, not if you’re a top-down learner. On the contrary: It’s infuriating.

I’m hoping to find a structured learning curriculum. “This week we’ll teach you negative constructions.” “This week we’ll cover the most important irregular verbs.” “This week: Twenty common idiomatic phrases.” “This week: How to ask questions.”

I don’t insist on a free course. I’d be happy to pay for a course, if it were structured along those lines. Haven’t found one yet.

I’ve bought a few books, but most of them are immersion-based too. Here’s one: Ten bilingual Fairy Tales in English and French. It’s a nice little book — alternating paragraphs side by side, so you can see what the French sentences mean. There is, however, no explanation of anything. In the introduction the book suggests, “Don’t try to understand everything the first time around.” So, just bathe in it. That’s the explicit methodology the book advocates.

In years past, I’ve learned to do stuff in a couple of different computer programming languages. I have yet to encounter a book on programming that says, “Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything in the code. Just read through the code and try to get a general sense of what’s going on.” That is not how computer programming languages are taught.

Admittedly, French (or any human-spoken language) is a lot more complicated and fuzzy than a programming language. But that’s not a reason to just toss students into the deep end of the pool. That’s a reason to provide more detailed explanations.


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1 Response to Don’t Splash on Me

  1. Pingback: French Fried | Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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