French Fried

As the world turns…. Exactly a year ago, in this very blog, I was grousing about how hard it was to find an online course that teaches French the way I want to learn it. Sadly, nothing has changed, but I think maybe I finally have a better handle now on the nature of the disconnect.

Part of the problem is just that the online courses are not very good. I’ve gotten burnt out on Duolingo because it’s so repetitive. You’re plodding along endlessly. I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and a fair amount of grammar on Duolingo — and for free — but the repetitions are endless. Also, there is seldom any tutorial material that would explain what you’re learning. Sometimes the English translations are dodgy, and that leads one to worry that the French sentences may occasionally be incorrect too. You don’t get real French speakers in Duolingo, you get a speech synthesizer. And it’s almost all single-sentence chunks, with absolutely no context. This can leave you guessing.

Beyond that, the assumption made by the people who assemble the material is that you want to do commonplace things — order a meal in a restaurant, shop for clothing in a store, buy groceries, use a computer, go on vacation, show your passport to the agent at the airport, stuff like that. It’s boring.

This week I’ve been trying out Busuu. They use real audio from French speakers, and that’s good. On the other hand, Busuu quite routinely tosses French sentences at you without translating them. How is this supposed to be pedagogically sound? When they do translate, they try way too hard to be idiomatic. A jolly example of a Busuu fail is when they translate, “C’est pas terrible” as “It’s not great.” (This is in a conversation in a restaurant.) Busuu’s English is as occasionally slipshod as Duolingo’s. And the topics are much the same — French pastries, French bread, French cheese, snails and oysters. Personally, I don’t give a flying fuck about French food, but the Busuu content is aimed at a typical French learner, probably a tourist and wannabe gastronome.

Other online courses, such as Lingoda and Lingoni, are strongly oriented toward conversation. After looking at a few sample videos, I’m thinking no, that’s not for me. And that’s the light bulb moment. What I want is to learn to read and write French. It’s not that I don’t expect ever to want to speak the language or understand it when it’s spoken, but for my purposes reading and writing are the foundation. Once I have absorbed a fat slab of written French, preferably in chunks that are longer than a single paragraph, my brain will begin to understand how to form sentences and speak them aloud. For me, the idea of trying to say something aloud without simultaneously assembling it in my brain as a written sentence is just a non-starter. I’m a writer, you see. That’s surely how I learned to speak my native English when I was two years old, but that was rather a long time ago.

A small online class with a native French speaker, which you can sign up for (for ten bucks a class or thereabouts) would be utterly useless for me. I don’t want conversational French! Give me a book I can read, and a detailed explanation of the new language concepts that the text in this chapter will introduce.

Sure, I can buy books. I have the first Harry Potter book in French. Also “Le Petit Prince.” But those books don’t have technical explanations of what’s on the page. They’re just another variety of immersion. I hate immersion. I want to actually learn.

So I’m searching online for French textbooks. I find a list that includes a book called Complete French. And here’s part of the description: “The methodology of this book is what they call the Discovery Method, which means you figure out the rules and patterns on your own in order to learn them better.” What utter bullshit! The “Discovery Method” is just immersion with a fancy name. It’s an excuse proffered by some nitwit who didn’t have a clue how to write a proper textbook, but managed somehow to sell a book proposal to the publisher anyhow. Although, on examining the Amazon book page, I don’t see a publisher listed. I’m guessing the author’s proposal was so weak she had to publish the book herself.

I already own two of the textbooks at the top of that particular list. Guess I’d better get crackin’.

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