Language Learning Opens Doors to the World

A friend of mine in Japan, Toshiro once said to me that speaking French with me in Japan made him feel like a foreigner in his own country. As someone who has never traveled outside of his country, it was like traveling and was a positive experience. This is what studying a foreign language can do for you. It is like traveling without leaving your home. If he had not been able to speak French, we probably would never have become friends, since I did not speak so much Japanese at the time and he, almost no English. French became our common language and our only means of communication. It was French, not Japanese or even English, that brought us together, as we were looking in a box of French books at the only international bookstore in Yokohama, a city of 3.4 million. It was French that assured us a friendship.

[Stephanie and a student in front of a temple in Saitama, Japan]

Knowing a second language opens the doors to the world for you. It is by far not an easy process, requiring years of hard work and practice and many mistakes, but the rewards are worth it. My journey with French began when I was in high school. I had a teacher who made it such a wonderful experience, introducing culture and history in her lessons, playing popular music or French radio, bringing in posters and just generally being enthusiastic about it. It opened up a completely new universe for me, one I had not previously thought about. The idea of visiting this place that I saw in the pictures of my textbook became a new and exciting goal for me. I continued to study French in college, first because of the language requirement, then later because I loved it, was good at it and wanted to major in it. Then the traveling began.


The first time I traveled to France I realized that I still had a long way to go before I could be able to communicate easily. I was frustrated that I had already studied 7 years of French but could barely understand what was said to me and hardly put a sentence together myself. After returning home, I decided that I had to get serious, and I put my nose to the books determined to speak more French before the next trip. After every trip, averaging 3 to 4 weeks at a time, I started to notice that I was improving. I felt that my communication was getting easier, more fluent, and I was learning new vocabulary every time. I traveled alone, so I could more easily meet people and make friends and only speak French while there, full immersion!


Noticing that I could speak better if I read more in French, I started getting magazine and newspaper subscriptions to my favorites and getting books every time I went to France. While home, I seek every opportunity to speak French, joining conversation groups and events at the local French cultural centers, meeting and talking with tourists, watching French news on the internet, or French movies. There were even French groups which met in Japan to speak French and do some activities together!


I am always so amazed to find French speakers in places I never imagined finding them. That is really my point here. Knowing another language does open the doors to the world, and that world is all around us. Whether you are home or abroad, a foreign language may become useful. I was in Florida visiting my family over the holidays. When we stopped into a bakery to get desserts for after dinner, my dad told me the owner was French. He poked me in the ribs and told me to greet the owner in French. Of course I said hello, and then I asked about some of the pastries. We had a lovely conversation for a few minutes. For a moment, I could pretend I was in France, and maybe he did too! I know what it is like to miss home. I also know how good it can feel to hear my native language when I am somewhere else far from home.  It is worth every bit of those years of hard work.


Language Learning Never Ends

At some point in one’s language learning, it seems as if there is nothing left to learn, yet fluency still has not been attained. However, never forget that there is always more to a language than vocabulary and grammar.  There is the way that it is used everyday in that descriptive, poetic, idiomatic way that just never seems to be taught in school.  I have studied French for thirty years.  Granted, not all of that time has been spent in school.  Many of those years were outside the classroom, in my many travels to France and Francophone countries, through my many subscriptions to magazines and newspapers, in all of my reading and through all of the movies and news programs I have enjoyed since finishing school.  Yet there were times when I still felt my French was grammatically hyper-correct, that kind of “book French” for which my friends mocked me, yet not colloquial. I had never mastered the idiom.


Thanks to the Alliance Francaise, I discovered  Claude Duneton’s La puce à l’oreille: anthologie des expressions populaires avec leur origine. Perfect! It was just what I needed. I highly recommend this for the advanced French language student who is looking for a deeper understanding of the language and where certain expressions come from and why the French express things in certain ways.

This is not your typical book of idioms. A typical book of idioms will give a student a list of idioms and the meanings as best translated in English.  On occasion, however, after discussion with a native speaker, I have determined some of the “translations” in such books to be inaccurate, not quite grasping the original meaning, or just not quite the equivalent. Understandably, it is very difficult to translate some popular expressions.  Yet a simple “dictionary” of idioms does not make for easy memorization, either.  This book by Duneton reads like stories.  They are memorable stories, about the history of certain expressions, tracing their origins back to old French words with the occasional or eventual change of meaning that sometimes takes place. It was so memorable that maybe a few months later, at a film showing at the Alliance Francaise, I heard one of the characters using several of these expressions in the movie, and I did not need to make use of the subtitles to catch the meaning.  That might not have happened had I not just recently read this book.


A fairly common idiom that a student might even learn at school would be something like tomber en panne.  We learn this to mean “break down”, but what is a panne and why does it have to fall?  We will learn from Duneton that this is a nautical term and the fascinating story of what panne means.  Some of these expressions are very old and rarely used, but not too many.  I regularly come across some of these in books, even in ones that I have read even recently, like tenir le haut du pavé or se mettre sur son trente et un. You will also learn the origin of an expression which is very common even in English, le cordon bleu.  Putting the cart before the horse (which in French comes to: mettre la charrue avant les boeufs) may have its origins in old French labor idioms.  These are clearly explained in this book, and now I know them when I see them.  It makes my reading that much more enjoyable.

Another unexpected outcome and welcome realization is discovering why we say in French grand-mère without the extra e on grand.  Mère is feminine, why is grand not in the feminine form? Grand at the time was invariable and took masculine and feminine nouns.  There are other gems that we will learn here, like why ouvrier means worker, but ouvert means open, literally open for work.  Yet, there are words for work and those are now travail and travailler which used to mean “torture”.  I find this fascinating!


I cannot sufficiently sing the praises of this work.  You will simply have to discover it for yourselves. It is most definitely for the very advanced French reader, and you will certainly need a very good dictionary if you want to search for some of the words used that are simply not so common in French today.  Despite the difficulty of the text itself and the sources cited in old French, I do highly recommend it for anyone who wants a more fuller experience and glimpse into the highly colorful colloquial French.  We never stop learning a language.  It is a life-long experience.  I find it very exciting to learn new words or phrases, and common expressions, especially the colorful ones!  Vive le français!

Writing to Improve Language Skills

Many of my students ask me how they can improve their language skills.  My usual answer to them is to write as often as they can and to read as much as they can.  The benefits of these two activities cannot be denied.  Like playing an instrument, one must practice to improve.  In that same way, practicing writing and reading often will inevitably lead to improvement in all areas of language skills, and they can be practiced anytime, anywhere.

I have, throughout my career, worked with many students at various ages and at various levels.  I was first given the idea of encouraging students to write a daily journal when I was working in Japan. It was my mentor’s idea. I was not sure how it would work, but in fact, to my surprise, it yielded incredible results.  Students, even those who had low grades, noticeably improved their grades, even across subject areas.

First, however, I must define what a journal is.  It is not necessarily a diary, which is a private book in which you record intimate details of your life.  It is simply a notebook or document where you write maybe not for the purpose of being corrected but just for the practice of writing.  Of course, you could ask for corrections, and I did correct my students’ journals if they asked me to.  We would sit together while I explained some of the changes I made to their journals and why I made them.  They learned a lot during this process, but they learned a lot simply by writing as well.

In writing daily, even something short, students started to think about how sentences (in their case English sentences) were constructed, how to say certain things that happen in everyday life.  English for them became something real, useful, relevant.  They developed vocabulary, grammar, expression. They learned how to say what they wanted to say.  They developed organizational skills and confidence in writing.

Where should you start?  Decide whether you want to do a journal digitally or keep a notebook. I personally like the idea of keeping a notebook and writing by hand.  Choose a notebook that you like, one that you will carry with you and can write when you feel inspired.  Try for a goal of writing every day for five minutes, or maybe simply writing a few sentences or a paragraph a few times a week.  As long as you are trying on a regular basis to get a few words or sentences down on the page, you will be on the path to improvement.

The subject matter is entirely up to you.  You can write anything at all.  You can write about your daily activities, having tea with a friend, going shopping, cooking dinner.  The important thing is that you are thinking about how to say all these things in your new language.  You may realize that you need a lot of new vocabulary.  The act of searching for these words and recording them will likely help you to remember them for next time.  It may even prove useful once you have a conversation with someone on a similar subject.  The other important aspect of writing about your daily activities, more than just finding the vocabulary, is the process of constructing your phrases, thinking about how things have to be said in the language.  It makes you become aware of which articles to use and when, which verb tenses, even which prepositions and all these little grammar points that we sometimes forget to think about when we are talking.

If you do not want to record personal activities, you could write about your thoughts on things on a more abstract level.  You could record your thoughts about friendship, growing older, the importance of art or literature, something that you heard about in the news.  Once you start writing, you may find that the words flow better, your thoughts come together better, and you may write more, for longer and not want to stop.  I noticed this with my students’ journals, which got longer and more complicated, and sometimes more personal.  The act of writing can really help students organize their thoughts.

One student even came up to me at the end of a session, turning in his last journals for the term, and said that originally he did not like the activity.  He could not at first see the purpose, but by the end of the term he really felt differently about it.  He said he felt his writing had really improved and flowed more easily, after only one month, and that he would likely try to continue the practice.

In conclusion, I feel that a journal is really useful for many reasons.  There is no pressure.  No one has to look at it, grade it, judge it.  It is mostly for you.  With that in mind, writing a journal can be a really beneficial activity for improving writing, especially in a second language.  My first diary was given to me at the age of 10.  I started writing, about everything, on a daily basis.  By the time I was 14 and learning French, I would occasionally write in French too.  I have no doubt in my mind that this helped me in school by improving my writing skills, my ability in French and possibly improving my grades as well.