Building Fluency by Showing Up

This is a really emotionally complex topic for me and probably THE most significant challenge I currently face, way more so than the finances, so it’s something I wanted to cover early on. I’m not sure how much detail to go into here – I want to be open but not overly dense in details and therefore boring, if that makes sense. The shorter version is that while I have absolutely zero trouble with spoken/written comprehension in French, expression is another story. Writing out a long explanation of all of the reasons why probably isn’t necessary; suffice it to say that I suffer from self-limiting perfectionism, having been raised bilingual (sadly, not in French) means it’s easy for me to fall into the mental trap of “well it’s never going to be as good as my English, so I might as well just give up now”, and I’m almost always terrified of making mistakes when I speak. Because I have consciously shied away from practice in the past for those very reasons, I still somewhat struggle with turning passive vocabulary (words and phrases I understand) into active (words and phrases I can use intuitively), using slang and colloquial expressions, that sort of thing.


Anyway! Ultimately, none of that matters, what matters is the end result, which should be attaining fluency at a level where I can confidently communicate in complex professional settings. No one’s going to be able to do it for me, so I just have to stop being a weirdo and get over myself.

A few years ago, I found a great blog called All Japanese All The Time, which houses one of the most engaging collections of essays on language acquisition I’ve ever read anywhere. Lots of elucidating stuff! In one of my favorite posts, AJATT offers a really helpful way of conceptualizing fluency and “native speech”:

[T]he best group of Japanese speakers on the planet, a group many call “the Japanese”, just happen to spend more time hearing and reading Japanese than any other group. They’ve “shown up” to Japanese as if it were their…job or national pastime or something. But there’s nothing special about this group of people; when a Japanese person speaks Japanese to you, what she is demonstrating is nothing more than the result of dedication, albeit often unwitting dedication.

This seems like such a “duh” moment once you’ve read it, but I’d never actually thought of it that way before. I’d also never really considered how much of our native language(s) we absorb effortlessly, simply by automatically reading street signs or book covers or billboards, or hearing snippets of other people’s conversations around us. Even when we’re doing absolutely nothing, just being in our native linguistic environment reinforces everything we already know about the language, and doing that all day every day by virtue of just existing is the only reason we’re considered native speakers.

But languages to which we’re not exposed by default require a metric shit ton of work, and AJATT surmises that maybe it’s a matter of frequency of contact, not necessary the quality thereof: here’s a great post summarizing his ideas, and make sure to check out the comments as well. I’ve decided to dedicate the next year toward building both – toward creating what is effectively an artificial immersive environment in every sense. In case this is helpful to others, here’s a detailed description of how:

1. The first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone, where my iOS is already set to French (this is also a great way to learn technical terms and directions, and you get hit with a lot quickly because most of the apps will switch to French as well). I scroll through headlines for a few minutes, about 50% of which are in French. As I’m getting ready I have BFM on in the background – I have watched so much BFM that I now even know their little ad media spot by heart, aucun président n’a été aussi impopulaire que VOUS!

2. When I leave to catch my bus, I switch to France Info radio on the Radios France app (super handy), which I now prefer to RFI. Once I get to work, I check my email for Le Monde’s roundup of top stories and quickly read through whatever looks interesting.

3. At this point in the day, let’s say 9 am, I usually switch to English, as I rarely do much francophone work. I try to take a midday break to read some other articles or a book or a blog in French for about 45 minutes, then continue in English until I leave. If I’m doing something monotone, maybe running calculations or formatting very large documents, I’ll have French music, radio, or BFM on. Throughout the day I try to stay at least exposed to French in tiny increments, like checking something on my phone (navigating the iOS in French) or catching up on breaking news through francophone Twitter. AJATT calls this “touching” a language, by the way, which is charming.

4. If I go to the gym in the afternoon, it comes with a sort of virtuous circle catch: I’ve set a rule for myself that I can only watch TV and movies while I’m at the gym, so if I want to watch anything at all, I gotta haul myself over there. The other rule I set is that anything watched or listened to at the gym must be in French (this was much easier to stick to than the preceding rule). That’s another hour-ish squeezed in.

5. English obviously takes precedence if I’m going out with friends or working on a freelance project in the evening, unless by some miracle I happen to get a freelance project that requires French research.

6. If/once I’m free for the night, I switch to more French video content or to my giant stack of French books, lying in wait (I’m currently reading Bertrand et Lola). The discovery that ships to the US blew a hole through both my budget and my appreciation of free space in my condo, so here we are.

7. Then I sleep, usually in English. Bo-ring.

And then there are those rare glorious weekend days when I have nothing going on and can veg out in front of Le Grand 8 archives for hourssssss, with my cat periodically checking me for signs of life. Those are the best.

In all, it usually comes out to an average of about 5 hours of French exposure per day, and even if I’m traveling for work, I try to maintain the same level. Some of this is quite recent, by the way – I just instituted this exact schedule/concentration of exposure to French about two weeks ago, and I’m already feeling a little more confident in terms of expression. I’m definitely curious to see how this goes and how far I can get – is there a plateau? Let’s find out.

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