Artificial Immersion in French

Today’s post has been a long time coming, and I’m hoping it can help readers who are trying to recreate an immersion environment for themselves in any language. First, by way of introduction: I’ve written about All Japanese All The Time before, which I think is a really fun resource for language learners in general, and his approach is exactly as described – all Japanese, all the time. I can’t (yet) go 24/7 with French because I have to work (a lot) in English and Russian, but I’ve been trying to slot it in wherever possible, even if it’s in 5-minute increments. Hey, every little bit helps.

Rule #1: Do What You Love

It’s really important to underscore that I don’t view this as a chore, as homework, as work, or as an obligation, because I really do just love French that much. I think some people make the mistake of miscalculating time commitments, misaligning goals, or focusing too much on metrics of words studied, books finished, levels attained, etc. Language studies then become something they feel like they “have” to do, and they talk a lot about “accountability” and “motivation”. I have very few problems with either – this is what I choose to do with my free time. I get feeling that way if you really do have to learn a language, say, for work, or to pass a required course at school, but for recreational learners, it shouldn’t feel like such a hassle! I can see “accountability” and “motivation” coming into play for things like budgeting or work deadlines, but languages are supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, reconsider your methods, goals, or interests.

Ben, MAMAC, Nice.
Ben, MAMAC, Nice.

As a corollary to that, I think it’s really important to focus on three things:

1. Doing what you love with the language you’re learning

For me that’s politics (with some history and art thrown in), for others it may be art, or sports, or whatever else. Once you’ve mastered the basics, and I’ll honestly say about 75% of a Duolingo course should be enough for that, go out and find material in that language that conforms to your interests and needs. For more common languages like French, the wealth of material at your disposal is quite literally limitless. You can read all of Wikipedia on topics that interest you. You can read blogs covering just about any topic, you also have the news, radio, discussion forums, Youtube, whatever – you face absolutely no obstacles in getting native material, so why force yourself to suffer through a long book on a subject that does nothing for you when you could be reading a dozen blogs you’re super keen on? Texts in test prep books bore me to death, for instance, and nothing can make me watch movies in which I have no interest by default, but I will always choose to spend hours and hours watching French political talk shows or reading the books I hoard off of This is why I never view French as a chore or obligation, but rather as something I always want to be doing right now. If I come across a show I’m bored by, I immediately switch to something else – a different video, a book, an article – and I never waste any time interacting with material I don’t find interesting. This has not been an issue that’s come up frequently with French, however, even though I tend to get bored easily and I know I have trouble concentrating. That’s partially because France has such a vibrant political culture that boredom just never happens, and partially because I know myself well enough to quickly determine whether something will hold my attention. Closely related to that is point number 2…

2. Go native early and often

When you do dive into the material you like, go straight to the native stuff – original TV shows, movies shot by popular directors starring popular actors, books that people are talking about or those that won literary prizes, subject-based columns in leading newspapers. The whole reason we learn languages is to be able to immerse ourselves in other cultures, right? Why limit yourself to  dubbed American TV shows or abridged “readers” specifically designed for foreigners? Go straight to the juicy stuff. Find out what people are talking about, reading, listening to, watching right now. The summer before my sophomore year of high school, after I’d switched schools back and forth and had basically missed out on a year of instruction, I started picking up girly French magazines at a nearby Borders. I couldn’t understand half of what I was reading at the beginning, but it eventually started making sense. Undoubtedly, that was the one thing that pushed my French from typical grade school level to something that could be massaged into actual working command of the language, and going all-in native really helped me develop a deep appreciation for the country/history/culture/etc later on. If you’re an intermediate learner or above and you have no interaction with native material, written by native speakers for native speakers, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

3. Forget it’s in French/Language X

Let yourself “fall into” native material. That may not be the most elegant way of putting it, but there quickly comes a point when you forget you’re watching or reading something in French or for the purpose of learning French, and you’re just reading or watching that material, full stop. Let yourself forget that. Don’t focus on remembering words or underlining sentences. Just read, or watch, or listen. Let your brain trick itself into thinking that reading/watching something in that language is completely natural to you, because very soon it will be. That’s what immersion is.

For the longest time, one of the big debates in France was over la déchéance de la nationalité, or stripping individuals convicted of certain crimes of French citizenship. I’m pretty sure I had never encountered the word déchéance before, but I instinctively understood what it was when it first came on the news, and it’s still hard for me to explain it in any other language – in fact, it took about 20 seconds just now for me to come up with that phrase above in English, and it’s still hardly the most eloquent explanation. The point, though, is that this is how I know my immersion is working – I’m no longer matching up French words to their English equivalents, I’m simply understanding a term, and it happens to be in French, but that’s entirely secondary.

Ben, MAMAC, Nice
Ben, MAMAC, Nice

My Daily Methods

With that said, here’s what I do every day:

  • iOS on my phone is set to French. My computer isn’t (I don’t know why, I should probably change that). Any time I’m interacting with my phone, which is all the time, I’m seeing French somewhere. With iOS in French, all of my apps default to French, and Google spits out French results first. It’s awesome.
  • I wake up and turn on BFMTV live. It’s usually on for anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour in the morning, which lets me stay plugged into all French current events.
  • On my commute (~ 30 mins), I listen to France Info on their app, which is actually quite good. If I feel like I need quiet, I’ll read a French book. By the time I get to work at 9, I’ve already had 90 minutes of pure French input.
  • My immersion morning continues while I read the Le Monde daily email brief. If I see anything interesting in there or on social media, I’ll read through some articles, usually 5-10 a day from different sources. I follow all the major French dailies on Facebook, so major scoops show up in my news feed.
  • I work in English, but sometimes, I have to spend time on things that require no intelligent thought production – formatting large documents, creating databases, etc. Whenever that happens, usually a few times a week, I have the France Info app on. If there’s something big happening in France, particularly something that concerns my work, like a security incident or a raid, I’ll have BFMTV on and Twitter open. Legitimate work + in French = ❤
  • Over lunch and/or at the gym, it’s always all French all the time. Over lunch I try to read books or blogs, and at the gym I’m almost always watching a documentary conveniently timed to the length of my workout. Huzzah.
  • If I have no plans for the evening, I do another 30 minutes of French radio or a French book on my commute home. This is where things get hot!
  • Any chores I have to do at home are accompanied by either BFMTV or France Info. If the topics or spots get repetitive, or if I’m not interested in whatever’s on, I switch to a talk show or a vlog I like, usually something talking-head style where I don’t have to focus on the picture. I never force myself to listen to anything I don’t like, and I always have something else lined up, so there are no breaks. I do absolutely everything with French on in the background, except for writing in any other language. If I had to pick a single thing that’s made the biggest difference in recent months, it’s been this bit – getting lots and lots of exposure to normal native speakers talking about things they like in a way that’s completely natural to them.
  • There are usually a few hours of freelance I have to get done, which is almost never in French (boo). Because my freelance work depends on conducting research in not-French, I have to make a conscious (and painful) choice to switch off and focus entirely on input in another language and output in English, since my work product is a set of narrative reports that have to be elegant and precise. If the research I’m doing is in English or Russian, I usually get through it pretty quickly with minimal brainfarts, but if it’s in a related language with which I’m not comfortable, like Ukrainian or Bulgarian, my brain turns into green goo and sort of slithers out of my ears. Sort of.
  • After that, when I can focus on what’s in a book or on a screen, I’ll either read or find more videos to watch in French – again, it’s important to note that there is infinite material out there to suit just about anybody, so boredom is never even an option.
  • Before I go to bed, I read for anywhere from 15-30 minutes, all in French. This ensures I fall asleep with French and wake up with French, in a beautiful virtuous French circle of French sleep. I know there are people who fall asleep to the radio in their language of study, but I hate grumbling, so that won’t work for me. However, this is perfect for people who like sleeping with white noise.

Best of all, with the exception of my books, this is all absolutely free. So really it’s only about €100 / month, because I have no self-control on French Amazon.

Ben, MAMAC, Nice
Ben, MAMAC, Nice

If you’re learning a language and trying to create an artificial immersion environment, I’d love to hear what works for you!

French, Made in France

An Educated Citizenry

Our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Will McAvoy, held one particular truth to be self-evident, and that was that an educated citizenry is vital to the functioning of a democratic state. If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had some… troubles… lately. If you live elsewhere, you’ve likely heard of the same. I make a conscious choice to mostly avoid American television, half driven by the need to focus on native French material, but we watched a lot of CNN in Honduras, and at one point I looked over at my friend like, hey, remember back when the big issue was that the Republican candidate referred to the “binders full of women” he wanted to hire, and we were all like, holy shit, what, how dare he say such a thing? Yeah, wasn’t that a great time?

Anyway. One thing I’d never really paid specific attention to until recently, although I certainly must have intuitively sensed it, is that French political culture is very, shall we say, different. During the last U.S. presidential debate, we talked a bit about what type of grabbing as performed by a candidate for the highest office of the land constitutes sexual assault, and concluded by determining we know nothing about Russia. The text of what was actually said was at about a 3rd grade reading level, and I have no clue what policy proposals were actually put forth.

The last time the French had a presidential debate, things went a little, shall we say, differently.

So here’s what I’m seeing: here we have two highly intelligent (you can disagree with them on principle, but you can’t begrudge them that), exceedingly well spoken (again – I disagree with the Le Pens on literally everything and I still think both Marine and Marion speak very well) candidates who 1) know all the facts and figures and 2) have specific, concrete policy proposals. In the first 10 minutes alone, each put forth 4 pieces of legislation they would enact, down to the rate of a single component of the corporate tax structure that would incentivize specific types of corporations to participate in the rollout of a major  government-backed employment scheme. Ten minutes later, they were arguing over the social VAT rate in Germany (!) and whether its macroeconomic consequences contain lessons for French public finance. Twenty minutes after that, the moderators finally lost it, and not because one of them had admitted to a violent felony on national television – no, they were simply too wrapped up in their debate on the indexation of minimum wage, whereas the moderators’ timeline would have them going on to discuss  fluctuations in purchasing power.

So, yeah. Not quite the same. Most significantly, they treat the viewers – their voters – with the respect they deserve, talking about important issues with the depth and finesse necessary to ensure they never demean the intelligence of the electorate. Perhaps this is why we haven’t had a Frexit – the French expect to be listening to experts.

In other French presidential news, Gallimard recently published Mitterrand’s letters to his lover, Anne Pingeot, which are sitting in my basket but which I will. not. buy. until I’m done with my existing stack of books. The temptation is super strong, though, because here’s how one critic described it:

Cette correspondance amoureuse, par sa longévité, son intensité, son exclusivité, sa clandestinité et surtout sa qualité littéraire, défie en effet la raison politique. Si elle confirme le talent singulier du Mitterrand écrivain, qui fut notre dernier président à vénérer la langue française, user du subjonctif passé, connaître le chromatisme des métaphores et pouvoir écrire, comme ici, de vibrants poèmes d’amour, elle corrige, en le réévaluant à la hausse, en lui ajoutant soudain un tremblé inédit, le portrait doré à l’or fin du monarque florentin, volage, infidèle et cynique.

Aaaaahhhh want want want. I had to LOL at the reference to subjonctif passé – if only the American people had that type of political problem.

In short, this looks totally magnificent and I can’t wait to dig in.

Finances, French

Timeboxing 36 hours a day

I was away for a week in Roatan, a Honduran tropical paradise island known for its biodiversity and scuba sites. Originally, the point of the trip was to get PADI certified, but I came down with an awful cold and, separately, decided that I just really didn’t like scuba diving, and that’s okay. Also okay – our dinner views:


That said, I got a decent amount of French reading done, upwards of 300 pages of modern non-fiction. On the budgeting side, however, I’m seeing some deficiencies, which will be a topic for another post.

The main problem I’m having right now is figuring out how to fit everything in: from the beginning, I’ve noted that my two main areas of focus are bringing my French up and being able to adequately finance this adventure. This means that between sleep, my day job, sufficient French practice (4-5 hours per day), and sufficient freelance work, I need to have about 36 hours in a day. I am told that timeboxing is a popular method, where you set specific timeframes for each activity and focus on nothing else, but I’m afraid I’m not off to a very good start – according to my timebox for the day, I’m supposed to be doing freelance work right now, and yet here we are. I’ll be on the lookout for better methods – I know I can’t become a planner person, it’s just too much color-coding and tape, plus I need another thing to carry like I need a herd of wild goats in my handbag. I don’t want to waste too much time on trying to find a perfect theoretical model here, where I end up spending more time studying the method than putting in the actual work, but I am interested in the psychology of organization to see what I can figure out from that.

The very good news, though, is that my big freelance project finally came in, and I hope to make about $15,000 on it over the last three months of the year. That cushion would really help with planning for future expenses, except I need to shave hours off of sleep to get the work in. I also can’t let anything slide at my actual job and can’t completely ignore my friends. Oh, and I’m also going to Brazil for 10 days in the middle of all of this. How this is going to work I have no idea.

For my latest experiment, I’m going to try the Pomodoro thing in a minute and try to chill out. At the end of the month, I’ll report back both on time management and money management, with the latter, despite the generous freelance dossier, being in far from the greatest shape.


Are language levels bullshit?

I’ve spent some time reading through the language learning blogosphere, so to speak – started off at Japanese Level Up and continued from there, although I found the Japanese learners’ community to be the most active. I noticed (and have always known it to be true) that there’s a huge focus on language “levels”, attaining them, testing at them, almost always following some sort incredibly vague description of each one.

And I think that’s kind of bullshit.

I’ll take a moment to note here that I can absolutely see the psychological benefit of hitting certain quantitative milestones when you’re studying a language like Japanese. But for most languages in your standard bunch, particularly those that use an alphabet, I don’t think it makes any sense at all.

First off, levels are incredibly subjective, and even if they’re broken down by category (speaking, listening, reading, writing), what really separates a foreigner’s level 7 from another foreigner’s level 8 in writing? Let’s look at an example near and dear to my heart I despise with the fiery passion of a thousand suns: the IELTS.

IELTS stands for the International English Language Test System administered by the British Council (nota bene), the U.K’s cultural diplomacy arm.  Right there you have problem number 1: the test is compiled and graded by speakers of British English. For an illustration of problem number 2, let’s compare the “writing mark schemes” for levels 9 (the highest) and 8 (the second highest):

Level 9

  • fully satisfies all the requirements of the task
  • clearly presents a fully developed response
  • uses cohesion in such a way that it attracts no attention
  • skilfully manages paragraphing
  • uses a wide range of vocabulary with very natural and sophisticated control of lexical features; rare minor errors occur only as ‘slips’
  • uses a wide range of structures with full flexibility and accuracy; rare minor errors occur only as ‘slips’


Level 8

  • covers all requirements of the task sufficiently
  • presents, highlights and illustrates key features / bullet points clearly and appropriately
  • sequences information and ideas logically
  • manages all aspects of cohesion well
  • uses paragraphing sufficiently and appropriately
  • uses a wide range of vocabulary fluently and flexibly to convey precise meanings
  • skilfully uses uncommon lexical items but there may be occasional inaccuracies in word choice and collocation
  • produces rare errors in spelling and/or word formation
  • uses a wide range of structures
  • the majority of sentences are error-free
  • makes only very occasional errors or inappropriacies

First of all, my computer does not consider “inappropriacies” to be a word, British Council. Secondly, this grading system makes no allowances for differences in cultural and educational background, or even just interest in the subject. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the task itself is ridiculous – part of it involves describing but not analyzing a graphical representation of some data (some people are just naturally analytically minded, British Council!), and the other part of it involves writing one of those stupid “for and against” high school essays, usually on some mind-numbingly boring topic.

Anyway, the reason love fire burns in my heart for this particular exam is because I had to take it to get into grad school. Since the language of instruction for my undergraduate degree wasn’t English, I couldn’t get out of the requirement, and it was easier to take the IELTS than the TOEFL (equally awful, btw) at that time. Anyway, I got 9s on listening and speaking, an 8.5 on reading (there was a text about the woodpecking habits of woodpeckers in New Jersey…), and an 8 on writing. Look, I ain’t no James Joyce, but I can write, yo. I was VERY ANGRY, but I literally had no choice but to send those results in to complete my application. Anyway, I got in, and because I still had some sort of leftover trauma from that 8 on the writing section, I spent hours meticulously crafting every paper for every assignment during my first semester. Then they started coming back with comments like “excellent writing, great job” and “this is very well written”, and I wanted to print all of them on a giant banner and fly them past the headquarters of the British Council.

Or something.

Anyway, point being, all that test did (besides get me into grad school, okay, okay) was sow unnecessary panic and erode my confidence in my abilities.  Obviously I wrote well, I just happened to only write about things I liked and not some made-up pie chart.

I’ve never taken a formal French test outside of school and don’t expect to need to do so, but just going by my experience with the IELTS exam and with my widely varying competencies in other languages, I’ve kind of started developing this theory that tests and levels are confusing, even counterproductive, and that they engender either false security or false insecurity, depending on where you fall relative to where you thought you were. I say that because I can, and routinely do, read newspaper articles in Bulgarian or Polish, but I can’t say anything in either one, and I frequently read complex commercial litigation in Spanish, but can only really carry on a beginner-level conversation. Sometimes (and this is terrifying), I can understand nearly 100% of an Almodovar movie, but only about 80% of a French TV show, yet my Spanish is far far far weaker overall. There are accents, dialects, regional variations, thematic groupings in which cognates dominate, etc – none of this matters in conventional language testing, it seems.

I think there should be a different system altogether, one that considers natural aptitude, affinities for certain topics, technical vocabulary and so on, and it would, by definition, be very personal. I hope to write more about that soon.

P.S. Here’s a very good JALUP post on levels and “native” “fluency”.


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.