The French Language

Do you know enough French to read this sign?
One of the things that I learned when Julie and I turned our attention internationally to go waterfalling is that travel is all about building bridges between your own perception of the world and what actually happens in the real world. And so I realized that one of the best ways to build this bridge is to try to learn the local language as this would help me to keep an open mind and be prepared to expand my horizons as I went. Besides, I feel that trying to speak the local language (no matter how awkward it might be at first) goes a long way towards being encouraged as well as being greeted with kindness. It's certainly better than the opposite reaction you might get when say you expect or even demand the locals to speak English on their own soil.

In the case of French, it was a language that I was very motivated to learn even though I didn't have any formal education on it in school. Admittedly, my motivation to at least take the initiative to learn the language probably stemmed from my perception that most of the women I had found attractive at the time happened to speak French. However, later on, Julie and I actually were in a bit of trouble when we tried to take the public transportation to see a waterfall in Tahiti. Since we didn't know the language at the time, we had to go through a lot of gesturing and pointing before we finally figured out which bus to take. Fortunately for us, the bus drivers were friendly and did what they could to help. I could only imagine how much easier the whole experience would have been had we at least been able to speak a few sentences of French.

In this page, I'll try to introduce you to the language through my learning experiences. I'll also throw in some expressions that we came across frequently that you might be able to try as well as some vocabulary that would at least help you get some meaning behind the geographical place names or natural features you might run across if you went waterfalling. For more comprehensive learning, I'll also let you know about how I managed to learn some of the language as well as the resources we've used.

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I began trying to teach myself French with some very basic lessons bought from "Learn to Speak", which we bought from Costco. There were also other lessons with CDs that I used at the time like Learn in Your Car and Behind the Wheel French, but ultimately they turned out to be somewhat fair introductions to the language, yet they left a lot more to be desired in terms of useful expressions, situations, and vocabulary.

Over the years, I bought more French lessons from Smart French as well as the Living Language Ultimate French. I even challenged myself buying a very advanced college level text called The Ultimate French Review and Practice. I'll go into a review of these resources in the next section.

Just about all of these lessons (with the exception of the Costco one) were done during my work commute (whether listening to CDs in the car or reading books on the metro). The Costco lesson involved having me be in front of the computer and speaking into a microphone, but that effort didn't persist because I had to spend extra time to be in front of a computer to learn.

Yet even given all the efforts of trying to learn through these lessons, it wasn't until I had to use the language in the field on our trip to France in 2012 and Tahiti later that year as well as Quebec in late 2013 did I realize that I still had a long way to go before I could come close to feeling comfortable with the language. That was when I realized that in order to have full command of the language (or at least as good as someone who has managed to live or spend a significant amount of time fully immersed in a French-speaking country), I had to be in more situations where I had no choice but to be forced to use the language.

Currently, I'm not to the level of full command and fluency. However, I do try to find ways to practice whenever I can with people who speak French (typically with coworkers or when we travel). That said, I probably may never get to where I can have total fluency unless I was fortunate enough to actually live in a French-speaking country for several months or at least a year, where I'd be forced to adapt. Nonetheless, just by making this much of an effort to learn the language, I have enough confidence to try to go to places where English would not be spoken (like in parts of rural France, for example).

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Learn to Speak French [Overall Rating: 2/5]:
This was the first self-learning French lesson that I bought, and it was from Costco way back around the 2001-2002 time frame. The version I bought only worked with Windows 95/98 but wouldn't work with any later versions of Windows, including Windows 2000 and later.

This interactive learning resource was pretty much all about getting in front of the computer, popping in the relevant CD and trying to talk with the recorded videos of hired speakers in varying situations. They tried to make the lessons useful and in context in this sense though I thought the lessons themselves were on the boring side.

Perhaps the one thing this lesson had that the other lessons I would ended up using didn't have was that I did have to interact with the software by speaking into a microphone (I think it came with the lesson). They had meters that try to gauge how accurate my attempt at French was to the "correct" answer, but I thought this tool was very hit-and-miss in what the software thought it heard. There would be times where I said the exercise correctly and be told I was wrong while there were other times where I was way off, yet the software thought I was correct. Go figure.

I ultimately made it to a little past half-way before I lost interest and eventually gave up on the interactive lessons. They also had an audio CD that let me listen and repeat in the car to some other random expressions. But it turned out that even the audio CD that was included besides the software CDs weren't that useful.

So to summarize, I'd say this lesson got me exposed to the language, but didn't come close to getting me up to any sort of competency when it came time to try to use the language in real life.

Learn in Your Car French Levels 1, 2, 3 [Overall Rating: 1/5]:
The Learn in Your Car French series attracted me because it was tailor made for learning a language in the car while I was commuting to work. It turned out that French was the first of the languages that I tried to learn through this product series (Spanish and Chinese being the other ones), and as I delved into its lessons, I quickly found myself listening and repeating to a plethora of words and basic expressions. Over time, I came to realize that the core philosophy of learning the language through this product was memorization through repetition.

As the lessons continued deeper into the more intermediate and advanced levels, it was pretty much the same thing except the vocabulary and expressions were more difficult and seemingly less utilized in real life. In fact, it also seemed like the deeper I went with the lessons, the more random the things they wanted me to repeat had gotten. Pretty soon, I found myself repeating and trying to memorize vocabulary and phrases that really seemed out of touch with what I would really be using in real life.

Coincidentally, that was also around the time that I started to become a zombie mindlessly repeating expressions that really had no meaning to me. And to me, that was the major fault of this way of learning. The random and increasingly irrelevant content coupled with the nearly exclusive reliance on memorization meant I had pretty much absorbed as much as I was able and willing to absorb from this product, and it would turn out to be not enough in terms of having a sufficient degree of competency to even try holding a conversation with a native speaker.

So I eventually had to look elsewhere, but at least this product got me exposed to some basic vocabulary and expressions that were useful in the beginner level. So that's why I bumped up my rating of this product a bit, but the intermediate and advanced lessons seemed to be a waste of time and money.

Behind the Wheel French [Overall Rating: 1.5/5]:
The Behind the Wheel language CDs (there were eight in all) kind of followed along the same philosophy of the Learn in Your Car series except there was some narration by an American who seemed to know how to speak a variety of languages. The narration seemed to help a little more than the Learn in Your Car series in that he was explaning some things that I didn't realize until he mentioned them. For example, he pointed out some of the poetic associations of the language like the expression for sunset in French was le couch du soleil, which literally meant the sleep of the sun. Similarly, he also pointed out the French word for potato was la pomme de terre, which literally meant apples of the earth.

However, as I proceeded along deeper into his lessons, it ultimately degenerated into another series of listening and repeating of some pretty random expressions as well as repeating ad nauseum of some expressions that might have been so repetitive that it was like beating a dead horse. And like the Learn in Your Car series, the expressions towards the end seemed very random and not very useful in what I'd imagine would be real life situations, or that he didn't go far enough (maybe he was holding back to sell more advanced level CDs).

Another knock on this product was that it seemed to be a very amateur production. It really made me wonder whether I was paying good money to learn from a product that seemed to be made in the author's home office or garage, and I wasn't really sure that the structure of the lessons really were directed towards my progression towards sufficient competency to even try speaking the language for real.

So in the end, after listening through the lessons a few times, I felt it was useful up to a very limited extent and I eventually stopped using it as it was no longer useful to me. I'm not sure I'd recommend this as a learning tool, but it's just another product taught in a different manner than the rest of the products I had used to this point. It didn't really work for me, but then again, perhaps it might work for someone else...

SmartFrench: Learn French from Real French People [Overall Rating: 2/5]:
This was one of the more interesting products that I had bought in an attempt to pick up French and really advance it beyond the remedial or not-so-useful lessons that I had tried up to this point. The difference here was that the main speaker in the lesson was a real French guy who emphasized that you really want to learn from real French speakers and all the idiosyncrasies that go along with it. Perhaps he emphasized these idiosyncrasies a bit too much as I didn't find some of the pronunciations and slow-mo pronunciations that comprised most of the audio lessons that useful at all.

The lessons here were broken up into sections that culminated in an at-speed interview or conversation between the main speaker and the interviewee. In each of the sections, the narrator painstakingly went through the interview over and over again from very slow to a bit faster with the idiosyncratic pronunciations of conversational French as opposed to what is written French. You don't hear the interviewee at all until the last at-speed conversation, which is difficult to follow if you're learning.

That said, the hard-to-follow at-speed conversations turned out to be invaluable in exposing me or at least getting me to train my ears to the actual speed of the language by native speakers. Then, he moves onto the next lesson going through the same progression of reading the conversation slowly then speeding up with each repetition before finally revealing the at-speed interview of the next person.

I found the tone and overall feel of this product to be a bit on the condescending side, and I sometimes wondered if the narrator was more interested in showing off the French language rather than teaching it. Anyhow, I eventually found myself only keeping and playing part 6 of each lesson as that was where the at-speed conversations were happening. I'd say if you're advanced enough in your French, it's good to play just part 6 of each lesson repeatedly and trying to see if you can follow the conversation. If you can, you're probably well on your way to being a fluent speaker. Otherwise, the printed transcript booklet that comes with the CD will at least help with what's actually said in the conversations themselves.

It's for this reason (the usefulness of the at-speed conversations) that I bumped up the rating of this product as I still find myself listening to them when I'm in the mindset of learning French. But the rest of the lessons were pretty much not useful.

Living Language Ultimate French: Beginner-Intermediate [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
Of all the French self-teaching products that I've bought, this could very well be by far the most comprehensive and useful of them all. They key with this lesson is that you have to be persistent and you have to do all the exercises in there. But once you get through the lessons slowly and deliberately, I can say that you will have a pretty good understanding of the language, and you should definitely have enough confidence to try it in the field. At least that was what happened to me, and I'd have to say that this was the only resource of all the ones that I bought that got me up to that level of competency.

There were 40 lessons in this combination of textbook and audio. The lesson started off with a dialog before getting into things like vocabulary used in the dialog, pronunciations, grammar, additional vocabulary, and exercises. The book was pretty thorough, and I'd say it was probably at the college level.

The thing I really liked about this resource was that it also came with two four-disc sets called Learn at Home Set A and Learn on the Go Set B. Both sets cover all 40 lessons. Set A was meant for following along the textbook while Set B was intended for learning in the car on its own. Truthfully, I preferred to listen to just Set A in the car because Set B abridged the dialogs while Set A was complete even though it was definitely harder. In any case, I was able to repeatedly listen to the CDs and all of the conversations, and really train my ears up to a more functional level of comprehension that might be encountered in real life.

As for the flow of the lessons, it was more like how I'd envision formal learning to be like. Each dialog was situational to at least try put the concepts and expressions in context. It went from the obvious basics but then quickly went into more advanced concepts concerning conjugations, utilization of useful verbs, pronoun substitutions, imperatives, comparative expressions, past tense with helping verbs (passé composé), and more.

If you persist to the end, it'll even get into things like the subjunctive where they'll expose you to conversations where there's uncertainty like in a difficult job interview or during a search for an apartment. They also give you some poems where the preterite past tense might be used even though I don't think you'd typically see it in conversations. So I'd say thoroughness is this product's strong suit.

My only gripe about this product (and why I didn't give it 5 starts) was that I still think the dialogs could have been strung together in a coherent story. That would at least provide some motivation as well as context in the form of entertainment to make the learning even more fun. Maybe it's asking for too much, but for me, I've only seen something like this done with the Teach Yourself Norwegian product, and I still use that as the gold standard in terms of making self-learning a language fun.

That said, I've had other random people notice that I was using this book to learn French, and they've actually complimented me saying I made a smart choice with it. So apparently, it has a reputation that I wasn't even aware of amongst those in the know.

Finally, I noticed in some Amazon reviews that having the audio CDs with this textbook isn't a sure thing, especially with the later revisions it seems. If you're going to get this resource, I would insist that the product must have the audio CDs. If not, just straight book learning would be very difficult plus you wouldn't get the benefit of getting used to the pronunciations, the patterns, and even some emotional tones and inflexions that comes naturally when you use the language. So read the descriptions carefully and make inquiries if you're not sure.

The Ultimate French Review and Practice [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
This is a very advanced textbook that was really meant as a review or challenge resource after having gone through the learning from say the Living Language Ultimate French textbook and audio CDs. They go through the same concepts as the previously reviewed resource, but they really drill you through exercises ad nauseum.

To give you an idea of how advanced this textbook is, they skip all the usual basics and go right into the present tense of verbs in Chapter 1. In fact, each chapter covers particular grammatical aspects of the language with more ad nauseum exercises to go with them. Furthermore, there's a very limited amount of English being used to explain things. Almost all of the prompting and explanations were totally in French!

I only made it through about Chapter 20 out of 28 as I eventually lost interest. Probably the most interesting read throughout the textbook were the Note Culturelle sections sprinkled throughout the lessons which were a real test of reading comprehension while learning something about French Culture along the way. So that brings me to why I gave this a 3 rating instead of something more.

It's just the no nonsense approach with this lesson seemed to be most suited for a formal academic environment and not really for self-learning. But it's certainly on the dry and challenging side and probably not something useful for someone still trying to learn the language. It's really more for people trying to master French grammar perhaps for review or even for a degree or something.

But make no mistake about it, if you can get through this book, I'm willing to bet you're probably very close to fluency short of utilizing the language in the field naturally and repeatedly (like if you lived in France or repeatedly used it with friends who spoke French).

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Here's a list of very basic expressions that I have come across that you might find helpful. To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, please check out more authoritative language resources.

  • Bonjour / Bonsoir / Bonne nuit - Good morning / Good evening / Good night
  • Bonne journée / Bonne soirée - Have a good day / Have a good evening
  • Comment allez-vous? - How are you? (note: this is the formal way of saying it)
  • Ça va - I'm fine (note: this literally means, "It's going...")
  • Combien? / C'est combien? / Combien ça coûte? / - How much / is it / does it cost?
  • Merci (beaucoup) - Thanks (a lot)
  • De rien / Je vous en prie - You're welcome (both convey something like, "it's nothing")
  • Où est la salle de bain? - Where's the restroom?
  • L'addition, s'il vous plaît. - The check, please.
  • Je voudrais ...? - I would like ...?
  • Qu'est-ce que ça veut-dire...? - What does ... mean? (note: this might be a bit much to say for a beginner so the next expression might be a shortcut)
  • Qu'est-ce que c'est? - What is it? (note: this is a pretty flexible expression and might be simpler to say than the above if you're trying to get someone to tell you what something means)
  • Comment dit-on ... en français? - How do you say ... in French?
  • Quel temps fait-il? - What's the weather like? (note: it literally means "What does He make?)
  • Il fait chaud / froid / du soleil / beau / mal. - It's hot / cold / sunny / beautiful / bad weather (note: this literally means "He makes ...)
  • Avis - Notice; typically seen on signs
  • Interdit / Privée - Prohibited / Private (feminine form; like in the context of a house or la maison privée); typically seen in signs intended to keep you out
  • Ralentir - Slow down
  • Péage - Toll; typically seen in toll plazas or stations on the autoroutes
  • On y va / Allons-y - Let's go
  • Alors,... - So..., Well...; this is a filler word you hear a lot in France. It's like in English how we toss in a "So..." between sentences.

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I'm sure there can be any number of words that would be helpful to know, but I'm going to do things a little differently and try to bias this vocabulary list with things more related to waterfalls or other geographical features. I figure that might at least help you read some maps or at least have a better understanding of what some of the local place names mean.

  • la cascade - the waterfall (cascade). Example: La Cascade du Ray-Pic is the Ray Peak Falls
  • le saut - the jump or the leap; typically used in some waterfall place names. Example: Saut de la Pucelle is the Virgin's Leap (one of the waterfalls in the French Alps) or Saut du Doubs is the Doubs Falls or Doubs Leap (basically where the Doubs River "jumps" between France and Switzerland)
  • la chute - the fall or waterfall; I've only seen this associated with waterfall place names in the French-speaking Canadian provinces like Quebec. Example: La Chute-Montmorency is Montmorency Falls near Quebec City, Canada
  • la montagne - the mountain.
  • le mont - the mount (short for mountain; typically used in place names involving a mountain). Examples: Le Mont Saint-Michel is the Saint Michael's Mount (a very famous abbey in Normandie, France); Le Mont Dore - is the Mount Dore (a famous mountain in central France that is one of the sources of the Dordogne River; and finally there's Le Mont Blanc - the White Mountain (the highest point in France)
  • la rivière / le fleuve - the river / the river (emptying into the sea). Example: La Rivière Dordogne is the Dordogne River, or La Rivière Seine is the Seine River though this one is often just shortened to La Seine
  • le lac - the lake. Example: Le Lac d'Annecy is the Lake Annecy
  • la falaise - the cliff. Sometimes used in place names for natural arches. Example: La Falaise d'Aval is one of Étretat's famous natural arches.
  • le pont - the bridge. Sometimes used in place names for natural bridges. Example: Le Pont d'Arc is a large natural bridge in the Ardèche department in the south of France; Le Pont d'Espagne is the Spanish Bridge in the Pyrénées Mountains near the French-Spanish border
  • la vallée - the valley. Example: La Vallée de la Loire is the Loire Valley
  • le château - the castle. Example: Le Château Comptal de Carcassonne is the Count's Castle of Carcassonne
  • la ville / la cité - the city; the first term is more generally used for city where the latter term seems to be used more in a context. Examples: Hôtel de Ville means City Hall or Town Hall, La Cité de Carcassonne is a famous Medieval walled city in the South of France
  • le chemin - the path.
  • le sentier - the trail.
  • le pays - the country.
  • la rue - the street
  • le boulevard - the boulevard (aka large street)

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Now that I've given you some vocabulary, can you now read this sign?

The French language is actually widely spoken in much of the world. It's spoken in places like France, Belgium, Eastern Canada, and Tahiti. It's also pretty prevalent in North African countries like Tunisia and Algeria. Given its large reach, it's a pretty useful language to learn even though I've noticed that in America, I still get the sense that there's an attitude where the sentiment is such that it's not a necessary language to learn.

I guess that might be true if you stay confined to big cities or regions that are well-known, but I feel you really miss out on some of the hidden gems if you're not willing to go where the crowds don't go over something like a language barrier. Just making the effort to learn and try it out in unknown places is really a key part of that bridge building that I contend makes travel so fulfilling and rewarding. Plus, I'd even argue that it's this willingness to explore, adapt, and connect that is at the heart of what's good about travel.

In my experience, learning French takes a little getting used to, especially since my first Romantic language was Spanish (where the only silent consonant was "h" and most words are pretty consistently pronounced based on how they're spelled). In French, you have to look at groups of letters as a time to get the pronunciation right, and you also have to get used to not pronouncing the last consonant unless the following word in a sentence starts with a vowel (i.e. the liaison). The result is that many different words or conjugations of verbs sound the same, and you really have to pick up the meaning from the context in a typical conversation. That is something I still struggle with and why I think it really requires quite a bit of practice and use to truly get it down.

Still, this is one of the more beautiful spoken languages, and there's even a surprising number of English words borrowed from French.

Anyways, I've experienced that even though I had the determination (and motivation) to learn the language, there's really no substitute for practice and full immersion in a French-speaking country or region. I swear that no matter how much schooling or structured self-learning I've done over the years, someone who has lived in a French-speaking area can probably become more fluent than me in a much shorter period of time (maybe less than a year or so).

The reason why is because structured learning may get you familiar with the grammatical rules and some vocabulary, but it can only get you to a point where you can have enough confidence to try the language in a real life situation. But to really have command of the language, you must have full immersion so you're forced to adapt and think like French speakers think as far as the language goes. After all, in real life situations, you can't predict how people will react to you. I think it's that spontaneity that is missing from structured learning, and it's the very reason why immersive learning easily trumps academic learning.

Nevertheless, even if you don't have full command of the language but you took the learning seriously enough to at least have the confidence to try, you'll find that just having acquired this basic skill will empower you to go off the beaten path and have a richer and more unique experience in a foreign country. In fact, many waterfalls are found in such off-the-beaten-path places so it's certainly worth learning the local language to make the waterfalling experience more effective. Besides, like I said earlier, it's a bridge-building exercise where you can connect with locals and with the country in ways that are far more profound and lasting than a typical cookie-cutter tourist tour where the experiences aren't as unique and the connections made aren't as lasting.

Don't be discouraged by awkward exchanges or struggles to communicate. More often than not, if you just try speaking the local language, you're in a far more hopeful situation than not being able to communicate at all. Futhermore, I've observed that people are genuinely pleased and more encouraging when you try to speak their language. This happens far more often than the few instances where you might have run into someone who might be condescending. Besides, you'll never know if you don't try, and who knows where your learning will take you next? So what have you got to lose?

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