How many semesters of French did you take in grade school? In college? At a language center? Around 200,000 Americans study French in college each year, and yet few of them are able to hold a proper conversation. Others grew up around French but haven’t engaged in conversation since they were young. If you feel like you can understand French in writing or when you hear it around you, but struggle to speak the language, you’re not alone.
It may be frustrating, but – again – you’re not alone. It takes some work and strategy to crack this problem, and fortunately the Léacafé community is here to help.
This article is dedicated to my French friends who learned English in school and feel incapable to speak. They would certainly love to find an article like this one for them too. Would you like to help them and write the French version for this article? Let me know > @
Recognize the Iceberg Opportunity
First of all, enjoy the fact that you’re actually in a favorable situation to improve. You, my friend, have a ton of vocabulary sitting just below the surface. This latent vocabulary will surface far more quickly for you than for another learner. All we need to do is find opportunities for sustained practice. The greatest hurdle here has less to do with linguistics and more to do with overcoming mental barriers to practicing the verbal language (read on).
Start in a Safe Environment
Take stock of what you do know. Are there familiar topics – whether work, cooking, asking for directions – that you know are part of your verbal repertoire? Find an encouraging tutor who has worked with people in this situation before. Explain very carefully what you are able to do, and come up with a strategy for getting more ambitious with your speaking practice.
If you are able to write better than you speak, then try reading your writing out loud. Although most people are better at speaking than writing, your case is unique. Discuss the topics that you’re already written about so that you have a solid foundation for entering into conversation. It may help to decide some extra attention to your accent as well, and you can use your writing as a launching pad for that, too.
Take Off the Training Wheels
Once you see yourself making progress, it’s time to strive to go a little farther in your lessons. Practice explaining about a topic that’s perhaps technical, abstract, or otherwise hard to explain. Deliver a monologue that lasts for several minutes with the aid of an outline that you’re already prepared. Introduce yourself from the beginning – but this time in a more sophisticated manner – and invite follow-up questions. All of these are ways to kick off the training wheels and begin coming in your own as a verbal speaker.
And while this might not be possible for everyone, there are two ways that you can ‘hack’ your language lessons for a verbal workout. The first is to try a month with 90-minute lessons. You will find that this takes a lot more concentration and energy, but allows you to go into subjects in a deeper way. The alternative is to set one day each month where you have multiple lessons with italki community tutors who don’t know you well. Explain to them that you simply want to practice free speaking, and you will meet people from different backgrounds and with different accents. This is a mental workout that will help you progress much more quickly.
What challenges you face learning French? Tell us in the comments below and we might even write a blog post dedicated just to you.
Léa & Eric