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A Frugal Plan for Recapturing French

It’s embarrassing. I used to be mildly fluent in French. I’ve conversed with native speakers (ok, maybe I was talking like an 8-year-old, but that’s decent). I’ve tutored 3rd level French and been a substitute teacher on several occasions.

But my French has been getting awkward, rustier, more informed by the few French things I keep in touch with, like my recording of the Notre Dame de Paris musical. I haven’t studied it in a few years, and then I took Spanish…which is similar enough that it was harder for me to keep my French straight when I try to speak it. I randomly throw in Spanish words like desafortunadamente. Which you have to admit is a great word.

I like the language. I like approaching bilingualism. My mom has a PhD in linguistics and my Dad is a software engineer. I was brought up in a household where learning languages—programming or spoken or dead was just the thing to do. So I’m launching a little personal campaign to recapture my French.

My plan:

First, start checking out French movies from the library. This won’t be a chore at first, since there are some that I only didn’t watch before because of laziness. Last night, we watched La Femme Nikita. I enjoyed it very much, it’s a fortunate start.

Next week I’ll be watching a film that I saw back when I was processing videos at my college. I watched them all to make sure the videos were in working order and got some ideas.

Eventually, inevitably, I’ll run out of films. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do—whether to watch them again or starting digging up more movies from other locations or do something else. It’ll be a while, we have a phenomenal film collection for a county library.

Ideally, when watching DVDs in another language, watch it with the subtitles in that language. So for Notre Dame de Paris (I have both the DVD and the CD), I put them in French. It keeps me better immersed in the language so I can’t be lazy and just read without listening and thinking. This may not work if you don’t know the language well but if you’re trying to recapture one, give it a try!

Second plan, reading books in French, probably children’s novels. I checked out a French copy of Prince Caspian last week. While one French past tense in novels is different from the spoken past tense (another post in itself, but not for this blog), it’s still a good exercise.

In this case, it helps to read it aloud so that I get the full effect of the words. I can practice speaking and won’t skim either.

So that’s my plan. It’s something I can do on my own time instead of signing up for classes. It’s something I can do at my own level—many classes in the local community are only up to French 3. I could use a refresher but I know the material quite well. I took it when I was 15 and again in college when I was 18. I’ve also tutored it twice. It’s also something I can do for free. My local library is a tremendous resource. If yours isn’t, they may still be able to borrow materials from other places for you.

So that’s my plan. Happy Sunday!

{ 4 trackbacks }

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K. June 1, 2008 at 3:17 pm

Films are a great way to improve language. I speak OK German, but I don’t always understand films. Usually, I’ll watch a movie the first time without subtitles, then watch it a second time with, to pick up details I missed. Plus, then I can impress my friends with all the foreign films I’ve seen, lol.

My Small Cents June 1, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Quelle bonne idée, Mme Micah! Tu peux aussi lire des blogs en français! (You can also read blogs in French, for those who don’t speak French.)
There’s a great resource at BBC Languages(
There are many different languages offered. The other thing that I would suggest as a way to refresh your language skills is to find a real live person who shares a hobby with you. If you like hiking, you could talk to the Alliance Française near you to see if there’s a hiking group that you could join. Or whatever. You live close enough to a major metropolis that I’m sure there are tons on French people around.
Bon Courage!

Laura June 1, 2008 at 3:38 pm

Wow, mrs micah, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately, especially when reading Kelly’s blog. I can read French and help children with homework, but the spoken word is a little (very) rusty. I need to look into ways of bringing it back
Thank you

Susan June 1, 2008 at 4:56 pm

I like your plan. I used to be able to speak Spanish fairly well, but I lost a lot of it. Same goes for Japanese. It’s so true that if you don’t use it, you lose it!
I bet once you start reading and listening to French again, it’ll all start coming back to you.

Money Blue Book June 1, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Language really requires an immersion environment. Spend a summer or a few months overseas and you’ll improve it tremendously.

For French, try visiting Montreal, Canada. My cousins up there speak both French and English

Laura June 1, 2008 at 6:00 pm

I know there’s an interesting article on Tim Ferriss’ blog (4 Hour Work Week) about quickly recapturing rusty language skills that you might be interested in.

Beth June 1, 2008 at 6:07 pm

If you haven’t seen “Les Choristes” (The Chorus), you should definitely put it on your list of movies to rent. I’m a high school French teacher, and it’s the only film I’ve shown that the kids seem to universally like. The language is not all family friendly (there are a couple of parts where I have to run up and cover the subtitles in class), but it’s still a great movie.

kitty June 1, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Learning languages used to be one of my hobbies as well. I grew up in Russia, so Russian is my native language; but I also had a minor in Italian literature in college and spent one summer studying in Perugia. I lost some of my Italian, but I am still relatively fluent in it. Several years ago I learned Spanish – not as well as I speak Italian but enough to express my thoughts, understand it, read books and write compositions. I lost some of it, but still can understand 100% of Mexican soap operas on Univision. Used to know some German but lost most of it. I have a cousin who’s lived in Germany since she was 15, so now when I go there I keep silent because I am embarassed to talk in front of her. Only learned enough French to get by in France as a tourist, so I don’t really know it.

Learning Spanish interfered with my Italian too. It is so easy to confuse the two languages, even easier with Italian than with French because the pronunciation is relatively similar (with a few small exceptions). There are some words that are identical but mean different things or rules that are almost the same but not quite. Sometimes I speak in Italian and a Spanish word pops up; at other times I stop mid-sentence because I am not sure if the word I am about to say is Spanish or Italian.

Movies is a great way to get a language back, I agree. So are books, but you get to practice a different skill. There is also a pretty good Audio Magazine called Champs-Elysées (, but it is a bit pricey. I used to get their Italian and Spanish programs, but stopped.

BTW – you don’t by any chance live near NYC? Here in Westchester county there is a “language club”. It’s a group of people who get together once a week to talk in different languages. There usually are a few native speakers at these gatherings. French is the most popular language there and some people are fluent. You never know in advance if there’ll be an Italian or a Spanish table, but you are guaranteed to always have French. Unfortunately they meet at restaurants, so while they don’t choose particularly expensive ones ($10-15) and everyone orders and pays separately, it still can add up. I don’t do it anymore, not as much because of money but because I really don’t need extra calories. Plus they don’t always have languages that interest me. Maybe you can organize such a club where you live and instead of restaurants you can go to a local library?

Kacie June 1, 2008 at 7:44 pm

Don’t forget French TV shows (maybe available on DVD?). Also, some English DVDs have an option where you can watch the film in dubbed French and you can also add the French subtitles. Not the same, of course, but it’s a thought.

Nicole June 1, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Try the series French In Action. The whole thing is in French, and the videos are often in at least University libraries. It’s a full immersion experience. Aussi j’ai un blog en francais moi-aussi:

Steven June 1, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Kepe in mind that understanding a language and speaking the language are 2 different skills.

Find yourself an understanding French person with whom you can actually practice a conversation. That’ll help you keep up the skills.

Sara June 2, 2008 at 12:11 am

Same story for me with Spanish. I actually didn’t have much luck trying to gear up with children’s books (though I did renew my love of Ramona Quimby!). I might take your suggestion and go with films. Oooh! Telenovelas!

My Daily Dollars June 2, 2008 at 7:46 am

I like your plan! I used to love French when I studied it long, long ago in college. One day, a serious immersion is in order for me. However, you’ve got great, frugal suggestions here!

plonkee June 2, 2008 at 7:48 am

I bet at Micah’s university there are French speaking students that would be interested in helping you out. French internet is good – try the newspapers. In fact, you can probably get French language newspapers at major libraries. For more informal French, try and find magazines like Cosmopolitan.

QL Girl June 2, 2008 at 9:00 am

I don’t know if anyone mentioned it…but try to steer clear of comedy! lol. I find it hard to understand foreign comedy, simply because its based on nuances of the language, and I’ll probably end up taking it literally.

I totally agree with the same language sub-titles. Its super hard to understand sometimes without captions (even in English!!!), so that takes away a lot of the guessing. If you have Netflix there are TONS of foreign films, and a lot of them are available on Instant View. Try seeing if you can get the $5 plan and also IV. It might be worth it depending on how badly you want variety. (Except I don’t think you can pick captions on instant view….hmm…)

Good luck! And if you ever want to practice let me know. I also spoke french, but haven’t done so in about 3 or 4 years! Au revoir! 😉

Frugaleconome June 2, 2008 at 11:23 am

Bon courage !

Tu pourrais aussi louer le film Amelie, qui est vraiment magnifique (you can also rent the movie Amelie which is excellent).

You can also watch the French speaking channel TV5, there are some good shows such as Des Racines et des Ailes.

cybele June 2, 2008 at 2:14 pm

It’s also fairly simple to access radio and TV programmes directly from France. A bit of a challenge because there’s no chance for subtitles and sometimes the going is hot and heavy, but it’s a good way to get the language back into your ears. — try Culture if you want to hear some really good debates which will stretch your vocabulary and sentence construction. Or try the tele France international site…which allows you also to switch back to an English version of the site so that you can check your understanding.
or come visit France. A bientôt!

mrsmicah June 2, 2008 at 2:21 pm

@everyone lots of awesome suggestions I’m going to have to follow up on.

@cybele, give me a couple years and it’s a date!

Kay June 2, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Check out:

It’s a great community site for learning languages. The exercises are a little cheesy, but I really found that using them as a way to “meet” native speakers is the best part. Then you can converse in other ways.

Also, the Alliance Francaise in DC offers courses as well as a get together for practicing conversations. I believe there is something via the German embassy as well that allows people practicing various languages and not just German.

One of the public access channels shows French in Action often .. you could record those and watch later if they aren’t played during a good time for you. I think this is via NVCC?

Finally, if no one else has mentioned it yet, there are MANY podcasts in French.

Best of luck (:

Amy June 3, 2008 at 10:05 am

I so admire this about you. I am not fluent in any other language, but I often wish that I had learned another language so I could look forward to visiting other parts of the world. I think my dream language would be French or Italian.

Sarah June 3, 2008 at 2:31 pm

I’ve had the same problem with German. I was near fluent in the beginning of college and high school but I lost most of my words in “the real world.” I like to watch the language channel on our local cable station. I watch the most current news from Germany and some of comes back for an hour or so. 🙂 I’ve found this helps more than audio books from the library. I eventually need to get back and finish my degree anyways so hopefully I’ll get back in to my Deutsch Mode soon.
Good Luck!

Jeremy June 3, 2008 at 6:17 pm

All great tips. I don’t think mine were mentioned specifically, but they are tweaks on what has been suggested.

First, as opposed to only renting/borrowing foreign films, some English-language DVDs have the option of viewing subtitles in another language, which could work if you are trying to learn French or Spanish (since they are more likely to be options than, say, Swahili). Check the DVD extras.

Also, what about borrowing purely instructional language tapes or DVDs? I have definitely seen them available in the library before.

Christine June 3, 2008 at 8:32 pm

I used to be near fluent (and darn well should have been, after nine years of immersion!) but I’ve lost a lot of my vocabulary in recent years due to having no French people to talk to. Since I started my job last year, though, I’ve picked up a lot of the reading & writing skills (we publish a whole lot of stuff bilingually). I might take a French class this year, actually…. we shall see.

Tanya June 3, 2008 at 8:40 pm

My French has gotten dismal as well… and I’m having a hard time getting motivated to learn Farsi, which I’ve been trying to do for years.

I do religiously read Le Monde, though… they have an English site for when I’m lost, and since I read the news in English too, I usually don’t have to use it.

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