Learning French

Une petite victoire

For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying, off and on, to learn to read French. If you were to subtract all the “off” time from those couple of years, you’d probably find I’ve spent about two or three months in daily study, and that study has focused almost entirely on learning to read French, not listen to, speak, or write it. (This is mainly because I can’t afford to take classes or buy expensive CDs.)

As you can imagine, my progress has been slow.

But after about six months off, I jumped back in last month, using the wonders of much-hyped technology. I’m pulling down French-language podcasts, for example, so that I can learn the sounds of native voices. I can’t make out, yet, much of what the speakers are saying, but it’s still helpful.

And late yesterday, I subscribed to the RSS feed of the French newspaper Le Monde, thinking I could learn a little just by reading newspaper articles. Again, my idea is to see the language in its natural context.

Most of what I saw yesterday was mundane–a few articles about the Tour de France and whatnot. But today brought news that Scotland Yard has started rounding up suspects in last week’s terrorist bombings in London. Moreover, the blurb on Le Monde was the first place I saw the story.

Which means I’ve read important news in a foreign language before seeing it in my own. That’s pretty cool.

[Link: Attentats de Londres: plusieurs personnes arrêtées par la police (Sky News)]

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Learning French, Reading and writing

French update

<a href="”><img class="blogimg" src="” alt=”, by ” border=”0″ align=”right”>After stalling out a bit, I’ve returned to studying French. I ordered a copy of Easy French Reader, which has an ugly cover, I’ll admit, but is still a good introductory book. The book is in three parts: Part I contains a set of dialogues between an American teenager, Christine, and her French friend Charles, both of whom live in Paris. Part II is a collection of essays, written in French, about figures from French history. Part III contains several short stories, from writers such as Zola, that are mostly intact but have a few edits to make the vocabulary more suitable for beginning readers.

I’m still also working through French for Reading, but it’s slow-going. The audience for that book is graduate students who need French to do study and research, and so the prose is academic, scientific, and, I think, stilted and dry. I found myself bogging down, so I wanted something a little less erudite.

With my focus so squarely on written French, my pronunciation lags behind. That’s okay to an extent; I don’t foresee conversing in French in the near future, but I would like to read it. I do, however, want to begin developing an ear for the language so that I can understand, for example, the dialogue in French-language movies. Also, I’d eventually like to take a French class, and a head-start in verbal abilities will help.

With that in mind, I’ve been working through the French-language activities offered as part of the BBC’s languages series. Without buying the videos, of course, I can’t view the Beeb’s French programs, but the website offers interactive modules that allow you to listen to and practice conversational French.

It’s standard introductory material–asking for directions, ordering a drink or a meal, buying Metro tickets, inquiring about the price of a piece of merchandise–but it’s a good start to picking up the sounds of French words.

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Comic books, Learning French

Bilal and French comics

The cover to 32 decembre, Bilal’s latest, just-published, comic album. Comic albums in France are generally larger than American comics. A French album measures 24cm by 32cm, or roughly 9 1/2 inches by 12 1/2 inches. An American comic measures 6 1/2 inches by 10 1/2.

Production values are usually better on these albums as well, meaning they’re on better quality paper stock and use better printing techniques. So before you eve see the art or read the story, you realize you have a higher-quality product in your hands. Of course, it’s entirely possible to print shit on pretty paper–I don’t mean to say that French comics are by nature better than American. I’m only pointing out the differences.

I don’t really know anything about this new work, 32 decembre. But the Bilal/Christin collaborations I mentioned earlier certainly aren’t the sort of thing you’d find in most American comics. Black Order Brigade, for example, concerns two factions, on opposite sides of the Spanish Civil War, who take up arms again in the 1970s. French comics, like their Japanese counterparts, generally cover a much wider range of genres than do American comics, which focus on superhero, fantasy, and science-fiction.

Which means, unfortunately, that French comics haven’t found much of a market here yet. Only a fraction are ever translated into English, and even the French-language originals don’t make it into many American shops. I’m still investigating where I can buy the French books–can I order from a U.S. supplier, or do I have to order from Canadian or French merchants?

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Learning French

More on French for Reading, and Enki Bilal

Update on the French, which I first mentioned a week ago. I’m now in the tenth chapter of the book, and I think it’s going pretty well. The book is set up in a way that makes learning the language pretty straightforward. The author introduces a point of grammar and some accompanying vocabulary, discusses it with some examples, and then provides translation exercises using the new grammar and vocab. The end of each chapter has a multiple-choice quiz, a passage to translate, and questions on the passage.

I’m pleased with my progress. I usually struggle through the exercises at first. I chunk them into groups of two or three and run through each group two or three times until I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned. I then move on the next group. When I reach the end of the chapter, I run through the exercises one more time before doing the multiple-choice and translation sections.

The book has twenty-one chapters, so I think after I finish this chapter, I’m going to run back through what I’ve covered to date as a kind of midterm. The review will do me well.

The next step is to start reading real stuff in French. I have an issue of Paris Match, and the funny thing is, it features an interview with Enki Bilal. Bilal is one reason I’m doing this; his work with Pierre Christin on The Hunting Party (Partie de Chasse) and Black Order Brigade (Les Phalanges de l’Ordre Noir) were the first comics I read (other than Tintin as a child) of French origin.

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Learning French, Reading and writing

Learning French, sort of

In my latest demonstration of geekery, I’ve decided to teach myself to read French. I’ve been wanting to pick up another language for a long time, and some of you might remember the whole week, about two years ago, during which I was enrolled in a Japanese class at IU.

I have several reasons for doing this:


  1. I want the specific mental challenge of learning another language. It’s unlike any other intellectual activity I’ve encountered, and it’s been a decade since I’ve done it. (I know, that reason probably sounds really pompous.)

  2. I’m ashamed of myself for not having at least reading knowledge of a modern language. I took German in high school and in the first two years of college, but that was–oh christ–15 years ago. Aside from a week of Japanese, the only other language I’ve ever studied was classical and Biblical Greek. Not much call for that outside the academy, I’m afraid.

  3. I’d like to start reading books and magazines published in French, just to keep the skill up and also to read authors’ thoughts in their original tongue–not filtered through a layer of translation.

  4. France is one of the world’s largest publishers of comic books, most of which are never translated into English. French comics cover a much wider spectrum of interests than do American comics, and many of them are said to be brilliant. But I’ve never been able to read them.

So what I’m doing is, I’m working through a book called French for Reading, by Karl Sandburg. Sandburg wrote for graduate students who need reading knowledge of French for the purpose of study and research in their disciplines. He wrote his book to be used either individually or for classroom purposes.

I’m through about seven chapters so far, and it’s going well. I’ll check in from time to time to discuss how I’m doing with it.

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