Two quick language learning tips

I was having so much fun improving my french that I decided to start learning spanish as well. So now I have new tips, that are unrelated to flashcards!

  1. It is hard to find compelling things to read when you are a total beginner in a language. May I suggest kids joke books? They are available for very low reading levels and deciphering the jokes is a fun (and funny) challenge. Short jokes contain ideal groups of vocabulary for learning, too– common words that are memorably related but don’t sound the same or have similar meanings. E.g., What animal has the smallest appetite? A moth, because it only eats holes!
  2. Apparently I am not the only language learner who felt a sort of plateau at the upper-intermediate level. For me, this has been partly due to the experience of being able to understand adult french content like newspapers or mystery movies, but finding it a lot more work than understanding english. The slowness and mental effort can get frustrating, which is demotivational. It turns out that trying to learn spanish made french feel suddenly much more fun by comparison, and made me much more enthusiastic and brave about french. So my suggestion is: consider turning your “weaker” language into your “second best” language by learning little bit of a third one.

Intermediate french absurdist theatre: La Cantatrice Chauve

Illustration of

Here’s a tip I got from my bookworm partner: reading a play is an easy win. Plays are much shorter in terms of word count than novels, yet for some reason reading a play feels like a big accomplishment.

This is especially true of La Cantatrice Chauve by Eugène Ionesco, which is both one of the most performed plays in France and entirely composed of parodies of the texts from Assimil brand language lessons. It’s as if it was invented to help beginner french readers feel like they are making progress.

This play is also straight-up hilarious, to the point that I was obnoxious to be around while reading it. Comedy is famously hard to translate, so reading the jokes in their original form felt like a great use for a second language.

La Cantatrice Chauve is a major work of theatre of the absurd, so odds are good your library will have or be able to get a copy for you. There are multiple productions of the play on YouTube that could make for good for listening practice, although I haven’t found a particularly excellent video yet.

Intermediate postcolonial francophone lit: Une Si Longue Lettre

Cover of 'Une si longue lettre

Shopping for french books led me to do something I’ve never done before: browse books by category on Amazon. This is how I learned that littérature francaise (from France) and littérature francophone (from the french-speaking former colonies) are sometimes treated as distinct literary categories. That is a stereotypically French thing to do, right? On the one hand, having enough pretension to consider French Literature as a world cultural treasure that needs to be distinguished from “literature in french”, and on the other hand having no shame about colonial racism. In any case, I found the categories helpful since one of my goals was to read literature in french from authors outside of France, but I didn’t know the special name for it.

Being only an intermediate reader, I started with Une Si Longue Lettre by Mariama Bâ. The english translation gets assigned in grade eight classes. I read it after getting through book 5 of Harry Potter (L’Ordre du Phénix), and I think I could have handled it after book 4.

Some things that make this an accessible read: it is a short book (165 pages, counting generously); each chapter is only a few pages and has a distinct topic, so you don’t have to follow long passages; and the entire book is a letter from a woman to her friend, so it uses mostly everyday language. Since the book is popular in classrooms there are lots of resources available online, including a DIY audiobook on youtube if you want to work on your listening skills.

I loved it. The narrator is a new widow living in Dakar, Senegal, writing to her friend to process her feelings and memories while she is housebound for the mourning period. She reflects on the post-independence generation in Senegal, the education and political rights of women, problems in her marriage and those of her friends, her relationships with her kids, how class and ethnicity work and how they are changing, and all sorts of interesting things. All of the social commentary comes up naturally during dishy gossip– the best possible format for a book?