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.

Weird and fabulous intermediate french reading

As an adult trying to revive my rusty childhood french, I have struggled to find compelling reading projects. Most lists of intermediate french reading for adults cover Le Petit Prince, Harry Potter in translation, and then a bunch of bestsellers that I’m not very interested in. I hunted hard to find queer content, postcolonial literature, diverse authors, and weirdo art that was suitable for a learner like me (starting from approximately fifth grade reading level). I thought I’d post small book reviews here in case it helps someone else. I know a lot of people with half-assed french skills– you can probably read more cool books than you’d expect!

You can use the “keep intermediate french weird” tag to see all my posts about this.

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For starters, I have to agree that Harry Potter is a great beginner/intermediate reading project. The series starts at about a sixth grade reading level and gradually increases in difficulty, and reading the series in french I noticed that each book deliberately teaches you a few new vocabulary words.

Because the books are so popular, there is a lot of stuff available. There are good french dubs for all the movies, and the whole series is available as french audiobooks complete with wacky character voices that make for reasonably challenging listening. Google translate even knows all the creature names.

The only initial hurdle is that the books are narrated using the literary passé simple verb tense, which I had never encountered before. I made flashcards for the être and avoir conjugations and then muddled through the rest.

For adults, the Harry Potter reading experience might be superior in a foreign language. I think it is worth a try even if you haven’t enjoyed Harry Potter in english. I was in university when the books were first published, so I didn’t get caught by Pottermania and only read the series much later, at which point I found the kid-friendly plots predictable and dull. Reading them in french, my comprehension is diminished enough that I missed a lot of clues and foreshadowing, so I found the stories much more surprising and exciting!

Finally, the top reason to read Harry Potter in another language is to see how the translator handles the invented words. Muggles, golden snitches, nifflers, Slytherins… It’s a fun translation problem to witness. No matter how many clunkers got through, I will always respect the translator for turning Hufflepuff into Poufsouffle.

A gift of flashcards

As has been pointed out to me, I tend toward the most boring possible hobbies. Even before I got into dried beans, my interests included oatmeal, filing systems, composting, drone music. So it may surprise no one that when I set out to refresh my french reading skills I got a bit obsessed with a spaced repetition study app. Aka, flashcards. I’m really into digital flashcards now, you guys.

Clicking through a set of flashcards that are automatically calibrated so that you can get most but not all of them right is about as addictive as scrolling through social media, but instead of making you anxious it makes you, e.g., understand french. Like drone music and composting, flashcards are secretly quite exciting.

I thought I’d post a few flashcard resources since, for real, this keeps coming up in real life. Maybe you too want to learn a language or study for some kind of test?

Maybe you just want to quit the book of faces and need something else to do on the bus. You could make flashcards to memorize all your friends’ birthdays; then you really won’t need Facebook 😉