Monthly Archives: January 2012

Completed 3rd week of Assimil French

I have completed all the 7 lessons in the 3rd week in 3 days. It feels so good now. I was not moving forward until I feel that I have mastered a lesson completely. In the first 2 weeks, there were some lessons which I did not feel fully comfortable even after listening to the audio for 30-35 times. Now things seem to have gotten easier. I am able to recognize some sentences even without reading the French text and the pronunciation now feels a bit easier and more intuitive. Now I am able to see patterns in sentence construction and in pronunciation of words. I am surprised at my own progress. Rather than proceeding to the next week’s lessons, I decided to revise all the earlier lessons to solidify the concepts.

Without much effort, I am becoming more and more comfortable with the French sentence structure. Like the tune of a good song, the sounds of the dialogue are lingering on in my mind. The way Assimil has structured the lessons is beautiful. There is lot of variety in the lessons. Revision is built into the lessons; you don’t have to sit and memorize anything. Important constructs are repeated again so that they become natural to you in a few days. I really love the fun element in most of the lessons. The whole dialogue is easy to recollect and once I think of a lesson, the dialogue just seems to flow in my mind on its own. This is the probably the easiest learning method that I have seen in my life. I have to wait till the end of the course to see how effective it is, though.

Learning from the children to learn French

One of the methodologies that we, adults, most often adopt to learn a language is to get a list of words and start memorizing them. And to make things worse, we also get a grammar book and start memorizing the rules. Abstract lists of unconnected words and abstract rules of grammar are not a treat for our brain – so, the whole process is a chore.  We get bored and discouraged quickly and start complaining about how difficult the target language is, how ridiculous the grammar rules and the pronunciations are or how bad a learner we are.

I decided to take a break from this approach and try something new looking at the way a child learns a language.  A child is constantly listening – he is soaking in all the words that adults around him are using. Over time, because of the context, the child is able to understand the meanings of most of the words without anyone telling him their meaning. In some cases, they ask an adult if they don’t understand a word. A child is also very curious – curious about everything he is hearing and curious to speak/apply what he has learnt.

So, for learning French, I decided to avoid any vocabulary lists stripped of context. I am keeping my eyes and ears open to soak in as much French content as possible. I have changed my iPhone interface to French and I am using Amazon.fr to do my shopping and I am trying to read every notice/announcement in French  – in the tram, in the supermarkets, in the coffee shop and in the office.  So, I am flooded with new vocabulary, but I don’t look all of them up immediately. I look up some important items immediately, but others I look them up after I have seen them a few times. I can guess the meaning of  some words after seeing them a few items in different contexts. Then when I look up, my mind immediately absorbs the meaning of the word as my brain has  lot of associations with the word – the word is connected to me in some way – this is the most important point when it comes to learning vocabulary. The more you are connected to the word in some way, the easier it is to remember the meaning. At this point, I enter the word and its translation into my SRS software on my iPhone (Flashcard Deluxe) and then use the systematic repetition to etch that word into my memory permanently.

When it comes to pronunciation and grammar, you should not start with rules, but start with content first and build enough connections in your brain. When you see members from any population, be it words, people or things,you start to notice patterns. The 80/20 rule applies to most populations. 80 percent of the population fits into a certain pattern and the remaining 20 percent can have many exceptions. If you are exposed to the members of the population and then you are introduced to the patterns, then the patterns seem intuitive and the exceptions don’t seem daunting. Instead, if you start with a list of rules and a list of exception to the rules, you will surely be frustrated.

When I started learning French, I wanted to know how each letter of the alphabet is pronounced. So, I picked up a grammar book and I read the rules of pronunciation and the exceptions to the rules and you can guess the outcome – I was very frustrated and I was not learning much. Then, fortunately, Assimil came my way and I forgot all of these rules and focused only on learning individual words and their pronunications without trying to analyze too much how the sound is formed – I listened and repeated. And I listened and repeated. Now, after having listened to 15 lessons in Assimil, I am starting to see patterns in pronunications and in grammar rules and the process is very enjoyable. When grammar rules are introduced, they seem very intuitive and they stick in my mind immediately.

So, the next time you are learning any language, try these 2 tips and let me know whether they work for you.

Progress Report – 2 Weeks of French

It has been 2 weeks since we have started learning French seriously. Here is what we have achieved so far.

Courses

  • Completed Stage 1 of Babbel.com’s yearlong course which corresponds to A1 level. Though officially we have a certificate from Babbel.com that we know the material for A1, this course has not really given me the confidence and intuitive understanding of how the language works. It has equipped me with a good set of vocabulary along with some helpful rules of grammar.
  • Completed 2 modules (14 Lessons) of Assimili French courses. I started this only 10 days back after trying many online courses and by far, this is the best course that I have seen. I revised the last 2 weeks’ material yesterday and I am beginning to understand intuitively how the language works. Without the need to explicitly sit and memorize word lists, I have actually learnt a lot of words in their proper context.
  • Completed 5 stories in Easy French Reader. It is a joy to read this book as it is very easy and has very little vocabulary exactly suited for our level now.
  • I completed 2 lessons of Livemocha’s Basic French, but discontinued it after I found Assimil. My wife has completed the Level 1 of Livemocha’s Active French and she plans to complete all 4 Levels in that course. We decided that we can try different courses to see how they measure up.

Results

  • French pronunciation is not a mystery anymore and it is not as daunting or frustrating as it seemed to be in the first 2-3 days. Now, I am able to recognize a few words when I listen to a live conversation.
  • We had 2 outings where we tried to use what we learnt successfully. I was able to ask some basic questions in the market. It was such a great feeling last week when I was able to coin a question in French to ask ‘Do you have grapes without seeds?’. We are trying to actively apply whatever little we know so that we get into the habit of using the language, thanks to the advice of Bennie Lewis in his Language Hacking Guide.
  • We are trying to actively read the notices/billboards on the way and we are trying to decipher any French material that we get – it is an enjoyable process now as we are able to understand some sentences.

So far, it has been a wonderful ride. The best thing that has happened to me in the last 2 week is finding the Assimil course. It has been such an enjoyable course. It has taken all the frustration out of learning a new language. Thank you Assimil Team for such an incredible job.

Review of Babbel.com

I have completed the trial of Babbel.com French course in about 10 days. I and my wife did the lessons jointly and it turned out to be very helpful.

Babbel.com has many courses for French. Depending on your level and interest, you can pick different courses. The course overview is very well-structured and gave me a very good idea of what is covered in each course – I have not seen such clear roadmaps in Livemocha.com or in Busuu.com. Babbel.com had a year-long course divided into 4 stages, with each stage corresponding to a level in the European Common Framework for languages. Stage 1 corresponded to A1. We have completed Stage 1 in 10 days. I have decided to discontinue Babbel.com in favour of Assimil French as explained in my last post.

Here is my impression on Babbel.com based on the 10 days trial:

What I liked

  • Babbel.com is the best site among the 3 that I looked at (other 2 are Livemocha.com & Busuu.com) The interface is very well-designed – the UI looks very pleasing and it was very responsive.
  • There is an overall road map available for the entire course. I was very happy to see that Babbel.com’s 4 stages in its year-long course correspond to A1 to B2 level of the European Language Framework. Every lesson starts with a clearly defined set of objectives and you are shown where you are in the overall course you have selected. Every lesson is divided into 2 parts plus a review session.
  • You are introduced to the material using photo + audio as in other sites. Review is done by multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank type questions. You are also asked to build complete phrases with individual elements given. After the words/phrases are introduced, you are asked to use the words you learnt using scenarios. These scenario-based exercise are very impressive and UI is very well-done. I never got bored during these exercises.
  • There are dedicated lessons to teach pronunciations, apart from grammar and vocabulary lessons.
  • Review Manager is based on SRS (Spaced Repetition System). This means that it will test you on the right words at the right time. The word that you have difficulty will be tested more often.
  • There is a free iPhone App available which has 3000 words. Review Manager is also available on iPhone.
  • The content is presented at a pace that it is not overwhelming. There are no reviews/exercises where you are asked to suddenly take a leap like writing 1 or 2 paragraphs after you have learnt a few words.
  • Feedback is very nicely integrated into your lessons. You can click on the Feedback link on the top and you are asked about your mood. The response is very quick from the support team, although it was not always helpful.

What can be improved

  • The UI is not consistent. In some places, clicking on the picture repeats the audio. However, there are many places, especially the scenario-based exercises, there is no way to repeat the audio. This was very frustrating; as soon as we typed the correct answer, the audio starts and ends in a flash and we have not understood a single word and 2 more sentences are introduced and the UI has scrolled. I want the ability to say continue in every screen and to be able to go back and repeat a sentence multiple times during the review.
  • I was not able to control what words/phrases got into the Review Manager. Many words were introduced in the lesson but they were not added to the Review Manager. In fact, the Review Manager had kept throwing tests on words that I really mastered. The problem here might be typing – I might know a word really well, but might make 1 or 2 mistakes in getting the spelling correctly and Review Manager probably uses this statistic to determine what should be reviewed.
  • As part of the review, you are asked to type the word. This was a feature I really liked in the initial days, but after a few days, I grew tired of getting the spelling correct. I have to focus on 3 things at the same time – training my ears to get the word correctly, learning the meaning of the written word and learning the spelling of the word – Picking up the spoken word and the meaning itself were challenging enough. I would like to have the ability to turn off typing.
  • Keyboard shortcuts are not available except in few places. Whenever there was a ‘Continue’ button, pressing Enter worked, but not always.
  • Though I have completed the stage 1 course which corresponds to A1 level, I still do not have much confidence that I have actually retained the key concepts I have learnt. There should be some additional files which contain the key concepts which can be printed and reviewed offline. Also, there should be options to download the audio so that I can listen to it offline to practice even more.
  • It would be helpful to have a page which shows all the mistakes I have made and it would be great if I can repeat the lessons based on how well I have learnt them (not just individual words/phrases as in Review Manager)
  • First time, when I typed something wrong, the letter became red and I was not able to do anything. I did not remember the correct word and I did not know how to proceed. It took me a while to figure out that I have to click on ‘Help’ to get the hint. This should have been ‘Hint’ at least. I prefer to see a button ‘I don’t know’.

Overall, I am very positive about my experience at Babbel.com. If not for Assimil, I would have probably bought a subscription and continued with Babbel.com – even now, I plan to come back after I complete Assimil course.

I have found the great Assimil French Course

Last week, a colleague from Spain said that he has just started learning French using Assimil French course. He said that his wife has used it few years back to gain conversational fluency in French in about 6 months. I checked it out and wow, what a great course. I am already doing the course in Babbel.com as part of my 2-week trial and also doing the courses in LiveMocha.com with the 1-year subscription I have purchased. However, I was so impressed with this course that I decided to start it immediately instead of Livemocha.com’s courses.

This course had almost all the things I expected:

  • Real-life dialogue as a way to introduce the language rather than loose words and phrases that you have to memorize. I am a fan of learning vocabulary in natural contexts as it works so well and is stress-free.
  • Very high-quality and impressive audio recording where the speakers talk in a way that makes it possible for complete beginners like me to get it
  • The lessons are kept at a reasonable length. There are about 10 phrases in each lesson and the audio runs for 2 minutes. So, I get enough material to challenge my mind, but not so much to completely overwhelm me.
  • There is a pronunciation guide which explains how the words should be pronounced. Even though the audio is available, having the pronunciation guide is so good, as it makes it crystal clear on what sounds are being produced. When I hear a French phrase, I may not be able to completely get all the sounds and stretches correct – this guide really fills this gap.
  • The audios are funny – you end up laughing when you listen to it multiple times. Also, there is a rhythm in the way the speakers talk which also makes it sound better. I listened to the audio so many times, but it is not boring.
  • Grammar is introduced slowly in bits and pieces after you have already encountered at least a few samples of the usages of the rules that are talked about.
  • There are many notes which throw light on the French language and its usage.

Overall, I am very impressed with Assimil and hence I have switched to this course fully as I have completed the stage 1 course in Babbel.com as part of my 2-week trial of Babbel.com.

French or English – Which language has more exceptions?

I was talking to a German colleague about the differences between French and English. This colleague has learnt both English and French as a second language and he had a very different viewpoint than what I have heard so far. So far, I have heard every one complain about the exceptions in French.

He said that English has more exceptions than French. He said that the English Grammar is very easy to pick up. But once you have learnt the basics, you will have to learn lot of exceptions and you can never spell a new word you have heard confidently no matter the level of proficiency you reach. He said that English has no standard rules about where to put the stress in a word – some words are stressed at the beginning, some at the middle and some at the end.

In contrast, French Grammar is quite steep and might take a longer time to learn. But once you know the rules, there are fewer exceptions compared to English. He said that the French pronunciation is more-or-less standardized and the stress is always on the last syllable of the word. He gave me some examples which I could not appreciate at this stage. So far, I have heard lot of people talk about exceptions in French. I have even heard that French has more exceptions than rules. As I am having a hard time in getting a handle on French pronunciation, it is heartening to hear from someone that French pronunciation is easy once I learn the rules.

Since I have learnt English as a child, I never realized that it had so many exceptions, especially when it comes to pronunciations. I am realizing this as my son is starting to read and asking me questions about why we pronounce some words differently than how they were supposed to be pronounced based on what he has learnt using phonetics. I guess that every language has its own share of exceptions as languages are living beings and they undergo change continually to keep up with the changing times and to accommodate new ideas. This is very true of a language like English which has devoured words and ideas from every language it has come into contact with.

Fruits of Labour for a week of learning French

It is about a week now since I and my wife started putting in serious amount of time in learning French. There is some fete (festival/party) going on in Geneva right now and we took our kids out there yesterday. This is the typical kind of place/occasion where I have great difficulty in finding my way through as no one talks English in these kinds of places. So, here is a very good opportunity to put into practice what I have learnt so far. Bennie Lewis in his ‘Language Hacking Guide’ recommends speaking with the natives as much as we can. So, this was a good opportunity to put his advice to use.

So, for the first ride, I tried to ask how much it costs and was able to understand what he said. Then came the challenge – for the next ride, I wanted to ask whether my 2-year old daughter is allowed to go for that ride. So, I tried to form a sentence using the words I have learnt – I figured out how to say ‘2 infants’ and he thought that I was asking whether I need to take 2 tickets for 2 infants and gave me 2 tickets. I tried to say it again using some English and French – but I couldn’t communicate it any better. So, I shrugged off and then went on to put my daughter in the car and then Voila, he understood what I have asked.

I was able to order a coffee and pay for it without talking a word in English – I was so happy that I could do it. Small victories like this go a long way in providing the motivation to continue in a challenging journey like learning a new language. By now, we have mastered the numbers up to 100, times of the day, days of the week, etc. So, I will have more practice sessions every day in the coffee shop/supermarket.

We were also trying to read the various billboards/notices in French and were trying to see whether we get them – yes, we got some of them. For the rest, I used the Google Translate App on my iPhone and got to know the meanings. The best learning is done in context – that is why I subscribed to 3G on my phone when I started learning French so that I can quickly exploit the opportunity to learn a new word in context. For many words, we could extrapolate the meaning based on the context. So, we tried to translate first what we see and then we call Uncle Google to see whether we got it right.

Then after the fete, we went to a restaurant and for the first time in my stay at Geneva, I was able to order what I wanted. I wanted to order an item which was not part of the standard menu and I was able to communicate it – another small victory; it seemed like a big victory though. We were able to understand most of the items on the menu – so, we are already getting the fruits for our labour and it is exciting to get some positive vibes after a week of tough times with learning French.

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