Progress Report – 1 Year of French

It has been a year now since I have started to learn French seriously and it feels so good to realize how far I have come in this one year, given all the things I have heard about the difficulties of learning French as an English speaker. How many people have told me that it is a very difficult and a frustrating language to learn! But my experience with French has been totally opposite to these common perceptions: I found French quite easy to learn and quite enjoyable as well. I have found French language to be much more logical than English and I found it to be so similar to English in so many ways.

Before you write me off as a person with a language gene, let me tell you that I have tried to learn Hindi about 5 years back and failed miserably, even though I am an Indian and Hindi is similar to my mother tongue Tamil. What made the difference this time are 2 factors: excellent teachers/courses and an approach to study the language without making mastering the grammar as the primary goal.

In this series of posts starting with this post, I will talk about whether I have achieved the goals I have set for myself last year, what courses I have taken, how much time/effort I have put into studying French, what routines/habits I have practiced and what are my plans to improve my French further. Each post will focus on one topic. Voila! Here is the first post in this series…

My Goals Vs Achievement

In my first post on this blog last year, I have talked about my goals for 2012. I have set 3 goals and here is how I have fared against them:

Goal 1: Be able to speak fluently with locals

Update: Fortunately or unfortunately I have not defined what fluency means for me. My dream at that time was to engage in conversations with native speakers on any topic of interest to me. My aim in learning the language was to talk to more people who I meet here in Geneva and to have the pleasure of being able to communicate to them in French.

I used to be frustrated that I can’t even get basic things done here without knowing the language. I could not ask for help on the road if I want to find which bus/tram to take. I could not ask for help in supermarkets to find the items I wanted to buy. I could not talk to my son’s teachers to understand how he is doing. Each time I got any official correspondence in French, I had to find someone to translate it for me. If someone called me who can’t talk English, I had to ask him to call me back to give me the time to find a native speaker to help me. Today, none of these issues exist. Hence, to a large extent, I have achieved my goal. I am able to take part in most conversations in French without feeling lost and I am able to engage with native speakers to get my day-to-day work done. I have tasted the real joy of being able to communicate with non-English speakers in various walks of life using French. As a family, we are able to understand the culture better and we are able to integrate better with the locals.

However, there are still certain situations where I am not comfortable like calling my real estate agent to complain about a problem in my house which involves a lot of specific vocabulary. If I listen to two native speakers talking between themselves on a topic that is not related to me, I still struggle to follow. I still can’t understand full-length French movies – I did watch a few children movies. Though I was able to follow the movie and decipher many sentences, I still need a lot more listening practice to French spoken at full-speed and with elision/contraction. I still have not gotten over my hesitation to talk French when English-speakers are around 🙂

Goal 2: Be able to read and understand the taxation handbook from the Geneva tax department

UpdateI have just tried to read through the taxation handbook for 2013. I have read a few pages and except for a few technical words, I understood most of what I have read and it felt easy to read, even though the writing style was stiff and formal, like any other government document in English. I have been trying my hand at reading every official communication that I get from various government departments and I have even helped my English-speaking colleagues to translate their letters. So, I have a bit of practice in reading these kinds of writings. So, I think I reached my goal here. 

Goal 3: Pass the A1 level of French proficiency exam.

UpdateAs I have mentioned in my last progress report, I have been assessed at B1 level, which is 2 levels more than what I have aimed for last year. Though I have not taken the official DELF test, I feel confident that I can pass at least A2 level test if I take it now. I plan to take a real DELF test for B2 level once I reach that level, hopefully within this year.

I honestly did not aim to master the grammar of the language and it was a big surprise for me when I realized that I have actually mastered a lot of the difficult French grammar topics without even realizing it. The teacher from University of Geneva who interviewed me was surprised at my talking and writing French and even called another teacher to tell her that I have reached this level of proficiency just by studying on my own. They were discussing whether they should put me directly in the advanced level or not and finally they decided that I can attend the advanced class directly. She had an assessment sheet that she was filling up as she was interviewing me that listed various grammar topics and a column to put the teacher’s assessment. When I saw that she was giving me a tick-mark in most of them, it dawned on me that I am not a zero at French grammar. It is so ironical that I ended up mastering a lot of Grammar without studying a single grammar book – To be honest, I still have to read a real grammar book and see how much I have mastered. Also, I am starting a French course today with the University of Geneva for students at B1 level – So, I will get a real picture of where I am once I attend a few sessions 🙂

Please leave a comment to let me know what you think of my progress. If you have tried to learn French anytime in the past, please share what has and has not worked for you. If you are a French speaker who has interacted with me in any way, please post a few words about my progress as you have seen it so that I get some feedback and others who read this blog might be encouraged.


21 thoughts on “Progress Report – 1 Year of French

  1. Job Joris Arnold January 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm Reply

    Congratulations on your impressive progress, Siraj! Looking forward to hearing your French next time I come to Geneva. As I don’t really count as an English speaker, your hesitation surely won’t apply to me, no? Would be interesting to learn about your goals for 2013 in your next post. The way you go about setting targets (and reaching them!) has inspired me to become more goal-oriented myself.

  2. epikvision January 8, 2013 at 3:23 am Reply

    Congratulations for your one year mark! Your persistence really took you a long way.
    Although I won’t have the opportunity of immersion like you do, I aim to study the same way without grammar, but focusing on vocabulary and my own errors.
    As always, continue working hard! I bet your children are already fluent themselves.

  3. DanielR January 31, 2013 at 5:08 pm Reply

    Hi there and congratulations. Sticking to language learning can be very challenging and I applaud you.

    I noticed that you finished the first Assimil course (French with Ease) which asserts that it can get someone to the B2 leve. Also, I read that you’ve been working with second Assimil (using French) course which is supposed to get someone to the C1 level. You then say in this post that you’ve just tested at the B1 level. Do you believe that the Assimil claims are exaggerated or that you may not have had the time to explore all the ways that you could benefit from the Assimil system (in other words, trying out various ad-libbed structures based on the lessons rather than only looking at the lessons and learning them in a rote way)? Did you speak to French natives often?

    I’d very much appreciate your opinion and feedback on this.

    À bientôt.

    • Siraj February 1, 2013 at 8:55 am Reply

      Hi Daniel, thanks for your kind words. Yes, sticking to learning a new language is definitely a challenge. There are times that I wanted to quit. But having made up my mind with clear goals, having a public accountability system (this blog) and a private accountability system (my wife and few close friend) have helped me to stay on – Now, everything seems easy when I look back. But if I go back and read my own views over the course of the year, I can understand how difficult the path seemed, especially in the middle months.

      Yes, I finished Assimil French with ease (first book) and I have done about 40 out of 70 lessons in Assimil Using French (second book) and decided to stop it. To a large extent, their claims are true, at least with respect to the first book. I have been attending live classes with other students who have been studying French for a long time, sometimes even as long as 4 years. But I noticed that they hesitate a lot when they speak and make mistakes in some areas which seem so natural for me – this is not to say that I don’t make mistakes. I make plenty of them, but there are certain things that have become second-nature to me and that is because of Assimil. For example, I have not seen another student use liaisoning naturally in a sentence like ‘C’est excellent’ – this comes naturally to me. I have studied with 2 teachers who teach French for a living and both of them have commented about how well I am able to talk in less than 1 year – So, definitely, Assimil has been very helpful.

      But, I must say that Michel Thomas French played a huge role here as well – if I have not studied Michel Thomas French, I doubt whether Assimil would have been this much effective for me. So, my suggestion is to start with Michel Thomas French and Assimil first book simultaneously – do 1 lesson in Assimil every day and for the rest of the time, try to do Michel Thomas.

      I wanted to write a detailed review of Assimil as well as other courses I have taken – I plan to write them in the coming weeks. Check back and feel free to ask more questions.

      • Daniel R February 1, 2013 at 4:36 pm

        Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough reply. I was hesitant to use Michel Thomas because both his native accent and pauses seemed to be distracting, but what I think you’re getting at is that he helped to develop a language reflex which so many programs lack. Are you familiar with Paul Noble or Alexa Polidoro? I seem to understand that there programs are similar without the heavy breathing and strong Eastern European accent.

        Also, in regards to writing, would you say your skill is on-par with your speaking or is your main goal to speak without worrying about writing so much?

        Thank you again for your response. I look forward to reading what your thoughts are.

      • Siraj February 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm

        Sorry, I did not know about Paul Noble. I have checked it out now, and it looks similar to Michel Thomas. I have heard of Alexa and checked her site, but did not find anything different from any other dozen sites that I have seen – so, I did not fully explore it. What is your impression of Alexa and Paul Noble?

        To me, the accent and pauses are not a big problem. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that it is an advantage – when a native pronounces some words, they go so fast that you can’t hear some letters clearly. Here, you are listening a heavy non-native speaker that you can clearly understand. As long as you are listening to native speaker conversations through Assimil or any other source, this is not an issue.

      • Siraj February 2, 2013 at 9:03 pm

        Now answering your question about writing vs speaking – I focused only on speaking, though I would say that my writing has also improved a lot. You tend to pick up a lot of things over time if you are not too stressed about it, I guess. In fact, once when I was in the local newspapers office to give an announcement, I noticed 2 mistakes made by the natives of the language when I was asked to proofread and the person commented on my level of French – I would say that this was solely due to Michel Thomas. I am trying to now pick up the nuances of written French more now. But I think I have come a long way already.

      • Daniel R February 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm

        After looking more closely at the program, it seems as if I might be beyond the Paul Noble method because he’s mostly for beginners and I’ve tested at upper beginner/lower intermediate. SInce I have an Audible subscription, I might get one level of his to see how it compares. The trouble with Michel Thomas is that the samples are distracting enough and I’m not sure if I want to invest so much money in his course after buying so many other things (including the awful Rosetta Stone).

        As for Alexa, what I don’t like is that there’s no exact path that you take. It seems that you just grasp at whatever might work for you. However, I think dictation is beginning to look like something I should investigate more to improve my writing.

        I know it seems crazy, but I really want to test out of the B2 level before going to France in May. That’a a lot of hours but I do manage to work on it everyday and have conversations with native French speakers via skype 4 – 5 times per week. If I’m at the very beginning of C2 when I arrive I believe that I’ll grasp more while I’m there, but it’s a lot of pressure.

      • Siraj February 3, 2013 at 9:28 am

        Daniel, I am glad to hear that you are at A2/B1 level now and you want to reach B2 in the next 4 months. Given that you are willing to invest the time required, it is definitely achievable. All the best and keep me posted of your progress. Also, ask me any questions you might have as you go through and we can help each other to get to level B2 as that is my aspiration as well – but for me, I am not in a hurry. I am happy if I can test at level B2 at the end of the year.

        I will try to write 2 posts in the coming days to answer your 2 specific questions:
        1. What materials to use to improve your French when you are at an intermediate level? – I have a number of suggestions here that could be helpful for you and to other French learners at intermediate level.
        2. How to buy Michel Thomas French cheaply?

  4. […] the first post in this series, I have talked about the goals I have set for myself and whether I have achieved them. Now, in this […]

  5. Mark B November 27, 2014 at 5:21 am Reply

    Fantastic post; so happy to hear about your experience. But permit me to clear up a misconception:Tamil and Hindi are completely unrelated languages, tied only by common cultural bonds and the shared vocabulary that comes from them and the heritage of Sanskrit (which Tamil is not descended from, despite borrowing from its vocabulary).

    Interestingly, Hindi, being an Indo-Aryan language is more closely related to French than it is to Tamil! Tamil is a member of the Dravidian language family which is believed to predate the Aryan conquest of North India that brought with it the Vedic culture.

    • Siraj Samsudeen December 1, 2014 at 3:35 pm Reply

      Thanks Mark for the feedback and your insights on why Tamil and Hindi are not so related. Yes, I did feel the difference between Tamil and Hindi in terms of a number of grammatical constructions. Since you are saying that French is closer to Hindi, now that I know French, I can learn Hindi much faster 🙂 – thanks for the idea.

  6. […] could relate this to the situation I faced when I started learning French 3 years back. There were a ton of materials available for learning French, but most of them made French seem […]

  7. dl15478 August 14, 2015 at 5:16 am Reply

    Bumping the comment section here.

    I am about to embark on a language learning exercise very similar to yours, but in relation to Spanish, as opposed to French. Similarly to you, I intend to do this for future work purposes. However, I will probably try and integrate in Pimsleur and the ‘FSI Spanish course in at a later date, to really work on my accent and automaticity when speaking/listening. Apparently Assimil doesn’t publish the ‘using’ series for Spanish with an English base, which is my native tongue. I am also going to begin seeing a private Spanish teacher, (which are surprising cheap by the way.)

    You deserve serious props for these posts, by the way. Your progress log is more informative than that of almost any other person on the web that I have seen; who has used the combination of both Michel Thomas+ Assimil in order to learn a language from scratch. I will certainly try to integrate some of the things that you did into my own learning path.

    I am currently a week into using Assimil with ease (very early days yet!) alongside Michel Thomas. However, I find this combination together, for an A0-A1 novice is a bit intense. Just too much to take in at one time. I think I will do the same as you and lay off of using Michael Thomas for a few weeks, when Assimil starts getting more complicated, or near the end of the active wave.

    One thing I would like to ask, however, is how your pronunciation and diction were affected by using audio tapes, which don’t give you feedback? Do you ever get complemented on your accent, for example? I am going with a personal instructor for a few hours a week with a native speaker, for this reason alone.

    I plan to work really hard at this, and if I can make as much progress in Spanish as you did in French during the next 6-12 months, such as reaching B1 level, I will be a very happy man.

    • Siraj Samsudeen August 16, 2015 at 12:02 pm Reply

      Thanks a lot for your kind words. I have been away from my blog and even French for a while now and it feels good to receive a message that someone found it useful.

      If you feel that the Assimil lessons are intense, my suggestion is that you should repeat the lessons until you feel that you have mastered them. I do remember that whenever I tried to speed ahead by doing more lessons at a time or by artificially imposing a certain number of lessons to do per day or per week, then I start to feel that the lessons are a bit tough. Whenever I felt that, I tried to stop at my current lesson or even go back and listen, listen and listen till I feel really at home with those lessons and then move on. The assimilation speed for different lessons are slightly different. So, it is best not to impose a target on a daily basis. Just fix a time and stay at a lesson till you really master – this is the best way to use Assimil. If this does not make sense to you, please ask questions so that I can clarify.

      Now regarding pronunciation, I don’t think that it was affected as I was living in Geneva and was listening to a lot of live French. I don’t remember whether anyone has complemented on my accent, but I was able to do day-to-day transactions using French and I don’t remember anyone commenting about my accent negatively. My suggestion is to not worry about pronunciation at this stage. Do Michael thomas first and then move on to Assimil. By the way, I also started learning Spanish when I had to travel to Mexico using Michael Thomas and I felt that it was easier than French. I wish you all the best in your journey and do let me know if you have any questions.

  8. dl15478 August 16, 2015 at 3:17 pm Reply

    No thank you, that is good advice, I will probably need no more. I live in a non-Hispanophone country, so that makes things sort of more difficult.
    I will definitely utilize a private tutor in order to pick up any pronunciation mistakes. I am up to like lesson 10 on Assimil, I think I will take a week off, do The Michael Thomas foundation course (as you said, I have completed 3 CD’s so far), review the Assimil sessions (I am also using Pimsleur solely to help with pronunciation) I have done already, and then move on with Assimil – I don’t think I should get caught up on whether I miss a couple of days of progress using Assimil at this early stage.
    I will complete the more advanced stages of Michael Thomas later.
    But yeah, living in an Anglophone country makes things more difficult, as I really don’t get that Immersion element. I will hopefully be relocating in the not-too distant future to a Hispanic country for work.
    After I finish these course in several months, I will move onto FSI Basic Spanish at one unit a week + exposure “native materials” such as books, radio, TV, conversations and etc.
    I will aim for A2-B1 Spanish in 1-2 years,which seems like a fairly reasonable goal.

    • Siraj Samsudeen August 17, 2015 at 4:35 am Reply

      You have a very comprehensive plan. I wish you all the best – you should be able to reach B1 in 1 year or two. For me, I took the test after 8 months of Assimil/MT and practice and I cleared B1. So, it should be doable for you, given that you are planning to go through a lot more materials than what I have gone through. Please do post about progress and any other roadblocks that you might encounter and if possible, I would help.

      P.S. What is your name so that I can address you by name?

  9. dl15478 August 17, 2015 at 8:12 am Reply

    It is Douglas.
    Thanks for the advice. I am only just starting, and I am sure that my plan will change a lot over the next six or so months, as I get more wisdom and experience. I do not really know what I am doing yet!
    Again, I also don’t need do be reading Don Quixote in six months, I just need a decent base before I go overseas.
    I will definitely keep you updated.
    Thanks for the advice. Feel free to send me an email if you need.

  10. dl15478 August 31, 2015 at 6:08 pm Reply

    I have just finished Michel Thomas, and I think that I now have now got a pretty solid plan for hitting an intermediate B1 level now. I will probably substitute Pimsleur Volumes 2 & 3 with the FSI Programmatic course, as I have heard it is more comprehensive, and still great for developing pronounciation.
    That, Assimil and Michael Thomas, plus a few other resources should have me pretty much set for the next 6-12 months. After this, I believe that a change of plan away from audio courses will be appropriate at around this time, although I may use FSI basic in future.

    Personally, I found Michel Thomas a bit of a chore. The two students became extremely annoying towards the end, the girl seemed like a bit of a know-it-all, while the male student seemed to struggle with basic pronounciation issues, and would have to be corrected over and over again. I have heard similar criticisms made of the French Michel Thomas course as well. OTOH, I do think that Michel Thomas is a very easy way of assimilating grammatical concepts and grasping how to conjugate Verbs, which is useful given Spanish’s purportedly difficult verb system. I have gone back to using Pimsleur following my completion of MT, and I find it dead easy now, Michael Thomas seemed to cover a similar amount of material in a much smaller time.

    I also plan to listen to each tape again now, in conjunction with daily Assimil sessions. I will complete Michel Thomas Advanced + Language builder when I get towards the end of the passive Assimil phase.
    I will update you in a few months when I get near finishing the course, with my experiences.

  11. dl15478 September 25, 2015 at 11:57 am Reply

    Another update!
    I am nearly finished with week 4 of Assimil (lessons 28.) I get to the point where I can understand maybe 85-90% of the lesson before continuing on, and practice shadowing the lessons until I can go along with the audio while speaking in a manner that I find to be satifactory (without tripping up too much.) Lessons that I once found hard are now much easier. I listen to each lesson around 20 times per lesson, not including repeats of listening when doing reviews.
    I have decided to substitute FSI programmatic with Destinos, a 26 hour Spanish language based telenovela that may colleges use, and which also integrates a comprehensive grammar workbook. I hear that French In Action, a similar 52-episode french series, is also superb. I am stopping Pimsleur after lessons 1-30- it has been helpful but the pace is just too slow to justify doing it further.

    I am still working 1-2 hours a day on this, but if I find that I rush with the progression of my courses (such as doing an Assimil + several Pimsleur units on one day) my overall comprehension goes down. Diminishing returns I guess.
    This is a bit of a plodding pace, but I am comfortable with it, and am very confident that I can plod along at this rate for another 6 months, until I finish the Assimil active wave at least.
    I’m stumped as to what I will do after this. I might look at doing some auditory drills in order to develop better speech skills, but I don’t think I will bother with any “advanced” courses. Again, thanks for your time,and thanks for the past advice, it helped. I hope that you are keeping well,

    • Siraj Samsudeen September 26, 2015 at 5:19 pm Reply

      Hi Douglas, Nice to hear about your progress and that you have figured out a way to assess when to move on to the next lesson and when to roll back to earlier lessons. I have taken a look at French in Action and it was indeed excellent but I have not done it so far. It is in my list of things to do to perfect my French for sometime in the future. The novel/book approach is very helpful. I have started reading a few books in French even when I was still a rookie and it helped me tremendously.

      Don’t worry about the pace – it is important that you enjoy what you are doing without getting too stressed about meeting some prefixed targets. Keep the overall goal in mind and do as much as your mind allows you to do! Then, one fine day, you will discover like I have discovered that you have suddenly jumped into another orbit. This happened around the 6-month mark for me, if I remember it correctly. So, relax and focus on enjoying the process; the results will surely come and when they come, I believe they will surprise you.

      I wish you all the best again, Douglas! I never thought that sharing my experience would help someone so many years later – I feel motivated to do another language now!

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