How to learn French on the mission field(?)

Bonjour!

I’ll write this page in English, since it will only interest those who are not native or fluent French speakers.

Also, if anyone feels like sharing in detail about their language learning experience, don’t hesitate to send me a message and I’ll insert it into this page, or if it is long enough, I’ll make a new page for it. 

First, I need to confess that I’m in no way an expert at learning French on the mission field, I have never achieved such a thing. French is my second language (or rather first language together with Plautdietsch) and the medium of all my education, so I don’t have big problems speaking it.

The only language that I have somewhat learned on a mission field is Hindi, and I never got to the point that I could actually preach in Hindi (not that there were many opportunities), the closest I got to that was telling flannel graph stories in a mix of Hindi and Nepali to Nepali children in the Himalaya. I was capable of conversing with people in the Hindi language by the end of my two-year term in India as well as greeting people in 2 or 3 other local languages. I have also learned a few languages in school (although I hardly use them, so I am slowly losing them), which has left me with the thought that learning languages in school is not a bad thing, but is quite inefficient timewise, and will almost never make you fluent, unless you (the teenage student), are really enthused about practising that particular language as much as possible.

I sympathize a lot with those who are learning to speak a new language while on the mission field and who are at the same time having to learn a new way of thinking and a new culture, make new friends, teach the true doctrine, etc. But I do feel that it is a very necessary part of the mission outreach to make the Word available to as many souls as possible. I think logically you want to reach all the international languages (English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, German), simply because those are understood by at least some people in basically every country in the world. Then reach out to as many of the other languages as possible, especially all the national languages of different countries (such as Italian, Romanian, Tagalog, Korean, Japanese, Dutch, Swahili, Hindi, Bengali, Thaï, Khmer, Bahasa Indonesia, Wolof, Kikongo…). The next step would be to reach out to the many many more regional languages, but in most cases, the above-mentioned steps have not even been carried through, so it would be unreasonable to focus on these too soon.

Now let’s get back to French:

I’m always interested when I hear that someone is learning French. In today’s world, where more and more people think that eventually we will be able to erase the confusion of Babel by unanimously adopting English as a medium of communication, I find it encouraging to see that some English people care about the rest of the world, even about those who haven’t learned their language yet. And there are plenty of reasons to learn French! Nearly 300 million speak it fluently across all the continents. It is an official language in about 30 countries, and very useful in a number of countries where it has no official status. Until World War I, it was in fact the most widely spoken international language. But today, if you already know English, it hardly seems necessary to learn it anymore. Crazy how quickly things can change!

So, in my short career of teaching French and working on different translation projects, I’ve met a lot of people who were interested in this work, and who have learned French all kinds of ways:

  • Some have achieved this almost exclusively with an online or offline computer course
  • some learned it mostly on a job site, the way the locals speak it
  • some chose a healthy mix of structured classes, oral practice and reading
  • and I could list many other ways…

First of all, before you go to a French-speaking area or country, I recommend taking a basic French course.

Many Baptist missionaries who go to mission fields in French-speaking Africa first spend about 3 months going to a language school in Québec. In Bangladesh, I know our missionaries do that too: they hardly do any mission work during the first 3 months of their stay, just learn the language and the culture, so they can be more useful later. I’m not sure if there are many other mission fields where our brethren get that head start (maybe China?). I think it would be beneficial if we started such a practice, and right away get missionaries into the mindset that language learning will not be easy, neither should it be considered optional (because there will surely be interpreters out there…), so you may as well get started ASAP.

Duolingo gives a basic and free course to learn French and a number of other languages. But this won’t make you fluent. It will get you used to the basic structure and give you a basic vocabulary.

If you are a Canadian citizen, you should be able to go follow intensive courses in Québec City or Montréal, for free (except living expenses). There are also schools that are free for Americans too. Maybe you could ask your field secretary if this would be an option. We have missionaries in both of these cities, and they are well acquainted with how the language school works. At this time, those who are in Québec City are Canadian, those who are in Montréal are Americans. If you need their contact info, ask me. If this doesn’t seem open, please, for your own sake and for those to whom you are bringing the Gospel, do find a course and start studying regularly 3 months in advance! You won’t regret it. And usually the mission boards are quite willing to pay for the language program, even before you reach the mission field.

AssiMil

Don’t be intimidated by the French website of the AssiMil method! It is a quality course that will teach you French language patterns, rather than a bunch of grammar rules, but will still explain enough about grammar, conjugating and cultural aspects, that you’ll feel like you get a fairly rounded out picture, contrarily to Rosetta Stone, Eurotalk, or Duolingo. I found that the French to Hindi AssiMil course was the best I could find on the market, but in the case of English to French, there would be a lot more options, so I’m not going to say that it is the best, I don’t think that would be true. (Next year, I plan to have my upper grades in school use this book as a French textbook, so I’ll be able to tell you more about the pros and cons by June of 2019…) For this course, and really for any course, you have to be disciplined. The books are cheap ($20-25), but I recommend getting a CD set too, unless you are quite used to hearing French already. That makes it more like $65-70. Still cheap, if it works for you…

Lawless French

This course was brought to my attention by Cameron Trammell (missionary in Abidjan area, Côte d’Ivoire). It isn’t free if you want access to the full site. What is nice is that it makes you test different skills (mostly grammar) and then tells you why you made a mistake. It will make you do exercises repetitively until you understand and the quizzes are built for your level by an Artificial Intelligence. For the beginners French website, click here. Intermediate. Advanced. Check it out!

Help websites such as Bonjour de FranceFrench Crazy or Je parle québécois

Bonjour de France provides worksheets covering grammatical functions, exercises adapted to your level, all of which are online and easily accessible. At any time you can review the grammatical structures seen in class, measure your knowledge and test your progress.

French Crazy is written by an American who loves France and the French language and who gives you quite a few language tips, as well as a lot of stories of his first cultural experiences. It is seemingly a very popular website, but a lot of the most interesting stuff seems to be on videos.

French Together™ teaches you the 20% French you need to understand 80% of conversations and speak with confidence. there are very many useful articles on this website.

You don’t need the language learning gene to become fluent in French, you don’t need to live in France, you don’t even need to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon learning the conjugation of the verb “avoir” by heart.

Here is what you will find on French Together:

Here is what you won’t find on French Together:

Je parle québécois is a website for those of you who are in Québec and would like to know the meaning of all those colloquial expressions that you are beginning to notice as your level of French fluency increases. You need to know French to start with to understand this website, and it also has a lot of video content, which makes it less useful for us. Here are a few more links (in English) for those who are interested in learning Québécois.

Rosetta Stone

I used Rosetta Stone for basic Hindi. I gave up quickly, because I wasn’t learning fast enough to introduce myself and to understand complex sentences. But it does teach you more or less the way you learned your mother tongue, and if you have time, and do all 5 levels, you can turn out to be a good French speaker. You will have to supplement it with some grammar from other websites or books, each time that you come up to something that doesn’t make sense. (Remember, for English you did have to learn some things out of language books in school, it wasn’t all taught by Mom.) I have one friend who became quite fluent after spending two winters studying very regularly with Rosetta Stone. Personally, I think it is overpriced and I’m too impatient to recommend it, but I had to mention it: everybody knows about Rosetta Stone!

Pimsleur

This is what most unit boys in Montréal use. The thing is, most of them don’t have much time to study, and six months is a really short time to become comfortable with a new language, so I don’t know if this system really works. But they say it is a method based on a lot of scientific study. « The Pimsleur System is built around our natural language learning capabilities. When we were children, we seemed to absorb language, as we age, that learning process tends to become more difficult. Dr. Pimsleur studied the way that language skills are developed as we grow up and applied those techniques to his revolutionary system. » The thing is, it’s quite expensive. But if you think it looks like a good option, get it!

Babbel

Babbel is a premium, subscription-based language learning app for the web, iOS and Android. Babbel currently offers 14 different languages from seven display languages (German, English (US + UK), French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Italian and Swedish). It is highly advertised on the web, and seems to be a workable method. It seems a bit expensive, but maybe worth a try. I’d like to get reviews of people who have spent more than an hour on it.

French tutors online

I don’t believe that this is the best ever way to learn, but do consider it! It costs more than just buying your own course, it isn’t as flexible as studying a book, or Rosetta stone, and the personal touch isn’t as good as if you were in a real class. But for anywhere between 10$/hour and 30$/hour (or more if you want the real « pro » teachers), you can get one on one classes (or group classes if you prefer). I know someone who took a Spanish 1 on 1 class via Skype, and found it very helpful. The cheapest teachers are often those who live in less developed countries such as Cameroun, Côte d’Ivoire, Romania, etc… They are probably very good at teaching basic French, though they would probably not be native speakers.

Explore these sites to choose an online tutor. I recommend doing a free trial lesson with one or two teachers, to see if it is your cup of tea. If it is, try getting a course that you can take at least 2 or 3 days a week (plus do some other French course on the side maybe) and try to stick it out for 2 or 3 months. That should give you a real boost in your French learning, if you have no place to go to nearby to learn French in a real class.

Verbalplanet.com

Preply.com

Verbling.com

Lingoda.com

FrenchFaster.com

Or read more about online tutors on this website:

FluentU.com

Ok, many options, but which way is best?

I think we would all agree that there are many different ways of learning. Not everybody learns French the same way. The main rule in learning a language is to be proactive, try to find answers to your questions. Practice, don’t expect to be spoon-fed! You won’t wake up one day, just « knowing French »!

My advice here is obviously biased and cannot be equally helpful to all. I have one way of learning, others will have a different way. We don’t all learn in the same way. However, I asked several people for ideas, and what worked for them, so the advice you just read doesn’t only come from me.

Also, be it known that men and women do not learn in the same way, in general. Women are generally less prone to start practising orally from the beginning (but I’m not either, maybe because of the fear of making a mistake? maybe just a natural shyness?). Women are more interested in learning other languages than men are, in general. A study in France showed that 74% of language learners in the country were women. A study in the United States showed that on average, women learn foreign languages better than men. But, as in many other domains, the world’s most famous polyglots are mostly men. Strange.

Once on the mission field, get to work. Make a schedule, it may have to be modified according to your new duties, and I know schedules are hard to keep in many of those settings, but it is part of being disciplined.

  • Practice orally (with people at the market, visitors, attendees, fellow members, etc. Even if they know English and badly want to practise it, make it clear that you too are eager to communicate with as many people as possible and that you are ready for sacrifices to do so.) Don’t be the arrogant North American who comes with a mindset that he/she has everything that others want (Gospel, work ethic, culture, wealth, language…). NO!   Yes, you do want to spread the true Gospel and hopefully lead a few to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and of true doctrine; but as for the other points, let them be nothing to you, count them as naught. Their work ethic works in their country. We have things to learn from them too. God loves all His creatures equally and didn’t give all the best gifts to some and none to the others. If they join the fold, they may have to leave behind some aspects of their culture and work ethic, but let’s be careful not to convert them to Americanism. Just think about how dysfunctional homes are here in North America, for example. Do you really want to export that model? The same with the language issue. To them, English might seem like the door to the American Eldorado, but do you really want to encourage them to emigrate to seek financial gain? Learn French and/or the most common language of your area. Don’t stick only to a European language. If French isn’t the most useful language, then just learn the basics, so you can read signs on shops and converse a bit with those who come from other regions, then move on to the regional language. In many cases French will be the most useful, but keep your mind open to learn a local language too, even though there might be fewer resources to learn it.
  • If you are in the mission, the mission board will surely encourage you to get a personal tutor. It is worth it. Make him/her start with the basics of pronunciation and greetings, as well as alphabet, numbers, colours, etc… All the stuff you learned first as a child. Hopefully you will find a trustworthy person who can also be a cultural advisor and explain many things that puzzle you about your neighbours, their customs and habits, their weird unwritten rules, etc.
  • Read simple stories in French. There are many classics published in both French and English (written by  Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Alexandre Dumas, Agatha Christie, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, L. M. Montgomery and many others). Here is a list of bilingual books, originally written in French, with the English translation beside. And here is another, that is more the other way around. I recommend starting with books that are well below your level (8-12 year old). That may be hard in some African countries. However, when you go shopping in a big city, keep an eye out for those.
  • Change your phone, GPS and as many apps as possible to French, so you get used to more vocabulary and so you start to subconsciously think in French.
  • Listen to the Bible in French. Now I know this may be controversial, so disregard if you don’t feel comfortable with this in your situation, and please let me know if you don’t feel that this is an acceptable way. I find that it helps me to understand the chronology of Bible events to listen to full books of the Bible at once (while driving, usually). It may help you to get used to the correct pronunciation of many words, especially those that are more specific to spiritual conversations. And because you’ll hear the words in a different language than you are used to, you may catch a new meaning in some verses, which you had totally overlooked in English.
  • Apps you might want to get if you have regular access to a smartphone and are comfortable with using it in front of the locals:
    • https://www.memrise.com (for vocabulary)
    • Le conjugueur (to help you conjugate properly)
    • Le La (to help you learn a few rules about the gender of French nouns and acquire a lot of practice)
    • Français authentique (not for beginners, will practise your listening skills slowly while teaching you new expressions and little grammar rules)
    • Expressions françaises (French expressions, there are many similar apps, probably some better ones) This can be useful to understand other people. When you learn to speak another language, using their idioms and expressions is about the last thing you learn, but it is still useful to understand them more or less, in order to understand people and books. (Many Africans that I know really like to use a lot of proverbs and expressions in their conversation).
    • Offline French-English dictionary (here again, there are many good options)
  • Have a few reference books at home, don’t rely only on electronics. Get a French-English dictionary, a French (le Robert) dictionary, maybe even a Larousse mini-encyclopedia, and a Bescherelle conjugation guide. A few French exercise books and story books for your children will maybe make them enthused about studying too, which will improve the learning atmosphere in your home.

So, what do you think? Did I make it sound complicated? Is there something else that I should recommend? Let’s see your comments.

And above all, Bon courage in your efforts, and may they be for God’s glory!

Autres pages ayant rapport à ceci / other pages related to this topic:

English homepage

French Christian books and websites

Useful contacts and informations about Church projects for French speakers

Other articles about French language and culture, from a Christian standpoint

2 réflexions sur “How to learn French on the mission field(?)

  1. Eric Friesen

    A language tutor is really important as you noted. One of the difficulties I had with my tutor is that he pushed me to hard. (or maybe I was just lazy) I’d get half an hour into a two hour lesson and my brain was full. He was all about grammar and was trying to teach me conjugations before I knew the alphabet. (I still have not mastered the alphabet) Memorizing the alphabet, numbers and a bunch of handy phrases might feel like a waste of time to the tutor, or he might think that you can learn this by yourself, but I think it would have helped me alot to have my tutor teach these things before we pulled out the school books. The point I am trying to make is that tutors sometimes need a few instructions regarding what they should be teaching.

    J'aime

    1. Thanks Eric,

      Yes, I see your point. I had to tell my Hindi tutor to go back over some really basic stuff, sometimes! Right now, I’m trying to learn how to be a tutor also, and it isn’t always easy to know where to start. I think if people get a long-term tutor, they need to be warned to make sure that he/she takes the time to lay a proper foundation before going too far in the grammar. Grammar is overrated. It is essential if you want to become really fluent, but it is an obstacle to becoming functional, first of all.

      I wish you the best with your language learning there, and with all the sacrifices you are making for the Lord.

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      J'aime

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