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Focus on what you have control over, like speaking and listening skills. Don’t worry about your accent because it’s not a big deal. [Image courtesy of Snob Affair]

Are you disappointed by bilingual francophones who switch to English on you when you speak French? There is a solution.

It will require work of you and it won’t come overnight, but it’s within your control and it’s achievable.

Last week in Montréal, I overheard two women, one francophone and one anglophone, speaking to each other in French. The two women didn’t know one another. The francophone asked the anglophone for directions, and they spoke together for almost two minutes.

I listened in on their conversation. I’ve developed a very bad habit of listening in on other people’s conversations since I started this blog.

What struck me about the conversation was that the anglophone had an English accent so thick that you could have sliced it with a knife — and yet, the francophone did not switch to English on her. They spoke in French only.

The anglophone, although she had a very heavy accent, seemed reasonably comfortable speaking spontaneously in French. Admittedly, I don’t know if the francophone was bilingual.

I know another woman, also anglophone, who has a very strong accent when speaking French. I don’t know her very well, but I can recall four times recently where she spoke in French with a bilingual francophone who did not switch to English on her.

She may speak with a strong English accent, but she’s able to speak French spontaneously, and I’ve never noted any listening comprehension problems.

I have observed other instances of this with different anglophones in Montréal. Although they had an obvious English accent — sometimes heavy, sometimes not — there was no language switch from French to English.

Yes, I know this is all anecdotal evidence. That’s because: OffQc.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from anglophone learners of French is that bilingual francophones always switch to English as soon as the English accent is detected.

I too used to believe that the language switch was caused by a heavy English accent. I don’t believe this anymore.

I believe now that what causes the language switch is the impression that you’re struggling to find your words (speaking problem), or that you don’t understand what’s being said (listening problem).

This is great news for you.

It means that you can chill out about your accent, which is pretty much impossible to eliminate entirely for us adult language learners, and focus on the stuff that you have much more control over — speaking and listening.

How do you improve your speaking and listening?

I’ll let you in on a secret.

The best way to improve your speaking and listening is by… speaking and listening. 🙂

You’ll become great at whatever you spend large amounts of time doing. Spend your time memorising verb conjugations, and you’ll become great at memorising verb conjugations. Spend your time speaking and listening instead, and you’ll become great at speaking and listening.

As adults, sometimes we think that we’re not ready to speak with others in our new language because we still have trouble recalling words. We fear that we speak too slowly — and it may even be true. However, no amount of independent preparation will ever cure this entirely.

The only way to become a faster speaker with the ability to recall words immediately is through speaking with others.

Until you begin putting yourself in situations where you’re obligated to speak spontaneously in French, you’ll always be a slow speaker searching for your words. And those bilingual francophones will switch to English on you.

The same goes for listening. I don’t remember who said this, but it’s not the native speakers who speak too fast; it’s you the learner who listens too slowly.

Until you begin putting yourself in situations where you’re listening to large amounts of spoken French, you’ll always be a slow listener with a look of bewilderment on your face. And those bilingual francophones will switch to English on you.

So, the best way to get those bilinguals to stop switching to English is to improve your speaking and listening by doing lots of speaking and listening.

You can worry about perfecting your accent later. Or never.

And this is great news because speaking and listening are things you can start improving right now. Yes, you’ve got work ahead of you, but it’s your call.

_ _ _

In the meantime, here are a couple essential phrases to learn for the times when you’re confronted with the language switch:

Nooon! Continue de me parler en français! L’accent québécois, je trouve ça tellement hot! Noooo! Keep speaking to me in French! I think the québécois accent is so hot!

Tu vas devoir me parler en français, tsé. Sinon, tu risques de pogner un ticket. You’re gonna have to speak to me in French, you know. Otherwise, you might get a ticket.

Who knows, maybe you’ll even hope for the language switch just to try those out on someone. 😉

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If what you’re doing isn’t working, change what you’re doing.

You’re putting in the time.

You study French vocabulary. You review verb conjugations. You work on improving your pronunciation.

You watch TV in French, doing your best to figure out what those moving mouths on the screen are saying.

You listen to the radio in French, trying to unscramble the incomprehensible gibberish the speakers are vomiting all over your ears.

You’re doing everything you thought you were supposed to be doing.

And yet, you feel stuck. You don’t feel like you’re making progress. You don’t understand what people are saying.

You always feel like you’re on the outside looking in.

And you’re frustrated.

Hell, maybe you’re even really pissed off. Pissed off to discover that all the work you’re doing to learn French isn’t paying off.

And now you’re convinced that you must absolutely suck at French. You practically believe that if you looked up the French word for suck in the dictionary, you’d find a dumb-ass picture of you as the definition.

But you don’t even remember how to say suck in French, which only serves to further convince you of just how much you suck.

Except it’s not true.

You don’t suck at French. C’est pas vrai que t’es poche en français.

But you are indeed stuck. Big time. And to get unstuck, you’ll need to tweak the way you’re doing things.

Um, hold on. That’s not quite right. No, you don’t need to tweak anything to get unstuck.

What you need is a major fucking overhaul.

Stop studying French so much and start living it instead. Find people to speak in French with on a regular basis. Even one person will do. More is better, but start with one.

This is without doubt the one thing that you must absolutely not neglect. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing everything else under the sun to learn French.

If you’ve got nobody to speak French with, you’re doing it wrong.

Ouch.

That’s tough to hear, isn’t it?

But deep down, you already knew it, even if you don’t like to admit it.

Let’s be honest. Expecting to feel at home in French without communicating with others is like watching an atheist pray to God for a miracle. It just doesn’t make sense.

If you’re just dabbling in French out of interest, then maybe none of this matters. But if what you want or need is to feel at home in French, then finding someone to speak with on a regular basis is the first issue you must resolve. This is a priority. For as long as it goes unresolved, you will always feel like an outsider in French.

What about studying? Isn’t that important too?

Yes, of course, you can study too. But it shouldn’t make up the majority of what you do.

If you get a thrill out of studying verb charts, then do it. But it won’t make you feel more at home in French. People make you feel at home in French. Studying verb charts mostly just makes you good at studying verb charts.

Sure, studying has some benefits. It can help you to make sense of what you hear. It can provide you with the vocabulary you want to know. Listening to the radio and watching TV in French can improve your listening comprehension. But this is mostly on the condition that you’re already spending lots of time speaking with people in French.

Studying isn’t necessarily bad. After all, this is entry #739 on OffQc. But many of us suffer from a tendency to go way overboard on the studying side, and way underboard on the speaking-with-humans side.

Maybe you’ve read OffQc today. Maybe you’ve learned a new word, like poche. Maybe you’ve even reviewed how to conjugate a tricky verb. You’ve probably studied enough today.

But you’re not finished with French.

Put your books away, or your laptop, or your smartphone, and figure out what you’re going to do to begin forming a bond with someone who speaks French.

Don’t put it off any longer.

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I have a friend who used to have trouble with French in public places, like in restaurants and shops. People had trouble understanding him when he spoke.

He was frustrated and disappointed by this. He would often ask me afterwards if the way he had said things was correct.

And you know what?

He usually said things close enough to perfect that it shouldn’t have presented an obstacle to communication.

What was going on then? If his French was good, why would people have trouble understanding what he said?

The problem wasn’t his French.

When he started to learn French, he was understandably shy about using it in public at first.

He would speak too softly. It was hard to hear him in public places.

That was the only problem.

But it was a problem that stuck with him long after his beginnings in French. He had become convinced that speaking French in public would always be a struggle, so he continued to be shy about it.

In private with his francophone friends, he had no problem rambling away in French!

When he started using a louder voice, his problems went away. He became confident about speaking French in public.

If you’re struggling with using your French in public, ask yourself a simple question before you assume that your French is bad:

Am I speaking loudly enough?

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If you lack the courage to speak in French, it’s not because your accent is wonky.

It’s not because your grammar is off.

It’s not because you’re short on vocabulary.

When you’re at home speaking in French to the cat, none of these things hold you back.

If you lack the courage to speak in French, it’s because you worry about how other people will react to your French.

You’re worrying about things you can’t control.

Worrying about things you can’t control is stupid.

This is where an “oh well, whatever” attitude helps.

He didn’t understand me.
Oh well, whatever.

She switched to English on me.
Oh well, whatever.

I forgot how to say it.
Oh well, whatever!

You can fix what needs fixing later.

The “oh well, whatever” attitude works after you speak. Before you speak, you need to silence the thoughts in your head.

Your thoughts are screaming: “Oh my God. My accent is so bad. I can’t speak. I just can’t do it.”

You can’t control other people’s behaviour, but you can control your own.

Now is not the time to be a sissy.

You need to take that inner voice and slap some sense into it.

“Hey there, Inner Voice. You’re right. My accent isn’t so hot. But someday it will be. Oh, and by the way bitch, fuck you.”

Now speak, dammit.

If you lack the courage to speak in French, your priority right now shouldn’t be to learn more French.

It can wait.

Close your books.

Stop studying.

I don’t mean that learning French isn’t important.

What I mean is that worrying about other people’s reactions to your French is the best way to prevent yourself from feeling at home in it.

Make adopting a new mindset your priority instead.

If what you really want is to make French yours, this can’t wait.

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“Help! I think I speak pretty good French, but I still have so much trouble understanding what people are saying!”

If that describes you, know that you’re not alone. Improving your listening skills takes time — a lot of it. If you’re struggling to understand spoken French, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a gift for languages. We all have to work on it. It just means that you need to revise what you’re doing to avoid fumbling along without making progress.

Seeing improvement in your listening skills is a lot like losing weight (or gaining it). You only see the changes in hindsight after a long period has passed. You don’t see the changes on a day-to-day basis. If you start following some or all of the suggestions below, you can be sure that your listening skills will improve.

By the way, I’m not going to include “speak with francophones” in this list. That one’s so obvious that you already knew you should be doing it.

1. Speak with francophones

OK, I lied. Speak with francophones! There can be no better listening practice than speaking with francophones. Start with just one francophone. One-on-one conversations will reform your French in ways that you can’t even imagine if you’re not doing this yet. In one-on-one conversations, you have to listen to what your friend is saying for the conversation to continue.

Please don’t be one of those people who thinks that they need to improve their French just a little more before speaking. That’s missing the whole point of learning French. Nobody cares about your perfect or imperfect French, people care about you.

The francophone you find doesn’t even need to be québécois. Just find a francophone and start building a relationship.

If you are in fact already speaking with francophones very regularly but still feel like you’re struggling to understand spoken French — relax. You’re doing everything right. Your listening skills are improving, even if you don’t see it right now. Keep doing what you’re doing.

2. Familiarise yourself with more vocabulary

Yes, become familiar with the vocabulary specific to Quebec French, but please don’t neglect French vocabulary in general. Sometimes I see certain learners get so hung up with wanting to learn all the typical québécois words (nothing wrong with that) that they forget to learn even the most basic and important vocabulary common to all francophones (that’s a problem).

Become familiar with vocab however it is that you like to do it. You like word lists? Go nuts. Flash cards? Flash away. Read the newspaper? Browse the dictionary? Do it. Just do something that you enjoy and that you’ll be inclined to do often enough.

The point of this isn’t to study vocabulary. Really, I don’t think that you’ll learn vocabulary by studying it. The point of this is to make an initial contact with lots of vocabulary on your own so that when you’re doing the more important work of speaking with francophones or listening to French, you’ll hear that vocab again and have a better chance of understanding what you hear. And that’s when you’ll learn the vocab for real.

3. Listen to the radio

I know of learners who have made incredible progress in French after listening to the radio. I’ve recommended it numerous times on OffQc: 98,5 fm. It’s all-talk radio on weekdays, which means that it’s very dense with spoken French. You can listen to it live on the radio in Montréal, or listen online from anywhere.

Again, if I’ve insisted so much on 98,5 fm, it’s because I’ve seen the success that other learners have had with it with my own eyes (or ears). If this station isn’t for you, no problem, there are others to choose from. Pick something you like and listen to it. But really listen to it. Don’t just keep noise on in the background for the sake of it — pay attention to what you’re hearing.

4. Watch television series

OffQc is full of examples from québécois television series. This isn’t an accident! I’ve chosen the language examples that you’ve discovered on OffQc because they’re pertinent to everyday language situations. Three television series that I’ve quoted from extensively on OffQc are Les Parent, 19-2 and La Galère.

These three certainly aren’t the only québécois series that prove useful, but I’ve consistently gone back to them time and time again because of their pertinence, quality and entertainment appeal. You can watch films too, but the advantage to picking series is that they have many episodes and are produced in several seasons’ worth.

The most important consideration, of course, is to watch something that interests you. There’s not much point forcing yourself to sit through something that you feel is dead boring. You’re not going to become hooked enough to want to continue. Keep looking for something that you fall in love with, then listen, listen, listen.

Don’t just watch an episode once and be done with it. Watch it the first time to enjoy it. Watch it a second time to become even more familiar with it. Listen a third time, and then a fourth. You get the idea. The more you listen to it, the more that language is going to worm its way into your head and the better you’ll become at listening.

5. Every single day, baby

As a bare minimum, spend one to two hours a day of listening to French or taking part in French conversation. If you want to pick up steam in French though, I say increase it to the highest amount that you can manage, without driving yourself crazy. There is time for it. (No, you don’t need to spend quite so much time on Facebook.)

I don’t want to be a downer, but if the number of hours you spend per month listening to French and taking part in conversation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, you’re not doing enough. This is why you feel like you’re struggling to understand.

The number of hours should be more like the number of fingers on both your hands and all the toes on your feet. And then add to that all the fingers on my hands and all the toes on my feet. (OK, maybe not my feet because I’m missing some toes. Somebody else’s feet.) And then multiply that by three. Or four…

Increase the hours dramatically and you can be sure that your listening comprehension will improve. There’s nothing magical about it, honest.

Enjoy your journey!

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Author Stephen King said:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

If Stephen King were the author of OffQc, I’m sure that he’d have also said:

If you want to be a speaker of French, you must do two things above all others: listen a lot and speak a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

You listen to French to absorb the language. You speak because you can’t be a speaker of French without speaking.

P.S. Stephen King also said: “French is the language that turns dirt into romance.”

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