In December of 2016, I decided to try to learn French. I’ve always wanted to learn French, but I felt like it was too hard, or just not important enough of an activity for me to pursue. The “sensible” language to study is Spanish, right? After all, I live in Texas, where many people speak Spanish. Whenever a job says “bilingual preferred,” they are almost always talking about Spanish, or maybe even Chinese, but never French.
So, I bit the bullet and studied Spanish for many years. I studied Spanish in middle school, high school, and even college. I understand much of the language quite well, but I never became fluent because my desire to become so just wasn’t there. Perhaps I take the Spanish language for granted because I’m surrounded by so many Spanish-speaking people…I’m not sure. But, nevertheless, the desire to pursue French was still there, so I finally decided to start studying.
When the idea hit me, it was December and there were no new classes starting up. I started Googling ways to learn French, and up popped my new best friend, Duolingo. Duolingo is a free, interactive website and mobile application that teaches users how to speak a language for free. Yes, you read that right. The language program is free. I quickly started using it daily to practice French. I was starting pretty much at zero, since I didn’t know any French besides words that infused in every day English language.
The app is very easy to use, but I found myself a bit lost on different parts of the rules of the language. Much of the app is word association and memorization, but it doesn’t teach you the why part. (There are little grammar “blurbs” that pop up with explanations, but it’s hard to grasp all of the grammar concepts in small bites.) In other words, I knew that in order to master the language, I would need a class to help me build up my skills, be able to ask questions, and practice actually speaking to someone else in a different language. So, I looked up reviews for classes on Yelp.
There were only a few places that offered French courses in Houston, and I decided to go with the one place that was dedicated not only to French lessons, but also French culture, and that was the Alliance Francaise (L’Alliance Française de Houston). The Alliance is a world-wide organization dedicated to promoting the French language in France, and countries around the world. The method of teaching is the “immersion” method where students begin speaking in French right away, and much of the instruction is done entirely in French. I knew from my experience taking Spanish lessons that the “sit and get” classroom method would not work for me, so I was excited about this approach. I had to play a bit of phone tag to register doing the holidays, but soon enough, I was signed up for my very first set of French-language courses.
Over the winter break, I continued to study on my own, but I took a break from Duolingo after I started my classes. In hindsight, I realized that it was likely best to continue doing both together, but I really wanted to focus on the immersion method. My first set of classes started in January after I returned from my vacation in Los Angeles. I had already picked up my books, but they were entirely in French, so I couldn’t really “study ahead” effectively.
Like any other first day of class, I and the other students were a bit nervous. There were 12 students in the class. To my surprise, about 10 out of the 12 students were there as a couple. I hadn’t even thought about getting someone else to sign up with me! I was glad that there was one other “single” so that I wasn’t the odd person out. My worries about being singled out quickly dissipated, as the other students were super-friendly and didn’t try to always remain “buddied up” together. We did do a lot of partner activities, but our instructor mixed up the pairs. The courses are all held at the Alliance headquarters in the Montrose area. The building is actually a large, older house, and the “classrooms” are bedrooms that have been converted. It has a really cozy, European feel.
My teacher’s name is Anaiis, and she is a young French woman who is now living here in America. She speaks French, English, and Spanish fluently. She is a really great instructor, and never makes any of us feel silly or bad for asking a question or not knowing an answer. Because of my busy schedule, I opted to take lessons only one time per week. The other classes that meet twice a week move at a faster pace, but I’m fine with once a week. Everyone in my class is a working adult, so we don’t have a lot of time to study in between classes, which I’ve found to be key to retaining the information.
Each set of courses is 7 weeks long, and we are able to “travel” up with our classes and our instructor. For Beginner 1A, I had Anaiis as my teacher, and I was able to be in her class again for the next set of courses, Beginner 1B. This continuity was really helpful, as Anaiis already knew our learning styles, and we already knew her teaching style. This provided consistency in the learning, also, because she already knew what we had gone over, and what material we still needed to cover. Unfortunately, different people had to drop out of class for different reasons. I even missed one class myself due to a personal obligation, but for the most part, I try to attend class on time and consistently, and to be completely focused for the entire 2 hours of instruction.
At the end of the Beginner 1A course, there were about 7 of us left that were still attending consistently. Not everyone from the Beginner 1A course signed up for Beginner 1B, but other people joined in who were either re-taking the course, or had taken French previously. The Beginner 1B course actually ended up having quite a few participants! I’m not sure of the exact number, though, as some people still oddly come and go.
I’ve been taking French courses at the Alliance since January, and speaking French in class from day 1, but this week in class I had a real breakthrough. I was listening to my teacher discuss French villes, when I realized that I simply understood what she was saying. Normally, I’d listen to her say something in French, then I’d translate it in my head into English to comprehend her words. But, as my French vocabulary was growing, I was beginning to understand French without translating. This was really exciting, and it has motivated me to keep going in my studies to the next level, and beyond. I would like to visit France at the end of 2018, and I hope to be fully fluent in French by that time.
So, if you’re thinking of signing up for classes at The Alliance Francaise in Houston, or anywhere else in the world, I’d highly encourage you to do so. You’ll have the benefit of taking courses with other people at your level, and who are really dedicated to learning French. One factor to consider is cost. I have actually found the cost of the courses to be reasonable in comparison with other in-person classes. Classes that meet once a week are $210, and classes that meet twice a week are $290. You also have register and pay for books up front (the books last for a year of courses), so my total cost for my first set of classes was around $300, then $210 for the next session. I’m going to look into becoming a member of the Alliance, because I believe a discount is afforded to members.
One other thing that I’d like to mention is the surprising backlash that I’ve received from family members and friends when I announced on Facebook that I was taking French classes. I had a number of people tell me to study Spanish. Not only have I already studied Spanish before, it’s entirely possible to study more than one language at a time, or one after the other. French is spoken worldwide by approximately 220 million people. Not only is it a useful language, it’s just plain fun! If you want to study French and are feeling discouraged, don’t be! You can find communities of other Francophones (French-loving people) online and in person at communities like the Alliance. There are a number of French films that show and events that take place all around the United States and the rest of the world.
I’ll be talking more about my methods for learning French as a busy, working and I’ll be writing more about my French lessons soon. I’ll need to get a keyboard overlay and learn how to update the settings on my computer to allow me to type French accents! I look forward to sharing more with you soon! Until next time, au revoir!