How I Learned French by Immersion Only

How to learn French by immersion only

I'm reading a novel in French, when suddenly I come across the word cadavre. I know the word, which baffles me a bit in a sense - I mean, 'a corpse'? Where the heck did I learn that? To go back to the context where the word sounds the most familiar, my mind starts forming a word pair: cadavre... brulée. Cadavre brulée.
A burned corpse. Right. Slaying dragons in a video game in French for a year finally paid off.

Three years ago I didn't speak a word in French - well, that's a lie really. I had a beginner's course of French at the age of 16 (i.e. ten years ago), after which I was able to say merci, bonjour and s'il vous plaît. There we had it. All of my French. Then I met a guy who spoke French as his first language and everything was pretty much downhill from there.

So I moved to Québec, the only French-speaking province of Canada, with my vocabulary of merci, bonjour and s'il vous plaît. Again, a lie. I had another beginner's course in French just before crossing the ocean, after which I had added things like Je m'appelle Melissa and au revoir to my vocabulary.

These five phrases were pretty much all I had when I landed on Canada's French-speaking soil, ready to find a job and settle down. As history tells, all that ended well and I managed to work for the world-famous video game company Activision for a year. I went from Bonjour, je m'appelle Melissa to effortlessly reading the book you see on the cover of this post (Pays sans Chapeau by Dany Lafarrière) without ever studying French. How?

As you can guess, someone working for Activision might enjoy playing video games. That's where I started. Whether it was an enormous open-world RPG or Spore, I switched the language to French. Obviously at first I had no idea what was going on, what's my quest, where am I supposed to go. But believe me, after you're told Tu vas mourir! ("You will die!") in the beginning of a battle enough many times, something will click. You start seeing the structure Tu vas in other places, like Tu vas aller là, "You will go there", and little by little you notice how making these links with different contexts in the game will reveal you what it means. After passing many enough STOP signs on the streets of Québec, screaming ARRÊT with capital letters, it wasn't that hard for me to guess what my enemies in the game wanted me to do when shouting Arrêtez! C'est assez! ("Stop! That's enough!")

Video games are pretty straight forward, in the end. They tell you to click a button, talk to a character, pick up an item. Seeing these instructive sentences in a familiar, repetitive context can help you build your vocabulary really fast: there are only so many things the game would like you to do when putting a sugar roll in front of you and telling you to press X to manger. After pressing X, you hear munching, and the sugar roll is gone. Could manger possibly mean "to eat"?

Don't enjoy video games? Try the same with something similar you like - you could start by switching your Facebook in French, or any other familiar website you frequently use. My phone was on French settings for my whole year in Québec, and I swear to god I will never forget the phrase Batterie faible, thanks to my wonderful, ancient phone who reminded me of that every five minutes after it went under a certain battery power percentage. Fun times.

Every morning I came to work and sat down on my desk, my colleagues would tell me Bon matin! Now, matin is to this day one of the words I hate the most, but when you hear it every morning, you answer to it every morning, you get used to it. Eventually it becomes automatic.

Every lunch break I went to get take out to bring back to the office. The discussions with cashiers are always pretty much the same:

Cashier: Bonjour! Ça va?
Me: Bonjour! Oui, vous? Je vais prendre _________, s'il vous plaît.
Cashier: Manger ici ou pour emporter?
Me: Pour emporter.

... And so on. When you repeat this discussion with a slight variety every day for a year, in the end ordering food in French is the simplest thing. I listened to my colleagues a lot in these situations, trying to see what kind of questions they'd be asked, and what kind of answers they'd give to these questions. Then I went on and repeated the same thing. The same happened when charging my monthly bus card: I learned the phrase, repeated it once a month, and finally the 12th time was actually fairly effortless.

Locals know what they're doing - listen to them and see how they go, and every time you'll learn a new phrase or two. If you have native-speaking friends to help you, you're in good hands: there was this one time when after ordering my sushi the cashier suddenly said something I had never heard before. My colleague saw my desperate face and translated: "She's complimenting your earrings!" There we had it: boucles d'oreilles. Earrings.

That's only one of the hundred things I did with Alex to learn more words, but damn it's efficient. We bought me a fairly simple book, and I'd then read it out loud with my native-speaking spouse, stopping at every word I didn't know. He'd tell me the translation to every unfamiliar word, and correct my pronunciation when needed. The things I learned! By repeating, repeating and repeating the same words, getting corrected ten times over the same mispronounced phrase... By staying stubborn and learning from my mistakes I eventually read my first book entirely in French.

Reading a book isn't the only way, of course, and most definitely not the only occasion where I'd harras my French-speaking friends over unfamiliar words: signs I'd see on the street, phrases I'd hear them use often (C'est tellement drôle, "that's so funny" and an impressive cavalcade of swear words are forever burned in my spine), I took every occasion to ask what's going on around me.

Read, ask, repeat: the best possible way to learn a language on the go when school books are out of the question and your boss keeps sending you emails only in French. 

Now, there are a few things we need to recognise in the process of learning a language by immersion only:

First of all, you might not learn how to write. That's the case with me. Remember that boucles d'oreilles a few rows back? Yeah, I had no idea how to write that, I used Google Translate. I know the word like the back of my hand, it's "boucl dorei", but no one has ever asked me to write it down. I can't successfully conjugate verbs in future or past tense on paper, because they all sound pretty much the same. I don't always remember where the accents are when written, unless I can hear it from the word, like in the case of passé composé, where I hear the e and the end of the verb and know it needs an accent to be pronounced: mangé, sauté, aimé.

Secondly, learning a language by immersion brutally beats up any other language you speak while immersing. Want a proof? Check out these terrible inverted sentence structures in this post. Check out how I accidentally used the word "these" in my previous sentence - why? Because that's how it works in French! French is now forever imprinted in my head with such a strong bond that the moment I hear someone speak French on the streets of Dublin, everything I ever knew about English sails away, and I might accidentally answer to my English-speaking friend in French.

BUT: No matter how unstructured, chaotic, messy and tiring experience it might be, I would never give up learning French by immersion for learning it at school. I might not write well, I might not sound like your typical French-speaking girl after learning it with a bunch of guys, but damn right I'm not afraid to speak it. I didn't learn it perfectly, but there's more to it now than merci, bonjour and experct knowledge of passé composé. There's a real life aspect to it.

And about that cadavre brulée.You know that dessert, crème brulée? It's obviously burned from the top, burned "cream", crème. But burned what? Well, cadavre sounds like that death spell from Harry Potter, avada KEDAVRA. Kedavra, cadavre, my mind told me there's a link between these words. Since the spell is about death, it must be--

.... And that, folks, is how my polyglot mind works.

Have you learned a language by immersion? Any tips or tricks to add to my list? I was thinking of filming a small video of myself speaking in French to demonstrate how I sound. Would you like to see it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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  1. I think it'd be fun seeing you speak French. When I moved to Paris in 2002, I had already studied French quite a bit. What really had taught me though were the more than one French boyfriends that I had had prior to the move. When I moved to Canada after my ten Parisian years, I was very comfy in French. Here they all think I have a French accent when I speak, and I'll hang onto that.
    Do you still use your French over there?

    1. Haha yeah, I definitely agree that dating someone who speaks French as their first language really helps a ton! It brings the language really close to your personal life and makes it easier to learn. I for one owe most of my English skills to an Australian guy I dated back in my teenage years when I was still learning to speak the language. I still wish I had a recognisable accent though, but I guess drifting from one place to another and dating a French-speaker instead of an English-speaker doesn't really contribute to that...

      I speak in French with Alex sometimes - he's a wee bit resistant but I keep insisting! It's really typical of him to answer to me in English by accident even if I start speaking to him in French. But I want to keep it up so I won't lose everything I've learned.