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How to learn French at aged 50+

Research shows that learning a second language offers proven benefits for intelli- gence, memory and concentration, plus lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Learning French can be challenging but fun – and it makes trips to France that much more rewarding. Here’s how I learned French in my 50s:

Build a Foundation

You need some rudimentary knowledge to get started, like the fundamentals of grammar and pronunciation. So take a beginner’s course – you can easily find one online or at a local college or community center. Start by building that foundation.

Talk Talk Talk

It is fascinating to talk to French people in their own language. By far the best way to learn a new language is to speak it. But who wants to talk to a newbie who can barely string three words together?

The answer is – another newbie. A language partner.

Websites, like mylanguageexchange.com,  help you find French speakers who want to learn English. Find someone whose level is the same as yours. This other person faces the same challenges you do, so they will be patient as you struggle with French as they know exactly what you are going through. You are helping them and they are helping you. I found Skype calls once or twice a week really accelerated my learning. I do them for about an hour at a time, the first half in French and the second in English.

Pro tip:  Video calls are better than voice, especially when you need to pantomime (and you will.)

Listen, Too

When you are first learning French and someone speaks to you, the words can kind of run together. You need to “tune your ear” so you can distinguish individual words. The way to do this is by listening to a lot of it.

Happily, there are French-language podcasts on just about any subject. You like cooking, history, sports?  There is a podcast for you.

Listen to these podcasts as you walk the dog or work in the garden. At first it will be a blur, but slowly your brain will adapt and you’ll be able to hear the different words.  That’s a big step to learning French.

You Don’t Have to be Perfect

No one likes to make mistakes, so there is a natural tendency to avoid talking until you are really good. But that creates a kind of Catch-22 because you need to talk in order to get really good. Stop worrying and learn to laugh at yourself.

People appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language. I have found that French people smile and encourage me when I try to speak French.  It shows respect for their culture.  Who doesn’t appreciate that?

Sometimes when you make a mistake, you get a funny story out of it.

French and English share a lot of words, like nation and pause.  If I don’t know a word in French I sometimes fake it by using the English word with a French accent.   It usually works, but not always.

I once served some French friends a cheese with edible ash on it.  I announced it in French as a cheese with ash.  My friends, shocked, explained that this meant hashish. Oops.

Anticipate a Few Ups and Downs

Language learning is a funny thing – it happens in spurts. You seem to make no progress at all, sometimes for weeks, and suddenly you take a big leap forward. So don’t be discouraged when you feel like you are working hard and not getting anywhere.  And enjoy the leaps when they happen.

Have Fun!

This is going to take a while and you need to have fun to stick with it.  So find ways to enjoy the language as you are learning.   Take a trip to France to try out your new skills.  Watch French movies.  Go to a French restaurant and chat with the waiters.

I subscribe to a US newspaper and a French one.  I look for stories that both papers have covered and read them in English and then in French (I read English first because that helps me understand what the story is about.)   It can be fascinating to see two perspectives on the same subject.

After following this approach, I can now hold meaningful conversations in my second language.  I have friends in France and even read French books.  It still surprises me because I was terrible with languages as a kid.

Parlez-vous français?  You can do it!

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence.  He is the author of  One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence; Read more at Life in Provence.

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