This is not going to be one of my literary blogs. This is nuts-and-bolts advice. It's about how to learn to read in a foreign language in just one month. Maybe you'll find the story inspirational. But I mean to deliver strictly practical ideas for anyone trying to master a language.
The master's program at my university requires students to take a reading exam in a foreign language of one's choice. The logical choice for me would have been Spanish. I had somehow managed to pass 24 units of Spanish. Here's the glitch, though. I had done very well in the first 12 units, which focused on vocabulary and the conversational level. After all, there are plenty of related words in both English and Filipino, my first languages. But when it came to grammar and writing full paragraphs in the higher levels, I was lost. I seemed unable to overcome my difficulties with its structure. I could read well enough to make out the gist of simple pieces. It got me through my thesis in art studies, which is the main reason I'd persisted in it, despite also taking 3 units in French and finding myself more able to read in it. I knew if I were to do art history research I'd need Spanish. It got me as far as finding some necessary sources. And I can still construct basic sentences, as you can see in my historical novel Woman in a Frame. But I decided it would be easier for me to improve my reading ability in French than to review Spanish.
At around this time, I was also helping my daughter learn Filipino, which is a second language for her because my husband and his brothers hardly ever speak it and because most of her grandparents believed in her learning to speak English first because it would be easy for her to pick up Filipino from people around her. I did not agree with this because I know that age 3 is the time when a person's language-speaking capacities are formed and that children only pick up language naturally until age 10 but with everyone else speaking to her in English and most of her books and videos in the language, what could I do? Thankfully, her pre-school was bilingual and was encouraging her to learn Filipino. I found books, songs, TV shows, and videos to help her and she did learn while enjoying herself. She even translated some songs herself!
And that inspired me to do the same thing with French. I already had some books in French. There were children's books I'd gotten which I read to her, and this helped me a bit in vocabulary and idiom. I also read a bilingual French and Spanish book on art with the help of a dictionary (and sometimes just comparing the French with the Spanish helped).
Anyway, here is a list of stuff I did to prepare myself for the exam:
1. Read only French for about a month, except for stuff like news, emails, FB and recipes. And dictionary entries, of course. This works if you're addicted to reading. After two weeks I was thinking in French.
I read on topics I was interested in, especially literature-related stuff because I'd heard the exam would focus on that. I went to Amazon France for write-ups on books (I read about the Hunger Games. Because the French do understand English, the titles of some bestsellers are unchanged, probably for aesthetics as well as marketing. Jeux de faim doesn't have the same ring to it.). I went to Project Gutenberg for classic lit in French. I was pleased to find I could read whole passages of Les Miserables without having to refer to a dictionary. Of course I'd already read it in English.
2. Checked out websites on learning French online. I subscribed to Laura K. Lawless, French teacher on About.com, for tips on learning French. Upon the recommendation of my friend Dawn, I subscribed to Duolingo. It has grammar lessons, which help, but more importantly it encourages you to do translations. I don't think much of the way they rate translations, but I knew that just doing translations is a great way to read and review.
3. Translated on my own. I translated some favorite songs on my own, (including "On my Own"!) one of my motivations being to turn my singer cousin into an Il Divo kind of singer. And because I just love the way everything sounds more evocative and mellifluous in French. It's easier to remember the meanings of words and phrases you use when translating, perhaps because it requires so much searching through the dictionary and thought about the meaning and fit of the words.
4. Looked up music videos with French subtitles on YouTube. I got Les Miserables and some Disney clips so my daughter could watch with me. I found songs make the words and phrases easier to remember. I also watched the French channel now and then but this was only useful when there were subtitles. The exam was for reading and I couldn't follow so well when listening.
5. Played language games in French including Book Worm on Yahoo for vocabulary practice. This works if you are obsessed with word games. You can also download the full Book Worm Adventures in French for like 99 cents. There are lots of French-learning games online. Look for ones that focus on vocab, translations, and idioms.
6. I also did some less fun but useful and necessary things, like read some literary criticism, to help me to understand the terms used in the exam questions. And I brushed up on grammar and read a junior high French reader (a very old secondhand one)--by the end of it, I didn't need to refer to a dictionary. Hooray! I could read French like a twelve-year-old.
Something I wanted to try but didn't have much time to was corresponding in French. I have young relatives in Canada, whome I knew were studying French and thought it would be a nice way of bonding. But writing takes more time and the conversational style of correspondence isn't literary so I couldn't make that a priority.
I will say that I had been practicing French a little over the years. I read a lot of French on a trip to Paris some years back, though mostly just signs and museum pamphlets. I read food labels and even recipes in French now and then. So what really helped me, I guess was being focused for that month.
So were these methods effective? Well, I had little difficulty reading the exam selection, an excerpt from a contemporary French novel. I found my knowledge of Parisian culture helped, as one of the questions was on why place names were emphasized. I suppose without knowledge on Paris one could infer that the places were known for something in Paris, but at least I wasn't stumped for a minute.
It worked. I passed. I really ought to keep it up since it is so easy to lose knoweldge one doesn't use. Knowing French is useful, especially since with my love for Paris I am bound to use it as a setting for a novel in the future, if not go there again.
I must admit I have never been good at studying anything pointedly. But immersing yourself in a subject and activities you love is another thing, and makes learning easier and stay with you.