Je lirai


At my French class last week, I was asked why I’m studying the language. I used to have a good answer: a short version, a long version, a self-deprecating one. But when I was asked the question last week, I realized that my answer had changed.

I had begun my language learning journey mostly because it’s something that I’ve tried several times before and had not succeeded at. It’s not the only thing I’ve failed at in my life (poker was an especially humbling and costly lesson) but this one seemed like something that would be challenging while being both interesting and intellectually satisfying.

It’s been all of those things, but now it might be useful as well. My past interests suggested that I set my current novel-in-progress in the Medieval era. My current language studies suggested I set the novel in France. As I do more and more research it will surprise no one that much of the research that I want is not available in English.

It seems that I’ll need to focuse more of my language studies on reading, and academic reading at that!

Allons-y à la maison française


I restarted my French studies more than 5 years ago now, with the purchase of Rosetta Stone. I started, then stopped for some while, then picked it up again. Since October 24th of 2013 I have succeeded in “touching” French every single day.

But I haven’t made the kind of progress I wanted/expected to make. Some of it is that there is always something else going on and touching French often meant 10 minutes with flashcards. That’s not enough to make progress in the language, but it has been enough to halt some of the backsliding.

The tools I was using in my last post on this have changed quite a bit. I wish I could say I’m still writing, but that’s just not true. I even started a story that I was writing in French with my tutor correcting me as I went, but when she moved to France, that went by the wayside.

I’m still reading. I’ve stopped subscribing to French Accent Magazine and have started reading thinkFrench. For where I am, I find it much more helpful. They have marked many of the newer/harder/more advanced terms and vocabulary and provided translations in the sidebar. This has allowed me to actually focus on reading for sense and not stopping every few words to open up WordRefence.

I have completed four seasons of Coffee Break French and I can not recommend that series enough to anyone starting out. I used that for listening practice and, the last two seasons, as a way of getting a sense of how the language works. I can not say that I understood the “letters” the first time through and relied heavily on the premium version in the fourth year for the line-by-line work that they do, explicating the language and the nuances of construction.

My girlfriend and I had purchased many of the French Today audio books and they sat on the same virtual shelf as Rosetta Stone for a couple of years. Wanted to focus on hearing and reading, I pulled those off the shelf and have found them to be very good resources, especially for vocabulary and the actual act of listening to French speech.

The biggest thing I’ve done in the last year to gain in proficiency has been to focus on vocabulary. I bought the book Fluent Forever and began following the suggestions for building vocabulary. I created a deck of my own flashcards. The act of gathering the words to use, getting images and definitions, was an education in itself. When I don’t do anything else on a certain day, I’ll run the flashcards and my vocabulary has grown tremendously.

Now I’m getting back into Rosetta Stone with an eye towards gaining more progress in the language. I’ll use those lessons as a way to gain more vocab but then also learn to put the vocab into grammatically correct sentences! Last winter I took a French 1 class for adults through UW Extension in order to get more practice hearing spoken French and speaking it myself. Tonight (Feb 1, 2017) I begin French 2 which will be held at The French House. That will be a trip. I do not have confidence at all in my ability to carry a conversation. Which, of course, is the point of taking a class.

Souhaite-moi bonne chance !

Toute l’année


It’s been nearly a year since my last post, and that one being about my plans to learn French. Here’s a quick update.

In the past year I’ve succeeded in “touching” French for at least 15 minutes everyday. There were times when I’d climbed into bed and be nearly asleep, only to sit upright, reach for my tablet, and go through flash cards for a few minutes, just so I didn’t break the chain.

Over the last year, my list of tools that I’ve used is slightly different from the list of tools I had gathered before setting off on this quest. I’ve continued with Rosetta Stone, although I recently put that on hold to focus on cementing what I’ve learned. I don’t feel as if my foundation is as good as it should be. If, after this long, I’m still confusing the verbs avoir, aller, and être, well, that’s a problem. So instead of adding new, for the next little while at least, I’m going to focus on reinforcing what I’ve already learned.

The way I’m planning on doing that is to focus on three things:
* Listening
* Reading and speaking
* Writing

Evernote was used extensively early on to capture the new vocabulary that I was encountering. But from there, I moved much of that data to an OpenOffice spreadsheet, keeping all of it in one place and allowing me to upload those files into Brainscape, a flash card app/website. I’m using that as my flashcard system instead of Study Blue for a couple of reasons. They offered sets of French vocab and sentence builder flashcards (for cost) and I’m using those to supplement my learning. My girlfriend has also installed Brainscape and we can share the flashcards I’ve created. Flashcards are one of the primary ways I’m trying to reinforce what I have already learned or encountered. I’ll go to the Flashcards several times a week. From the start I have listened to the podcast Coffee Break French. It often, wholly coincidentally, reinforced whatever lesson Rosetta Stone was giving me.

And now (again, coincidentally) it is focusing on portraying conversations in French that are then broken down and explained. So that fits in as part of my efforts to improve my listening comprehension skills. Early on, I listened to a radio play for new learners from RFI called L’affaire du Coffre, but that was about the only thing I’ve done with RFI. Once that was finished, I listened to One Thing in a French Day and have now been using a podcast/app called News in Slow French which is, well, news read by French speakers nice and slowly and then they discuss what they had presented. Their app is very good (for cost) and provides a full transcript of what they are reading, along with links to definitions of many of the words and phrases they used. One can use the podcast,which is an abbreviated version, for free. I have the newsletter for One Thing in a French Day, which provides the transcript, but I’m more likely to listen to News in Slow French. Not sure why. The events in One Thing are often entertaining and enlightening, but it’s just less convenient than the app.

For reading, I have purchased a subscription and some back issues of French Accent Magazine. This is intended for non-native speakers and learners of the language. There are sections that cover various language-learning issues, provide dialogs in both French and English, and for the bulk of the articles (which are still a reach for me to read) the more obscure words and phrases have definitions described in a side bar. I work with my tutor in reading out loud to both practice pronunciation as well as reading comprehension. Alas, it usually takes my time with the tutor before I understand most of what I’m reading. I’m also beginning to spend more time in conversation with my tutor. I haven’t gone to the French Speaking Group meetup because it’s been described as conversational level and I’m not there. I hope to be before too long.

For writing, the goal has been to write a short journal entry or email to my girlfriend about once a week. I’ve not been as consistent an that as I’d like, but I know that writing will be as important as conversing for me to get the language more thoroughly in my head.

In the summer I traveled with my girlfriend to Quebec City and Montreal. In preparing for that trip, I approached it almost like a final exam! We spent a lot of time talking, listening to talking, and working on phrases to use. The highpoint for me came when I had two total transactions in French! Scripts with shopkeepers can be rehearsed. I never did get a simple conversation going. And the accent is obviously apparent because, at the start of the trip, we’d burst out a hearty “Bonjour!” and hear “Good morning, what can I do for you?” as the response. That was less likely by the end of the trip, and that change was nice.

However, since then, I’ve feel as if I lost all of that facility. In focusing on the three elements above, and going back to basics to really get a solid foundation, I hope that another trip next year should be even more successful.

NaNoWriMo 2014


Back in 2007, I joined and “won” NaNoWriMo with what eventually (like 5 years after that one month) my novel A Call of Moonhart. That time, I knew I had a novel-length idea, I had the world building in hand, and the timing was right to get a jump start on all of it. Eventually, that 50k words formed the basis of two novels (one still more-or-less in draft form) totally nearly 250k words. NaNo was a good way to get all that started.

This time around, I’m in a totally different place. I have two, no THREE totally different projects that I’m thinking about at the same time. One of them, which seems the most commercial, is going to take a whole lot of research that I’ve only just begun. An entire time and place that I’m only passing familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, the research is half of what I like about my writing. Maybe even two thirds. But the story idea is strong for that and I’m excited about the project.

I’m not writing on that for NaNoWriMo this year.

Another project, taking least as much research as the first but with extra added world building required, is a really powerful concept. I LOOOOOVVVVVEEEE the concept, and it includes an expansion of one of the worlds I first began writing in about 20 years ago. But I have a concept, not a story (although I may finally have an inkling of one now) and it takes a story before I can write. Even me, a “pantser” by NaNo terminology. If there isn’t a story, then what I have are research notes, and no one wants to read that.

I’m not writing on that for NaNoWriMo this year, either.

What I’m working on isn’t even a novel. Unless I’ve badly underestimated how long the frame tale is, or I come up with another entirely new idea for a set piece, this is novella length at about 30,000 words. Even so, I won’t know until I get there if this is even a story with a defined arc, or a series of character sketches. You see, these are some of my favorite, most familiar characters. I’ve been writing them, or versions of them, or their friends, or people who hung out in the same area at one point, for at least 30 years. They are comfortable old friends to hang around with. They are all too pretty, too smart, too good to hang contemporary fiction on. To borrow from Ellen Kushner, I love to write about these fine people all hanging around, drinking, and having sex. Fun to write but boring to read and it isn’t commercial. In my case, my NaNo project this year is going to be some very self-indulgent crap that I’m taking the month of November to churn out. But, you see, (and I have the time lines if you’re silly enough to ask for them) there’s this gap where I have my male character making his way alone in the world, nursing a hurt from ten years before when his best friend/sometime lover left without a word. I have a later period where he is reunited with this woman, but not as lovers, for he is with a third woman. What I don’t have is: what happened in those ten years? How did they reunite? Just how awkward was it when the love-of-his-youth comes back into his life just as he’s beginning a very adult relationship with an amazing woman? What happened to make them all friends? More than friends?

I have been doing very little writing while I shopped for an agent for my last novel. At the end of that period, I have no agent and no new writing. Pulling out these old, friendly, comfortable, well-loved characters is a great place to find my writing flow again. I wrote an extended character study in early October, but now I want to know what happened in those ten years, and how it all resolves.

I won’t “win” NaNoWriMo this time around, but that’s not my goal. I want to write. I want to answer these questions. And I want to try out a new set of writing tools. Instead of OneNote and WordPerfect and a laptop and desktop, I’m now using Evernote, and Scrivener, and a tablet and the desktop. Getting to know Scrivener and developing a new toolset seems like it would be a “win” to me.


The only D I got for a grade in high school came from my French teacher. Oh, I deserved it, no question. I spent more time paying attention to the blonde next to me (hi Beth-Alison!) than the teacher in front of me, and if Beth-Alison wanted to skip class for any reason, well, allons-y !
Tried again in college but that effort failed almost as badly but for less reason: no pretty blonde distracting me from my studies. I had great hopes. I still have my copy of Nausea en français but I’ve never been able to read it.
For my master’s in English, I needed to have a foreign language component, so once more unto the breach! In this case, I just needed to be able to read it and I mastered enough of it that I could pass the test. Never felt like there was a command of the language and, after getting my degree, I didn’t have a reason to keep up with it, so my study of foreign language languished.
Then, a couple years ago, my sweetie and I decided to try again. I advocated for learning French (because, dammit) and she was willing. We bought Rosetta Stone and had a go. I don’t have a great ear or, more to the point, I was told at an impressionable age that I don’t have a good ear, for either music or language. I’ve been told by others that my accent doesn’t suck, but guess which voices I listen to? In any case, we had a go for a bit, and then Life interfered and it fell by the wayside. Again.
Now I’m researching my next novel. Based on what I’ve come up with so far, several elements of it will take place in areas that are now part of France. Also, there’s a chance for a trip to France — both for research and for pleasure — in the coming year and so I’m back at it.
This time around, I’ve amassed quite the tool kit. I like the Rosetta Stone approach for learning nouns and certain constructions, but I have a feeling of floundering when it comes to trying to pinpoint exactly what is it about that sentence, what does that mean, why is it done that way? Immersion works, I’ve no doubt, but it also needs context and additional information to fill in the gaps. So, I’m doing more.
Also, one of the reasons that it floundered before was that I would pick it up and put it down again. I have enough trouble that I need to not build in gaps into the process. I’ve “touched” at least one of the following tools everyday since the trip to France became a possibility. There are more tools to use (see below) and I’ll get to them, too, because I’m more aware of what isn’t making sense and how I might reinforce an idea or add to it.
Below are the tools I’m using or plan to use in my quest to actually, finally, learn a foreign language:
  • Rosetta Stone is the main language tool. It’s an immersion approach, so no explanations about what or why en anglais. It is stupidly expensive and then they charge you again for access to their online content.
    • Games – I use the games, quite a bit. Good way to keep involved in the language without feeling like everything is a test.
    • Studio – I really should use this more often. I’m paying for it, after all. But talk about feeling like things are a test! It’s an opportunity to go over what you’ve learned with a native speaker and other students. But, again, all en français and so, if one feels a bit floundery, it doesn’t help with that.
    • Chat – IM with other students. Seems like a good idea. Someday I may even try it. With so much of this, I seem to feel I have to be “here” before I utilize some of these tools. I’m not there yet.
    • iPad/iPhone apps. They have at least three of them. One is the coursework on the phone. Another provides more of a vocab quiz, and the third — free and separate from the rest of it — is a Travel French lesson app. I have all three of them, but haven’t used them much just yet.
  • Coffee Break French podcast. Gives me a chance to learn similar things to what Rosetta Stone is teaching me (so far, lots of good overlap).  But it is not an immersive approach, which means there is an English explanation of what is being taught and why it is that way. I like knowing the why of things. While Rosetta Stone is so much visual and written, this is entirely aural for me since I haven’t signed up for their complete series. I’ll listen to it in the car during my commute on those days I don’t plan on taking the time for a Rosetta Stone lesson.
  • Evernote. There are a lot of ways that Evernote can be used for language study and I’m exploring which ones work best for me. Right now I’m using it as a way for me to keep track of new things I’ve learned.
    • I hear something in Rosetta Stone or Coffee Break French or another source. I add it to my Noun or Adjective or other appropriate page. I also have a note for the various questions that can be asked because that seems like a good way in to synthesizing the language.
    • Skitch to capture screen shots of concepts that I’m having issues with and paste them to the appropriate note.
    • Copy links to pages or articles on French or on learning French
    • Have shared a language notebook with my sweetie. We can share insights into what we’re learning and practice our writing skills by “passing notes” about our study.
  • Websites. In many ways, beats paper, but it means when I sit down to study, I have three programs and a handful of websites open at the same time.
    • for French English dictionary
    • Great way to look up French verbs and get the conjugation. They do have an app and installed version, but those cost money. The app may prove worthwhile, not sure about the Windows version.
    • I get what Rosetta Stone is trying to do with the whole “immersion” thing, but sometimes I need to get a sense of certainty that I’ve figured out what they are trying to say/ask me. This becomes even more important as I move towards different tenses of verbs. Not that Google is 100% but a second opinion is useful.
  • RFI Also an app, also audio files. Mostly, so far, I’m using the L’affaire du coffret serial podcast. But they also have a whole bunch of other things, including another serial, the news in simplified French, and other written and listening sources. I have plans on getting to all of these.
  • StudyBlue App and website. I went to this because it can link to Evernote, but so far I haven’t seen a good use for that. Since I was using tables for my word lists, StudyBlue wasn’t able to take those lists and make into flashcards, which is what I really wanted. So I take the word lists from Evernote, paste into Excel and create a file, then upload that file into StudyBlue to become flashcards. I’ve found the flashcards to be really useful even if the process of creating them is cumbersome. I know Rosetta Stone to boast that there’s “no memorization” but that’s bull. Also shit. Call it what you will, but a knowing has to happen. For me, it takes some work to know the French word for something, the French way of asking that question or how to answer that question in French. I need the exercise of something like a flashcard to help me remember the things that are so different from my experience, such as masculine and feminine nouns, ways of asking questions, etc. And it’s a great way to while away some of the more boring meetings I have to attend.
  • Books. I have the usual 501 French Verbs and a French English dictionary, some picture books, etc. But also, since one reason I’m wanting to learn the language is to be able to do research in France, I also have history and guide books. These are in English, but they are keeping me focused on the country and that has actually helped.
  • Films. this is yet to be tried, but have gotten some good ideas on how to use French language films to help learn the language. Will report back on that when the time comes.
  • French language meet up group. Haven’t gone there yet. But once I’m past the “Je m’appelle David” level of conversation, I’d like to go and hear others speak and try to speak to others.
  • Duo lingo. Started using it last time and should get into if again. I really need help with spelling. 
Of course, this is all so much different from the first time where it was Rosetta Stone, my sweetie, and some picture books that we read together. I realized after my most recent experience that I need to A) touch French everyday so that I keep it active in my mind and B) I need a range of options that will provide a range of learning approaches. So now I have written (flashcards, RFI websites, my own notes), aural (podcasts, serials, newscasts), visual (Rosetta Stone, program and games, film).
As much as I update anything on this blog, I’ll update my experience of learning French. Fifth time’s the charm?