French flag     Resources for Learning French

This is a summary of resources I've found useful in learning French in order to survive in Neuchâtel. The selection of resources is slanted explicitly toward the goal of survival: mastering the language sufficiently to be able to buy a car, read the newspaper, get your furnace repaired, and all the other fun-filled components of day-to-day life. From that base, you can proceed to a deeper understanding of the literary language and more effective ways of expressing yourself but it doesn't make sense to worry about such refinements until you're able to warn that pesky neighbour kid that if he rings your doorbell one more time and runs away, you'll tear off his fingers and toes and feed them to your vicious dog.

French in Action

French In Action is a video-based course created by Pierre Capretz of Yale University. This course is so excellent it almost justifies the invention of television. I know of no better way to so rapidly obtain a knowledge of day-to-day French.

French in Action is focused around 52 half-hour video lessons which assume no prior knowledge of the language. The course starts in French from the first instant, and is built around a story that involves the kinds of day to day activities that are often neglected in literary-oriented language courses. Don't expect to find a lot of verb conjugation and noun-adjective agreement exercises here; the goal is developing an instinct for what “sounds right”, just as children do as they learn their first language. You may feel like an idiot when you bungle such details, but the fact is you can mess up genders, adjectival forms, and much of verb conjugation and still be understood perfectly well on the street.

French In Action plunges right into colloquial Parisian French, spoken full speed. The first time through you'll probably miss about 90% at first hearing. The second time, you'll get about half, and by the third time you'll understand almost everything. Your very progress provides strong reinforcement as you follow the course.

The course consists of the 52 video segments, a textbook which consists largely of transcripts of the videos with explanations, and a workbook and set of audio cassettes that focus on structure, grammar, and pronunciation skills.

If you're too busy to work through the more schooldays-like components, you can misuse French In Action to build your skills almost painlessly. Just pick a 30 minute time period every day and work your way through the videos from number 1 through number 52, one per day. When you get to the end, go back to the beginning and start over again. Repeat until you understand perfectly and have ceased to improve. (Mustn't leave you like the programmer found starved in the shower clutching a bottle of shampoo with instructions: “Lather, rinse, repeat”.)

French In Action is published by the organisations listed at the end of this section. The textbook, study guides, audio cassettes, and other student material are available in many college bookstores; the last time I checked, San Francisco area residents could obtain them at the College of San Mateo bookstore. The video cassettes are distributed separately by the Annenberg/CPB project, in a dumb format (two half-hour segments per VHS cassette—if you insist on standard play you could fit four per tape and twelve in six-hour mode, which would reduce the number of cassettes from twenty-six to five) at a mindboggling price: more than US$600. This notwithstanding the fact that French In Action has been broadcast by numerous Public Broadcasting System stations in the US for years, and anybody with an antenna and a VCR is perfectly free to make their own tapes of the video portion of the course. In fact, some PBS stations have held all-night taping marathons of French In Action, aimed entirely at folks who want to make their own set of tapes. Now while you're perfectly free to tape anything broadcast on TV for your own use, it's still probably a federal crime to run off a copy for a friend. Go figure.

Update: The French In Action videos are now available on the Web in video on demandprofitez-en!

[French In Action: Textbook, Workbook, Study Guide, Instructor's Guide, Audio cassettes: Yale University Press, 92-A Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. ISBN 0-300-03655-8 (Textbook). Video cassettes, Faculty manual: Annenberg/CPB Project, 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington DC 20036, USA, Tel: 1-800-LEARNER.]

Conversational French in 20 Lessons

If you go out and buy this “Cortina Method” self-study book and open it up for the first time, you'll probably think I've taken leave of my senses to recommend this course. First of all, the book was written in 1954 and has not changed much since. It's filled with little tacky line art period illustrations that date it (actually, I'd have guessed late Forties). Ignoring the anachronistic layout and content, however, any of three aspects of this course make it well worth your time.

First, each of the 20 lessons is simple and can easily be read through in half an hour. Each builds vocabulary and conversational skills as you go. Second, grammar is taught in a very effective manner—by English-language footnotes keyed to the French-language material in the lessons. Each time a new grammatical construct appears, a footnote introduces it and provides a simplified explanation of the principle involved. I've found this a remarkably painless and effective way to assimilate grammar. Third, the last 135 pages of the book contain an exhaustively detailed and well-written reference on French grammar that's worth the modest price of the book by itself. You can find much classier French courses, but this one works. [Cortina, R., and Alden, D., Conversational French in 20 Lessons, New York: Henry Holt, 1954-1962-1977. ISBN 0-8327-0011-8.]


Once you've come to terms with the basic vocabulary and grammar of a language, you're only at the start of a long process of learning how the language is actually spoken colloquially and of learning to hear the language. Spoken language has much less information bandwidth than the printed page and contains much more ambiguity which must be resolved, in real time, by context. Consider, for example, that in French the words:

tu you (familiar form)
tu/tue past participle of the verb se taire
tout all
tue kill (1st & 3rd person singular present)

will probably sound exactly alike to a novice, and don't differ all that much in pronunciation in any case. Or the words:

foi faith
foie liver
fois time, occasion

which are pronounced precisely the same, at least as far as rendering into the International Phonetic Alphabet is concerned. Now if you know the context of the discussion and pick up all the neighbouring words, you're not likely to be confused about the meaning of pâté de foie gras (unless, perhaps, you're in some weird California cult-o-mart), but when you're in language learning mode, missing about 10% of the words and struggling to understand the rest as fast as somebody is talking, the added ambiguity of sounds really makes things tough. Finally consider this epiphany of aural ambiguity passed on by Billy Hinners, all pronounced precisely the same.

vert green
vers toward, or verse (of a poem)
verre glass
ver worm
vair squirrel fur

Developing full-speed comprehension of the spoken language simply requires a lot of practice, and the best way I know to develop the skill is through an audio magazine called Champs-Elysées published, in of all places, Nashville, Tennessee. Ten times a year you receive an audio cassette which amounts to a variety radio program entirely in French. Segments include news, interviews, current popular music, history, and the like. The cassette is accompanied by a complete printed transcript in which idiomatic and unusual words are printed in boldface and defined, in English, at the end. You can use this in several ways. You can listen to the cassette cold to measure comprehension, then play it again while reading the transcript to identify words. Quickly, you'll find yourself able to pick out more and more words as they are spoken. When I'm done with the cassette, I usually read through the definitions at the end, picking up a few new and useful idioms each time.

The content of Champs-Elysées makes no compromises toward being a learning tool; the language is spoken just as fast as you'll hear on French radio stations (and generally faster than Swiss French), and with an unrestricted vocabulary. Don't expect to find words like mettre or prendre defined—the definitions tend to be more like:

le légitimiste: legitimist; in France, a supporter of the elder branch of the Bourbons, dethroned in 1830, to the advantage of the Orléans branch. When King Charles X abdicated and went into exile, his cousin, the duc d'Orléans, Louis-Philippe 1er became “roi des Français”. In 1883 the comte de Chambord, Henry V, grandson of Charles X, died without an heir.

la zizanie: ill-feeling (cf. mettre/semer la zizanie dans une famille = to set a family at loggerheads).

The only disadvantage of Champs-Elysées is the price; about US$100 per year, but if you're really serious about understanding spoken French, I don't know of any better way, especially if you're living in an area where you don't have access to French language radio and television programs to provide the same kinds of practice (albeit without a transcript to help you). An optional “study guide” is also available, which seems to be produced with a goal of introducing Champs-Elysées into school curricula. I found the study guide boring and essentially useless, so I dropped my subscription to it when I renewed last year. If your interest encompasses other languages, the same company publishes similar audio magazines in German, Italian, and Spanish; I've tried the Spanish and German editions and found them to be of the same quality as the French. [Champs-Elysées, P.O. Box 158067, Nashville, TN 37215, USA. Phone: USA/800-824-0829.]

Sous-titres au Secours

If you live in Europe, there's a free and inexhaustible resource for learning to hear French that's as close as your television set. Unlike in the United States where subtitles require a special decoder, most European networks subtitle their programs using the Teletext mechanism which also provides access to pages of news, weather, financial quotes, and other information.

Principally intended for the deaf, subtitled programs are a wonderful way to improve your comprehension of the spoken language. You'll note, as you gain skill, that subtitles are often simplified compared to the actual spoken dialogue (primarily so they don't flash by too quickly to read). Even so, you'll find you're soon following speech much more readily, even without subtitles or when using that most challenging of modern conveniences, the telephone.

To receive subtitles, you need a Teletext-equipped television: most medium-priced and higher receivers include this feature. Then, when watching a subtitled broadcast (they are, regrettably, still in the minority), set your decoder to the “page” on which the subtitles are transmitted. Most broadcasters have adopted the European standard of page 888 for subtitles, but you may encounter some which haven't yet conformed. France 2's evening news is always subtitled, and Télévision Suisse Romande subtitles the news every other evening.

Video cassette recorders do not record Teletext information, so even if a movie you record was broadcast with subtitles, you won't be able to see them when you replay the tape. (Tricky high-end video setups do allow recording subtitles, but few people have such special equipment or the patience to figure out how to use it.)

Oxford French Minidictionary

This is a small (7.5×12cm), fat (650 page) English/French translation dictionary of more than 45,000 words and 65,000 translations. It's small enough so you can tuck it in a corner of your briefcase and never be without it. Don't look for extensive definitions here, just brief one or two word translations. But for a book so physically small, the coverage of the language is nothing less than astounding. [The Oxford French Minidictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-19-861045-9.]

If you live in continental Europe, you may not be able to find the Oxford dictionary in your bookstore. Fortunately, Robert & Collins publish a virtually identical volume (size, shape, format, and content) which is available everywhere. The Oxford and Robert are so similar that if you don't happen to glance at the cover you'll seldom be aware which you're using. [Le Robert & Collins GEM Dictionnaire — Français-Anglais/Anglais-Français: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1992. ISBN 2-85036-136-4.] In the UK you may find it published by Harper Collins Publishers under ISBN 0-00-458539-9.

Barron's French Grammar

This is an English-language, pocket sized summary of French grammar which makes a perfect briefcase companion to a compact translation dictionary like the Oxford French Minidictionary mentioned above. Despite its size (less than 200 15×9 cm pages), it's quite complete and includes plenty of examples and mnemonic tricks to help troublesome points stick in your mind. It contains one of the best summaries of that eternal puzzle, “which preposition goes with what verb” I've seen. [Kendris, C., French Grammar, Hauppage NY: Barron's, 2001. ISBN 0-7641-1351-8.]

Colle Française & Le Truc des Genres

This is a one-page “reference card” for French that I developed while learning the language. In learning French, I found that the most difficult words to master were what I came to call “linguistic glue,” the adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions that link verbs and nouns into complete sentences. Unlike verbs and nouns, which are frequently similar in English and French, these “glue words” tend to be unique in each language. In addition, they are often used in idiomatic ways which are difficult to find, even in a dictionary.

The reference card is provided as a PostScript file which, when printed on a PostScript printer, produces a one-page reference card that lists more than 230 French “glue words” along with their English translations. I've found that keeping this card at hand while reading French documents saves an enormous amount of time compared to flipping through a dictionary, and is an excellent way to commit these words and their usage to memory. An electronic version of the reference card is available on this Web server.

Included on the reference card is “the gender trick”. English speakers learning French often struggle to memorise the gender of each noun. Yet simply learning 40 word endings will allow you to predict the gender of three quarters of all French nouns with an accuracy of approximately 95%. For example, of the 1976 nouns that end with the letter “t”, all but 5 are masculine. A companion gender reference card lists each ending, the number of nouns with that ending, the accuracy of gender prediction it yields, and principal exceptions to the rule. I developed the rules in the gender trick based on analysis of more than 18,000 nouns.

[Colle Française and Le Truc des Genres are available in the directory francais at this site. See the README in that directory for details.]

501 French Verbs

You may remember this old buddy from high school French class. It's the book that gives complete conjugations, one per page, for 501 of the most common French verbs, and lists more than 1000 additional verbs conjugated identically to the 501 given explicitly. This book is mostly useful in writing the language rather than speaking, but you'll use it often enough to justify the modest price. [Kendris, C., 501 French Verbs, Hauppage NY: Barron's 2007. ISBN 0-7641-7983-7.]

Bescherelle “Pour Tous” Series

The following Bescherelle books:

Bescherelle 1: La conjugaison pour tous, ISBN 2-218-02949-9
Bescherelle 2: L'orthographe pour tous, ISBN 2-218-02952-9
Bescherelle 3: La grammaire pour tous, ISBN 2-218-02954-5

are genuine heavy-duty references to conjugation, spelling, and grammar. In Switzerland, they are published by éditions 5 Continents, 5, avenue de Longemalle, CH-1020 RENENS, and are available in any bookshop and even in larger supermarkets. Since the explanatory text in these books is in French, they aren't for beginners (although the conjugation and spelling books can be readily used). Once you've learned enough to read them, they're the books you'll turn to again and again. These references are masterpieces of graphical design: they use colour throughout in a highly effective manner, for example, to highlight irregular forms in tables of verb conjugations. A boxed set of the 2006 editions of these three volumes can be ordered from by customers worldwide.

Languages of the World and (X)dictool

There's a CD-ROM available called Languages of the World which includes a collection of language dictionaries for Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish, and Swedish. The French dictionaries included are:

The Harrap dictionaries are serious, high quality references which sell well in bookstores; they aren't the kind of bottom feeders you often find repackaged on CD-ROMs. Unfortunately, this CD-ROM comes with what is perhaps the worst access software ever created. Whaddya think of the idea of a 450K terminate and stay resident program for MS-DOS? With an indecipherable keyboard-based user interface to boot. To reboot, that is!

If you're lucky enough to have a Sun Workstation with a CD-ROM drive (or you're on a network across which you can access a CD-ROM drive), you can use DICTOOL, an access and retrieval program I wrote which makes looking up words in the dictionaries on this CD-ROM extremely easy and virtually instantaneous. When you're sitting at your Sun, you need only click an icon, type in a word (or the first few letters of it) in English or French, and in less than a second its complete dictionary entry appears in a text subwindow, allowing you to cut and paste translations into a document you're writing. You don't even have to type accents on words you're looking up. You can also easily browse forward and backward in the dictionary alphabetically. Versions of DICTOOL are available for both the original SunView window system and OpenWindows.

DICTOOL is available for download from this site. Of course since it's just the retrieval engine you must also buy the CD-ROM that contains the actual dictionaries. “Languages of the World” is sold for US$889 by the Bureau of Electronic Publishing. But before you pay that price, shop around! People have obtained this CD-ROM at prices varying from zero (bundled with a drive), less than US$100, all the way up to the BEP list price. Having instant translations on tap for a wide variety of languages is extremely convenient (you'll be amazed how many more puzzling words you look up when it's so easy), but I'm not sure I'd pay close to US$900 for it. But if, as I did, you can get the CD-ROM cheaply (I found it as part of a bundle in the DAK catalogue), it's worth US$100 or so—the paper dictionaries it contains would cost you substantially more than that. Further, if you're on a network, you can mount the CD-ROM on a drive that's exported over NFS and any number of people on the same net can legally share a single CD-ROM; nothing in the license restricts network access. [Bureau of Electronic Publishing, 141 New Road, Parsippany NJ 07054, USA, Tel: USA/800-828-4766 or 201-808-2700.]

I have recently heard that Languages of the World can be ordered for US$59 from S&S Enterprises, Tel: USA/800-ROM-DISC. I have not verified this personally and have had no experience with this firm.

Dictionnaire des Mots Suisses de la Langue Française

If you're living in Suisse Romande, this odd-shaped and overpriced (CHF 29.50) book is probably worth picking up. Most of the more than 1000 words it defines are relatively useless items like names given to residents of this town or that region, terms obviously adapted from the German, and the like, but every now and then this volume will save you some puzzlement. For example, last week I was reviewing a contract which included the phrase “L'Icha figurera séparément”. Eeesh…what's “Icha”? Well, pull out ye olde DdMSdlLF and there it is, right on page nonante-et-une, “ICHA, n.m., Mot suisse. – Impôt sur le chiffre d'affaires”…or, in other words, sales tax. [Nicollier, A., Dictionnaire des mots suisses de la langue française, Genève: GVA SA, 1990. ISBN 2-88115-003-9.]


Audio-Forum is a company that started out marketing the US Foreign Service Institute (public domain) language courses and grew to become the most comprehensive supplier of language learning material I know of. The FSI courses still form the foundation of their offerings, but their catalogue now includes a wide variety of material covering languages from Afrikaans to Zulu.

I have not tried the Foreign Service Institute French course they sell (Basic French Part A is US$175, Part B US$195, Advanced Part A US$225, Advanced Part B US$225), but I have worked through their Basic Spanish and German FSI courses and can recommend them with the following caveats. One, US$175 is a lot of money for a 200 page paperback book and 12 hissy cassettes, especially when the material therein is in the public domain and, if you're a US citizen, developed with your tax dollars (or your parents'). Second, the textbook is photo-reproduced from the original master that looks like it was typed on a 1950's vintage manual typewriter, including erasures. Still, the course is very thorough, if somewhat tedious, and thousands of people have taught themselves using it.

The Audio-Forum catalogue contains 7 full pages of French language material, including videos, French language movies and radio programs, flash cards, brush-up courses, material focusing on dialogues and colloquial speech, and courses for children. [Audio-Forum, 96 Broad Street, Guilford CT 06437, USA. Tel: USA/800-243-1234 or 203-453-9794. Catalogue US$2.]

Dictionnaires d'Informatique

Okay, you've clawed your way to sufficient proficiency in French that you can verbally ream that sale espèce de limace puante who rammed you in the traffic circle without batting an eyebrow. But how do you say “spreadsheet” in French? Well, if you're a computer type, you're going to need the following outrageously expensive books. (Unfortunately, I don't have the receipt and the price isn't printed on the books, but I distinctly recall these puppies emptying my wallet when I bought them.)

Ginguay, M., and Lauret, A., Dictionnaire d'informatique, ISBN-2-225-81885-1.
Ginguay, M., Dictionnaire Français-Anglais d'informatique, ISBN-2-225-82006-6.
Ginguay, M., Dictionnaire Anglais-Français d'informatique, ISBN-2-225-81988-2.

all published by Masson, 120, boulevard Saint-Germain, 75280 Paris Cedex 06, France. Oh yeah, it's “tableur”. Now what the heck is an “SGBD”?

Wicked French

Finally, just for fun, here's a slim little phrasebook filled with les mots justes pour épicer la vie quotidienne comme “Le canard calciné était vraiment extraordinaire” (The carbonised duck was particularly fine), “Ôte ce tas de férraille de la circulation” (Get that worthless heap off the road), and “Pardonnez-moi, mais avez-vous un porc-épic coincé entre les fesses?” (work this one out for yourself!). [Tomb, H., Wicked French, New York: Workman Publishing, 1989. ISBN-0-894480-616-5.]

The Hacker's French

No, I'm not about to start writing another “Hacker's” book until I get the last one published! But here are my notes for such a volume, aimed at how to quickly acquire a basic survival proficiency in French using the tools listed above.

  1. French In Action

    Get this course and play one video per day, each and every day, week in and week out. When you get to the end, start over from the beginning. Even if you don't have time to read the text, practice with the workbooks, or use the cassettes, make the 30 minute slot for the video a permanent part of your life. I've said on several occasions that if you simply watch this series of 52 videos through two times, you could parachute into Abidjan and get along in day to day life from the moment you hit the ground. It's that good. Really. As you proceed along this path, I'd also recommend doing one lesson per day of the Cortina course over and over until you don't feel you're improving further.

  2. Hammer Grammar

    At some level, you simply have to bash grammar into your head, especially since there are facets of French grammar that have no or very limited counterparts in English (such as many uses of the subjunctive, partitives, and the greater precision of time in French through such tenses as the future anterior). I recommend simply reading the Barron's and Cortina grammar summaries from front to back, spending about a week on each pass, a chapter or half a chapter per day, until it begins to sink in. There are lots of exercises you can do to master grammar, but the most important thing is first of all to know what there is to master, and these references show you that. The Cortina course, with its footnotes introducing elements of grammar, is very helpful in connecting the rules to their application in the language.

  3. Read for Vocabulary

    Once you understand enough grammar to comprehend basic sentence structure, you can then start to build your vocabulary by reading. It's often recommended that you start with children's books, but I prefer to read something that's interesting enough I'd read it in English. Newspapers and magazines are excellent material for beginners, since they generally don't use fancy literary language (though there are exceptions; don't expect to “get” some humour columnists for quite a while). If you're a science fiction fan, check out the illustrated Web editions of Jules Verne's De la terre à la lune and Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours available on this server. A wide variety of public domain French-language documents are published on the Web by L'Association des bibliophiles Universels.

    As you're reading, keep that little translation dictionary at hand. Every time you hit a stumper, look it up. (Or if you're reading with a workstation running DICTOOL at hand, use it; it's a lot faster). Before long you'll find yourself exclaiming, “Gee, it's been pages and pages since I looked anything up”, and then you'll be well on your way to mastering the basic vocabulary.

  4. Listen for comprehension

    Language learning consists of a sequence of painfully-achieved milestones. I found that being able to read the language readily—in other words, knowing enough vocabulary and grammar to be able to understand printed text without constantly having to look words up and puzzle out sentence structure, is only the first step. Learning to hear the language is a related, yet largely independent skill. You have to understand the words, of course, but memorising the whole bloody dictionary won't help if you can't tell what words somebody is saying. Constant practice is the only way to acquire this skill. If you're living in the US, about all you can do is watch French In Action and work through the Champs-Elysées tapes as they arrive every month. If you're living in a Francophone area, take advantage of every opportunity to hear the language—tune the radio to talk programs when you're in the car, watch the TV news every night, catch the latest Hollywood movies in dubbed editions, and listen to people talking to one another on the street. This is the language as she is spoke, not as she is writ, and you gotta hear it to learn it. You'll probably find this a painfully slow process. But after a year or so, you'll be amazed at your progress.

  5. Speak up

    Once you can read books and newspapers almost as fast as you read your native tongue, and you can follow a political discussion on the radio while driving through crowded traffic without difficulty, then you're ready to discover that you're still in the starting gate at the eloquence track, as it were, when it comes to actually speaking the language.

    Summoning up the right word at the instant you need it, assembling words into sentences in the proper order, and matching all the subjects, adjectives, objects, verb numbers and tenses and all the other details of a strongly-typed language is yet another difficult-to-acquire skill.

    And if you really want to master it, I can't help you very much because I'm still struggling with this phase myself (although I should note that I don't consider myself a particularly articulate speaker of extemporaneous conversational English). The basic fact is this: if you want to learn to speak a language, as opposed to read it or listen to it, you're going to have to pack up and move to someplace they speak that language, plunge in, and start getting things done in that language. No exercise, no course, and no trick that I know of will do it. Neurons get programmed by being used, and once you've struggled to express something like “light socket” to the guy in the hardware store and suddenly his face lights up and he exclaims, “une douille!”, that term will get burned into your repertoire.

  6. Nasty habits

    I've found that once you get the language learning circuit going, you can reinforce it in many ways. As you walk around the house or office, try to name all the objects you see in the language you're learning and remember to look up the ones that stump you. Try to use what would otherwise be downtime: driving to work, making dinner, performing triple bypass surgery on the cat, to reinforce your listening skills; keep the radio or TV on or, if you're in the US, use Champs-Elysées or French In Action for practice.

    And finally, here's the nastiest habit of all, one that combines both the acquisition of language skills with a diversion from that bane of modern existence, endless, boring business meetings. You need to work yourself quite a way up the learning curve before you can kick this in, but once you get there it's like lighting the afterburner halfway down the runway. The next time you're stuck in a stuffy room, one hour into five or six hours of a Very Important Action Item Resolution Meeting focused on where the serial number should be printed on the disc label and all of the cataclysmic implications of any change on the global community of humans obsessed with serial number formats, just smile, lean back, and…translate.

    Imagine you're one of those people in the booth at the United Nations, carefully rendering the discourse of the Fifth Undersecretary for Propriety of the New Zealand Delegation in the acrimonious debate on the Convention To Denounce Nastiness As A Means Of Resolving Conflicts into the language you're learning. Translate, and as you do, note down on the pad in front of you the words that stump you. Everybody will think you're making careful notes of the momentous decisions being “taken” at the meeting, and since the words you note down will be the tricky ones, your scribblings will probably be more useful to recall the details of the meeting than the gibberish all the other potatoes in the room are scratching down.

    Then, when you finally escape, go look up the words that baffled you in your little translation dictionary or with DICTOOL, and write out the translations on the page. I don't know why, but searching for a word and coming up empty, then looking it up shortly thereafter and writing it down seems to burn it into the brain more effectively than any other way I've found.

  7. “Have I ever failed?”

    Remember this mantra of the survival language learner. Better yet, translate it into French and remember that! For if your goal is to live in a French-speaking culture and conduct your day to day life in that language, then the only real criterion for success is success itself—can you, in fact, get along in that language? At the start, you'll be short of skills and confidence and things will be a little rocky. And you will continue to grind your teeth every time you mis-conjugate a verb, blow an adjective agreement, or fail to come up with a noun that's “right on the tip of your tongue”. And that irritation will probably last the rest of your life. But after a month or so, think about this: once you've rented an apartment, bought a car, arranged for insurance, opened a bank account, ordered a turkey for Christmas, gotten the oil tank refilled, etc., etc. and never had a real disaster (you know, disaster: like having a ton of steer manure dumped in your neighbour's yard), then every time the molars start gnashing, just ask, “Have I ever failed?”…failed to get done what I set out to do, without having to find somebody who speaks English? And as long as you haven't failed, then you're succeeding—succeeding in living your life in a language you didn't grow up speaking—a skill that the vast majority of humans on this planet never acquire or even attempt. And as the days and weeks pass, “never failing” will mature into “success” and then “proficiency”. Then you can start on German.

by John Walker