The purpose of reading in the language is to learn vocabulary
automatically. Constantly looking up unfamiliar words will break
your reading rhythm and damage your enjoyment. Consequently, keep
use of a dictionary to an absolute minimum. It isn't heresy to say
this, just common sense. In fiction, very few words are crucial
for understanding the story line. Do you really need to know precisely
what a room looks like? It's enough to know that is large and elegantly
furnished. Do you really need to know precisely what a landscape
looks like? It is enough to know that it is isolated and windy.
Moreover, words repeat. You will certainly see an unfamiliar
word many more times throughout the text. At least one of those
times, the way it is used will tell you exactly what it means, with
no effort at all. As a rule of thumb, if you are using a dictionary
more than 2 - 3 times a page, you are probably being too fastidious.
Stop it. Just read and enjoy! Once you arrive on site where the
language is spoken, all the grammar and vocabulary you have stored
up in this way will rapidly show its worth.
In my case, this occurred only a very few weeks after landing in
Tanzania. At the beginning, I was speaking by translating through
English. However, one magic day I suddenly realised that I was no
longer translating through English. I was speaking in Swahili directly.
It was like being released from prison. Although this happened more
than 40 years ago, the picture of my cell door flying open and my
mind flying free is as vivid now as the day it happened. It's an
experience not to be missed!
that I could really speak a foreign language - and that
I didn't have to be a genius to do it - I tried to determine
how it had happened. I came to the conclusion that the single
most important psychological factor is resignation. Different
languages have different ways of doing things, some of which
will seem quite absurd. It is useless to keep moaning: "Why
do they speak in this ridiculous way when it is so much easier
to do it the way we do it in English?"
Whatever it is you find so annoying: Don't fight it; accept
This is how children learn languages.
They don't constantly
question grammatical structures, because it would just never occur
to them to do so. And we all know how much more easily and rapidly
"naïve" children learn languages than do we "sophisticated"
adults! Three Fundamental
Principles With Swahili as a basis, I also tried to determine
the fundamental principles of language learning that could help
me go on to mastering others. I found three to be particularly useful.
Facility Principle What you don't have to do is always easier
than what you do have to do.
In other words, the less you have to think about in learning a language,
the more rapidly you will learn it. And the fewer mistakes you will
make. As I will demonstrate below, French has certain features and
characteristics that make it dramatically easier than English. Take
advantage of them.
Here is the second principle that can smooth your way.
Familiar habits and patterns of thought
are often hard to break.
Paradoxically, some of the aspects where another language is easier
than English at first glance appear unfamiliar - and therefore falsely
difficult. Although it may take you some time to accept them, once
you begin to think in the language, you will rapidly come to appreciate
them and enjoy their benefits.
Here is an anecdote to illustrate the point. One time I was
talking with a Dutch-speaking friend. He agreed that English is
fundamentally simpler than his own language; nevertheless, he complained
that he just couldn't get used to English's simpler sentence structure.
In certain instances, Dutch grammar requires the order of the words
in the sentence to reverse; this never happens in English. Objectively,
then, English sentence structure should be easier than Dutch. But
to him, not reversing the word order just didn't seem natural.
Here is a third principle you will find extremely useful. Context
By themselves, words and sentences
have little meaning; often they can
be understood only in relation to
other words and sentences.
This is very reassuring. It means that even if you say something
incorrectly, in general people will still understand you because
of the context in which you say it. Likewise, even if people say
something to you using unfamiliar grammar or vocabulary, in general
you will still be able to understand them because of the context
in which they say it. In short, you don't have to approach perfection
in a language in order to use it effectively.
Simplicities, not Complexities To conclude, let me fulfil
the promise I made to demonstrate that French has certain
features and characteristics that make it dramatically easier
than English. This is equally true of most other languages,
regardless of how difficult they may seem at first. The important
thing is to focus on the simplicities, not the complexities.
Here are just seven examples; I could cite many more.
1. No tonic accent
Most people are largely unaware of how seriously difficult
their own native language could be to a foreigner. As a native speaker,
you probably find that English is quite easy to pronounce. But the
fact is, French is even easier. What! With its nasalisation, trilled
"r" and other difficult sounds? Absolutely! First, it
is important to understand that no sounds, in any language, are
inherently difficult to pronounce. If they were, they wouldn't exist
because the native speakers would never have accepted them in the
Learning to pronounce unfamiliar foreign sounds is never easy. Francophones
learning English have a terrible time pronouncing the "th"
sound in words such as "the", "they", "through",
"throw", etc., because there is no French equivalent.
But they do it reasonably well. Just as you may have difficulty
with certain French sounds that have no English equivalents. But
you can also do it. Where French pronunciation has an undeniable
advantage over English is its virtual lack of a "tonic accent".
Tonic accent simply means that certain syllables are given more
stress than are others. For example, "difficult" is pronounced
"dif-fi-cult"; the first syllable carries the tonic accent.
It could just as easily be pronounced dif-fi-cult, or even "dif-fi-cult".
Technically, the tonic accent does exist in French, but it is very
hard to hear it. For example, in English we say "rest-au-rant;
there is a distinct stress on the first syllable. In French, this
is "rest-au-rant", with no stress anywhere. Likewise,
"con--ven-tion" has a distinct stress on the second syllable.
In French, this is simply "con-ven-tion", with no stress.
And so on for every word in the language.
Thus, you never have to guess where the tonic accent should go,
so you can never make a mistake.
You have grown up
with the tonic accent, so you might not immediately recognise what
a problem it really is, even between native speakers. Britons, for
example, like to say "con-tro-ver-sy" whilst Americans
prefer to say "con-tro-ver-sy". And sometimes they don't
understand each other because of this difference. Britons say "gar-age"
whilst Americans say gar-age", again with the possibility of
misunderstanding. And so on. In French, there is no tonic accent,
so this problem simply doesn't exist.
2. Gallic Impersonality A. Use of "on" or anglophones,
imbued with the idea that French is a very personal language (the
so-called "'language of love"), few things are more surprising
than the frequent use of the very impersonal "on" (pronounced
ohn). By contrast, francophones learning English are surprised to
discover that English has no equivalent of "on", so they
have to search all over the place for substitutes.
Actually, this is not entirely true. English does have an equivalent,
"one", but it is seldom used. The Queen of England uses
it: "One has considered the matter carefully" rather than
"I have considered the matter carefully". Moralists use
it: "One should not kill", "One should be ready to
fight for one's country", etc. French uses "on" without
the slightest embarrassment. In fact, using it prevents a lot of
embarrassment. For example, a key problem in English is avoiding
"genderism". This is the explanation for the very odd
use of the plural pronoun "they" as if it were a singular.
Example: If someone studies hard, they will succeed.
Why do we make this apparently illogical switch from the singular
pronoun "someone" and the singular verb "studies"
to the plural pronoun "they'? Because otherwise, it would have
been necessary to say "he will succeed". However, the
sentence clearly is not directed only to males. Alternatively, it
would have been necessary to say "he or she will succeed",
or "he/she will succeed", which are cumbersome. French
has no such problem, because "on" (one) is the universal
B. Use of possessive adjectives Here is another example of how
Gallic impersonality avoids genderism. Consider the sentence: "Everyone
who studies hard will see their effort rapidly rewarded." We
start the sentence with a singular subject and verb; however, we
finish it with a plural possessive adjective ("their").
In French, the sentence remains singular all the way through, because
there is no gender distinction. "Son effort" can mean
either "his effort" or "her effort", according
to the context. Thus, the inherently impersonal nature of French
grammar automatically precludes a lot of "political incorrectness".
In English, we can achieve this only through some rather illogical
and inelegant grammatical contortions.
3. Use of infinitives A major problem French speakers (and most
other Europeans) face in English is the correct use of infinitives.
As a native speaker, you probably never realised that infinitives
can be a problem. After all, an infinitive is just an infinitive.
Well, not quite. English infinitives are in fact very unusual compared
to French infinitives. This is because French infinitives are unified,
whilst English infinitives are separable. For example:
1. French: manger (-er marks the infinitive)
2. English: to eat
The French infinitive
is always a single word; however, the English infinitive can be
used with both parts or only the second part. The problem is, in
many cases this is not optional, but required. For example: "I
need to eat something" (both parts), but "I must eat something"
(only second part). So what's the difference? Why in the first example
is the "to" necessary and in the second not only isn't
it necessary, using it would be quite incorrect? In French, this
problem never arises. "J'ai besoin de manger quelque chose"
(I need to eat something) and "Je dois manger quelque chose"
(I must eat something). Simple, isn't it. Just imagine if French
worked like English. You would constantly be making choices about
which form of the infinitive to use - and in many cases you would
4. Use of definite articles Use of the definite article ("the")
in English presents pretty much the same problem as use of the infinitive.
In other words, you must always be making choices about when to
use it and when not to use it. French is much simpler.
Really! Doesn't French have three definitive articles (le, la, les)
compared to only one in English? Absolutely! But the problem is
not deciding which definite article to use. Rather, it is deciding
whether or not to use any definitive article at all. In French,
you retain the definite article much more frequently than you do
in English. Thus, you have considerably fewer decisions to make,
and therefore considerably fewer opportunities to make a mistake.
Example 1. "I like cats" (cats in general)
2. "I like the cats" (specific cats, not necessarily all
In French, both statements are rendered "J'aime les chats",
so no decision about whether or not to use the definite article.
You distinguish the meanings of the two sentences from the context
in which they are used, not their grammatical form.
5. No distinction between "a" and "one" The
words "a" and "one" are the equivalent of "un"
in French. Fundamentally, these two words mean the same thing; however,
"one" is more precise, so it adds emphasis. For example:
1. I saw a Chinese film (at least one, perhaps more)
2. I saw one Chinese film (only one, no more)
Both of these sentences are rendered in French as "J'ai vu
un film chinois." As with the definite article, you distinguish
the meaning from the context. Many francophones speaking English
frequently make the mistake of saying "I have eaten in one
Japanese restaurant" when they really mean "I have eaten
in a Japanese restaurant". As an anglophone speaking French,
you will never make this mistake, because it simply isn't possible!
6. Simple & progressive (continuous) tenses English makes
frequent use of progressive (continuous) verb tenses, whilst French
almost never does. The progressive tenses are formed by two verbs:
the helper (auxiliary) "to be" and the "present participle"
(-ing form) of the other one. Example: She is eating.
English uses progressive tenses to distinguish between the general
time period during which an action takes place and the exact moment
that the action takes place. French generally does not make this
distinction. "Elle mange" means either "she eats"
or "she is eating". Once again, French leaves interpretation
of the correct meaning to context. And once again, since there is
only one grammatical form, there is no possibility of error!
7. Converting verbs into nouns Because of its fondness for progressive
verb tenses, English has a characteristic way of converting verbs
into nouns, i.e. using a verb as the subject or the object of a
In French, and many other languages, you simply use the infinitive:
Marcher est bon pour les poumons. You can do the same thing in English:
To walk is good for the lungs. However, the preferred form is: Walking
is good for the lungs. To anglophone ears, "walking" is
more dynamic than "to walk", i.e. it seems to give a better
picture of what is happening.
This may very well be the case - in English. But there is no such
distinction in French. So once again, there is no way of making
Admittedly, learning another language is never easy; it takes time,
energy and dedication. However, as we have seen, there are three
powerful strategies you can use to make the job considerably easier.
• Focus on the simplicities
of the other language rather than on its complexities.
• Channel your energies according to the best psychological order:
1. Basic grammar
2. Basic vocabulary
3. Speaking the language
4. Writing the language
• Concentrate on reading the language to comfortably and automatically
master its grammar and vocabulary. Good luck! Bonne chance! Veel
geluk! Viel Gelück! Buena suerte! Buona fortuna! . . . .
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall
Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently
teaches a course and conducts one-day workshops in writing and public
speaking in Brussels, Belgium. In the 'I' of the Storm: the Simple
Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional,
his recently published book, perceptively and entertainingly explains
the key principles and practices of persuasive communication. It
is available from the publishers in Ghent, Belgium (www.storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (www.amazon.com).