How to master a foreign language from home

You don't have to live abroad to speak like a native

Learning a language, I mean really mastering one, is a lifelong commitment.

If you weren't born bilingual, didn't live in another country, or weren't exposed to multiple languages before a certain "critical period," it's much more difficult to become fluent in a second language. While many of us in the States have language requirements at school, it's increasingly rare that one will be inclined to take their study to a serious level after graduation. But language mastery has a variety of benefits. Not only is it a key to international careers, but it also helps challenge and boost the brain's ability to analyze and problem-solve. Language learning can help strengthen memory, stave off dementia and Alzheimer's, and even improve your mother tongue. It's a commitment as challenging and rewarding as learning to play music.

And like music, words are just one part of the universe of language. Language mastery depends on the ability to not only speak, write, and read words, but to also expertly employ gesture, inflection, expression, and style. Gesture is to language as musicality is to music. Inflection is to language as dynamics is to music. It's something that can't be learned from a textbook or through a translation app, but nurtured from within.

One of the first mistakes that international travelers make is relying on technology to do the hard work for them. With the ease of the Internet, why bother? But when I talk to people that live in countries where English is not the primary language, the majority of them are offended that tourists rarely make an effort to at least try to speak the native language. That's why, if you're up for the challenge, mastering a language is a rewarding journey in itself, not only for you, but for others.

For writers, the prospect of writing in a second language can seem like an initial jump into the abyss. Though Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote in English as exquisitely as he could in his mother tongue of Russian. Author Jhumpa Lahiri made a complete plunge into the Italian language and documented her experience in In Other Words, which she wrote entirely in Italian. Driven by obsession, Lahiri remarks that writing in Italian gives her a whole different sense of freedom; it lets her express a dual soul. New Yorker writer Lauren Collins recently released a memoir of a similar ilk, though she learned her second language by marrying a Frenchman. All of these writers had the unique experience of living in the countries in which they mastered their languages. While living in the country for some period of time, most would agree, is a necessity, language mastery can start on the homefront.

From an early age, I was enraptured by French. Not just the language, but everything about France. I was over the Eiffel Tower and baguettes by the time I was in college. I was interested in argot in the banlieues. I was reading about theatrical French politics and the catastrophic Algerian War. The Vichy Regime. This was the France I wanted—albeit, a bloody one.

I had reached a certain level and studied in Paris, but my time was so limited I felt stuck by incompetence. In groups, I was overwhelmed by the speed at which my new French friends spoke. I didn't want to show my weakness by speaking the language I was more comfortable with, English. I just nodded until someone asked me a question, then answered as slowly and accurately as possible.

When I returned to the States, I was determined to become fluent in French. But the problem was, I didn't have French around me everyday anymore. But if I couldn't be in France, France could be in me. I knew that there were several important things to focus on when it came to language learning: daily practice, speaking, grammar, culture, context, and slang. Here are some of my language tips for advanced speakers that wish to become masters.

1. Write in the language every day

One of the most enjoyable parts of my day comes before 5am. Every morning, I make the time to write at least 500 words in French in my journal by hand. No, it doesn't matter what I write about. It's mostly nonsense. And yes, I make mistakes. While typing on a computer with the language settings set to French would auto-correct all my mistakes, I'd rather make them and maintain a connection to the words I'm writing. Typing takes all of the tactile joy out of writing. Don't do it.

2. Listen to news podcasts

On my morning commute, I listen to Les Matins sur France Culture. Everyday, the 2-hour program is filled with intellectual interviews and reports on the latest in French and world news. The show features many different voices, so I am regularly exposed to different varieties of regional French accents, vocabulary, and slang. All you have to do is close your eyes, then wake up and have absorbed so much more French. In just 3 months, my level of comprehension has easily tripled. Not to mention, it also helps immensely with my pronunciation. Also: subscribe to magazines like France-Amérique, which just happen to be bilingual.

3. Read comic books

When I first became serious about mastering French, I was mistakenly overambitious: I started with Stendhal, Balzac, and Zola. I sat on my bed with a dictionary opened in front of me, prepared to look up every word. But when it took me an hour to read one page, I realized this wasn't a very effective way to understand. Then, I thought back to how I learned to read English: through context clues. Though you have to start from the beginning.

Try comic books. The French have a dazzling collection of bandes dessinées that are as rich in literary merit as they are in language-assistance. Cartoons are a multi-sensory way to facilitate language learning and fill in the gaps of words you don't understand. I've learned so much more from BDs than I ever have from French history books. Riad Sattouf's series, L'arabe du futur is not to be missed; as is Catherine Meurisse's La Légèreté. They are pricey when you order them on Amazon, be warned. But these are treasures you won't just want to have to return at the library. I read them multiple times for maximum effect.

4. Read aloud

It is not enough to read to yourself. Remember how you started reading English: by reading aloud. Whatever you're reading, whether it be a comic book, play, or news article, get in a room with a door, close it, and start reading. Reading aloud will allow you a few liberties. You will read more slowly, with more time to focus on each word. You will also get a chance to work on your pronunciation and accent, while adding inflections of attitude and spirit depending on context. Act it out and have fun! It may sound silly, but it's totally worth it.

5. Watch foreign TV and movies (without subtitles)

Do not succumb to subtitles; they will just distract you. Instead, focus on catching the gist of the situation without knowing every single word. If you feel so inclined, write down a vocabulary word to look up later. But what's more important is to understand the attitude of a situation, the behaviors, the feelings. As you get increasingly fluent, you'll be able to fill in the blanks more easily. Start with the excellent Netflix series, Marseille and the film, Intouchables.

6. Get involved with the embassy and La Maison Française

Your local embassy is an invaluable resource if you're going to master a language. Not only do they have listings of all French-related events in the vicinity (in both French and English), but they post information on job offerings, fellowships, and other ways to get involved. The French Embassy in New York City even has an amazing bilingual bookstore, Albertine. The Maison Française of a local university will also be a useful place to find francophile events. Many of them host gatherings where you can talk to people of all levels of French to practice your skills, while chowing down on some wine and cheese.

7. Join a language alliance

The French Institute Alliance Française(FIAF) has been an integral part to establishing a French community for me. With a variety of culture-focused, speaking-focused, and grammar-focused courses for all levels, it gives you the chance to talk with like-minded francophiles living in your city. It also gives you access to a French library (where I've found hundreds of BDs, classic literature, and magazines). The institute offers a bunch of information on how to travel to France as well as testing facilities if you're applying for programs and need to take a proficiency exam. The coordinators also host film screenings every Tuesday and have open houses once a month where you can meet people just as passionate about the language as you are in a casual, fun, and food-filled environment.

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8. Have authentic dining experiences

There are probably plenty of restaurants claiming they are "French" around you, but I challenge you to eat at a real French restaurant like Le Bernardin. Something with a French chef and French menu. You should know what everything on the menu means if you're serious, plus talk to the wait staff in French. To take it to the next level, try cooking a French recipe from a French recipe book!

9. Live your language

You can study French all you want, but are you thinking in French? For every task you do (eating breakfast, reading the newspaper), have a French voiceover running constantly in your head: "À ce moment, je vais manger le petit-déjeuner. Puis, je vais lire Le Monde." Translating all of your daily tasks into French may seem tedious, but it will become second nature in no time!

10. Dream your language

You know you've mastered a language when you start to dream in it. The unconscious may be seemingly impenetrable, but you can impress your new language on your mind in all states of consciousness. Study right before bed. Think of French things. Sleep and dream.

Language is so much more than just words and grammar—it is a universe unto itself. Mastering a language is infinitely beneficial, not just for your traveling ambitions, but for your soul. Of course, full immersion is the best way to become fluent, but the road to mastery can start at home.

Be your own interpreter.


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