French and I had a pretty good start. It was the first language I learnt at school, and I wasn’t bad at it at all. It was my first taste of language learning proper, and it gave me a taste for it. By the end of school I was taking my school-leaving exams in it, along with German and Spanish.
Yet it fell by the wayside shortly after. For whatever reason, I just left it behind, only taking German and Spanish onwards to sixth-form college. It wouldn’t be long before I’d say, quite seriously, oh no, I don’t speak French, despite getting an A in that exam.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. With France and Belgium on the doorstep, I’ve enjoyed and felt welcomed in francophone countries all of my life. I just got by on what I had, without bothering to make it more serviceable.
My missed chances get even more glaring that that. I’ve had a French boss and colleague for nearly 20 years, which you might think would be a green light for a language lover to go wild. But we’ve always simply used English in the office, and I’ve shied from inflicting my French on him. After all, I thought, who wants to speak with their colleague in a terrible, broken version of their native language? (Fear of mistakes – workplace edition.)
I’ve got a reason to brush it up now. I have a couple of trips booked to French-speaking countries later this year. Nothing new, you might ask, we’ve been here before! If you didn’t brush up to visit then, why now?
Well, it’s partly a matter of a more mature attitude towards learning. I’m now less likely to dismiss partial knowledge; I’m less of a perfectionist. Any level of foreign language skill, no matter how scrappy, is absolutely precious. I have some French, so I’d better start looking after it!
There’s a word for this level, of course: the false beginner. That covers anything from a little knowledge, learned long ago, to a handful of holiday phrases learned here and there over the years. So where do you start as a French false beginner? Here are the most helpful ‘brush up your French books’ I’ve been using lately.
Coffee Break French was amongst the very first language podcasts when the genre started to take off. The team behind it have recently come up with a whole series of books in French, German, Italian and Spanish, all of which are perfect for those who want to brush up.
Each one features a set of short, to-the-point chapters revising both basic and intermediate grammar and vocabulary. Activities come in 5-, 10- and 15-minute flavours, making it ideal to leaf through in your spare moments. French reactivation with little time outlay.
I was a big fan of Hugo’s In Three Months series back in the day. They were very clear and concise, almost doing double time as quick reference books. Nonetheless, they introduce the whole gamut of grammar, and a good deal of vocabulary too.
Now it’s DK who is flying the flag for them with a brand new look and a slightly reduced language selection. But they’re still just as snappy, and ideal for getting back into a language you might feel a bit wobbly on.
Three books will be very well known to anyone who has taken A-Level French, German or Spanish in the past twenty years or so: Mot à mot, Palabra por palabra and Wort für Wort. They thematic vocabulary guides that cover a bunch of really useful conversation topics.
But beyond that, they contain plenty of very general, useful structures as well, for expressing agreement, disagreement and other opinion ‘glue’ for speaking. Well worth a revisit.
Who doesn’t like a good idiom? There have been lots of fun collections of these over the years, not least the sadly now out-of-print 101 French Idioms.
But in the absence of that, I’ve found Collins Easy Learning French Idioms a great substitute. It’s easy to dip in and out of, and features plenty of cartoon-style illustrations as aides-memoire. And it’s laid out thematically, so it’s simple to find a saying for a given occasion. Perfect to remettre les pendules à l’heure (set straight) my French.
And the Rest…
Of course, any reading you can do is going to help reinvigorate old knowledge. I’ve went hunting in Foyles last week, and availed myself of an Arsène Lupin pocket detective story, L’aiguille creuse, which I’m working my way through. It helps, of course, that Netflix has a brilliant French series, Lupin, inspired by those stories.
And that’s the dressing on this salad of false beginner’s resources – the fun stuff that you personalise to your own tastes, like films, magazines and podcasts. It’s helping get my old French back on its feet, and I hope you can do the same, too.
Who knows – I might even dare to use some in the office one of these days.