Since I really committed to speaking French the last two years, I’ve gathered a mini-library of French books: mainly dual-language dictionaries, but also a few textbooks, a couple phrase books, grammar guides, books on verb conjugation, a couple children’s picture dictionaries, and a handful of texts, including a French-English Bible and French editions of Walden, ou la vie dans les bois and Tu es dans le vent, Charlie Brown, among others.
But the last few weeks, I’ve found a few of the most useful books yet. Speaking the language is supposed to be the best way to learn it, but somehow this newly-found combination of books has really stoked my learning in a way that even the Pimsleur Conversational French lessons haven’t.
The first find was a book called French Fun: The Real Spoken Language of Quebec by Steve Timmons. My first exposure to French came from listening to French language radio broadcasts on the CBC; since then, I’ve listened to French language radio from France, and already, I can tell the difference between the two dialects, although I don’t know enough about the language to put a finger on the differences, except to say that they feel and sound different. Being back in Vermont, I’ll probably make a few weekend jaunts to Quebec before I take the big plunge into Paris next spring, so French Fun is useful on that level… but it’s also giving me a good sense of the way that the language is used “on the street” as opposed to academically (and any written text is going to be, to some extent, academic). Certain Quebec turns of phrase barely translate literally, but, like the simple phrase bon jour, can be the key to surviving in that language. There are also numerous Franglais words and Americanisms. French Fun is a glimpse of the Quebecois people and their province through the language that links them to their European cousin.
Then someone tipped me off to the Oxford Beginner’s French Dictionary. Why I felt like I needed another dual-language dictionary in addition to my Larousse, Robert, Langenscheidt, Berlitz, Merriam Webster, Milet, and Random House, I have no idea, but I bought a used copy on eBay, taking a chance that it was, as described, different, and I’m glad I did. The difference is that the Oxford Beginner’s Dictionary is organized and designed not for language reference, but for language learning. The information about gender, conjugation, and usage is easier to find than in most of those other dictionaries. It’s actually a READABLE dictionary, which sounds strange, but it’s a fun book to just open and thumb through at random. It also has a lot of useful supplemental information, including 66 conjugation tables, and, if I ever want to just cram, a two-page microprint list of about 700 words with the heading “The French Words You Must Know.”
The Oxford Beginner’s French Dictionary has worked in conjunction with the third book I found:English Grammar for Students of French by Jacqueline Morton, a slim “study guide for those learning French.” As with the Oxford volume, it seemed counterintuitive to get a book about ENGLISH grammar (after all, I’m learning French, right?)… but experience has taught me that sometimes the counterintuitive choice is right, especially when the book just appears on the free shelf at the library, so I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did. English Grammar for Students of French is designed to work in conjunction with most basic French textbooks and classes, and it presents a review of English grammar along with the French equivalents. Reviewing it, I feel like I’m finally understanding such mysteries as French noun gender and the language’s use of articles, possessives, and other nuances that only crop up when you use (or misuse) French. This one is RECOMMENDED if you’re taking French at any level.
The last book was a bandes dessinées volume of comics by French cartoonist Philippe Coudray, volume three of L’ours Barnabe, a comic that’s been published in the USA as Benjamin Bear. I’ve read other comics and children’s books in French, but so far, my favorite is Barnabe the Bear and his best friend, Rabbit. Bandes dessinees are popular in France; they’re not really children’s books, not really comic books, not really graphic novels. This volume is akin to a collection of Sunday color newspaper comics. It’s fun to read the French, look at the drawings, and see how close I can get to the actual meaning of the words. The more learning can resemble play, the better it can be, and Coudray’s comics are a perfect combination of French wordplay and visual humor. Fun.
These four books all came my way as I’d pretty much committed myself to delving in deeper, while at the same time I felt weary of the audio language (“Ou est La Rue St. Jacques? Est que vous voudrais bois quel que chose?”) lessons.
Funny: when I look at the shelf-full of French books I’ve amassed, there are books that are SIMILAR to these four titles, but somehow, they weren’t the right combination. What I needed was not only to listen to and speak French, but also get a good reference book (like the Oxford volume) and supplement it with material that explains the language (the grammar book) and its cultural context (French Fun), and then apply that material to reading a fun book that I enjoy (L’ours Barnabe).
All of which is to say this: if you hit a lull in your learning, stick with it, and keep trying to find the combination of learning materials that works for you.