Just Babbeling On

I mentioned in the previous post I’d write about the learning methods I’ve been using for French. So today’s post is about an online course at Babbel I’ve been following for half a year. I’ve had some weeks when I did not use it, but all in all I’ve managed to stick with it quite well. I’ll try to get to the bottom of why it’s worked for me.

I’m not an expert on different online courses or language apps. I actually only tried Duolingo before. I know a lot of people who use Duolingo and have managed to actually get to a decent conversational level by using it. I tried it twice for basics of German, and also took a level test in French and tried some of the bit more advanced stuff.

For some reason, Duolingo was not for me. I got bored with the exercises, first of all. Even more importantly, I was annoyed by the system they had to encourage you to revise – the level bars that keep going down when you don’t practice. I guess a perfectionist like me just had to keep the bars full, and I found myself having to repeat the basics over and over again, even though I already knew them by heart. Finally, I got tired of sentences like “My pretty duck drinks juice”. I swear I do have a sense of humour, and Sh*t Duolingo says on Twitter really is a good laugh. And I know it’s a bit like reading a children’s book first, and that can be a great way to learn. But I don’t know, maybe I’d rather actually read the children’s books then. I just like to learn useful stuff.

Babbel I first found through their blog, where I really enjoyed reading some of the user portraits and “tips from polyglots how to learn any language” kind of stories. When I started to think following a course might really help me get some structure to my French learning, Babbel was the only one I had really read some experiences about, and I decided to test it. I liked the free trial – it’s free to test one lesson of each course, and there are several courses from beginners to intermediate, plus grammar, listening and speaking, and different themes, so you actually get to play around quite a bit before you need to make up your mind. To subscribe the courses, you have to pay a bit, but I think the price was very reasonable, you get access to all of the courses, and in the beginning, having paid money for it was a good motivator to really regularly use it.

The exercises themselves are quite simple and in a way quite similar to Duolingo: lot of repetition, exercises for writing, speaking and listening, and you just learn a few new phrases per lesson. Somehow I still find them a lot less boring than Duolingo. Maybe it’s because they are more coherent. Each lesson includes a dialogue in the end, with a couple of characters discussing some issue, creating a clever little story. I already start guessing from the sentences introduced in the lesson what the dialogue is going to be about, and that keeps me interested throughout the lesson. For an occasional laugh, instead of ridiculous sentences, the dialogues often have a funny twist in the end.

The topics and phrases are mostly very everyday, and I often think: “Hey, I could really use that sentence!”, and get encouraged to imagine myself in a situation where I use it, maybe even change the phrase a bit to better fit my needs. I think that is very fruitful, because textbook/course-form of language learning always has the risk that you only learn the textbook phrases by heart, and don’t learn to apply them in real life.

My favourite thing on Babbel, however, is  certainly the Review manager. The vocabulary you learn on the exercises appears there, and you can revise with flashcards or writing – I always use the flashcards. The clever thing is, they tell you how the revise manager works: each time you get the phrase right on first attempt, it is moved to the next level and the revision interval gets longer. If you get it right on the second try, the interval stays the same, and if it takes more tries, the interval gets shorter. You can see which level all your vocabulary is on.

Review manager on Babbel

I find this very motivating. I can follow the progress of my vocabulary building up, and I know it makes sense how often I revise a phrase. The more difficult ones to learn will be revised more often, and the easy ones that already are in the long-term memory, will not cram the process and make me bored.

I often still spend a lot of time revising, and only take on a new lesson maybe once a week. However, I think this course has been very useful for my overall learning. It hasn’t perhaps taken my French to a new level, but it’s been great for defrosting what I already knew but had forgotten. I actually had already learned quite a lot of grammar, and building sentences and that kind of stuff, back in school. Babbel has also been a great basis for my other two learning media, audiobooks and Goldlisting, which both would be much less useful on their own.

I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences on different online courses and language apps!

A piece of baguette

My Project French is going quite well!

I’ve found a nice and efficient combo of learning methods which work for me.  For a couple of months now, I’ve been learning with

  • An online/mobile app course from Babbel
  • Goldlist
  • Audiobooks

I think I’ll blog in a bit more detail about each method soon!

This time, however, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I find learning French – which aspects of it are easy, which are difficult.

I can’t actually come up with too many easy things. As a whole, French just is not a piece of cake. More like a piece of baguette, with a tough crust you need to get through before it gets easier to chew. (Such a clever analogy, I know.)

A pretty nice share of the vocabulary is easy to memorize due to similarity to English. It also makes guessing the meaning of many words possible, and I find I can read even rather complicated texts, although my oral skills are not very advanced.

For instance, last summer I did an internship where I had to go through a lot of texts from the European Commission, and just for fun, I checked some of the reports in French. I was surprised to be able to actually read through several pages of “COMMUNICATION DE LA COMMISSION AU PARLEMENT EUROPÉEN, AU CONSEIL, AU COMITÉ ÉCONOMIQUE ET SOCIAL EUROPÉEN ET AU COMITÉ DES RÉGIONS: Feuille de route pour une Europe efficace dans l’utilisation des ressources” , and the like, quite effortlessly! Pretty awesome.

The most difficult aspects are related to verbs, I think.

Irregular verbs are a pain in the back, as in any language. I’m so happy my French teacher made us memorize a whole lot of them early on. That’s one of the few things I think have stuck in my head pretty well from those lessons (in addition to useful sentences like “Je détéste les olives.”).

And when to use imperfect and passé composé? Imperfect is for describing a state, or continuous or incomplete action in the past, and passé composé is for already completed or single events, right?

That’s strange to me – in Finnish, the imperfect describes something that happened not too long ago and is somehow new information, whereas the perfect describes something that happened maybe longer ago, but is somehow related to something that is currently happening…

Err, wait. Now that I tried explaining the Finnish tenses, I started to feel that maybe the French way actually makes more sense. Well, I never said Finnish was easy, did I?? Maybe this is not one of the difficult things in French, after all, at least now that I know how it works. But I remember it used to be confusing!

Finally, I have to admit I have no idea what the subjunctive is used for, I just vaguely remember from my French lessons back in school, that there is such a thing, and that it is weird. Brr.

In addition to verbs being tricky in many ways, I feel that the French way to build sentences takes some effort to grasp. It’s hard to explain, but I take an example from a book, originally in English:

“The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear if anyone found out about the Potters.”

And the French translation goes:

“Les Dursley avaient tout ce qu’ils voulaient. La seule chose indésirable qu’ils possédaient, c’était un secret dont ils craignaient plus que tout qu’on le découvre un jour. Si jamais quiconque venait à entendre parler des Potter, ils étaient convaincus qu’ils ne s’en remettraient pas.”
The Dursleys had everything they wanted. The only unwanted thing they had, it was a secret of which they were afraid more than anything that would be found out one day. If ever anyone would hear about the Potters, they were certain they could not bear it.”

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)

Of course, it’s a book, and spoken language is different, but I think that particular something is there in spoken language, too.

Somehow the sentences seem more complicated, there’s always an additional curlicue.
I actually kind of like that. It’s like making every sentence a carefully, lovingly wrapped and decorated gift.

I guess that is something you can pick up through just hearing and reading a lot of French. After all, anything can become easy, with enough practice.