Easy Tips for Dusting Off Rusty French Language Skills

As we head into a new phase of quarantine, I’ll be spending time with these French podcasts, news sites, and streaming services

At my favorite bistro in Paris, where in 2010 I spent too much time eating, drinking, and speaking English with my friends, and not enough time practicing French. Je ne regrette rien.

As we head into what’s likely to be a long, lonely winter of quarantine, some of us can’t help but channel our existential dread into a productive project. For me, that’s going to be brushing up on French after a decade of neglecting my language skills.

To be fair, my French skills were probably never quite what they should have been for a French major (doubled with English) who spent four months studying abroad. Emily in Paris I was not, but let’s just say I spent more time enjoying confit de canard and Beaujolais Nouveau with my American friends than I did absorbing the language’s finer points from native speakers.

Flash forward to 2020: just over a month before the WHO declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic, I had the good fortune to find myself back in Paris for the first time since my semester abroad. Although I gave it the old college try and addressed every waiter and shopkeeper in French, I had to admit “je ne comprends pas” more often than I’d have liked.

In the past, every few years I would pick up a slim book from the French-language bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Albertine, and brute-force my way through it. But clearly this had not been enough to keep myself sharp. (And the most recent one I’d read, La Panthère des neiges, was set in Tibet and mostly involved googling a lot of wildlife vocabulary. Not very useful in the French capital.)

Spending hours at a time with one author’s distinctive voice probably isn’t the best way to resharpen language skills, anyway. Lately I’ve found a few other methods that are much less tedious and, j’espère, more effective.

I’ve broken down these methods by reading and listening, since they really are so different — and for most of us who learned French as a second language in school, the reading part is much easier. The key is that most of these things don’t take long, so you can weave them into your daily routine, or as often as you’d like.

Reading

1Jour1Actu

This website (literally “1 day, 1 news story”) is exactly what it sounds: a daily news article written in fairly simple French. As I write this, the subject of the day is the importance of World Toilet Day. Is it for children? Probably! Does that matter to me? Pas du tout!

Spending two or three minutes on it regularly is helping me remember not only the grammar and vocabulary that’s become hazy, but also the more idiomatic parts of French expression.

Le Monde

For years I tried to incorporate reading the French newspaper Le Monde into my routine, but it never really took. Oftentimes, contemporary news articles would cover subjects that I didn’t have familiarity with as someone who doesn’t follow French news closely, and I would just get frustrated having to look up what I didn’t know. Now I just try to skim the headlines when I can.

Magazines

On my last trip to Paris, I picked up a copy of one of the popular weekly news magazines, and while I mostly enjoyed reading it, it felt dutiful (and it took me a long time to make my way through it). I decided something more amusant would help keep me engaged and actually read.

Magazine Café has tons of international magazine subscriptions available, and while they’re expensive, I figured one was worth it. I chose Elle Decoration (funny to me that it’s “Décor” in the U.S. and “Decoration” in France), and while it hasn’t arrived yet, I look forward to reading about des meubles on some rainy dimanche.

Listening

News in Slow French

My new favorite podcast for listening to while I get ready in the morning is only about seven minutes long. It’s a news story…in French…but slow. The free version is available wherever you get your podcasts, and in either an “intermediate” or “advanced” version. I go with the advanced version, but I cannot overstate how much I appreciate that it’s slow.

The website has longer versions as well as courses for upping your French game, but for now I’m pleased with the short weekly podcast. For those interested, there’s also News in Slow Spanish, Italian, and German.

Criterion Channel

This is of course both watching and listening, but one of my favorite ways to absorb French without it feeling like work is simply to watch a movie in French. I keep the English subtitles on (unless it’s a movie I know very well, like Amélie, in which case I put on French subtitles to test myself), but just listening to the dialogue in French, I try to pay attention as much as possible to the vocabulary and pronunciation. Most of all, though, I just trust the osmosis.

Any streaming service is bound to have some movies in French, but I like The Criterion Channel best for this. It has way more international offerings than other streamers, of a very high quality, and you can sort by the country where the film was made. There are classics like Les quatre cents coups and Belle de jour but also more contemporary offerings by filmmakers like Claire Denis and the Dardenne brothers. After a 14-day free trial, it costs $11/month or $100/year. I’ve been watching about two Criterion movies a week, at least one of them in French.

As for actually practicing my speaking…I haven’t gotten around to starting a conversation group yet, and doing this on Zoom sounds insupportable. But c’est possible!

Do you have other ideas for brushing up on French, or other languages you’re looking to hone in quarantine partie deux? Sound off in the comments, mes amis.

Director at Medium working with authors and books. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.

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