Thursday 5 November 2015

Most common mistakes in French - episode 1

This is the beginning of my 'Most common mitakes in French'. Please make comments about your students' most common mistakes or your own.

I recommend asking your teacher about the mistakes you make all the time. Write them down, highlight the ones you really want to focus on, this should help. Obviously, your teacher should correct you.  Ask him/her if that's not the case. Happy learning!

Saturday 31 October 2015

Quelques accents britanniques - Different British accents

Qu'en pensez-vous?
What do you think?

Répondez dans les commentaires de la vidéo ou ici.
Reply in the video comments or here. 

Listening practice - French GCSE - holidays - les vacances

Et vous, où êtes-vous allé en vacances?
And you, where did you go on holidays?

Est-ce que vous avez aimé? Si oui, qu'avez-vous aimé?
Did you like it? If so, what did you like?

Répondez dans les commentaires de la vidéo ou ici.
Reply in the video comments or here. 

Le petit-déjeuner - breakfast food in French

Alors, qu'est-ce que vous aimez manger le matin?
So, what do you like eating in the morning?

Répondez dans les commentaires de la vidéo ou ici.
Reply in the video comments or here. 

Most common mistakes in French - Episode 1

Friday 24 April 2015

How I learnt Japanese, by Matthew Paines

There are many paths to the acquisition of a new a new language. What worked for me may not work for you; but here is how I learned Japanese.

I was raised a monolingual Englishman, so the cards were stacked against me. A teenage romance in Germany made me want to learn - not study – the language of Goethe and Schiller. Today I suppose it would have been Rammstein. However, due to my poor French test results, my local education authority deemed that I had no aptitude for foreign languages. Thanks, Norfolk….

Fast forward to 1986, and the Trans-Siberian ‘express’ through the Soviet winter, landing in Japan on Valentine’s Day. Well now, here was a chance for immersive learning – I would have Japanese TV only, Japanese radio, Japanese girlfriend, Japanese books, etc, and be ‘fluent’ (a word much overused by the British) within a year. What really happened of course was the easy comfortable expat lifestyle. I could very easily have lived without a word of Japanese, but eventually a balance emerged between my desire to learn and the lure of the gaijin pub.

My first job was washer-up in a coffee shop, with promotion to server when I proved to the manager I could take orders and handle telephone enquiries. After moving on to more lucrative work, I still tried to do one day a week in the coffee shop – I came to realise this was one of my only opportunities to talk with Japanese men. Of course it would have been very nice to spend my whole time talking with Japanese women, but that’s only half the population. Another point to consider is the stratification of East Asian languages. Not only are there different social strata embedded in the language, also the difference between male and female speech is markedly wider than in European languages – different vocabulary, different tones. That’s why so many gaijin men sound so effeminate when they try to speak Japanese.

Working, dating, etc are a great help in improving language skills, but to grasp the foundation as quickly as possible, you really cannot escape class time. ‘Learn like a baby’ is all very well, but I didn't have another 26 years, so I needed the shortcuts that class time can give you. I signed up for 40 plus hours per week class time, this allowed me to work under 40 hours per week; AKA ‘culture visa’. That was 3 mornings per week, the rest 'self study'. Class was good, but I soon came to understand why I couldn't progress beyond the lower levels of the Japanese Proficiency Test- the school was a visa factory: they only took white western students, because immigration always hassled other ethnicities, especially Asians. So to get to the top levels, ie a pass, I knew I had to join one of the tough cram schools in Takadanobaba, as the only European in the school, let alone the class- which was kinda fun I have to say. While my Asian classmates passed within 2 years of arriving, it took me another 2 years to pass Level 1, ie 4 years in total. This should tell you something about their drive. They had a clear plan- Level 1, then trade school, then back home to build up the family business, then get married. No fooling around. And me? I was just another backpacker on his next trip, man.

With Level 1 I had achieved some kind of goal, how to progress beyond it? About halfway through my studies I was asked to try a translation – a machine manual if I recall correctly. Translation work gradually increased, especially financial news with all the collapsing bubble economies of the time, and now it's been my game for the last quarter century or more. Beyond translation as a form of income and also study, I took many diverse opportunities to improve my Japanese. I paid a nice lady once a week to go through newspaper articles with me. Friends would give me children's picture books, which are surprisingly helpful. The huge manga culture helped too. But as a musician, I cannot overemphasise the importance of karaoke. Hearing a popular song on the radio, or an old Enka, would make me rush out and buy the cassette, which always came with a lyric sheet, and listen to it on my Sony Walkman while jogging around Tokyo Palace. What is ‘Enka’? Arnold Schwarzenegger called it ‘dat Samurai music’, and musically it has the A minor and D scales you would hear on old movies. But the lyrics are recognisable from the poor working class anywhere in the world – I got drunk, I lost my woman, my truck broke down, I lost my job, my dog died, etc. And of course nationalism- there was an undertone of ‘only we people can understand this feeling’. So it’s basically Japanese country & western.

I suddenly found myself married, and then our time in Japan came to an end. We took the slow boat to China, and the train back to England through what was now Russia. I worked in Japanese corporations in London for the next 20 years, but always kept up my translation skills as a hobby. During this time I developed contacts (and a name as a good, reliable translator) with the agencies that still give me work today. About 4 years ago I gave up the foolish idea of corporate career, and went freelance fulltime. The hobby became a career. The work piled up, and I splashed out on the big two tools, ProZ membership and Trados Studio, which are starting to pay dividends.

At this point I should probably say something about whether marrying – or even dating – someone of the country whose language you’re trying to learn has any pedagogic value. This is an assumption among many people, especially the monolingual (“ah, Japanese wife eh? No wonder…”). I heard this in both Japan and England. Well they may have a point – up to a point. And indeed we first met eyeing each other up for free language lessons. But any couple soon develops their own language, and becomes comfortable with a quite restricted vocabulary. We mostly speak Japanese, with the odd Finnish or Arabic swear word. It’s when she starts talking English at me I know I’m for the rolling pin….

We moved to Helsinki last year, thanks to my wife’s job. We have always loved the music scene up here, and the interesting friends we’ve kept contact with over the years. Then there’s the additional challenge of the Finnish language- the world’s second-weirdest, I can probably say. I made an attempt to learn it 10 years ago in London, but now I’m here, I’ve gone right back to basics with a class at Helsinki University. There are differences this time around. Dating is of course out of the question – at home it’s Japanese only. And then there’s that seductive expat lifestyle, which is almost exclusively English-speaking. And of course I am not 26 years old any more; I do find it harder to retain and produce language these days. But with the University’s help, and the music scene, and children's books, and my lovely friends, I have a plan to add Finnish>English to my translation pairs on within 1 year. OK, make that 2 years….

Matthew can be found on:

Photo credits: Sophie Marette

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie

In the light of the recent events in France and the media coverage which has followed,     je suis Charlie and therefore, French has been all over the world.

Will it create a new interest for French in England, in London, where I, where we teach French at Voulez-vous parler? Not that it had died away amongst adults, judging by the number of calls I've received this month, but it certainly has in schools. I don't know, but it's a question I've asked myself, especially as we are in January, the month of new resolutions.

Sunday 4 January 2015

How languages can change your life - my story

At the beginning of this new year, and after a wonderful trip to Japan, a country I've fallen in love with like I fell in love with England 25 years ago, it made me think about how my love of languages has shaped my life.

When I was 12, a year after I started learning English at school, I started to love it - the fact I was in love with my teacher definitely contributed I think - and started to write to penfriends from England. My correspondance then spread to numerous countries from all continents, as most students were either learning English or French. I would write letters - as the internet/emails didn't exist in the late 80s/early 90s - to boys and girls from Canada, Russia, South America, US, Australia, England, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Indonesia. I was lucky to have a mum who didn't mind spending a fortune on stamps to make me happy. It sure did wonders for my English, as repetition is the way to remember vocabulary. I remember spending ages looking words up in the dictionary. It paid off. I never had to learn my lessons from school as English seemed to stay in my brain so easily. I was also learning German from 13 and Spanish from 15, but don't recall writing much in these languages.

Around 1989/1990, I started doing the Lille-Yorkshire exchange in summer, I would go to Yorkshire for 2 weeks and my penfriend would come back in the bus with me and she would spend 2 weeks in my family on the Northern France seaside. I have such fond memories of my stays in sunny Yorkshire -I think I was lucky, as I now know what English weather is like - I remember being welcome like a queen and loving the food, the activities, the visits to Leeds, the Dales, Whitby,York and its Middle-Ages museum, whose smells amazed me, a big shopping centre like I had never seen before, trying sailing and step for the first time, a sport I would later practise weekly. What I found very interesting was seeing how people lived and their interactions as a family, as I was growing up with my mum and sister. These girls didn't know how lucky they were to live with their dads. But I digress.

Staying in immersion for 2 weeks meant that my English was hesitant when I arrived and more fluent and richer in vocabulary when I left. I had learnt lots of new food words, new verbs, new towns, discovered new music, new actors, and more than anything, saw what English schools were like. During my first summer in Goole, Mandy, my penfriend, was a fan of Cure, which I was too, and she introduced me to Beautiful South, which I fell in love with and still listen to this day, thinking about her house and sunny garden where we played with her brother during those July summer nights.

I did this exchange for 2 years. Then le collège was finished and I was at the lycée. My teacher organised an exchange with a Sittingbourne school, and that's where I met Joanne, from Sheppey, in Kent. By then, my English was better, I knew more tenses and my vocabulary was richer. We got on really well and carried on visiting each other for a few years. Unfortunately, we lost touch, and I don't despair to find her one day on facebook or linkedin.

When I was 18, very much in love with England, the English language, and a book worm, I decided to read English at university, as I was already following my guts at that time and thought that one should study what one likes, instead of choosing a safe but boring option. I knew I wouldn't get very far studying English but had faith in life, and it proved me right. I graduated and as most students studying English at uni do, I applied to be a French assistant in a school in England. We had to fill in a form with 3 choices of town, being told that if you ticked London as a first option, you were unlikely to get it. Being me and following my instincts, again, I put London as my first option, and obtained a job in an East London school, where I spent 2 wonderful years meeting a lovely English man in the same school as soon as I started. England was definitely feeling like home and the thought about going back to France never occured to me. This is why I'm always surprised when asked the question. If you feel at home somewhere, why would you want to leave?

A few years later, at the beginning of the noughties, on holidays with a friend in Cyprus (see us in picture below), frustrated because I couldn't read Greek, I asked him to teach me the alphabet, which he did, but I didn't remember much, so I decided to hire a tutor on my return and spent the next years learning Greek, meeting 3 teachers and new friends in the process, as I seized every opportunity to meet Greek nationals, so I did, through couchsurfing - hosting Greeks in my home - parties my teachers would have and others activities. When I went back to Greece, it was very different being able to communicate in the natives' language. People really opened up and were very happy I had gone through the trouble of learning their language. And of course I could ask directions, which proved very handy, as well as argue about prices when I felt I was being ripped off.

In London, over the years, meeting so many Greek, Spanish and Italians, I've been able to practise these languages learnt at school or as an adult, and even though I'm not as fluent as I should/could be, I always find opportunities to listen and speak, even if I'm hesitant and rusty. It can be in the train, in a waiting room, someone lost in the street, facebook articles in the language, it's regular and fun contact with the language which matters.

Many years ago, I started to learn Albanian as I was very close to someone who was a native speaker. One could think it's a useless language to know. Not quite so. Last year, I met a few Albanians whilst networking and had an Albanian family behind me in the shuttle when travelling back at Christmas. Even though I only remember 3 or 4 words, it establishes a connexion with someone, who can tell you've had an experience with their culture. Languages can open doors -and jobs - and allow you to understand what's happening around you. In London, as there are so many foreigners, one will often find oneself within a group of Italian, Spanish, French, which will speak in their  native language for a few minutes, which is natural. Whether it's in a professional or personal context, it's always better to understand what's going on, especially if it's your partner's family or colleagues on the trading floor. I mention the latter as I'm thinking of a former student of mine who was learning French to undersstand what his French colleagues were talking about.

My last experience with a new language was Japan a few weeks ago. Before going, I had bought books and other tools to learn Japanese. Being lazy and the task being too big to tackle on my own, I hardy did anything except listen to/read a few chapters of my phrase book and put up 2 posters of Japanese vocabulary in my bathroom. When I arrived, I was lucky to have a few things organized for me so I didn't need Japanese very much, but when I got lost in a Kyoto station one day, I told myself I should really have done what I preach to my students: learn directions and a few phrases about being lost and where is...? What was fantastic was the immersion I had whilst on a yoga retreat before Kyoto, with 2 teachers, one Japanese, one Australian, Lucy, who taught the classes in English, translated into Japanese, helped by Maho, the Japanese teacher, who helped when Lucy had forgotten a word or expression.We were 23 in the class, 9 Japanese and the rest of us came from different countries: England, Spain, France, Australia, Hawaii, Fiji, Switzerland. The expats living there and native speakers taught us some Japanese words during meals and the outdoors activities that we did together. It was such a mix of languages and cultures, sometimes in the middle of an onsen/hotspring that I'm going again later this year.

For a French person, spoken Japanese is quite easy per se, especially the pronunciation, because sounds are similar and simple. It looks like a difficult language because when we think of Japanese, we think of what it looks like and psychologically, this is enough to stop most people from considering learning it. But if you take a breath and forget this, just focus on the sounds, take notes in our alphabet, words used on a daily basis are easy to remember as they are repeated over and over again. Of course, some can be a pain, after all, it's got nothing in common with Latin, unlike a lot of European languages. Something to remember: how long did it take us to speak our  native language? Not months, but years, so be kind and patient with yourself.

In conclusion, if you want to learn a language, do it, at least try, you will always learn something from it. you can go to meetups to meet natives, fellow learners and speak to someone else than your teacher. If you're thinking of sending your child to a French or Spanish family to improve their language skills, do it, it's an amazing opportunity for them, which they'll thank you for later if not immediately. If you want a private tutor because you think it will make you study regularly and focused, you're right, you might even make a new friend, like I have with some of my students over the years. Your teacher will also teach you about the culture and might lend you some DVDs, books and magazines.

The secret to learning is passion, regularity, repetition, speaking, even with mistakes (who cares?) and make new friends in the language, go to parties in the language you're studying. In Naoshima, even with no Japanese, I spent 3 hours dinning with a group of retired ladies from Nagoya - only one spoke a bit of English (in the picture below) - we had a great time, you'd be amazed how much we can talk about with gestures, pictures and smiles. Happy learning in 2015!