Or, perhaps more appropriately, “How I’m Learning French So I Can Read More Bandes Dessinees.”
Are you stuck at home for weeks on end, tired of the endless scroll of Netflix, and wanting to better yourself?
Learn French! With that, you can discover new comics! Isn’t that why everyone learns new languages?!?
That’s what I’ve been doing all this year already: Learning French.
I think I’ve made some progress, so I’m going to write up what I’ve been doing. Maybe it’ll help you. Maybe it’ll inspire you. Maybe you’ve already clicked away to read an Asterix review. I’m OK with that.
Now that it’s just those of us who care, let me lay it all out:
Why I’m Learning French
Most people want to learn a new language before they visit a foreign country. They listen to audio tapes or podcasts or whatever systems they sell now to tourists looking to learn how to ask where the bathroom is as they fly to their vacation spot.
You can’t learn a language in a five hour flight. That’s ridiculous. You might learn to recognize a few words, but here’s what will happen the second you land in the other country: Everyone will be speaking that language very very fast.
You learn at a speed where you can comprehend and translate everything in your mind. But that’s a very slow speed. Once the boots are on the ground, nobody else cares. They speak conversationally.
Whether or not you realize it, you do the same in your native tongue. You talk much faster than someone else is learning it.
I, however, am not a tourist. I’m not planning a trip to Angouleme or Paris anytime soon. (Someday, perhaps. I’d also need to hit Belgium.)
I am learning French so I can read it.
I want to read the comic books. (Ahem: Je veux lire des bandes dessinées.)
I want to read the history (comic) books that will never be translated into English because nobody in America cares about May 1968 and the impact it had on Pilote Journal, or biographies about people who came up through Peyo’s studios before having a successful career of their own, or, really, the entire history of French comics.
I want to follow creators on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram without constantly having to hit the “Translate” link after their post.
I want to read the news on French websites that track the Franco-Belgian comics world without switching to Chrome and hoping the auto-translate kicks in.
And I want to be able to respond to all of those people and organizations in their native tongue.
Welcome to 2020, where I’m learning a language so I can read comics and discuss them on the internet.
Is This Article for You?
If you want to learn how to speak the language of love and have an amazing conversation at the local boulangerie where you buy your croissants while on your way to La Tour Eiffel, this article is not for you.
If you want to recognize words and patterns and be able to read and comprehend enough of a language to read some of its literature and the on-line discussion around it, this will be the right place for you.
I’m writing this article to outline the methods I’m using to learn the language with an end goal of being mostly-fluent at reading comics materials.
It’s not a simple approach. It’s not a single bullet solution. But it’s also not “move to the country and surround yourself completely” total immersion.
Sure, that would probably work, too, but it’s a bit of a drastic move and not terribly practical for most of us.
First Step: Start in High School
That’s what I did. Again, this is impractical for many of you over the age of 13, but I just wanted to outline how my education started.
I took two years of French in high school. It was fairly traditional. You had your text book. You learned the colors and the days of the week and the numbers. You learned verb conjugations, usually grouped by verbs that ended with the same two letters. There were tests to translate and write sentences using the words you had just been studying.
But there was also calculus homework and social studies and English and all the other classes competing for my attention.
The second year of French class was when things really hit the fan. Once things got into verb tenses and I had to describe the differences between pluperfect and future conditional and all the rest, my brain started to explode.
I didn’t take French 3 because of that. (I know I let down my teacher, and I still feel a little badly about that, but I had hit a wall…)
25 years later, here we are.
I mention all this now because it helped give me a background in French. I came in knowing a lot of things, and only needing casual prompts to bring back lots of stuff buried deep in my memory banks. It’s a bit of an “unfair advantage,” I suppose, but it is what it is.
So where do I go from here? I asked around on Twitter and the same answer kept coming up.
DuoLingo for French
DuoLingo is a very popular phone app that teaches dozens of languages. Lots of people swear by it. It is free with some ads, or a monthly $6.99 subscription to remove those ads and make it a little quicker to play. We’ll get back to that in a bit.
I tried DuoLingo once before, a few years back. That was confirmed for me when I logged in for the “first” time again in January. I saw the first three or four lessons had already been completed.
I won’t bother with a full tutorial, but let me give you the overview, since it’s such a key part of what I’m learning. Let me know if you’d like the detailed guide someday…
How Does DuoLingo Work?
I don’t want to do a full tutorial here — let me know if you’d like one — but DuoLingo is set up as a series of modules teaching a few specific things. Each module is broken up into five levels. Each level is made up of six lessons. (These might not be the official DuoLingo terms, but they work to keep everything straight in my head. Just roll with me here…)
Each lesson is a sequence of questions you need to answer. Sometimes, you need to translate a word, phrase, or a short sentence from French to English, or vice versa.
Sometimes, you listen to DuoLingo say a sentence and then type it in or, in the earlier levels, choose from a selection of words and move them into the right order.
Lessons are progressive. What you learned in previous lessons will be used, sometimes seemingly at random, in the current one. DuoLingo doesn’t want you to just finish a module and forget it. They always bring it back up.
In fact, after you complete a module, you will, from time to time, have to go back to complete a refresher quiz to make sure you still remember what you learned there, or you’ll have to go back and do the lessons all over again.
It’s smart of DuoLingo to use this repetition to cement things in your mind. I appreciate it, and I like going back to those old lessons to refresh my memory. If you do it on the website instead of the app, you also get the option of making it a timed test, where you’ll get more experience points for a successful completion.
In general, DuoLingo is a lot of exercises repeated often to drill things into your skull.
Just to keep you moving forward, they turn all of this learning into something not unlike a game.
Gamification in DuoLingo
It’s become such a dirty word because “gamification” became such an obnoxious trend a few years back. It became every phone app’s method of tricking you into playing more or, worse, paying more to play more.
Then it leaked out from there and everyone was talking “gamification” as a way to entice people to do anything more often. Everything has a points system, a rewards system, a leaderboard, scoring mechanisms, etc.
DuoLingo is gamified. It has points, rewards, and enticements to pay to use the app to avoid the more annoying elements. It even has a leader board in the form of weekly competitions. Finish in the top ten and you move up to the next leader board. That’s really it. It doesn’t matter what level you’re on as far as how you learn French. It’s just a stupid little thing that the core competitive part of our nature will glom onto. You’ll take another lesson or two just to keep up with the others, or to secure your Top Ten finish.
That’s not a bad thing, though, is it? It means you’re pushing yourself to practice more, which means you’ll learn more. It’s something of a win/win scenario.
There’s also gems you earn for every level you finish. You can spend those later in various ways. The most meaningful way is to buy hearts.
Ah, the hearts system. This is how they get you on the phone app to sign up for the paid version of DuoLingo. That removes the ads which, yes, can be annoying and anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. But paying the subscription gives you, basically, unlimited hears. You won’t get sent to DuoLingo jail to not play for a few hours if you get too many wrong.
There’s a way around this, which I’ll tell you about in the next section.
(There’s no label on that heart icon at the bottom, because it’s changed since this app screenshot from DuoLingo’s press materials was taken. It’s now a book icon which leads to dialogue stories in French where you fill in the blanks and translate phrases for points. I like the feature a lot. Also, it gets you a lot of experience points with each story. Gamification!)
For me, having this gamification works. It’s a lot of little ways to push me to keep going. I don’t want to lose ground, whatever that ground happens to be. I refer to it as “nonsense” in the most loving way possible…
Intellectually, I know it’s dumb, but the competitive side of me is real. I want to keep progressing. I want to keep adding to my totals. I want to keep learning more things.
Sometimes, when I’m just not in the mood to do that “work,” the gamification kicks in, kicks me in the butt, and pushes me on my way. I haven’t missed a day of using DuoLingo in the last three months because I don’t want that streak to end. I don’t want to lose ground in the weekly tournament.
And, yes, I don’t want to forget the words I’ve been working with. I haven’t lost sight of the ultimate goal.
How to Hack DuoLingo
Don’t use the phone app. Use the desktop version.
Yes, you can use your web browser on your home computer and pick up right where you left off.
The reason why the desktop experience is so great is that it removes the hearts system. You’re not limited. You can make as many mistakes as you’d like without having to buy more hearts (with the in-app currency of gems, or by paying money through a subscription) or wait hours to continue. No subscription necessary.
I found this to be freeing, and a more honest way to “play” DuoLingo. I would give it my best answer and not worry about being wrong. If I was wrong, DuoLingo would show me the right answer and come back to it at the end of the round to try it again. I’d get the repetition I needed to remember something. That kind of system works for me.
It’s true what they say, by the way: The best way to learn is by doing it wrong first. DuoLingo is pretty good at letting you know what you got wrong and, often, the reason behind it.
When I’m playing in the browser, I don’t spend time looking up the answer on Google Translate to save my precious hearts. I don’t, effectively, cheat. Being free to be wrong and to learn from that and then come back to it do it right is the most effective learning tool ever.
It’s also one of the main benefits of paying $6.99 monthly for the iPhone App. But using the browser, instead, gives you this same benefit. (The subscription does have other perks, none of which am I missing, to tell you the truth.)
I use the app when I’m away from my desk and have two or three minutes to do a quick round. But when I want to sit down and do some learning — and I try to carve out a 15 minute block of time a day for that — I’ll use the website at my desktop computer.
Random Other Tips
Skip around a bit. Sometimes, you’ll have three modules available to play all at once. Don’t do all of one, then all of the next, then all of the third.
Get a head start on one, move onto the next and come back to the first. That’ll be a good test of if the knowledge “stuck” or not.
If going back is uncomfortable, then good. That’s how you learn.
In the screenshot from my phone above, you can see where I’m actively playing two modules at the same time, with a third ready to go. I’ll probably start it soon, too. (All those modules in gold represent the ones I’ve already completed,)
You can skip some typing. Don’t bother with punctuation at the end of a sentence. DuoLingo knows if you’re answering with a question or a statement. Don’t waste your time. The same goes with capitalizing the first word in a sentence. If you’re doing this on a phone, the phone will likely auto-correct that capitalization anyway.
DuoLingo also has a bit of an allowance for typos. Don’t count on that, though. I’ve been burned by typos far too often, and saved by typo forgiveness only a time or two.
Here’s a controversial opinion: Don’t worry about accents. They’re everywhere in French, but DuoLingo doesn’t mandate them, at least not at the relatively early levels I’m still at. I’ll add them in sometimes because it likely is good practice, but since I can never get the accent grave and accent aigu straight, I usually don’t bother. Does this make me an ugly American? Perhaps… It may even come back to bite me later on.
I know, from context, the difference between où and ou. I get it, but then my brain always tilts the accent in the wrong direction. So frustrating!
It will bite you on Google Translate often, though, so be careful with that.
Oh, and a word of warning and another hack: Autocorrect on the English keyboard is NOT your friend. It’s a killer. I can’t tell you how many times I typed something perfectly only to discover I was wrong because autocorrect though I meant “quarter” instead of “quart” or “jet” instead of “je,” etc.
Use the french keyboard (QWERTY, not AZERTY) on your phone app. Its autocorrect will save you more often than not. It might be a bit of a cheat, but pay attention to what it does. Don’t rely on it. It’ll help you and you’ll likely learn more from seeing the corrections that way.
(If you want to use accented letters on the iPhone, by the way, press and hold on the letter and you’ll get a pop up filled with accented versions of that letter to use.)
I used to have a mental block for “aujourd’hui.” (“today”) Sometimes, I forgot where the “H” went, or whether it was an apostrophe or a dash. I just jammed all the letters in a row and the phone’s keyboard autocorrected me to be correct. I could use that French keyboard to get close enough for the spelling suggestions to give me the right one. Eventually, I learned to recognize that and didn’t need the help anymore.
Is this cheating? Slightly, but I’m most interested in reading French in comic books, not writing a literary piece or something for a scientific journal. I want to recognize these words, even if I forget how to spell them when left on my own.
If I wanted to do this the proper way and cover all my bets — including the accents and fluent talking — I would likely get bogged down, have less fun, and stop learning all together.
To be fair, DuoLingo will not make you fluent in the language. Even after you’ve completed the whole thing, you’re still only at a beginner level.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll get so far that I’ll be willing at the end of this to do more to push harder and get even better?
General Language Learning Tips
There’s probably a whole different set of tips for this if you’re looking to become fluent and travel to another country. If you just want to read comics, here are some tips:
Pay attention to the most common phrases and verbs. What I’ve noticed is that there are certain phrases that are used so often than you’ll leapfrog your education just by learning them.
Second, language is a series of words and phrases strung together. Learn those common phrases and constructions and you’ll start piecing things together.
For phrases, learn how to say things like “I have to”, “I want to”, “I need to”, “I love to”, “I am going to”, etc. Those are frequently used building blocks.
Say things out loud. My accent is crap, but I find that saying it out loud helps me remember things, much like writing things out by hand can help you remember things you study. Sometimes, I know I’m saying the word wrong, but it helps me to remember how to spell it, and that’s an acceptable trade-off for the goal I have here.
Tricks and Problem Spots
DuoLingo recommends writing down new words you may have learned after each lesson. I admit that I don’t do that as a matter of course, but I will write down things that confuse me or that I can’t seem to get straight in my head.
Looking at the notepad on my desk right now, I have the definitions written down for the French words for “have to” and “need to.” DuoLingo teaches those at about the same time, and it’s easy to not think about it and get them confused.
I also have “il y a” and “c’est” written down next to each other. Don’t ask me to explain that one. I think I can, but I’m not confident enough to put it into writing. I’m sure the French equivalent of Grammar Girl has a podcast about it.
And don’t pass up the little piece of pure linguistic magic that is “Est-ce que” at the front of an ordinary sentence to turn it into a question.
I also have a tricky time with the little filler words along the way. When do you use the article with a word, when does it pair with “de”, when should I be using “pour” or “en” instead. Filling in the gaps between phrases can often drive me crazy.
Most of the time, it’s a turn of phrase that you just need to drill into your head. Like in English, French isn’t exactly a perfect language with regular and consistent rules about article or preposition usage. You just need to get used to the right way. It’s all about repetition.
The Spirou Test
You want some way to measure your progress. The point of all this work is to read comics, right? You don’t care if you can properly do the pluperfect tense of a particular verb. You’ll know it when you see it and that’s enough.
So let’s do something that fits in with your goals, is more fun, and will let you feel better about yourself more quickly.
I recommend “Journal Spirou.” It’s a weekly anthology comic that’s mostly aimed at younger readers, but not so young that you feel like you’re reading a “Dick and Jane” book. (Do they still make those?)
With “Journal Spirou,” you get fresh material every week to look at. You get a bunch of different stories in one issue, with lots of stories or gags that are only a page or two. It gives you something easy to get into, but easy enough to switch out of if it’s behind your grasp. There are usually a few traditional four panel comics along the way, too, which are great for their economy of words.
You can get issues of “Journal Spirou” on Izneo.com, which is sort of like the Comixology of France. You have to use their French site, specifically, so go to Izneo.com/fr — it’ll still accept your regular American log-in.
“Journal Spirou” costs $2.29 an issue if you buy it from the website. If you’re using the phone app, though, you can buy it online for just 99 cents an issue through Apple’s payment system. You don’t need to leave the app. They keep a year and half worth of issues on-line at any given time.
Worst case, but free, scenario: The preview button on Izneo will show you the first 11 pages of the magazine. That’s a lot of free reading right there. Use the opening editorial comic strip as your daily lesson. It’s the button outlined by a red rectangle here:
“Lire Un Extrait” (surrounded in a red rectangle that I laid on top of the button) is “Read a Preview”.
It won’t be easy to read this at first, but you’ll notice yourself getting a little further every week. You won’t be as lost with every balloon. You’ll recognize phrases and vocabulary words and verbs here and there, and might even be able to piece them together yourself.
You’re not going to be able to give yourself a score to track with this. Numbers aren’t everything. Instead, ask yourself how frustrating it is to read a page of comics. Is it getting less frustrating? Are you recognizing more patterns? Do you understand more?
Did you just read an entire three panel strip, not have to look anything up in Google, and understand the joke? Success!
You can branch out from there. Just like when you learned English, start with books that are aimed at younger audiences. Find the kids books. Those will often have the simplest language construction.
If Spirou isn’t your thing, I can link you to some free French comics available on-line, as well.
Not Quite Full Immersion
Like I said at the top, I’m not going to move to Paris and sink or swim. I know that works, if it doesn’t drive you crazy first. The human brain is really good at adapting to survive and you can learn a lot in a little time by surrounding yourself with it.
I’m staying home, though, thanks. Even pre-Coronavirus, I’d be staying home.
Yet, I can still surround myself with French.
The Cell Phone
I’ve seen people suggesting that you should set your phone’s default language to French.
Honestly, I’ve tried it. The French doesn’t come up all that often. When it does, it’s not words your most likely to read in your average Franco-Belgian comic. I’m not reading the hysterical adventures of Super Copy, Captain Cut, or Professor Paste. (Though, come to think of it, that would be a great webcomic…)
It’s not a bad idea, but I think it works out to be more annoying when you really need to do something and less useful.
I can’t imagine a better way to learn French than in the short bursts of easily-translated social media. Follow a bunch of French accounts on Twitter and hit the “Translate Tweet” button often. Get into that habit.
This tip works on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. They all have little “Translate This” links after every message now. Unfortunately, that doesn’t carry through to the comments on Facebook and Instagram, but nothing’s perfect.
On Twitter, you need to click into the tweet to load it on its own page before the “Translate This” link shows up.
Facebook automatically translate a post and then asks you to rate it, or gives you the link to see the original post, instead.
Don’t be afraid to use those links. Use them often. Religiously, even. Study the results, in either direction.
Many third party Twitter apps can do the same — Tweetbot has a button that will send you right over to Google Translate with the text of the post. As with Facebook, you’ll get both the English language translation AND the original language of the post on the same screen. Take an extra second to see which word maps to which. You’ll learn a lot like that, just from sheer repetition.
It also helps to stay inside the same industry. Stick with comic book creators and publishers from France and you’ll get used to frequently-repeated words and phrases that deal specifically with the comic book industry. Releases happen next week (“prochaine semaine”). Comics books (“les bandes dessinees”) are made up of lots of pages (“planches”) drawn by dessinateurs (“artists”) and writers (“scenaristes”).
A lot of those tweets are promotional, so there’s a lot of shared phrasing you’ll see about release dates and who did what work.
French comics creators are not unlike American creators. They’ll talk about local politics and TV shows and movies they’ve been watching. So you’ll learn some more language despite yourself right there.
Learning French has been a podcast topic since very close to the beginning of the world of podcasting in 2004. Some of those podcasts that I listened to a dozen years ago in an earlier attempt to learn something are still around in the Apple podcast directory.
These are great for those in-between moments. If you can’t play with DuoLingo, listen to a podcast in the car or the gym or anywhere else you’re not going these days because of That Stupid Virus.
DuoLingo recently started their own podcast, too. It tells short stories in French, with a full transcript on their website.
“Coffee Break French” is a podcasts that mixes French stories and short lessons in English.
“Learn French By Podcast” is the one that goes back the further that I’ve listened to. It’ll take you all the way back to 2006. Episodes posted progressively slower as it ages. The 200th episode just came out in October. It’s been silent since then, but that seems to be their pattern .Still, that’s a lot of episodes to learn from if you’re new to this.
Netflix and the Fine Art of Listening for Words
Watch French television shows or movies. It’s OK to use the captions. You’ll need them. But as you watch them, pay attention to which words you recognize. The more you watch while you’re learning, the more random words and perhaps even phrases you’ll recognize and understand.
If you’re looking for something dramatic, I’d recommend two shows:
“Criminal”: This is a series Netflix put on last year with four different versions around the world. It’s the same concept: It’s the series that takes place in “the box” where the police interrogate a suspect until they solve the case. There are versions set in Spain, Germany, England, and France. I’ve watched the latter two. It’s interesting to see how they use the same sets, but different actors and cases and subplots along the way.
Each series is just four one-hour episodes, but they make for great television.
“Osmosis”: Picture a Steve Jobs like character in a start-up that will give you an implant that guarantees you will find your true love. It’s a little weird and overlooks a couple of reality-check type plot points to get to the character arcs, but I did enjoy it. It’s one season with a complete story (mostly).
If you’re looking for something less intense, there are also versions of “Nailed It!” and “The Circle” available in France. Oh, and “Chef’s Table France” is a lot of fun, too. It’s a bit too slow and sometimes the directors think the show is a demo reel for Netflix’s ability to stream HD slow-motion landscapes, but other than that…
Search on “french-language tv show” or “french-language movie” to get the lists of what’s available.
Other streaming services offer French language material, too. Soak it up.
YouTube and Learn
There’s plenty of videos in French on YouTube, but most won’t provide English language captions. Sometimes, for kicks, I’ll use the YouTube-created transcriptions for the captions. It’s never perfect, but it does help me see the words I’m hearing. Even with transcription errors, it can be helpful.
There are plenty of resources on YouTube to help you learn French. Every now and then, I’ll dip my toe in those waters (“common French verbs”), but none specifically have stuck to the point where I’ve subscribed and followed them. Let me know if you have a favorite.
I’ve also enjoyed some the videos from France24, which is a channel dedicated to the news in France in four different languages, including English. There’s a great series there called “French Connections,” which are short English-language videos explaining various aspects of French culture — everything from the importance of the French baguette to the national vacation day policies to the stereotypes of French lovers and hygiene.
Update: In the follow-up discussions of this article on Reddit came a post with this great breakdown of YouTube channels to learn French from. He even breaks them down by levels. I’ve already started subscribing to some channels.
How Do You Know When It’s “Working”?
You’ll know it’s working the first time you read a tweet, know what it means, and then realize you didn’t go through that intermediate step of translating each word in order to get there.
That’s when you see the words and just “get it.”
It didn’t happen to me for the first time until about Day 60 of DuoLingo. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I smile.
I hope soon to progress to reading an entire comic strip, or a comic page, or a webcomic installment. We’ll see…
Learning French Never Ends, Obviously
Ultimately, there’s no finish line for a project like this. Surround yourself with this stuff and keep learning. Hopefully, you fill in most of the gaps you need to understand most of everything you read. As that stuff gets easier, you learn the harder stuff, like the more advanced conjugations.
While I’ve only set out doing this as an official “project” for the last 90-some-odd days, I’ve been in and out of the French language world for much longer. I’ve been translating tweets and websites for years, just working on this website. I have that beginner’s experience from high school. It all adds up.
It’s all about putting in the reps and playing the long game. There are no cheap and easy wins.
That’s just like the rest of life, really.
I’m no expert, obviously. I’m just laying out my plan and my experiences in this article, but I can see results in a relatively short time. Your brain may work in a different way, and your time demands may slow you down.
But if this is something you’re thinking about, I hope this article helps push you into action. It’s been rewarding for me so far, and being able to see the progress in little ways keeps pushing me along. It feels good.
What Comes Next?
It’s very possible that I finish DuoLingo and hit a wall and need to take more drastic measures to see any further improvement. Or maybe it’s just enough for what I want and I’ll forever be going to Google to help me translate and learn new vocabulary words.
On the off chance that I lose my mind and need to learn more, language learning options are plentiful on-line. Most come with a monthly subscription, but there’s nothing that’ll spur you more into action than putting money into it, right?
MemRise comes up a lot in these discussions. So does Clozemaster. Those are both computer-based gaming type apps, but then you can go all the way to speaking with native French speakers live for a fee in others.
Here is a good list of other quality sites to teach you French in various ways.
There’s a world of opportunity out there. For now, I just need to fill the circles and turn my modules gold in DuoLingo.
I’ll keep you updated.
If you have any other resources or tips to share, the comments are open below. I’d love to hear them.
In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go learn more of the tricky syntax for describing weather situations. (Is it an “il y a” kind of weather situation, or a “il fait” kind of thing? Do I need “des” in front of “nuages” because a “cloudy” day doesn’t give a specific number of clouds? It hasn’t been a fun module for me….)
Bonne chance, et bonne journée!
Update: I updated my progress with “300 Days of Learning French With DuoLingo“.
The Podcast Version of This Article
Last month, I published a podcast in which I talked about my “resolution” to learn French this year. It’s a much shorter version of this article, but if you like the dulcet tones of my voice, here you go: