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Bitesize French: an immersion project

First, let me just say I am not an accredited teacher and I’m not fluent in French. I consider this site my immersion project. It’s a fun way for me to immerse in French, without being in France.

Let me tell you a story. 

I studied Chinese in college. I was always the go to for help in my class and things came pretty easily for me academically in Chinese. I could understand anything my teacher threw at me.

Then I got to Beijing. Riding in my host family’s minivan back to their house from the airport, I quickly realized I didn’t know anything. While I could cruise through Chinese classes, Chinese in real life was a mystery. Even the simplest questions from my host mother left me in a panic, I just couldn’t understand.

I gradually improved through weeks of speaking with everyone I met. It’s easy when you wake up and everyone around you speaks Chinese.

Fast forward a few years and I was living in Beijing, I had just moved to a new area and was trying to befriend my neighbors. My Chinese was very good at this point. On hot July nights my neighbors would sit outside chatting and complaining. Many of the people in the group were hard to understand and one guy was almost 100% unintelligible. 

I knew certain words and phrases often tripped me up in Chinese: just about anything pop culture related and names, in general (of companies, stars, American actors). But this one guy wasn’t saying that.

Then one day I realized he was dropping f-bombs and swearing just about every other word in Beijing’s local dialect. It was an unlock that suddenly, like flipping a switch, made the language they all were speaking crystal clear to me. 

This isn’t a site for learning Chinese, of course, you know that. But my experience really learning it, through immersion after I left school, was a revelation.

The owl and the real world

Fast forward again, some years later I’m no longer in China. Now in LA, I’m dreaming of living in France and practicing my French on Duolingo. Duolingo helped me to improve my vocabulary greatly, credit where credit is due. I was knocking off levels and advancing, thinking I should be able to ask directions or order a coffee now, surely.

Then I travel to France and realize even the most basic of French is lost on me. French in real life is far different from anything in a classroom setting.  

This is the way it is with language learning. I learn for a classroom (whether it’s an actual classroom, teacher on Youtube, or curriculum through an app), and I’m great in that environment of French. The real world throws so much more at me: a stranger on a train asking a question, a quick comment from a waiter, two children laughing and joking at the park.

Duolingo helped my background: vocab and basic grammar. It failed me for French as it’s spoken in real life.

This project seeks to correct that.

The site creates a way for me to quickly dive into snippets of real spoken French and understand as much as possible. No quirky generated voices or easy-to-follow teachers, we dive right into it.

I hope my immersion projectcan can inspire you and also let you try on immersing in French as if we’re all in France.

Understanding > Grammar > Vocab

As a learner, I’m always going to run into words I don’t know. The goal isn’t to memorize them all, it’s to understand. In high school Spanish my teacher always said “Circumlocute!!!” If you don’t know the word for it, speak around it, describe it, stay in the language without asking “How do you say [fill in the blank]?”. This project attacks that for listening. 

Full disclosure: the few teachers I’ve spoken with about this project don’t particularly love it. It ignores grammar, they refrain. I don’t care. I’m not going to teach you rules or structure or why French is the way it is. That’s not the point of this exercise.

This project works for me because of concepts that have been at the heart of my language learning all along.

My speaking abilities have been dependent on my understanding of the language. The more I listen to others speak, the more I understand. And, in turn, I am able to internalize phrases and ways of speaking and then use them in my own communication. This is my, albeit limited, experience with languages. And this is exactly the concept that I’ve applied here.

For me, unlocking the mystery man swearing in my old neighborhood of Beijing is evidence of this. No, I’m not swearing in Chinese (all the time). However, it is the concept of suddenly hearing individual words that unlock the language.

Usually learners I know attack this through memorizing vocab. Once they know all the words in a sentence they will know what is being said, so the logic goes. I believe we instead have to listen through it all. There will always be new vocab and sometimes even the vocab we do know sounds different. As learners, we’re not actively aware of this concept, called “microlistening” – when a solid stream of sound becomes a string of words with meaning, but it is essential for language mastery.

And that is exactly why I have taken this bitesize approach to podcast transcription as my immersion project for French.

Inspiration for this project

Huge credit and thanks must be given to so many:

Duolingo – their transcription quizzes were my favorite and game learning is both fun and addicting.

The Woodpecker Learning app – introduced the actual concept of microlistening to me and lets me immerse in videos in French – inspiration for jumpstarting this project, similar quizzes with podcasts from an educator’s perspective for learning English

Drops and Fluent Forever apps

The swearing neighbor in the hutongs (my own experience with Chinese)

My AP Spanish teacher, Señor MC

My own children, who are immersed in language the way I want to be. No rules, no grammar, no structure, just a stream of sound in multiple languages coming at them all the time.

All the creators who made the podcast content on site, and

You, the listener. Thank you.

Why learn French?

I’ve always been drawn to French and I have denied that interest in favor of languages that are spoken more widely around the globe. This was my choice in high school and college.

However, the draw to speak it is still there. My family and I hope to live in France for at least a short amount of time, and doing so with young kids will require understanding what’s coming at us. As much as I’d love my 3 year old to translate what the plumber is saying, I’d rather know for myself. 

Can I really learn French through short clips of real speech?

My experience in creating the snippets on site is a resounding: yes.

I created this site and did a 60 day challenge for myself. One post a day for 60 days. Then attended a French dinner party at the home where we stayed. As a true beginner (Duolingo only), I could suddenly follow 60% of the conversation. I couldn’t respond, of course, but I could follow along well. Beyond the dinner party, I could understand questions from strangers on the street and stumble through responses. All things that were impossible on a previous visit to France.

The point of speaking any language is communicating what you need and connecting with others. I don’t believe you need to be an expert in grammar or have all the vocab words memorized to do that. 

See for yourself.

Not a be-all and end-all solution

Nothing in language learning is simple or easy. And I don’t believe any one solution is the way to learn a language.

I’m impatient. I use multiple apps to try and immerse, this is just another tool in that journey. I hope you find it useful.

Ultimately the best way to learn any language is to use it, make mistakes, and put yourself out there. That means having real conversations with real people. A language partner, a meetup group, a language exchange, a Skype call, or a discord server are all great ways to connect.

This site is a tool to assist your understanding so that you can piece together what’s said. The better you get at listening, the stronger you’ll be at keeping up with conversation and the joy of circumlocution.

If an app is needed forever, it’s probably not helping. I hope anyone who uses this tool can self graduate. How long does that take? I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

For education purposes. Yes, and …

My goal with this site is to immerse. Cutting and creating the quizzes in French forces me to be in the midst of the language daily. I also hope this method helps others on their quest to French fluency.

I’m a marketer at heart, so this site is a new experiment.

This tool is not free to operate, so if this continues I will need to figure out how to make some money somewhere. The main goal remains the same: to provide a fun and inspiring resource that lets you immerse in real French with ease.

In the meantime, I would love your support.