How I learned English

I am French, and French people are known to be poor English speakers. However, I am not so bad at it and people I meet are often surprised and ask me why I speak English so well.

Now, to be fair, I don’t think my English is so good. I have a horrible French accent that I can’t get rid of, primarily because I can’t hear it. I still struggle with tenses and, according to my spellchecker, use the passive voice too much. And I have a hard time understanding native English speakers with a non-neutral accent (Indian, Australian, Scots and Welsh come to mind). However, on some aspects, I think my English is actually better than some native English speakers. How did I achieve that?

First, one thing about French education. In France, everyone has to learn a primary foreign language. We start from Junior High School, sometime sooner. This language is almost always English. So, why are French people so bad at it? Well, just because most of them don’t need it and won’t, ever, need it. Nobody can become good at a foreign language without actually practicing it.

And there’s a corollary to that rule: if you want to be proficient in a foreign language, you absolutely need to practice it, all the time.

It all started in 1995 when I joined a small company called PraXis, in Nimes. The owner of the company, François-Marc Levointurier-Vajda, who is a fluent English speaker, convinced me that I had to master English (and it was not an easy task at that time, I owe him that).

So here is, step by step, what I did to actually learn English beyond what school taught me (and that is usually quickly forgotten by most):

  • First, I ditched my English-French dictionary and I bought an English-English dictionary. This allows you, at the same time you look for a word you don’t know, to learn about related words, synonyms, etc.
  • Then, I started reading as much material as I could in English. Given my profession, not only it was easy, but it was kind of mandatory. Anyone who ever tried to read “Design Patterns” or the Microsoft MSND documentation in any other language than English knows what I am talking about (if not then it means you’re not as good as a software developer as you think).
  • I also started to read news and novels in English. Technical documentation is useful but it will give you a limited vocabulary (“observer” and “flyweight” are not really useful when you try to pick-up a girl in a club).
  • When my reading skills were up to par I started watching as many movies and TV shows as I could in English, with English subtitles. You can start with subtitles in your native language but it’s not very efficient.
  • The last step was obviously to watch English-speaking movies and shows in English, without subtitles.
  • Of course, during all that time, you must practice with real people. Don’t be shy about it and if you have English-speaking friends try to have them correct you once in a while. If that involve you moving to a foreign country then go ahead, you won’t regret it, I promise.

The goal of the first 3 points is to acquire as much vocabulary as possible and improve your reading skills. Watching movie allows you to improve on listening comprehension, but also to acquire a more colloquial vocabulary. I am still looking for how I could improve on my accent. If you have any idea that do not imply to record myself then please let me know in the comments.

I think you can easily learn any language like that, the problem is the lack of material. While it’s easy to find Hollywood movies with English subtitles, it’s more difficult to find Thai movies with Thai subtitles. However, if you want to learn Chinese then you are blessed because Chinese movies are always subtitled in Chinese.

Today, I use English everyday. I talk with people, write blog posts, almost all my Facebook updates are in English (because almost all of my friends can read at least a bit of English). I use it for business and for travel. It’s been one of my best move, ever…

Finally, if you don’t know where to get subtitles from, I recommend

7 thoughts on “How I learned English

  1. mlle-cassis

    I am always flabbergasted (ça se dit? c’est un si joli mot)(bref) to come across that kind of article and realise that I am familiar with almost none of the mentioned mistakes (although I am very well aware that my English is far from perfect).

    I cannot help but think that it must probably come from the very structured, not-allowing-anything-incorrect-until-you’re-doing-it-perfectly, approach teachers used when I was learning English (in the ’90). Oh god, I miss this since then declared old-fashioned and inefficient structured approach… (sigh)(after 3 years studying Russian, I still experience major difficulties spelling and giving agrees(?) correctly because, you know, the important is that you communicate with your fellow students, not that you write down anything or learn actual grammar rules)

  2. Stephanie Booth

    Curious: why are you looking for a solution to your accent that doesn’t involve recording yourself? (seems to be the only way… if there is a way). You might want to read up on what François Grosjean has to say about accents (expert in bilingualism).

      1. Stephanie Booth

        I would suggest getting over that (you can) and doing “labo de langue” stuff. If you can’t listen to yourself it’s normal you can’t hear and work on your accent.
        Getting used to your recorded voice is a question of dragging yourself through it. After enough time you’ll get used to it. It will always sound different from what you hear but you can learn to accept this is how others hear you. Just like you get used seeing photos of yourself “flipped over” (compared to what you’re used to seeing in the mirror). Same goes for seeing oneself on video.

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  4. christophe Lestrade

    I too have an horrible french accent. I found out that it disappears in some situations like being
    in a urge to do something. For example asking for a direction when I am late, I (think I) have almost no french accent. If I’m not in a urge, still stupid french accent is the only one I can have. It’s like being shy of speaking correctly unless you really have to.


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