Need to Refresh a Language? How I Regain my French – by Tomáš Vrubel

Tomáš Vrubel, whose first language is Czech, recently submitted this account of how he is brushing up his French.  I hope that you will enjoy its enthusiasm,  wealth of good ideas and poetic expression.

Tom says “ I speak English, Polish, Russian and French actively at different levels of imperfection.  I have forgotten German and Spanish (next challenges) and because of similarity of Slavic languages and some few practice, I understand Serbian, Croatian and Bulgarian (all the same group, similar one to another).  My favorite phrase is ´Enjoy your meal´, which I can say in about 15 languages.” 

You can read more about Tom and his work at

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” Sir Winston Churchill

French was the first language I learned by practice taking very few theoretical lessons of grammar. I worked for a French company and had chance to travel frequently to Fr. I listened to the chattering melody of French language among sips of savory French wines, discovered creeks of phrases within dense smell of cheeses and took first individual attempts to express myself along the stone walls of Pays de Berry.
In less then a year, I became to be very comfortable in speaking French and I realized that I learned language the same way I learned playing music. As a parrot, I listened to the tongue all around and repeated what I heard. I wasn’t perfect but I was authentic and self-confident. French was the most important milestone on my path to master languages. The lesson was very simple. Go out, meet people, practice, make mistakes and practice again.
Regrettably, I changed my job and spent almost ten years without any contact with spoken French. However my job brought me and my family to Belgium last year and I was exposed to the beautiful language of minstrels and troubadours again. The reality hoofed me hard.
The long course of inactivity made my knowledge corroded heavily. I found myself to clutch at English as a drowning one at a lifebelt, not being able to express very simple sentences. Such a shame!
Getting the language back from inner space
After the first shock I landed back with both feet to the earth and realized I have to approach French recovery in more systematic way.
First of all, I decided to refrain to learn from textbooks and dictionaries. From my previous experience I knew I would never finish more than ten lessons of any textbook, as I become bored with number of words and phrases I would use seldom if ever. Have you ever used phrases like „She’s as pretty as a picture.“, „Women go out to work.“ or „The birds start singing.“?
What I want is to practice and communicate the live, up to date language. I took the advantage of having the passive knowledge somewhere in a dusty corner of my memory and use intuition in formulating my speech and practice listening as much as I can to recover the vocabulary.
I found few aids to help me recovering the familiarity of French.
Most frequent words
Thanks God for internet. Entering „most frequent French (Italian, Croatian,…) words“ into the search bar opens a door to fantastic world of opportunities to capture the basic vocabulary. There are statistical studies of how many and which words represent the majority of the spoken language and I found that learning about 600 words makes me more or less independent in the language. Basic set of about 200 words gives anyone the opportunity to get navigated through the most of day to day situations. That’s tremendous learning.
Well, as I live in the environment, I commit to be more advanced and I would like to capture at least 1500 active words so that I feel really comfortable to speak but the first progress is the best motivation for me.
I love travelling. I love motorbikes. The best is to travel with a motorbike. And of course, I would like to speak about it. The easiest way to accumulate the vocabulary is to buy a thematic magazine. Just browsing the introductions to the articles gives an image of the thematic phraseology. Or the images labels, they are great, you create links to the images so that you store the vocabulary better.
In most languages I learned I am in difficulties to select from a menu. And I would say French represents an essence of those difficulties. Cooking and food magazines gave me a good guide through this lovely topic what bridges me to a next aid in learning language.
Going out
Learning a particular foreignism over a particular dish creates strong contexture by all senses. You hear the words and the syntax, seeing your partner in a nice restaurant over a nice food, you create linkage to the smell of your lunch and digest it with its delicate flavor. You can even touch it! Could there be a stronger link in your language chain?
However, I found that I have to do this lesson intentionally. By purpose, I ask about the lexical or phraseology issues over the particular dish or over coffee. Coffee is good, as the aroma is easy to recall and together with the situation, I fix what I learned without much of effort.
Forget about take away! Invest your time into relationship and learning and take coffee with your friends.
Movies with subtitles
That’s a great way of learning the language. I admit I could use it more as I prefer the TV off but I am sure many people would love it. This way brings us to the culture of the country, too. And French cinematography in particular, offers inexhaustible selection of all genres one can think about.
Few more advice to get up a language
– Accepting the fact that you are not perfect accelerates your setup to speak in the face of people. For many people, this is the hardest hassle to overcome. I have simply established my command of French (English, etc.) is far better than my partner’s command of my language. And people usually appreciate any foreigner’s effort to learn at least basic greetings of their language.
– Try to find another foreigner speaking the language. Sometimes it is even more difficult to understand a strange accent but you get the advantage of sharing the learning milestones with someone who went the same way as you are going right now.
– Read anything in the language you learn. Promotional leaflets, public notices, traffic advice, gadgets manuals, etc. These materials are sometimes very difficult to understand but they bring a lot of new impulses to your learning.
– Don’t forget about your mother tongue. This is your safe place, you understand it and you know its structure, its subtleties and slang what you could refer to or put into comparison with the subject of our learning. And frankly, we are not perfect even in our native speaking and learning it deeper helps to learn any other language.
Well, it’s time to stop reading my thoughts about eating, drinking coffee and reading magazines and go out, meet people, speak with them and learn from them. That’s the purpose and the adventure of learning language. Wish you a lot of pleasure.

Did that convince you to leave your perfectionist tendencies behind and branch out? How about sending in your own thoughts about some aspect of language learning?


About Fun with languages

Blogging about learning languages, making it fun Hobbies: paragliding, cycling, reading, BBC radio 4.
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4 Responses to Need to Refresh a Language? How I Regain my French – by Tomáš Vrubel

  1. Great ideas here. The point you make about associating experiences with learning language is a really good one, especially dining. I remember a good dinner with friends and now that I think about it, if that were in a restaurant where the language I wanted to learn was spoke I kinda get three benefits at once; the language, the experience and the food. That would be fun with language!

  2. That´s food for thought. (Sorry, couldn´t resist!) I will look out for people to eat with, in Dutch. My Dutch book seems to wait till Chapter 26 before dealing with drinks, food and eating out. It was probably written by a very skinny man. At this rate it will be 19 weeks before I can eat in Dutch. Never mind, I like the book in other respects so must just mark out the end of May in my language diary as a time to feast with friends.

    • Tomas Vrubel says:

      Jenny, nothing actually prohibits you to skip to Lesson 26. Make learning to be fun! And random walk through the textbook might be a way. Smaak lekker!

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