Many of my Facebook friends have seen my posts about Spanish, and the various ways in which I have tried to learn the language. My experience with French is not as well-known to my friends, because I have tended not to share it as publicly. But I actually became fluent in French before I became fluent in Spanish. One of my other posts details my high school and college class experience in learning the language, so suffice it to say here that I took the equivalent of two years of college French. Those who want to know more about my experience with French classes are advised to read this blog post. I will focus this blog post on my efforts since that time.
My French professor in college was actually a fellow Mormon, as well as a native speaker of both French and Spanish. He recognized that I had a gift with languages; and near the end of the last semester, he recommended listening to General Conference talks in French on the church website, or reading the scriptures in French. At that time, going on a mission for my church was still a possibility for the near future, so I did not pursue these options at this time. But my medical problems caused delays of the mission plans (which eventually resulted in my being honorably excused from service), so I decided I might try reading the scriptures in French. I asked my parents to get me a French copy of the scriptures for Christmas, which they gave me on the following Christmas Eve.
I had been away from French for some time (about six months) when I started to read the Book of Mormon in French. The long time away made it a difficult undertaking. When I started, I would read each verse in English before attempting to read it in French, and it took me a while to get comfortable with this. But eventually, I started reading it in French first, and then reading the English to see how good my comprehension had been. I began on New Year's Day, and made a resolution to read the Book of Mormon in French. By the following Christmas, I had read both the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price in French. I had never before read the entire Book of Mormon by myself, even in English; so I can truthfully say that I finished reading it in French before doing so in English.
I actually used my French on the job once at Staples, when I was working as a cashier in my hometown during the summer. A guy came to the cash register with nobody behind him. After hearing his thick French accent, I asked him "Parlez-vous français?" And he said "Oui!" I immediately answered: "Moi aussi" (me too). He became very excited, and we spoke French for a few minutes before someone came up behind him, and he had to go. During that time, he asked me things like where I had learned my French, and I was able to answer him in the language. I've always treasured that memory of when my hard work paid off. (It's not likely to happen on the job again with French - Spanish, maybe, but not French.)
I've also occasionally spoken to some native French speakers, including a girl from a Francophone country in Africa (a former French colony called Burundi), a guy from French-speaking Haiti (who was serving a mission in my hometown), and a small number of French-Canadians. They've always told me I spoke very well; although when I asked the Haitian guy if I had an American accent, he awkwardly nodded.
I continued to read the scriptures in French, and I still do so to this day. I determined that I would not allow myself to lose my ability in the language. Since I currently live with my active Mormon parents, we have family scripture study at night; and I have tended to do my French reading then, with my personal scripture study done in Spanish. When others are reading out loud in English during scripture study, I follow along with the French; and when it is my turn to read, I translate from the French as best I can. My dad rates the accuracy of my translation.
I have never made any lasting attempt to read the French scriptures out loud as I have with the Spanish ones; but for a language I cannot regularly speak or listen to in my area (I live in Arizona), speaking fluency is not as important. All I really want right now is to be able to read it; and I think that with my regular practice of the grammar and vocabulary in my scripture reading, I could regain my speaking and listening ability quickly, if immersed in the language. If I went to France or Quebec today, I would not have to start from square one and relearn everything, because I've worked hard not to lose what I already know. I thus think I could adjust quickly to immersion.
European Union flag
I still sometimes watch movies with the French subtitles on, particularly when the DVD does not also have Spanish subtitles. (When a DVD has both French and Spanish, I tend to give priority to Spanish, because of its more local usefulness.) It's strange to me that the now-outmoded passé simple conjugations of the scriptures are more familiar to me than the passé composé conjugations of everyday conversation; but such is the strange nature of my situation.
My French actually came in handy with one of my reading projects. When reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (a famous book in English), I was able to read the occasional French footnotes at the bottom without problems, even though the book was originally published in 1776. That was when my reading French paid off; for I was used to the older language, and had no trouble adjusting to it.
So that's a little about my experience with learning the French language. I hope this has been instructive to fellow language enthusiasts, and to those interested in French culture.
Update to this blog post:
Since I first published this, I read a book in the original French which was first published in 1748. The book was Montesquieu's "De l'esprit des lois" ("The Spirit of Laws"), which I discuss in a separate blog post.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
My educational experiences with French
Why I'm glad I learned French
A sample of my French writing (a.k.a. the only thing I've bothered to publish in French)