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Incremental Improvement: The Powerful Impact of Small Habits in your French Learning Journey

It should not leave you gawping in astonishment that small habits can make a surprisingly powerful impact. This is something we intuitively know for myriad other domains in life, but it is an important insight which is easy to miss when applied to learning French and languages more generally.

Setting aside a solid block of several hours to knuckle down and venture into the tangled, terrifying maze of French verbs and vocabulary is worthy of praise, yet can potentially be laborious to consistently maintain over the long term.

On the other side of the proverbial language learning river, lies the pleasant bank of small, yet effective habits. These take particular pride in being amenable to the long term – often to such a degree that missing them in a daily routine will come to feel fundamentally wrong. Life’s vicissitudes will thus never force such habits to humiliatingly surrender.

Let us thus sail down this river of French learning, commencing from energetic dawn to mellow dusk, to explore some petit habits that will bring your French from simple to sophistiqué.

Sunrise with man staring into the sun

Prime your day with French from its debut

The morning is the consummate time in which to cultivate habits. Pick a small number, say three. That is the number of words you will unfailingly examine yourself on upon awakening. Your day is set to a French start: bonjour, le matin, un café! Or, clearly enunciate a subset of conjugations, say manger in the futur tense. As a general rule, make this is rapid as possible, as the aim is to prime yourself to French throughout the rest of the day through what can be considered a ritual.

Now, if you are anything like me, after awakening you whittle away excessive amounts of time relaxing in the warm embrace of the shower. The early morning – oft a time of solitude – is ideal to indulge in an activity which society scorns, so make it a habit to…

Speak to yourself.

Speak to yourself. Perhaps in the shower, otherwise while ensconced in whichever other location serves as your forenoon equivalent - what is important is constructing the habit of being loquacious with your very own self out loud. Seriously. You will be startled its effectiveness in forcing you to recognize the plethora of yawning chasms in your French knowledge. For two amusing minutes, elucidate and pay attention to the sounds you manage to utter. Diligently practice your ou vs u, and make sure to produce the epitome of an exaggerated and primal French R.

Then, with such bombastic sounds still thundering through your mind, attempt to converse, by taking both sides of the conversation. If it sounds bizarrely strange, do not worry. You aren't in public, hopefully! For me, it was a vast and immediate improvement over singing, although if you feel like some a cappella French karaoke while immersed in your morning rituals, be my guest.

Let’s continue with this thinking: what if we were to attempt the most devilishly designed French articulations, each day? Well, one such powerful habit for practicing aural components of French is by using tongue twisters, or as the cute French calque goes, virelangues. Since you are now feeling particularly intrepid, attempt to elucidate the following truthfully terrifying tongue twisters (more here!), each morning.

Les chaussettes de l'archiduchesse sont-elles sèches ou archi-sèches?
Are the archduchesses’ socks are dry or very dry?

Je veux et j'exige d'exquises excuses.
I want and I demand exquisite excuses – Pay special attention to the liaisons when you speak this.

This will all develop the habit of speaking out loud, even when you have nobody with whom to speak. As you receive more and more feedback from Speechling and friends, you will learn to recognize the errors in your speech, and how to avoid them. It will also prime you for speaking with real French speakers.

Alarm clock plus coffee, on top of a book!

Forever bury ‘dead time’

Previous articles have noted the importance of developing listening skills, both generally and also in support of Speechling’s eternal mission to develop your speaking skills.

Unless your job or other daily pursuits allow you to dedicate vast tracts of minutes towards language learning (lucky.), you will have to develop habits that center around ‘dead time’. In other words, the many minutes in a day which would otherwise slip into the unfortunate void of the forever lost.

In my experience, minuscule amounts of time: three minutes waiting for a coffee, thirty seconds in which you would otherwise spend scrolling aimlessly on Facebook, can be usefully integrated into a productive language learning (and you did remember to make your phone's language be French right?)

A perennially fun habit is to listen to French music for every morning commute. Do not passively listen the whole time, spend a few minutes making a truly concerted effort at extricating meaning and the idiosyncratic pronunciations that music often typifies.

Make this habit small, and challenge yourself to listen actively and intensely to a single piece of music. I always did this with some fantastic and cherished tunes emanating from venerable Disney. Remember to undertake this on every commute, make it your "commuting ritual".

Then, it comes to learning vocabulary: a voluminous space where SR, or Spaced Repetition, brilliantly excels. In order to speak and to listen, it is unsurprisingly a requirement to actually know words. It is worth using an application such as Anki, and other services abound, such as the eternally useful Clozemaster - an application that revolves around massive context when it comes to vocabulary learning. You can do these to enhance your vocabulary in times where you cannot speak.

Having a plan

Be smart and always plan ahead.

The sun has begun its labored descent below the horizon. The light ebbs – but your habits must not.

Here is how it works: you set up several French tasks to accomplish the next morning, and in doing so you will be completing our cyclical morning -> evening loop.

The exact tasks that you create for your morning routine can vary, as we saw back in our ‘morning’ section. A particularly helpful habit is to decide on your next day’s morning routine – write down, preferably on paper, some terrifying tongue twisters, some super difficult sounds, and a smattering of words to commence battling with the following day.

Remember, the key here is to initiate small habits each and every single day. Nothing explored in this post should consume your time in vast quantities. Rather, they should be easy to accomplish and restricted in scope, focused on using unappreciated stretches of time.

Of course, as the day draws to its resolution, then it is time for your most important habit, that of Speechling. Did you really think you were being primed with French to simply sleep on it? Of course non! – any element of language production necessitates feedback. Get into the habit of uploading your speech. It doesn't have to be much.

Little by little, day by day...

As an Australian singer Paul Kelly sang - albeit for a somewhat more auspicious occasion - “from little things big things grow” Your habits will come to define you. Making them small will ensure you always manage to do them. Eventually, these little habits will sum up, and your French will begin to flow with a fluidity that can only satisfy and surprise.

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Alex Troup

Alex Troup

Bonjour! Writer by day and programmer by night, I somehow manage to find the time to learn spoken languages, which are among my greatest passions. I speak French, and am always learning others.

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