How to learn a language – the slow way

“Puis-j’aller au toilette?” I asked the exam facilitator, using the phrase that I’ve often joked is the only thing I remembered from high school French class.

Translation: “I need to pee.”

“No, I’m sorry. You can’t leave until you’ve handed in your exam,” she answered in French.

I was two hours in to the “épreuves collectives” section of my DELF B2 French exam. I was done the listening and writing sections, but I had left reading comprehension for last. And now I had to decide: Leave that section half-done or risk wetting my pantalons?

I learned a language and you can too

Before I finish my story, let me explain who this post is for.

If you’re interested in learning a language but the task felt too daunting so you never started, this post is for you.

If learning French or Spanish or Arabic or Swahili is on your bucket list, I hope that this post nudges you to check that off… Eventually.

There are so many resources out there for learning languages as quickly as possible. But if you don’t want to rush it or can’t dedicate 40 hours a week to cram a new language into your brain over a few months, there is another way.

The slow way.

How to start learning a new language

Rewinding back to my high school French class, my teacher wasn’t too strict. She tolerated a little English in her classroom, but she always insisted that we ask to be excused in French: “puis-j’aller au toilette?” So I memorized that phrase, but I wasn’t motivated enough to remember much more. I passed but wasn’t passionate.

Then, almost 6 years ago, I went to my cousin’s wedding in France. I found myself understanding a few phrases here and there, but not being able to speak a word. I was really frustrated.

After that wedding, I started using Duolingo. Every. Single. Day.

It was never more than 10 minutes here or there. I’d pull out my phone while waiting in line somewhere or before bed and learn a little French. Duolingo made it fun!

I can’t recommend Duolingo enough for getting the ball rolling with learning a new language.

How to get past the beginner stage when learning a new language

Yes, Duolingo is great for beginners, but eventually, you’ll hit the point where you stop learning. Most questions are mind-numbingly easy. The questions you get wrong are because your thumb slipped and you tapped the wrong thing or because that cute owl misheard you. That’s when you need to quit Duolingo.

And move on to other new and exciting challenges.

I ended up putting together a streak of 1000 straight days on Duolingo, then stopped. Cold turkey.

But I didn’t stop my daily French practice. I just moved on to other ways of learning, like videos, meetups, books, podcasts, and more. Check out my detailed list of resources for learning French for some ideas.

You can continue to take it slow and enjoy your language learning journey, but now that you don’t have Duolingo telling you what to do, you are your own coach. This might be scary at first, but it’s a blessing because instead of translating boring sentences like “the monkey eats a banana”, you can dig into things you’re interested in- maybe it’s French sci-fi movies on Netflix. Maybe it’s blogs about French fashion for dogs.

The key is to keep the streak alive even if Duo the owl isn’t aware of it.

Learning a language by volunteering

On my journey, I volunteered for a local Francophone organization for a year. I felt like a huge impostor because my language skills were really rough, but I learned a ton and contributed a lot along the way.

If you want to learn from native speakers while giving back to your community, look up non profits related to your language and see if you can help!

Is it worth it to pay for language lessons?

For the longest time, I stuck to free resources. Duolingo, podcasts, meetups, and more. They were great! But if you can afford it, I recommend getting a little professional help, especially when you get past that beginner stage.

I took a B2-level class in-person at my local Alliance Française. It was HARD. I felt like such a fraud. But that hard class inspired me to set a goal of passing the B2 exam.

I then read every word and completed every exercise in the textbook that came with that course. Again, I took it slow. Five minutes here, fifteen minutes there. It took me months.

Then I took some virtual online lessons through Verbling. My teacher, Stéphane, was awesome. He helped me figure out what my weak spot was (speaking) and he helped me practice it, week by week, giving me a little feedback and homework each time.

Verbling was incredible in terms of value. Private one on one lessons for reasonable prices. The only thing that it doesn’t offer is in-person communication with people in your community, like in-person group classes. For me, I liked a little bit of both, but if your budget is tight, you can go with Verbling only.

Taking your first language exam

Eventually, you might want to see how you measure up in an official exam, like I did.

A full two years after I set my sights on passing my B2 exam, I was back at the Alliance Française, two hours into that exam, and facing the tough reality that I could not “aller au toilette” without handing in my test.

So I rushed through that reading comprehension section as fast as I could, not even checking over any of my answers. I was worried I’d fail, but I had no choice.

And guess what? I PASSED! The minimum passing mark is 50% and I got 82%!

The funniest thing? Out of the four sections, my best mark (92%) was that reading comprehension section that I sped through without checking my answers. Maybe my bladder was a blessing after all!

So? What are you waiting for?

Again, there’s nothing wrong with fast approaches like How To Prepare For DELF B2 In One Month And Ace It. But if you’re like me and have no particular deadline, the slow way can be much more enjoyable.

Start with something easy and fun like Duolingo, then choose your own adventure with free resources, paid lessons, and perhaps volunteering. Then maybe even take an exam!

Anyway, I’m off to start working on level C1. I might just need another half-decade to get there.

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