Handy Hints

Expanding Your French Vocabulary

There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, yet the average English speaker manages perfectly well knowing “only” 5000.

Do you remember how difficult it was for you to learn this vocabulary?  Do you recall the hours you spent looking at lists of words and their meanings and committing them to your memory?  Of course you don’t, because that is not how you learned them.  Instead they worked their way into your memory simply through repetitive use.  Whether through social interaction with family and friends, by reading newspapers and books, watching TV and films, listening to the radio, these words have been absorbed by your brain without any effort on your part.

No matter the current level of your French vocabulary, you probably feel there is considerable room for improvement but are finding the task daunting.  You know that spending hours each day chatting amiably with French friends and neighbours will help improve your vocabulary, but even if you and they had the time,  perhaps you don’t believe you yet know enough to take part in a conversation.  You’ve tried watching French TV or listening to the radio but you can’t make head nor tail of what they’re talking about, let alone identify and understand useful words.  You try to read the newspaper  or a French library book, but you spend so much time with your nose buried in the French/English dictionary that the whole exercise becomes tiring and un-enjoyable.  It’s all such hard work!

I’ve been there and I know how easy it can be to lose hope and give up, especially if you’re surrounded by nice, easily-understood English-speaking folk at the Library.  However, I have what might be a useful suggestion.  It certainly helped me and you might think it’s worth a try.

If you have a book, preferably a “simple” one, that you like and you know well, try getting hold of a French version.  If you know the story well, you will find it much easier to understand what you’re reading in French and you won’t feel the need to look-up every word; you will be able to infer the meaning of much of the text.  Yes, there will be words which require some work, but the overall experience will be easier and more enjoyable.

Confession time!  I first tried this with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  I’d read it a couple of times and had seen the film and so was very familiar with the story.  A big advantage was that being aimed at children and adolescents, the language is fairly simple but, crucially, contains the sort of words and phrases which are very useful in daily life.  For example, I had to look-up censé (supposed) because I’d never come across it before, but because it appears so often in the story, by the end of the book it was firmly fixed in my mind.  Think about how many times you might want to say “I’m supposed to ….” or “They/you/we were supposed to…” in everyday life.

It’s really quite surprising how much useful vocabulary I picked up from a simple and enjoyable “child’s book”, but I’ve moved on since then.  Via Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Sara Paretsky, I recently arrived at The Godfather.  I think I can safely say that I can hold my own in any conversation about crime and the Mafia in the local bar!

Why not give it a try?