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An email discussion with an adult French learner. From March 2015

From: (name removed)
To: Fluent French
Sent: Saturday, March 14, 2015 9:29 AM
Subject: Question: Echoing and Grammer

Mr. Tolman,

I'm a recent subscriber to your newsletter, and I've been looking over your material with interest. I discovered your website while searching one night for advice on pronouncing the 'r', an issue that had begun to exasperate me after a year of dedicated study. Your "trick" did the trick, as it were.

I gave echoing a try for the first time recently, using a beginner-level story book accompanied by a recording. It's artificial prose rather than spontaneous dialogue, but it's slowly enunciated and was an easy way to give your method a try. Echoing has been something of a revelation, and I'd like to make it the main part of my French study.

I've been using the FSI Basic course up until now. You're probably familiar with it: 24 units of rigorous grammar and lexical drills. I came into French as a complete beginner, ignorant of the most basic pronunciation elements. The written language might as well have been Chinese. I'm about 25 percent of the way through the program, and while I've discovered some important limitations with it, it does seem to have instilled in my subconscious some basic grammatical principles, which does seem to help me as I delve into other material for the first time.

The main problem with FSI is that it's tedious and hugely time consuming. I'm the kind of person who appreciates a thorough approach, and I'll continue with the set if it's the best way forward. What I wonder, however, is if echoing will eventually instill in me whatever grammatical and structural idiosyncrasies I'll require? (I'm thinking particularly about the subjunctive, with which I have absolutely no familiarity, and the way FSI drills have of establishing distinctions between things like 'chez' and 'à'.)

Or would it be wise to avail myself of FSI's admittedly efficient crash-course introduction, and echo my way to fluency thereafter?

I'm likely to become a customer of yours, either way.


(Name removed)

On 15 Mar 2015, at 09:06, David Tolman

Dear (name removed),
Because I bet that you have more than just one question, please send me your phone number and we will speak on the phone. Or you can call me; 1-888-259-9601 rings into my cell phone here in France.

For now, your first question is, "Can I skip all of this grammar? Will I pick it up over time by echoing? Or would it be wise to avail myself of FSI's admittedly efficient crash-course introduction, and echo my way to fluency thereafter?"

Answer: No, you will not learn the grammar rules by echoing alone. And since understanding the grammar helps you chose the right words so that you avoid misunderstandings, you'd like to master the grammar. So the question becomes, "What should I do about the grammar?"

My approach is to echo recordings of native speakers but to be sensitive to the grammar. I "keep my antenna up" for grammar points, meaning that sometimes I have a question about why a certain preposition, for instance, was used by the speaker. So I might take some time to figure that out. But in general, I don't "spend time on" grammar. The whole of my grammar time is 5 minutes here or there to try to answer a question about a word from the recording I am currently echoing in the car on the way to and from work. So I don't study grammar out of context. I only look up specific points if I have a question because of something that I saw in a real conversation. And I rarely spend the 5 or ten minutes necessary to get my answer. I figure I'll learn the grammar later, after I'm already almost fluent.

Something you may not know: even when you know the grammar rules intellectually, you will still make huge mistakes when you speak. You'll mix up your genders and forget to make the ajective agree with the noun; you'll use the subjunctive with espérer, etc. But people understand will understand you anyway.

In your case, since you have already started the FSI course and seem to be able to stick with that sort of thing, try to finish the course. But then concentrate on echoing. Don't start another method that requires you to focus on grammar unless you really have the time.

Between the two choices of improving my grammar and improving my pronunication, I would always choose to improve my pronunciation. If French people switch into English when you speak French, it will not be because of grammar mistakes but rather because they can't understand your pronunciation or because you are speaking too slowly. Echoing will help you improve your prounciation accuracy so your listener understands you. It will also help your accent, but that is less important than pronunciation accuracy.

Kind regards, David

To better help my students, I created a new site and am closing down FluentFrench.com. To see the new site, please go to www.ListeningFluency.com Thanks! David Tolman dtolman@fluentfrench.com