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French is a wonderful language to know. It has fewer native speakers than Mandarin or English, but it its presence is widespread throughout the world. In Europe, Africa, Asia and Canada, knowing French will allow you to communicate in many places.

French is of course a language connected to a lot of culture, art, music, cinema, high fashion, gastronomy etc.. It opens access to wonderful opportunities. France – especially Paris – is the most visited place in the world.

So now that you have made French your new language of choice, what are some things to know about learning it?

First of all the great news:

French is a cousin of English. Even though English is a Germanic language, it has been massively influenced by French vocabulary and even grammar. 29% of English words come directly from French and another 29% come from Latin – sometimes through French, sometimes not. (French, of course, is a direct descendant of Latin.) This means that 58% of words we use in English are the same or similar in French. This is an enormous advantage. (Try learning Mandarin or Hindi and see the difference!)

Even English grammar has been influenced by its French counterpart. Word order, plurals and other aspects are again close relatives. You will find a completely different picture if you learn German or Hindi. Word order, logic, and vocabulary will at first seem quite alien.

Like English, French has no declensions (see who, whom and whose). Russian, German and Arabic do and this makes learning them more of a challenge.

These 2 things – friendly vocab and grammar – will allow you to progress much faster.

What are the challenges when you learn French?

1. Spelling

French spelling is a bastardized and corrupted version of Latin. It often does not make sense to an English speaker. This is one of the first challenge you will encounter. Unlike with Spanish, what you see is not what you get.

The good news with French spelling is that it is consistent. Once you have leaned that eau is pronounced Oh (as in beau), you can count on it always being the case. English spellings on the other hand are notoriously inconsistent.

2. Pronunciation

English is a kind of German containing 60% of French words. But the two languages are not pronounced similarly at all. When it comes to sound, English is very Germanic. French on the other hand is Latin which has evolved through the mouths of its Celtic inhabitants and Germanic invaders. So the logic of pronunciation is quite different.

French contains several sounds which do not exist in English. This can become a challenge. You will really need to listen to a lot of French to become acquainted with these new sounds.

3. Gender (masculine-feminine)

As the French say: “Vive la difference”.  All nouns in French are either masculine or feminine.This gender is based on the the origin of the word and its ending, not on sexual logic. This usually annoys English speakers. “Why,” do they say “is table feminine and  wall masculine. It makes no sense!”

It makes sense, but only if you understand word derivation and endings. Gender can be learned but is is a bit of a work until you get used to it.

Those really are the greatest advantages and challenges when one is learning French. Its beautiful sounds and wonderful culture make it worth it in the end. Definitely one of the easier languages to learn for a native English speaker.


Effective language learning follows certain principles. At the most basic level, you must make sure that your input and your output are balanced. Input refers to how much of the new language you listen to and read on a daily basis. Output is the way you train yourself to speak.

Input in your language program.

The two most important things you can do here are to listen to the new language intensively, and to read as much of it as possible.  Yes, it is useful to study basic grammar and vocab, but it must be reinforced by a lot of listening and reading. There are so many rules of syntax and so many special cases and exceptions, that unless you are massively exposed to them, they will never sink into your long term memory and automatic recognition. Nowadays there are many (free or very inexpensive) foreign language podcasts available on the internet. If you choose them well, they will be your primary tool to develop your capacity to hear/read and understand a new language.

Output in the language program.

Before you start to speak in a language, you need to feel reasonably comfortable with your pronunciation. You don’t need to be perfect but you want to feel confident and competent.

Once you can read and sound the language comfortably, and once you have read/heard a fair bit of it (input), it is time to try your hand, or rather your tongue at making sentences.  It is always useful to learn basic greetings and daily life utterances. It is a good place to start. Then, as you learn different points of grammar and particularly verb tenses, you can begin by translating the examples back into the new language. This is a great way of testing whether you actually have learned the new patterns. Then try you hand at making little conversations. For example, once you have learned the past tense, see whether you can describe an enjoyable vacation you took in the past, or an interesting life event. Verbs will normally control your ability to speak a language.

This is just a brief introduction, but make sure that you cover both bases: listening/reading and speaking practice. Whatever method you use they will have to be balanced. Good luck on your learning journey.




The flower of learningPassion, in any area of our life, improves our performance and insures that our motivation remains high. Learning a language is not an instantaneous process. Many advertisers tell you you can learn Chinese or French in a month, 10 days or  even 3 days. This is of course unrealistic (I mean absurd).  It takes time and application to develop fluency in any language: ask any baby.  It is possible to learn smatterings of shopping language or travel  language in a few hours. And it is fun to do so.  But it is a very limited kind of knowledge. Most of us want more: to be able to communicate on a deeper level.

So what sustains us in the months it actually takes to learn a language? Passion and enjoyment. Learning a language is like  a relationship.  You spend as much time with it as you can. You listen to it talk to you. You talk “to it”. You make plans for it. You work to understand how it operates.  As we all know, passion is definitely  one of the elements that sustains a relationship. It really makes it much easier.

So! Make sure you are passionate about some aspect of the language you are learning. You can be passionate about your goal. You really want to know this language; and this sustains you through the weeks. You can be passionate about the culture and want to understand it better. Nothing allows you to connect with a culture as learning its language will.  You can be in love with this language itself: its sounds, its grammar, its script. This makes it easiest to keep going. You can be passionate about an individual whose native tongue is the language you are learning. That also makes it very easy.  You can have a great need to know this language for career reasons.  That need will make you passionate too.

So rev up your passion. Keep reminding yourself of the payoff, write down your goals and post them even. Imagine what it will be like when you are fluent, when people compliment you, when you make new friendships. Talk to people who have learned it and find out how they did, what advice they have.

Whatever the type of motivation you experience, you also want to do two other things.

1. Make sure you understand how to learn a language, and this one specifically. Get”maps” for your journey. Be realistic about what has to happen. Explore learning materials and learning options.

2. Make sure you use a learning path which you deeply enjoy, which suits your personality and learning style, and which rewards you for learning.  Boredom is never a plus.

Success is an internal experience, measured only by you. The more you know what you are doing, the more you enjoy yourself and the more passionate you are about the language, the easier it will be for you to sustain yourself on the path of learning.

Blue hills of ChinaDo you want to learn Mandarin? Beyond ordering food and buying souvenirs? So you can actually communicate?

Learn the Characters. It may seem a daunting tasks to learn several thousand characters.( Why don’t they use an alphabet like us? )

But, if you want to progress in the language, you need to be able to read. End of story.  Pinyin is a great tool to get you started and to teach you the pronunciation of new words. But the characters contain the essence of the Chinese language.  How else can you go on the internet to read Chinese websites or books?

Many systems teach you a few dozen characters. Useless. What if you only knew 8 letters of the Roman alphabet? Useless, right?

So how do we do it? We roll up our sleeves and we get professor James Heisig’s book “Remembering the Hanzi”.  We simply follow the wonderful method he outlines and in a few months we have our first 1,500 characters down.  Heisig has a fantastically simple and effective way of leading you through the characters.  Then you can take a breath. You will be able to read over 95% of Chinese texts you encounter.  By then, you will have developed the ability to memorize and remember characters really efficiently.  You will want to keep learning the most common characters until you reach 3,000.  Heisig’s second volume with the second 1,500 characters is due for publication any time. Meanwhile there are other good books  you can use, because you know how to absorb characters efficiently. After that point it is just a matter of beginning to read regularly.  You will keep learning new ones automatically.

Chinese children know 2,000 when they graduate from grade school, and 6,000 by the end of High School. Japan (uses Chinese characters) Taiwan and China have incredibly high literacy rates: far higher than ours in the West.

So, we get motivated, and we get through it. After a few months we are literate. Our knowledge of Chinese will now expand exponentially because we can read and write. We have access to the entire culture without any restrictions.

I hope I have inspired you to take the plunge. A few months of solid – and fun – work will establish you in the language forever.

Tones are what gives mandarin its character. Each syllable is actually spoken on a different note. It is at first a challenge for Westerners when learning to speak, simply because we are not used to them. The best thing you can do is to listen to Mandarin being spoken. What do you hear? Can you imitate it?

Mandarin has four tones and a neutral tone.  My best advice to anyone wanting to speak this language is to learn how to say the tones comfortably.  You need to hear them first without preconceived idea.  Once you are able to hear –  “Oh yes, this sound rises. This one falls” – practice reproducing what you have heard. Although it may seem strange, it is essential.

Tones are not an optional luxury. Without them you will not be understood. At all!  There are many words which sound exactly the same in Mandarin except for one thing: their tones.

You can practice making them mechanically, but the best way is to imitate. Listen – hear – imitate! Do your best. You will not be perfect. But it will make a world of difference when it comes to being understood.

Pinyin is the writing system that allows you to read Mandarin immediately. It is written with the Roman alphabet and is very consistent. You just need to learn how to read the different sounds.  Some letters are used as they are in English: bei, hua, lao etc. Others are not. You simply need to learn the new values: xi is pronounced like she and qi is pronounced like chi.

Pinyin makes it possible to pronounce Chinese fairly accurately very fast.  You want to be learning how to read and write characters at the same time, but Pinyin will really help you penetrate into the language.

Another fantastic thing it does is it tells you exactly how to pronounce the tones on every word. I will get back to tones in another post, but realize that you must pronounce the tones of Mandarin or you will not be understood when you speak.  At all.!  The Chinese characters do not show you how to pronounce the tones: Pinyin does.

You can learn how to read Pinyin in 30 minutes. You won’t be perfectly accurate, but you will be able to read, learn vocabulary and use correct tones. It is really an indispensable tool.  Yes qi = chi might be a little strange, but you can quickly get used to it.

Some people learn the sounds of a language just by listening. Some learn by first understanding how the new sound system works.  I find that getting acquainted can be a good initial step. A map can never replace walking or driving in a real place but it can be of great use.

I will not systematically present the sounds of Chinese here. I only want to mention a few features.


The Chinese language is based around individual characters: one syllable each.  So each syllable is very important and contains a lot of meaning. Chi-nese is much more sta-ca-tto than Eng-lish.  So pronounce clearly. Do not slur syllables together. Wash – ing -ton not Washton. You can always learn slang later.

Air and no Air.

Be aware that some letters have a lot of air and others do not.  Qi versus ji. or  chang versus zhang,  dao and tao.  You need to read pinyin to understand how to pronounce these example words. They are not pronounced as if they were English. I will discuss Pinyin in the next post.

Clear vowels

Chinese sounds clear and distinct vowels.

There is not much more to say generally. All the sounds of Chinese find a reasonably close cousin in English. Listen for the differences. Repeat what you hear. There are three of you learning Mandarin: you, your ears and your body. They all need a lot of input.


Language is sound.  Arrgh! … Oops! … Wow! …  Oh noooo! …  Various combinations of sound  communicate our meaning.  As you approach Mandarin as your new language, get acquainted with its sounds. The better you hear, the easier it will be to understand natives. The better you sound when you speak, the easier your communication will be.

Falling in love

My advice is always to learn a language that you are attracted to. It is much easier to spend time with something you enjoy. If you need to learn for an external reason ( work, family matters), you should at least feel neutral toward the new language. Aversion is never a good place to start.  Strange, unusual even alien are OK.

Get into that crib

Remember when you were living in your crib and you spoke no English? You spent hours listening to Mom and Dad talking and making faces at you. It worked, didn’t it? Remember! It’s never too late to have a happy childhood in Mandarin.

Input: make it so.

So you’ve decided to learn Mandarin. Do you know what it sounds like? To many, Chinese sounds like ping tong ping.  Well it’s time to get on your computer and take a little tour.  Where do you go? Anywhere Mandarin is spoken. YouTube is a good place to start. Movies are another. Internet radio and television are everywhere. Cartoons or songs in Chinese  are fantastic. Listen! Without judging or rejecting. Stay relaxed, breathe and move around. Some speakers will have voices you enjoy. Others may not. Explore! For a few days.

Next time we will talk about specific Mandarin sounds and how to approach them.  But today, go out and listen to your new language. This is not a mental exercise. Go and land your ship on planet Zhongguo and find out what you can about its inhabitants: directly. What do you actually hear? How does its vibration  feel inside your body? Find good-looking actors or actresses being interviewed. They tend to have good voices and they are fun to look at.

The only assignment is to expose yourself to as much enjoyable Mandarin as possible.

So how do you proceed from here? You have a general idea what you need to learn. What is the best approach to learn effectively? the most effortless and fruitful? So many programs! So many promises!

Whatever  system you choose, there are two fundamental ways to approach the language.  Output and input based.

1. Output

This is the traditional approach. We are immediately asked to memorize and use an increasing amount of vocabulary and grammar. We are also asked to produce spoken and written language almost right away. This is the output-based method. It works well for people who do well at learning systems and rules. It can be more frustrating for intuitive or kinesthetic learners. The great challenge of this approach is  always integration. Can you really  use what you have learned? Do you understand native speakers? When you succeed learning through this approach, you will have a solid knowledge of your new language.  Later articles will show you how to shine if you take this path. It is very effective if it shored up and facilitated by the massive input method.

2. Input

These days, there is a language learning movement – largely internet-based – which advocates learning through massive input first.  Listen, listen, listen!  Watch, absorb, fill yourself with your new language! Don’t worry about speaking until you can hear and understand.  It works very well and eliminates the frustration of trying to speak before you are ready. This is naturally the input-based approach.  This is what happens naturally in early childhood or when you move to a foreign country.  Nowadays, it is easily possible to follow this approach while staying in your home country. How? Incredible internet resources – many of them absolutely free. We will cover some of the greatest ones in future posts. We will also advise you on how to use the input approach efficiently.

Input and Output

You don’t need to choose one or the other of these two paths. Choose both, of course! Initially focus on input. Let the language become familiar. Let it automatically ring in your head. Enjoy the impact of the new culture. Simultaneously, find your way around the grammar and vocabulary. Be curious and inquisitive. Find out how the language works.  See if you can express yourself. Learn some simple expressions.

Next article will get you started practically on your Mandarin journey.