From Bonjour and S’il Vous Plaît to a French MBA
Published in français.
As COVID-19 was ramping up and shutting borders down, I finished my applications to a French MBA program in France. It seemed ever more unlikely with how little we knew about the virus and how it was spreading that I would hear anything back about any international border-crossing-educational opportunities in time for the summer, but I found out a few weeks ago that I was accepted.
What I’ll do about that is a post for another time, but I wanted to share what I did to get myself from functionally zero French in January of 2019 to passing the DELF B2 in December, and finishing up my application two months later. In other words, how I went from Bonjour and S’il vous plait into a French MBA in a year.
First, some background. The scale for European languages follows the Common European of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) goes from A1 (beginner) to C2 (native fluency). You can see a guide here for the recommended hours of French study and practice to advance from one level to the next. To get into a French-speaking Master’s program in France, one needs a C1.
Second, my background. I was a Spanish major at UCLA, and over the last few months of 2018, and through the spring of 2019, I prepared for, and passed, the Spanish DELE B2 and C1 tests. I add this to point out I did have a strong background in another romance language, but also, that I was not single-minded in my French pursuit, and was double-dipping during my ramp up to a summer in France.
Finally, I recognize how fortunate I am to have had time to spend time in France over the summer of 2019. As delightful as the immersion was, I believe the biggest jumps I made came from the regular commitment to studying during the work week, even when that meant getting up at 4am to fit in class before the work day.
What follows is an overview of 2019 in three parts. During Parts 1 and 3, I was working full-time as a daytime talk show producer on a live show.
Part 1: January – May
The study: 60 hours over 20 weeks = 3 hours a week
I started out this year in the way I recommend anyone to start learning a language: by speaking. Everything else is a slower route to getting where you want. Preply is a great option for finding a tutor, with pricing and schedules that I’ve always found accommodating.
According to my lesson history, I took 60 hours of classes over the first five months, which is about three hours per week. I was also getting ready for the Spanish DELE C1 test, so my attention was divided. As a note, there were a few weeks where, for lack of time, I was doing back-to-back classes, one in French and one in Spanish. This is… not an optimal way to learn.
Extracurriculars (non-class French activities on a more-or-less daily basis):
- I enjoy the daily Frantastique emails – they are funny, cultural, and varied, often reminding me of small grammar rules that I don’t always have reason to use on a daily basis, but are still important.
- I read this volume of French Short Stories. Having different speeds and narrators was a nice way to reinforce the progress I was making.
Part 2: June – August
I spent twelve weeks in France, working on vineyards, goat farms, and at the end, studying for three weeks in Paris. As the time abroad wrapped up, I wondered if, in another timeline, it would’ve made more language-learning sense to spend three intensive weeks studying first, and then cementing that classroom theory with weeks of conversation and practical application.
Maybe. C’est la vie.
The trip evolved how it evolved, and I wasn’t intending to take language classes at all until a change in plans mid-July, so my takeaway is to approach the language you’re learning with an open mind. You’ll forget things. You’ll mispronounce things. You’ll have awkward encounters. But, maybe an open evening or week or so in your schedule will surprise you, and you’ll be able to take advantage and do something you would’ve never thought possible.
I volunteered through WWOOF at two wineries (one in Rignac, the other in the Loire Valley), and at one goat farm (in Mecquignies). Though there were brief breaks and chats, the majority of the interaction came at lunch and dinner, and with a mixture of families, kids, and other travelers. I would go from highs of successfully navigating a dinner in French to forgetting the word for fish the following day.
The study: 120 hours over 12 weeks = 10 hours a week*
Finding myself with some extra time at the end of my summer, I opted for an intensive language (40 hours a week) course at Accord in Paris. For my first two weeks, I was in the B1 course, and finished with the B2 course for my third week. I remember stumbling that third week trying to describe the US healthcare system in French, then I realized I’d be hard-pressed to do it in English. It’s good to keep a healthy perspective.
Part 3: September – December, and taking the DELF B2
The study: 60 hours over 17 weeks = 3.5 hours a week
Despite the title of this post, my year’s plan wasn’t to get into a French university. I couldn’t sleep one night late October and in the bleary-eyed scrolling of the evening, I found an interesting French program about tourism. Then I read the fine print, and to enroll in the program in French, I would need a C1 equivalency by the time I applied in March. Working backwards, it dawned on me that I’d have to take the B2 in early December. Even now, that seems aggressive, and it was. Still, we do what we have to. So I set up a schedule to make sure I was hitting a little bit of grammar, speaking, writing, and reading each day, and moving toward the exam with a consistent effort. This stretch in November was probably the hardest of the year (and if you know about sweeps in television, you begin to understand a bit more the fun I was having!).
The most difficult part of preparing for the test is the oral presentation. It requires a 10-15 minute monologue presented before a panel of judges, followed by a Q&A on the topic (mine ended up being about a theoretical social media service about renting friends for a few hours). But learning how to prepare for this, how to connect arguments, and having to struggle through it with my tutor was the most beneficial part of the process. Too often our conversational partners, in our native language as in the one we’re learning, cut in and finish our thoughts. It really is necessary to force yourself through these mental blocks, and the 15 to 20 minutes of each class that were dedicated to this effort were the most worthwhile.
The test itself was tough, but not more than I’d expected. I ended up scoring an 86%, and above 20/25 in each of the four categories – speaking, audio comprehension, reading, writing. A score below 5 in any category is a fail, as is a score below 50%.
- I listened to Debat du Jour every day. For the range of topics, accents, and audio quality (to train your ear, you have to listen to high fidelity audio), I haven’t found a better 15-20 minute podcast. I cycled through others about science, pop culture, and sexuality, but none stuck like le Debat.
- I got into books. Les jours de mon abandon, Bonjour tristesse, Hygiène de l’assassin (!), Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, Un certain sourire.
- More Frantastique.
Part 4 & Beyond: Along Came COVID-19
This section gets more complicated. I applied to the universities by the end of February, and had planned to take the DALF C1 in Paris in March. Maybe you know what happened next. I landed in Paris. An hour later, the test was canceled. Four days later, I was told Macron was closing the borders, and I came home, my dreams of studying in Paris cast aside. I had a phone interview in French, and sent in my personal statements and letters, but I hadn’t taken the C1. There went, I thought, my chances.
Then, an email in June. I’d been accepted into a French MBA in Management des Affaires Internationales. The world is no less complicated now, and it’s a decision for a later day. Ultimately, it was the efforts I put into French over 2019 that made this choice a possibility.
I did take a break from my classes. I’m still reading some French books, occasionally peppering in a French series in the lineup, and doing Frantastique lessons.
I hope what this breakdown shows is that languages take an effort. The accountability of regular lessons and being forced to speak – even when you’d rather not, even when you’re tired, even when you’re hungover, even when your friends are out doing friend things – is the most important step. But after that, there’s so much fun to be had. It’s really a Choose Your Own Adventure for learning. Music? Cooking videos? Books? TED Talks? Cartoons?
As long as you don’t convince yourself that Duolingo is going to cut it, you’ll be great.
What’s wild is that yes, I spent 12 weeks away, and, yes, I took three straight weeks at a French course in Paris, but despite all that, it averages out to just 4 hours of class a week over a year. An effort, to be sure, but would you swap out a movie or two a week to become nearly fluent in that language you’ve always been interested in? Maybe not.
But if you decide to, I applaud you, I encourage you, and I’m here if vous voudriez en parler.