It’s time to invest in learning

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When covid-19 arrived in March 2020, reactions were mixed. Confusion, panic, fear, despair and disorder have become the norm for many. But for others, the pandemic has become an opportunity to build, to fix, to improve, to learn: take college courses, remodel their homes, volunteer for nonprofits, adopt new routines fitness, finding ways to turn a bad situation into an opportunity.

I was not one of them. After more than two years of ups and downs related to covid, I finally understood that the “normal” was not likely to resurface, so it was time to undertake a constructive project of self-improvement: learning French .

This is a business that started before our second trip to Paris in 2006. Having studied German well in high school (it helped my mother and grandmother to speak it at home), I thought I could learn enough French to feel comfortable on the journey.

Study aids included a CD from Audible, “In-Flight French,” as well as a series of charming (and increasingly difficult) audio lessons via “Learn French with Alexa.” I listened, repeated and listened again while walking the dogs for several months before the trip, and regularly read a few pages of simple French novels before going to bed.

This got me to the point where I could read airport and road signs, store advertisements, labels on paintings and sculptures in the Louvre, Pompidou, or Musée d’Orsay, and instructions. basic, and understand about half of what French speakers were saying (if they speak slowly).

That’s probably why so many Americans with the same disease hang out at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, an English-language bookstore on the Left Bank.

What I couldn’t do – and still can’t – was form sentences to ask questions, at least not at the appropriate tenses.

It turns out that this skill was hardly necessary. Whenever a French speaker, like the polite young man at the entrance to the Rodin Museum, told me (in French) that I couldn’t enter the establishment, I replied with “why?” I guess that gave me away, as he immediately switched to English and explained that the museum was closing in 15 minutes and I wouldn’t have time to see much.

This happened in bakeries, wine shops, restaurants and open-air markets. It made me wonder why I bothered to learn. But being able to read a menu, sort out instructions on how to access the internet in a hotel, decipher the sometimes confusing directions from the metro, and place an order at Starbucks (much like our Starbucks, but Parisians were rarely seen sipping drinks through straws and munching on a snack on the street, like we do.)

The first step in regaining the control I have over French is to make the decision to visit Paris. With the harrowing effects of covid on world travel continuing to fade and return, there’s no telling when that might happen. So, if travel problems arise to go to Europe in the near future, there is always Montreal and Quebec.

With that in mind, I searched for the In-Flight French CD, found it, and loaded the contents onto an iPod. The lessons are showing their age – there’s discussion of how to request smoking or non-smoking seats on flights – but the basics are the same.

Somewhere in the process of replacing an old MacBook Air with a new one, the 22 lessons purchased on “Learn French with Alexa” disappeared; it was a shame, because Alexa is a friendly, good-humored and knowledgeable instructor. So now my new teacher is Duolingo.

It’s an American educational technology company that produces free audio and video language learning apps for over 40 languages ​​(the usual suspects, plus Navajo and Yiddish) by practicing vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and listening skills using spaced repetition.

It’s a lot of fun to use, with instructions provided by lively multi-ethnic cartoon characters who are very supportive of my successful efforts to type responses to English-to-French and French-to-English prompts (I’m better at this last case).

The rewards come in the form of statements of Awesome!, Amazing! and other such things. More than three unsuccessful attempts in a row produce a sad little green owl named Duo on the screen accompanied by the words: “I believe in you”.

The wacky model, which looks more like a video game than a classroom, applies more to simple words and sentences than to complex ones, the researchers say. But I’m not preparing to spend a year studying at the Sorbonne, my goal is to order a baguette or a bottle of wine, in their mother tongue, without any blunders.

Karen Martin is the editor of Perspective.

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