As you can probably imagine, Babbel is packed full of polyglots. A few days ago I was loitering by the coffee machine while two colleagues were shooting the breeze in Québécois. He’s English and she’s German. It makes no sense. Why don’t they just speak English?
This kind of behavior is impressive, but it certainly isn’t normal. These are people who’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of excellence in language; when they’re not working at a language learning company, they’re either studying for degrees in linguistics, out with friends from all four corners of the world, or complicating the idea of leisure time by reading grammar books for fun. Such commitment is admirable, but what about the rest of us? What about us normal folk who work a 9-to-5 and require a dose of caffeine before even considering human interaction? How can we learn a new language?
I had an idea that I wanted to test, so I recruited two colleagues from the marketing department, Alberto and Stefano. Alberto comes from Cadiz at the southern tip of Spain, Stefano from the south of Italy. Our task was to attempt to learn as much French as possible in one working week. This would mean fitting our studies around our day jobs, exploiting opportunities to go for lunch with French colleagues, and populating chat messages with whimsical French commentary. Then, come the weekend, we would each have two days of intensive lessons with our own personal teacher, followed by a dinner and a monologue in which we would display our newfound prowess in the French language. The plan was to have the theory — all the basic grammar and vocabulary — under our belts by the weekend. We wanted to be conversational by Sunday evening. I asked our teachers — Marion, Anne and Laure — what they thought of this aim. Here’s what Marion said:
“I like the idea of challenging yourself to learn something new in a restricted period of time. I think that can focus the mind and get you off to a flying start. Doing it in a working week is a different proposition entirely though. I wish you all the best and think you will make some significant progress, but I don’t expect the world.”
Hmm. We commenced the challenge as soon as we awoke on Monday morning. Here’s our account of the week, along with a few tips we picked up along the way for how to squeeze effective studies into a busy working week.
Day 1 – Monday:
Stefano: “Monday was dedicated to planning the week. When you’re short on time, it’s always tempting to dive straight in, but you inevitably use your time less wisely if you do this. I’ve always been quite a talkative Italian and consider myself an auditory learner. I’ve never learned French, so I decided my first step should be to get acquainted with the music of the language. I researched French radio stations to which I could awake in the morning and listen at work. I then downloaded some podcasts for my daily commute and identified the Babbel courses I wanted to begin with.”
Ed: “I completely agree with Stefano — planning is paramount. Unfortunately, I’m not the most disciplined student, but I am very motivated. As such, I often can’t resist the temptation to dive straight in, as he put it. I’d thought of a way to counteract this lack of discipline though: I practice the tedious habit of checking my phone when I wake up. I cycle through the latest Instagram images of the beknown and unbeknown, scan mails and catch up on the news of the past twenty-four hours. After half an hour of this, I normally feel sufficiently awake to ingest breakfast and a coffee. I determined to alter my routine for this week, waking up half an hour earlier than normal in order to use Babbel on my phone for about sixty to ninety minutes. I figured this would be such a minor change that I would barely need any discipline to bring it about. Perfect!”
Alberto: “I’ve got a dog who demands a walk each morning, so I don’t have the luxury of spending an extra thirty minutes in bed. I planned to integrate some study time into my walk, sitting on a bench for twenty minutes and completing a few lessons. Ed was pretty focused on grammar and building his own sentences. I wanted to get the really basic stuff done — greetings, platitudes, things like that — and then focus on set phrases and idiomatic expressions for particular situations. I figured this would give me an advantage at the dinner at the end of the week.”
Day 2 – Tuesday:
Stefano: “I awoke to French radio, got ready for work and set off on my bike. My first podcast taught me the numbers, so by the time I arrived at work I’d conquered 1 to 100. I think it’s important to determine how to study your new language based on your preferences, but also on what’s situationally viable; the podcasts became a staple of my morning routine. I sit close to a French colleague, so I started chatting to her both on the computer and verbally. Both of us have a slightly mischievous side, so I quickly picked up quite a few colloquial expressions… ”
Ed: “My alarm woke me up at seven sharp, and I reached for my phone robotically. It took me a few minutes of staring bleary-eyed at the screen until I was fully conscious of being conscious. I scrolled through to the course on the verb être (to be) and then to the modal verbs. I love modal verbs. If you can conjugate can and must and might and have a few basic infinitives under your belt, you can start forming fairly complex sentences very quickly. After thirty minutes I could conjugate pouvoir, devoir and vouloir in the present tense. With my remaining thirty minutes I learned about twenty common verbs. I then made inane, schizophrenic conversation with myself while I got ready for work:
Me 1: “Oui oui, je peux parler français.”
Me 2: “Ah, très bien, je veux apprendre le français aussi.”
Me 1: “C’est bien, mais tu dois beaucoup étudier.”
Me 2: “Oui oui, c’est vrai.”
Conversational in one week? Bah! I was conversational in one morning!
Day 3 – Wednesday:
Alberto: “I have to admit I was struggling at this point. Work had turned out to be more stressful than I’d expected, and I only had time to study on my phone before work and a little during my lunch break. I was so exhausted when I got home that I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth, let alone a book. I also felt like I couldn’t really disconnect mentally from work in order to fully connect to my studies. I was living for the weekend.”
Ed: “I was happily residing in a parallel universe, roaring along and convinced of my certain victory come Sunday. The only reason I refrained from gloating was Alberto’s I-will-kill-you-stare. I met Anne, my teacher-to-be, for coffee in the early afternoon. I was a little nervous — this was the first proper conversation with a native speaker (actually, the first one not with myself) — but it went swimmingly and was an enormous motivation. I’d studied the different tense forms of all those delicious modal verbs, packed out my vocab with some useful nouns, memorized all the common conjunctions and prepositions, and started adding adjectives of emotions and feeling: J’étais très satisfait de mon français.
Day 4 – Thursday:
Stefano: “One of our beloved colleagues had her farewell party last night. We’d kind of made a pact not to stay out too long. Unfortunately, that pact lasted exactly as long as the first beer. Only Alberto managed to pull himself away from the festivities at a reasonable hour. Ed came in today looking utterly zombified, so I don’t believe he made any progress this morning. That said, we did all corner our poor French colleagues last night — by about midnight I was convinced I was fluent. Two things I learned: it’s important to unwind now and again, and French people can be very patient.”
Day 5 – Friday:
Alberto: “The last few days of the week were less intense, which afforded me the time to really get stuck into the courses and topics I was interested in. I studied a lot of the food-related vocabulary I would need for the dinner. I even got a little carried away, and now consider myself something of an expert in French words for herbs. I feel better prepared for the weekend’s intensive course now.”
Ed: “Thursday was something of an impromptu break for me, but I was well and truly back on it today. I went for lunch with a French friend from my university days and we spoke pretty much the whole time in French. It was hard work — by the end my brain was as cooked as the gallettes we ate — but it was great to see how impressed she was. It was also a little strange to communicate with her in French having only communicated in English since we met six years ago. I have to admit that it’s these kind of moments which really spur me on. Bring on the weekend!”
Day 6 – Saturday
Stefano: “I’m not sure the word weekend is wholly appropriate; in many ways this felt like the beginning. We had to consolidate everything we’d learned and really begin to use it. Each of us had a classroom adjacent to one of the others. If you were quiet you could hear the French murmurs in thick English and Spanish accents. We revised much of what I’d studied and Laure, my teacher, adapted the class to my preferred learning style, so there was a lot of talking and laughing and colorful cue cards.”
Alberto: “My mind blanked a little when I first entered the classroom. I felt as if I’d started learning minutes before. Marion, my teacher, had also prepared the class with my needs and desires in mind, and we started embellishing the cooking vocabulary with the key verbs in past, present and future so that I’d be able to describe what we were making at dinner. I find starting with these more concrete, tangible areas of language makes things much simpler than if you begin with abstract concepts (that’s Ed’s approach).”
Day 7 – Sunday
Ed: “Yesterday was really fun. We’d started around eleven, and it was a huge relief to know that we didn’t have to mould our studies around our working hours anymore. Today was a little different. There was definitely an awareness of time pressure, as well as the concern that we were all about to make fools of ourselves at dinner. This concern was quickly allayed by the easy manner of my teacher, Anne, and by the fact that I was speaking quite fluidly, if not fluently. We went a bit further than I’d expected, venturing into the area of giving opinions. For me, this is when actually speaking the new language becomes interesting; when you can confidently say that you’re expressing yourself in a foreign language. By the time the dinner came round, I was more worried about preparing the chocolate mousse than I was about speaking French.”
Stefano: “I was an Italian in a German supermarket pretending to be French. After we’d bought all the food, we headed over to Ed’s place for dinner. He and Anne were already chatting in French and whipping up a mousse when we arrived. Once Laure and I had prepared the quiche, we took a bit of time out and played a guessing game. It was funny to see how each of our approaches had equipped us with different advantages merely within the context of the game; Alberto knew all the food-related vocab we were being tested on, while Ed was rocking the descriptions. I fell somewhere between the two, but was much more adept at releasing the odd colloquial expression every time I guessed right.”
Alberto: “When we sat down to eat, I think all of us quickly realized it wasn’t going to be easy to enter into conversation. It’d been fine in the classroom when the conversation had been one-to-one, but trying to edge a sentence in with three native speakers at the table after a week was very difficult. All three of us listened attentively and we all professed to understand the large majority of what we heard. That was an achievement in itself, but not the holy grail we’d sought. We offered plenty of wine, exchanged lots of platitudes and complimented the chefs, but fell short of debating the merits of laicism. Next week perhaps.”
As Alberto mentioned, the dinner was a lot of fun, but it was difficult to get into conversation. Following the dinner, we all took our place in the hot seat to talk about how the week had gone. This gave us the time and the freedom to really show what we’d learned. Our accents were all over the place, but I was extremely impressed by the amount of progress we’d all made in such a short space of time. After seven days, we could comprehend a lot of what we heard and express ourselves in one-to-one conversations. Je suis satisfait.