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Absolute Beginner: How I Re-Learned French In My Twenties

They say once you learn a language, it never goes away. It can, however, take a long hiatus.

In my mid-twenties I was broke, working a part-time job I hated, and realizing to my great dismay that most of the French I had learned in high school and college had practically vanished.

I was employed as a commercial photographer’s assistant at the time—a job that involved keeping track of thousands of negatives and prints, making calls to high-powered clients in New York—and many hours of staring out the window.

It was one of a series of unfulfilling jobs I had in my twenties: the kind Henry David Thoreau probably had in mind when he said, “those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render.” Needless to say, I was bored and restless and skating dangerously near the icy shores of depression. I missed college and the atmosphere of learning that came along with it. Most of all, I missed French.

One day, while at work daydreaming, I decided to put on a Pandora station labeled “60s French Pop.” Outside the window, the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California were succumbing to an almost apocalyptic series of fires, choking the air with billows of gray smoke. As I watched the mountains burn and listened to the oh-so-cool crooning of Gillian Hills, France Gall, and Françoise Hardy, I was transported into the past.

I hadn’t studied, or even really thought about French for almost five years, but hearing the goofy songs was something like the effect of Proust’s madeleine in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)—the songs triggered involuntary memories, and a head rush of nostalgia. I remembered those bleary-eyed mornings in high school French class—the bad fluorescent lighting and scuffed linoleum floors; going to the local record store to search out Charles Trenet CDs, attending revivals of hipster French classics at L.A. movie theaters, trying to impress girls with my accent. I remembered what French had meant to me: romance, travel, cleverness, being cool.

"As I watched the mountains burn and listened to the oh-so-cool crooning of Gillian Hills, France Gall, and Françoise Hardy, I was transported into the past …. I remembered what French had meant to me: romance, travel, cleverness, being cool."

My French-learning years had comprised six years of my life—from age 14 to 20, but after graduating college, adult concerns took over, and there came a certain point where I cynically, if rather unconsciously, ditched the idea of continuing my studies. Accompanying this was a stringent pragmatism I think many of us fall into in early adulthood. What will be the use of this? How much money will it earn me?

At the same time, I still harbored a hopeful feeling that it wasn’t too late to become bilingual, move to a foreign country and turn into a dissipated expatriate like Ernest Hemingway, hanging out in Parisian cafés smoking cigarettes.

After weeks of fretting, and Googling various French-learning resources at work (when I should have been answering emails), I decided that any possible benefits to re-learning French outweighed the drawbacks. It wasn’t “practical,” no—but most rewarding things in life aren’t.

To begin with, I wrote down a list of things I would need to do: study my old college French textbook for 45 minutes day, start watching French movies again, read a French novel—preferably something cool by Albert Camus—and translate any words or phrases I didn’t know; listen to French language CDs in the car on the way to and from work.

This worked well for a week or so, but with no other French-speakers to practice with, I soon began to feel the odd, slightly schizophrenic sensation of speaking to myself in a vacuum. Without face-to-face interaction, I realized my opportunities for re-learning French were limited. So I decided to do what any broke 20-something would do: enroll in a community college language class.

One day, while my boss was gone, I took the necessary steps and registered online. It cost me about $170, including textbooks and registration fees. With an ever-dwindling bank account, it wasn’t exactly something I could afford, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway.

On a scorching hot evening in early September 2009, I found myself taking a seat in the classroom of “Madame P”—a bubbly woman with an Italian last name who looked a little like Juliette Binoche, and was effortlessly charming and approachable. As soon as I heard her utter the familiar greeting bonsoir tout le monde! (“hello everyone”), I knew I was home.

"I found that, even with all the distractions and new responsibilities of adulthood, my ability to focus hadn’t deteriorated – it had improved."

My fellow students were an odd, interesting assortment of characters, ranging in age from 18 to probably 70 or so. They came from all walks of life, and it was clear that for many of them, English, as well as French, was not a first language.

In many ways I preferred this to the high school classrooms where I felt surrounded on all sides by surly, judgmental teenagers, and always felt like the class nerd. Here, by contrast, we were just normal people—a cross-section of society—united by a single goal.

After just three or four classes, to my great delight, my French started to trickle back from whatever dark recess of my mind it had been lost to, and soon it felt like picking up where one had left off with an old friend—the familiar rhythms were still there, and French phrases, verb conjugations, and idiomatic expressions started to flow involuntarily from my mouth.

I was inspired and excited, and for the next several months I looked forward to the cold fall nights, grabbing a cup of coffee before class, feeling excited to be there, feeling focused and present again instead of looking for the next soporific distraction.

Homework became something I looked forward to—the opposite of how it was in high school. I found that, even with all the distractions and new responsibilities of adulthood, my ability to focus hadn’t deteriorated – it had improved.

I even began to feel more inspired in my writing—though little of it had to do with French. I also made new friends, and in a wholly unrelated sense, began feeling connected with the world again after a long stretch of feeling friendless and isolated.

"There was joy in simply learning again—not for reward, or money, or to impress a girl—but to return to a part of myself I had been cut off from."

There was joy in simply learning again—not for reward, or money, or to impress a girl—but to return to a part of myself I had been cut off from.

Highlights from my class included a report—complete with poster board—on legendary French cigarette-maker Gauloises, and all the famous people (John Lennon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso) who smoked them.

By the end of my semester, I felt partially, if not wholly, transformed. I had at least gotten out of the depressive rut I had been in, and had shaken up my language-learning brain. It was a start, and I knew that from then on French—no matter how long I stayed away—would always be something I could return to.

Learning (or re-learning) a language is one those things you need to be a little bit crazy to do—especially as you get older. In order to be lifelong learners—of languages or any other subject—we need to break the rules of adulthood, the ones that tell us we should be “sensible” and focus on careers, stability, normality. As economist Umair Haque said in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “sensible choices don’t propel to lives that matter.”

In fact, numerous studies have now confirmed that people who are multilingual earn more on average than their monolingual counterparts. Maybe it’s more sensible than we thought.

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