Some thoughts on Internet-based language learning

Sometime ago, I decided I wanted to use the multinational aspect of the Internet to help me improve my French. Here are some comments on the experience so far. My situation is, located in California, with no local contact with the French language except through books and other written material. We get TV5, the French cable channel, but we don't watch that as much as we should, and it's not interactive, so if you don't understand something, it's just gone.

The first thing I did, several years ago, was to start a bilingual discussion mailing list, called Freng. It started with free discussion, but it was clear that some kind of structure would improve things, or so I thought, so I came up with the idea of serializing public domain texts, found for example at the Gutenberg Project. For the past several years, we have been doing this, reading English and French texts on alternate days. We are currently well along in Monsieur LeCoq by Émile Gaboriau, and also The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart. What happens is that we receive each day a selection, about a screenful, in email. The truth is, discussion is very sporadic, and only a few of the members usually discuss anything. However, it's really great to read a serialized novel in this way. My intention is to change the Freng list over to a web-based discussion group, with the same daily distribution of serialized texts; however, this probably isn't going to happen for at least a few months.

But since I started Freng, blogs have become much more important, and in particular, Corine Lesnes' Big Picture blog, which is a French-based blog (Corine is a journalist with Le Monde), but which includes people of various language backgrounds and has a true international flair. It is really on Big Pic that the kind of discussion I had originally envisioned is truly available. I'm sure there are other venues for this, there are thousands of blogs out there.

Those are the main things I currently do on the Internet to improve my French.

However, there is one more thing I want to mention in this regard. Since my object is to learn, it is not sufficient for me that I merely make myself understood. I also want to get feedback specifically on things like vocabulary, grammar, othography, and so on. To do this, I invested in a tool that has proven quite useful, although it has quite a few limitations.

The tool is a pair of programs called Ultralingua and Grammatica, both available here. Ultralingua has a variety of modules; the relevant one is English-French. You put your cursor on a word you don't know and type (on the Mac) F1, and a little window pops up with the definition. You can also enter words directly into a bilingual dictionary panel to get definitions. It also has a verb conjugator. Grammatica has several modules as well; the relevant one is, of course, French. This is a grammar checker. You highlight a sentence or a paragraph or a phrase, and type F2. Grammatica goes through it and complains about various kinds of grammar problems, usually offering one or more suggestions. This is great for reminding you about gender agreement, verb concord, accent mark placement, and so on.

There are two more tools I use. I have a Systran dashboard widget (this is on the Mac, I'm sure there are Windows equivalents) that does computer translations to and from a bunch of languages. If I'm not sure I've gotten the meaning quite right on a French sentence, I'll get Systran to translate it and see. This helps with false cognates and some of the details of verb tenses and so on. Sometimes I'll use Systran to translate English to French, but surprisingly, I really don't use that aspect of it very much. In any case, the translations are often pretty awkward. It is what it is.

The other tool is Google. Ultralingua has a panel that allows you to enter a phrase and a context, and it calls Google to find examples. It is useful, and I use it sometimes, but I usually just type in the phrase in Google. If, for example, I'm not sure that people say "penser de", I'll just google for tha sequence.

The result of this approach is generally pretty good. It's not like it corrects all my mistakes, I still make plenty, but it catches a lot of them. I think that over time, I don't make as many. My vocabulary is slowly improving. Grammatica doesn't help much with certain things, like verbal prepositions, and both Grammatica & Ultralingua have a limited wordlist. When Grammatica encounters a word it doesn't know, you can tell it to ignore it, but then the quality of the grammar check goes downhill. A better idea would be to allow you to enter a word that patterns grammatically about the same as the unknown word. Even if the match wasn't perfect, I think that would improve the grammar check. I think this means that sometimes what I write may be technically correct but not idiomatic French. Hopefully, as I read more French, this problem will correct itself.

The other problem is that my writing is probably too academic, not as natural as I might want it to be. Sort of "bookish". But, given the approach I've chosen and the methods I'm using, I guess there's not much I can do about that. Obviously, my verbal ability isn't going to improve much with this method, but the truth is, what would I use the ability to speak French for? Who would I speak to?

Well, if anyone reads this and wants to comment or write down things they've tried vis-à-vis using the Internet to help with language learning, vas-y.