Thursday, June 14, 2012

Learning French in a Hurry: Some iPhone Hacks to Try

My best friend and I—that is, my wife and I—are headed to Paris this Fall.  Unfortunately, no parlez français.  There's this awful rumor (okay, myriad anecdotes) going around that the French are a bit jingoistic, or, perhaps more fairly, intolerant of those who don't bother to learn any French at all before visiting the country, particularly of those Americans who simply expect everyone to speak English in pursuit of the (no-longer-almighty) American Dollar.

Think what you will of this attitude or the veracity of it's justification; it's their country.  When in Paris...

So what is the busy American with about three months to learn French for a trip to Paris to do? First, and above all else, know that only a genius with can learn a language this quickly, so suck it up, be humble when you go, and do your best. Here are some hacks that we are trying out.

Change your iPhone language
You are surely extremely familiar with navigating your iPhone. Plus, the icons make it incredibly easy to find the app your looking for, despite it's caption. Changing the language your iPhone uses exposes you to French words and phrases as often as you check your phone. Since you already know what most of their counterparts are when the phone is using English, you'll surely pick up some new vocabulary and keep it. Immersion is the key to quick language acquisition.
Enable VoiceOver on your iPhone
Reading words is one thing, but it's hardly sufficient. You need to hear and speak them to improve retention and to make practical use of them. This is where the accessibility features of the iPhone come into play. Turn on VoiceOver to have all of the menu items, titles, button, etc. spoken by a clear French accent. Adjust the slider controlling how quickly the words are spoken to a rate your comfortable with interpreting—probably a slow as possible. Finally (and this is important), make sure you set the Triple-click Home feature to toggle VoiceOver. This is the most convenient way to silence the new Frenchman in your phone, but with VoiceOver on it is nearly impossible to do any texting.
Text message to your language buddy exclusively in French
My wife and I are using Google Translate in concert with iMessage for all of our text messaging. Here's the pattern:
  • Type your English in Google Translate
  • Listen to Google's French translation
  • Important! Manually type the translation into iMessage. You could copy/paste if you are in a huge hurry, but this is where you will practice writing and recall of spelling.
  • Copy/paste your interlocutor's response into Google Translate and get the English translation. Yes, do this first; you need to know what the words mean before hearing or writing them.
  • Back in iMessage now, use Triple-click Home to enable VoiceOver. Select the response you just translated to English and listen to it a couple of times, repeating it time. Turn VoiceOver off before repeating these steps.
News in Slow French
This podcast is available for free in iTunes. As a beginner you won't understand much, but it is delivered in a way that is both entertaining and accessible with a didactic slant that sometimes makes it seem a little silly. Remember, immersion is key.
Create a French Radio Station for the Pandora app
We've had decent luck with Carla Bruni (thanks to this Yahoo! answer). The real trick is to cull all of the non-French songs that come up using the thumbs-down button. Give it some time and you should get a pretty good stream of French language music.
Put Google Translate on your Home Screen
This one almost goes without saying, but the Add to Home Screen feature of Safari is under-utilized in my opinion. Quick access to a standalone view of the Google Translate web app will save you a lot of time and frustration in employing these hacks.

Don't expect miracles here, but when all else fails this app could save you. Jibbigo interprets speech and translates bi-directionally! This means you can speak in English and hear a French translation, and vice versa. The important distinction between this app and Google Translate is that it works offline.

There are two major drawbacks to this app that demand comment. First, it is really, really slow. Painfully. I'm using the iPhone 4, not the faster 4S, but I suspect it will still be awkward to use this in conversation, so don't rely on it. Second, the French speech-to-text function seems unreliable. As I don't speak French, I played Google Translate audio to the phone and got pretty bad results. Not bad for a universal translator, just imperfect enough to frustrate conversation. There is an option to type the words you want translated, so a patient interlocutor can succeed.

Besides an emergency translation, this app is useful in learning French when Google Translate is unavailable for any reason.

Pimsleur on your commute and in the gym
Get the Pimsleur French audio lessons into your iTunes and listen to them on your commute and at the gym. You really need to repeat these lessons, so I suggest doing a new lesson at the gym, or your commute home, whichever is first. Then listen to that same lesson on your morning commute. The sleep between these two periods will help things stick. If you are not sure about your commitment level, buy French, Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand French with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation). Otherwise, get French I, Comprehensive: Learn to Speak and Understand French with Pimsleur Language Programs, since there is a big overlap between the two products.

Those are the hacks we've come up with so far. Do you have a language learning hack for the iPhone?