Discover more from French With Frederic
What learning languages and music have in common
Learning French more effectively using principles of musicianship
I am a failed musician!
At the late age of 17, nearly 18, I picked up the guitar for the first time.
My friend, nickname was Pedge, saw that I was practicing like crazy, up to six to eight hours a day, but I didn’t have a method. He suggested I attend a music school to learn properly.
I told him, “But I don’t know music theory.”
He answered, “You still have three months to apply. I can teach you!”
Pedge came from a musical background. His dad taught guitar in high school.
So he laboriously taught me the rudiments of music, and I learned a couple of pieces to play at my audition.
I didn’t pass with flying colors, but enough to be accepted, which was a feat in itself.
Because my level was too low, they offered me a semester in classical guitar, before moving on to the jazz/electric guitar department.
But I loved classical guitar so much that I never left. I even stayed an extra year, roaming the music faculty, to get more practice time with my teacher, who was a true maestro.
But at the end of my studies, I realized that making a living playing classical guitar wasn't that easy. I had other projects in mind.
I might have failed at a music career, but studying it wasn’t a waste of time.
First, I still play classical guitar today, and it’s a great hobby. The technique and sight-reading abilities I learned at that age are something I might never have acquired later. It would be nearly impossible today to fit in the same amount of time I put into music back then (about four hours of daily practice, one hour of piano, plus attending my other classes!)
Learning music taught me discipline, which I believe translates nicely into learning languages.
But before that, I want to dispel the myth that learning music makes you better at learning languages. Knowing music doesn’t automatically make you better at languages. Developing a musical ear doesn’t automatically help you develop an ear for languages.
What is transferrable are musician practice routines, and how the learning process works for both musicians and language learners.
Subscribe and get my must-read special report “10 ways to make your French more fluent”
Practice time matters
The first and most obvious point is that to learn a language or a musical instrument, you need enough practice (or learning) time. But how much is enough?
Professional musicians usually practice four hours a day. Some virtuosos might push it to six or seven hours, but there are diminishing returns after four hours.
In the language learning world, we have polyglots like Dr. Arguelles, who studied language “every waking hour of the day” for several years.
But that’s for professionals, and not for mere mortals.
A piano teacher once told me the following formula, which I think applies equally well to language learners. He was talking about studying an instrument as a hobby, not as a profession.
Practice 30 minutes a day to make steady progress.
Practice one hour a day to make fast progress.
Practice two hours a day to make very fast progress.
I think this rough guideline is useful. It takes 30 minutes a day to see a lot of progress. But studying languages for more than two hours a day doesn’t make sense unless it is your full-time job.
Practice is critical, but the right practice is everything
I can’t find the exact quote, but a great virtuoso once said:
“Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you need only two hours.”
There is a difference between mindless and true practice.
If a musician just sits down and plays the things she already knows, this isn’t practice. It’s just playing. Practicing is actively working on difficult things, learning new techniques, revising the basics, etc.
Likewise, watching a TV series in French is not learning French. This is just a matter of using the French you already know.
Learning French is reading my French-only newsletter and looking up many words you don’t know.
Learning French is watching a YouTube video in French, but with French subtitles, also looking up new words.
Learning French is spending 5 or 10 minutes each day completing grammar exercises.
Learning French is also reading and listening without looking up every word, as long as it’s at a good level for you to understand most of it. This is the basis of the Comprehensible Input method.
If you do 30 minutes a day of these activities, you will progress steadily!
Yes, talent makes a difference
In music, talent can make the difference between a successful career and a failed musician, who cannot make a living from his craft.
I didn’t have it in me to become a successful musician, and I probably didn’t have the talent to reach the top. Because only people at the very top can succeed.
Language learning has modest goals. No one will pay $60 to hear you speak French for an evening!
So, in that sense, talent is overrated for language learning. Quality practice time will make all the difference in the world.
Some people truly have a gift for learning languages and learn faster than others. But the same principles work for everyone. The speed at which they reach their goal might be different.
Before continuing, did you check out the French-only edition of this newsletter? The best way for you to learn is to read challenging texts, seeking to understand new vocabulary and expressions. Try to read my long-form article in French, along with vocabulary and content recommendations!
Organize your practice time
The worst thing a musician can do when practicing is sit down without a specific agenda. For example, at the moment, I only have 25 minutes in the morning to practice my guitar. So I’m doing this:
5-minute warmup with an arpeggio exercise, and some scales.
8-10 minutes of an etude.
The rest of the session working on a piece.
The same is true if you only have a limited amount of time to work on your French. The same 25 minutes could be broken down as follows:
5 minutes of reviewing past notes.
5 minutes of grammar, completing an exercise in a book.
15 minutes of active reading, looking up new vocabulary.
No matter how much time you have available, you need a plan. But if you only have a few minutes a day, this plan becomes essential. You should focus on activities with the most bang for your buck.
Beginner level is accessible, intermediate is possible, and advanced feels impossible
On the guitar, I would say I'm intermediate. I can read music and know my fretboard. I can play Level 6, 7, or even Level 8 without using amphetamines or locking myself in a room for months. I can play a level 9 piece by working really hard, but I will not get it 100% right. And I definitely cannot perform concert pieces, like the Concerto de Aranjuez, or really difficult pieces, or flamenco, or play super fast. Those who know piano can probably relate to the same thing, as classical piano difficulty levels are assessed in the same way.
For me, the intermediate guitar level was possible, but the advanced or professional level felt truly impossible.
The same applies to learning a language. Getting from zero to beginner is relatively easy. From beginner to intermediateis possible. Moving from low intermediate to high intermediate is difficult. And getting to C2 is a lifetime's work.
Have realistic goals, some you can achieve. Making steady progress is what matters!
You learn, you forget, and you learn it better
I haven’t always played my guitar in all these years. Sometimes, I didn’t touch it for months, or even years.
I’ve forgotten the same pieces many times and learned them again many times.
Every time I forgot something, it was easier to learn it again. And not only was it easier, but I learned it better the second or third time around!
Every time you forget a word, tell yourself that it’s part of the process. You’ll forget every word a few times before learning it for life.
And whenever you feel like giving up, give yourself permission to take a break from French. But plan on returning stronger than ever!