As a mathematics student I am naturally attracted to the beauty and challenge of the French language, and notwithstanding the difficulty of learning a foreign language without the benefit of immersion, I have wasted a tremendous amount of time looking for systematic ways to grasp it. Unlike the resource for English or Chinese, the French online or broadcasting community was definitely lacking or mostly not open-source. But given that French people used to have the ambition to conquer or colonize the world (or at least Africa) much as their Anglo-saxon counterparts did, it felt strange that they wouldn’t want to impregnate the barbarian minds with their potent elixir of liaisons dangerouses. Anyway, it is worth mentioning a few landmarks in my past learning experience. My first exposure came from a translation course taken in college, whose purpose is solely to enable scientific or otherwise graduate level research comprehension. Later I learned that at Princeton, you pass the graduate school foreign language requirement exam by responding Oui je parle le Francais (yes i speak french) to the question Parlez vous Francais? Or perhaps the whole conversation was in English. The course was nevertheless useful in what it aims to achieve. When I went to the Netherlands in my last undergraduate year, my advisor gave me 2 papers to read, one of which was written in French. I spent an unconscionable amount of time trying to learn French and mathematics from that paper at the same time, and ended up not getting either. Had I not taken the translation course a year earlier, I wouldn’t even have to courage to do that!
Subsequently in grad school, I took a serious undergraduate level French sequence, which helped build a solid foundation for further exploration. By that time, the translation course didn’t leave much of a dent in my brain, as I couldn’t even recall how to say my name is .. . Actually that’s because we never learned how to say that. There is unfortunately an unfathomable gap between what’s your name/how old are you, to Candid, much like there is the gap between quantum mechanics and general relativity: knowing one doesn’t really help the other. From a practical point of view, perhaps knowing quantum mechanics is much more important, as I haven’t heard of such things as Lorentzian computing or black-hole semi-conductors.
For the remainder of grad school, I spent a few bucks here and there buying worthy looking French pamphlets or tutorials on amazon, but not benefiting as much as I thought my bucks would be worth. Meanwhile I also relentlessly tapped into the free territory, purportedly available in websites such as HuJiang.com, or through mobile apps typically developed by the US start-up cohorts. But these venues are more or less like seminar lunches, that are not designed to feed me for life. Things started to change a bit when I discovered Michel Thomas’ teaching, as recorded in several hours of French-English alternating drills, designed mainly to help English speakers express themselves in various tenses of French. Thus the emphasis is on verb tense construction. Though the methodology is simple, the series is especially helpful for self-study during long commute, since a brief pause between the English sentence and the ensuing French translation forces the audience to form the correct syntactic construction in their head, which comes very close to the cogitation process in actual conversation. The only shortcoming of the series I would argue is its brevity and lack of extensive coverage. Of course it gets harder to do these exercises when the sentences get longer, one could still mimic the format for vocabulary drills. But I think it holds tremendous potential to develop the method further for advanced levels of French or any other language, and perhaps a second coming of New Oriental language school would be in order.
Earlier on, for the purpose of training my reading comprehension, I started subscribing to a dictionary app developed by eurosoft, whose origin remains a mystery to me. The app is much more than a traditional e-dictionary, in that it allows you to save new words, will read out loud in synthesized voice any passage of interest (such as wikipedia entry), or even do full paragraph translation. The above three can be found in many other paid platforms, such as the Babylon developed by Israelis. The most important feature of all about eurosoft, however, is that its dictionary entries not only include the multitude of meanings as well as example sentences found in the most comprehensive dictionary such as Larouse unabridged, it also implements an internet crawler search for language snippets found in francophone websites. I am not entirely sure how it matches the raw text with English or Chinese translation, but very often it does so beautifully. This gave a tremendous boost of my reading productivity, as even the most authoritative dictionary in French unfortunately does not cover certain nuances in words. Again to be pedantic, this reminds me of an episode in the unfolding of computational complexity theory. Before the 1970s, complexity classes are characterized in terms of time or space capacity, such as P, NP, L, NL, PSPACE, etc. But someone eventually came up with the idea of an interactive proof system, which despite of its polynomial time constraint, promoted its subsuming algorithms to the rank of PSPACE, which even a three year old would tell you is much bigger than P. Thus by absorbing translational insights interactively from the internet, eurosoft’s product also achieved quantum leap over its static brethren aka dictionaries. This is truly a step closer to a human language tutor.
Finally just in the last two weeks, I happened to discover to my exhilaration, another derivative product of eurosoft dictionary, namely an audio training app, that integrates almost seamlessly with their dictionary. Unfortunately I am not getting paid to advertise their products, but the name is daily french listening (in Chinese), not a good soundbite but the material is beyond reproach. The US startup guys might take another decade to catch up with the kind of dedication displayed here. You get to download all the standard textbook audio material for free, and they have a default setting that allows downloading only in the wifi mode to save your data plan! It left me wonder how long their product has been out in the market. Finally with all the daily news feed coupled with synchronized text highlighting, and play back suite, I can finally rest my gold-digging shovel and enjoy staring at the nuggets for the rest of my adventure.