Progressing from passive to active language knowledge

[deactivated user]

    Lots of you must have a similar problem. I wonder if you could give some input?

    My passive knowledge of French (reading/listening) is not bad. I've read many books since I started with the language 3 years ago. I now don't flinch at any book; Zola, Stendhal, Pagnol, I've read them all. Listening (podcasts, radio, TV) is not bad either; of course, it depends a lot on how they speak.

    But when it comes to active usage of French (speaking/writing), the picture is different. I hesitate, I'm in doubt, I have no confidence. Words which I know well don't come to the surface. To exaggerate a bit: Of course I understand when I read or hear "Le chien nage dans le lac". But when I have to produce it, to translate "The dog swims in the lake", I'd go: Is it "dans le lac"? Or "en le lac"? Or "au lac"? Or perhaps lac is not even masculine!

    With the large discrepancy between the passive and active side of my French, I often feel hobbled and dispirited. I don't want to learn another 1,000 words and not be able to use them. I run but I can't yet crawl... It's pathetic.

    I wonder how others progress from passive to active language usage?

    Of course, DL comes in here with flying colours; I already see good progress after two weeks. It forces me to practice and strengthen my weak skills. It's invaluable, it fills many gaps which I've neglected.

    But what else could I use to get out of this "linguistic stupor"?

    I know best would be to move to France and have a French girlfriend, but my wife mightn't like the idea :-)

    March 2, 2015


    Yeah, it's definitely tough. I'd say try to find some speaking partners at a site like ConversationExchange and sign up to Lang-8 to work on composition. The only way you're ever going to improve the active skills is to work on them. =)

    I do think it looks like one of your problems is fear of making a mistake, though. It's not the end of the world if you say "au lac" instead of "dans le lac." It takes making a thousand mistakes to finally master the concept, so treat those moments of uncertainty as a chance to learn instead of as a failure on your part.

    March 3, 2015

    While he was at school, our son shone at French, passed all his French exams, both written and oral with flying colours. Then he went on a trip to France during his last year at school...and discovered that his knowledge of French was virtually useless! His 'schoolboy French' was very amusing to the native speakers.

    A few years later he got a job purely because, according to his qualifications, he had what was needed a knowledge of French. This job, he always says, was where his education in French really began. He had to deal daily with the French customers over the telephone. Then he joined another English firm that had a sister firm in France. Here, he had to have several lengthy stays each year in France to liaise with his counterpart in that country and also had to mingle and socialise with his colleague's friends in the evenings. Later on he was employed by a French company where he spent part of the week in France, and part at home, but he had to be on call.

    Now, thirty years later, he is fluent and comfortable both with the French in their country and when they make their return visits to England. I think this shows that you cannot really know a foreign language until you have really been immersed in that language either by having regular dealings /contact with people who speak the language that you are learning or by living in that country for a substantial length of time. After all, we learn our own language within our home beginning with our parents, siblings and friends. Our future education, our choice of friends, jobs and our reading habits enhance our level of our own language. Of course, generally, how we speak and how we write are two different matters! This also applies in France. :))

    Many years ago when I first tried to learn French, I joined a group called TandemE (I think). This organisation was set up to put people in touch with each other who wanted to learn another language. I had about three people and we used to write to each other by email...but we all got cold feet over trying to speak to each other by Skype! :)))

    I have been with Live Mocha, Busuu and Memrise but I feel that Duolingo does the better job, there are fewer distractions and I think the lessons are more interesting.

    I'm sorry about this lengthy answer as I don't suppose it will be much use to you other than to confirm your own observation that you would be better moving to France...but I don 't know about the girlfriend - I'm on your wife's side :)))

    March 4, 2015

    The best answer! Thank you, it helps me too.

    March 4, 2015

    You are very welcome! :)

    March 5, 2015

    It's always harder to speak and write than to read and listen. I think that it will always lag behind the other.

    I think that it's probably true in your native language too... although you probably don't notice it because you're very good at most of the words that you need to know in your daily life. I'm sure most of us have been trying to think of a word and it wouldn't come to us. Many of us have probably also tried to think of a word to describe something and couldn't come up with the precise word; however, if you read the word that you were thinking of in a book, then you'd know it right away.

    Sometimes we know more than we give ourselves credit for though, if we're only willing to make some mistakes. I was chatting online with some people (in English) and the subject of the German language came up. I was able to say a few things in German... I'm sure that I was grammatically off, and I had to use Google translate to look up the word century, but that's okay. I tried.

    March 3, 2015

    I have the same problem, my wife isn't too crazy about me hanging out with Spanish speaking women to improve my ability to speak. Arrrghhh. ;-) (She just doesn't understand.)

    I understand your frustration but the solution to your problem is simple. Don't over think it, or complicate it any further. You have to find a French speaking community online of offline and start speaking. You're absolutely correct, adding 1,000 or 5,000 more words won't help your output. I would also suggest that you record yourself repeating a phrase or creating your own response to a question just to get your mind and tongue in the habit of speaking French. A small piece of advice (from Benny) give yourself a small goal like taking the CERF exam so you'll force yourself to get to "that" level. Note, I plan on taking the test this year myself.

    I recognize that I can read a Spanish article but I am unable to tell you in Spanish what I just read. That's just not cool. As much as I like reading, this unorthodox language learner (Matt of the Language Dojo) has a really insightful post The Reading Trap that really nails your problem. Give it a read.

    March 3, 2015
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    Very nice post indeed.

    March 3, 2015

    could you describe what the link is about? i can't access it

    January 26, 2019

    You could start using and devote some time every day to writing something. Writing will at least get you into the habit of remembering the genders of things.

    If you can find a local group for French conversation, that would help. You need to go with the goal of speaking only French for (say) two hours. Try to go weekly, if possible. The number of hours you spend "immersed" in French is probably the most important measure of progress. You need a few hundred.

    March 3, 2015

    I read a polygot's blog - he suggests speaking to yourself in the language for 20 minutes each day - talk about your day, your plans, whatever is on your mind just talk and get yourself thinking in the language. At least it is a start - doesn't public speakers practice their speech before they deliver it!

    March 4, 2015

    Talking to people is a great thing. If there's a university or a college with a French program near you, ask if they have a French conversation hour. My university does, and it has been so helpful for me. The group consists of professors, community people, and students who speak French at all levels. We get together for coffee and make small talk. If you don't have a university near you, maybe you could ask around the community. Surely someone near you speaks French—set up a time to have coffee and chat weekly!

    March 3, 2015

    I would recommend Skype lessons with iTALKi - you can do language exchange but you can also get formal lessons. You just need to make yourself practice and give yourself a break when you make mistakes. I stumble in English sometimes, and that' my native language!

    March 3, 2015

    I have the same difficulties. The best thing to do is to reduce second-guessing yourself and just say the first thing that comes to mind. The idea is to communicate - if you make a significant mistake the person you're speaking to may correct you or seem confused at the worst. If you spend all of your energy getting anxious and second guessing yourself, you won't be effectively communicating.

    March 4, 2015

    [deactivated user]

      Hi, thanks for all the thoughtful responses! I'll definitely do Lang-8. The Reading Trap page was fantastic, the guy doesn't mince his words... And he seems to be correct in what he's stating.

      March 4, 2015
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