Parlez-Vous Français? How to Practice Your French, and Other Foreign Language Immersion Tips

I’ve been trying to prepare for the IFLA conference in Lyon, France for months. IFLA is the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and I don’t recall ever attending one of their meetings. But I thought this year, it’s in France, and in Lyon. My first name is Lyonette – it’s fate! And the IFLA Law Libraries Section has been offering great sessions on authentication of and access to digital legal information (such as official gazettes) in various regions of the world. I could look forward to immersing myself in French culture, speaking French, and learning about new developments in initiatives to provide free public access to foreign laws. Looking over the Programme, it looks like some of the sessions might be in French. While IFLA provides for simultaneous interpretation from French to English, I’d like to directly experience the speakers with no language filter. So I’m been thinking of ways to brush up on and practice listening to and speaking French. I also ended up thinking of foreign language immersion tools and techniques generally.

Our library subscribes to Mango Languages, so that was the first tool I thought of trying. Mango is “an online language-learning system that can help you learn languages like Spanish, French, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Italian and more.” I had tried learning Azerbaijani with Mango, but I found that Mango is too interactive for me. You have to respond, click on things, repeat phrases. I can’t practice speaking French using Mango while I’m doing some other work activity. I have to set aside time to pay attention.

The library also has multimedia sets like Colloquial Vietnamese: A Complete Language Course with audiocassettes to listen to. Locating a cassette player these days is hard. And there’s no such course for French.

The students at my law school have started language practice tables – French, Portuguese, and Spanish “Parlez” chats, but, like with the knitting group they have, I want to participate when I can do it well.

I’ve found French law-related audio/video to listen to on the web like the Conseil constitutionnel’s audiences publiques. The Netherlands Supreme Court (Hoge Raad) also has video archives to practice listening to legal Dutch. I looked for Claire Germain’s French Law in Action videos of criminal trials (Username: frenchtrials; Password: greffier), but they were 404. I’ve listened to lectures and conferences on the YouTube in French on law on film, Michel Foucault, and the like. I have also considered watching French movies that might have law-related themes, but quickly decided it was more fun to watch movies like “Jules et Jim” and “Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot.”

I followed French-language Internet radio broadcasts of the Tour de France for a while. I tried watching some of my favorite English-language movies with the French-language setting on (without the French subtitles), but I miss some things. And it did cross my mind that the vocabulary I might pick up from “Finding Nemo” in French might not be that helpful at a library conference! While I’m sure I’m bettering my French, my attempts at polishing up my French have been more dabbling than immersion. I pick up ideas here and there, like using Wiktionary to learn pronunciation.

I have had more success with Spanish. My next trip is to Buenos Aires, Argentina for the International Association of Law Libraries (IALL) annual course on international law and legal information. I’ve been practicing speaking Spanish every day with law library staff here at work. And it’s easy to catch fútbol or a telenovela on TV and immerse myself in Spanish.

I recently wondered what tips my colleagues had for foreign language immersion for short trips abroad or conferences. My French lit colleague had these helpful suggestions:

  • Speak with the participants [at the IFLA conference in Lyon] – many of whom will come from francophone nations outside of the Hexagone.
  • I read French, Spanish, Italian (and a pinch of German) online – journals, blogs, amusing articles.
  • I also ‘friend’ French, Spanish, Italian and German language-learning sites on Facebook, as well as interesting sites such as cultural institutions.
  • I read French books. When I was learning French I would read books translated into French from English when I knew the English very well.
  • I listen to several French podcasts.
  • Music is a great immersion tool! Pick your favorite kind and listen to it – many times you can find the lyrics online if you want to follow along. I know Carmen, much of Georges Brassens and Edith Piaf by heart at this point. Repeated listening means that you pick up a little more every time.

I asked on the INT-LAW listserv and here are some of the responses I received:

  • Use apps/tools like Duolingo (highly recommended by several list members), Memrise, Omniglot Intro to Language (includes video lessons), QuickFix (BBC essential phrases in 40 languages), Rocket Languages.
  • Mango (a Canadian colleague says: “Here in Toronto the wonderful Toronto Public Library offers a free online course called “Mango Language Learning”. All you need is a library card, computer etc. and off you go”).
  • Listen to podcasts, radio, music.
  • Watch TV, movies.
  • Practice with friends, join meet-up groups to practice with native speakers.
  • Join a city foreign language association like Alliance Française, Goethe Institut, Instituto Cervantes – they offer classes, free movies, books, dinners with native speakers.
  • Date someone from the country!
  • Move to a foreign country!

What do y’all do to practice speaking a foreign language? And if you’re off to put your practice to use, bon voyage!


  1. I listen to Radio France podcasts on topics I am interesting. They work well for comprehension because they are at standard French speaking speeds for native speakers. It seems to work for my speaking too as I don’t seem to slow down as much as I used to before podcasting arrived!

  2. I follow some (Canadian) French language news source Twitter accounts, like Radio-Canada Info and Le Devoir and use the respective apps of those sources. I can usually have enough contextual references to have a good understanding of the articles.

    I also follow our blessed CanLII and CanLIIConnects , which tweet occasionally in French and, of course, link to French language cases and commentary.

    If I have time, I read the French language versions of headnotes and alerts from la Cour suprême du Canada.

    These are all visual, textual methods and don’t give me any speaking practice, but they are quick, ongoing, and do help with vocabulary.