What It’s Really Like to Learn a Language With an App
Spoiler: Instant fluency is only a fool’s hope.
Paris is the City of Love and the City of Light, but is it a city where newbies should attempt to speak the language? When I booked my first-ever trip to France, I wanted to have the most authentic Parisian experience possible. Though I’ve traveled through much of Europe, I hadn’t made it to Paris until Laura Lane, a longtime friend and fellow reporter who’s been multiple times, suggested a spontaneous summer visit. I spent years of high school and college studying Spanish and practicing it while exploring Mexico and Central America, but my knowledge of French was sorely lacking. A month and a half prior to our trip, I decided to attempt to parlez-vous Francais using Duolingo, a smartphone app that I’d heard about through some friends.
Of course, my language-learning plans were met with mixed reactions. Some advised me not to bother even attempting, saying the French would probably scoff unless my accent was perfect and my conjugations were correct. Undeterred, I diligently downloaded Duolingo. The app, free on iTunes, is actually fun and easy to use: it audibly identifies common objects and phrases and demonstrates correct pronunciation. You can match pairs of French and English words, translate phrases, and even record yourself speaking French sentences. I did find its priorities a bit curious: before learning how to say “please” or “thank you” or how order a glass of wine, Lesson 2 teaches you all about rich men. Les hommes sont riches. Je suis riche. Le garçon est riche. Does Duolingo think that’s the main reason people go to Paris and attempt French? I digress.
The app recommends doing two lessons per day. And I did so regularly...for a while. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I didn’t get as far as along in my studies as I originally hoped, but I was still game to give my French a whirl. After a red eye flight across the pond, I woke up in Paris for our first full day—ready to put my new skills to the test. Over Saturday brunch at Café du Marché des Enfants Rouges, a charming neighborhood café, we managed to order our entire meal in French from our waiter Thiery, who didn’t speak any English. I felt proud for being able to specify I wanted bacon while Laura preferred the salmon that came with our brunch special. The only snag was when I tried to request syrup for the pancakes. I’m not sure if syrup is uncommon to pair with pancakes here, but my sirop a crepe request got lost in translation. First, our waiter brought us more bread, then sugar, then jam. We also noticed that when we struggled to think of the correct French word, we’d accidentally use the Spanish term instead. Speaking Franglish is muy malo, claro que si.
On our second day, Tara Palmeri, a friend who recently moved to Brussels from New York City, joined us for dinner in Montmartre. As we sampled escargots and sipped rosė, she shared her success with Duolingo. After supplementing lessons from the app with a daily 20-minute podcast called “Coffee Break French” and a 12-hour intensive course in Belgium, she placed into an advanced Level 2 French course at her local Alliance Francaise. “I’ve been using Duolingo since March,” she explained. “I haven’t been consistent, but I’ve made it to tenses like past participle. I never thought I could learn so much from an app that I’d skip the entry level course!”
Later that evening at Candelaria, a Mexican speakeasy in the Marais, I discovered my conversation skills needed work. Thomas, a local director and photographer, called me out after only a minute or two of small talk. “How did you know?” I inquired, reverting to English. He joked, “I can tell by your eyes. There’s American flags flying in them.” Laura showed him Learn French, an app that teaches you phrases to use in specific situations such as dining and dating. Instead of Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (“Too cheesy,” he said), he suggested using inventive lines like Où puis-je boire le meilleur champagne à Paris? (Where can I drink the best champagne in Paris?) or Je voudrais manger du foie gras (I’d like to eat some foie gras) go a long way. Duly noted, Thomas, duly noted.
Laura’s friend Selim, a writer and native Frenchman, joined us during a final night on the town: drinks on the Seine at Bistrot Alexandre III, dinner at Hôtel Costes, and a ride on the Roue de Paris Ferris wheel. According to him, any attempt to speak the language is well received. “It shows that you’re trying to make an effort and trying to be closer,” he explained. “It’s beautiful. I love it.” Even if your accent is less than parfait.