Why a Healthy Brain is Important for Learning French

I have struggled to learn French for many years. I started in high school and continued trying for years. There was nothing halfhearted about my attempts. I spent hours drilling, reading, watching videos, looking up words, creating sentences and stories. I really worked at it, and I learned very little.

All that changed when I stopped eating oils. After being off oils for a few months I plunged into learning French with the same enthusiasm that I had always done, this time with a computer program called Fluenz that my mom borrowed from the university library. I was delighted when words stuck and I could remember phrases and how words interacted together. I thought it was the program until I was accidentally exposed to oils and my success abruptly changed to confusion. It was like night and day. One day I could see the patterns and remember the words and the next, I could only reach out and grasp air. Nothing made sense and lessons that I had done easily were now next to impossible. Frustrated to tears I gave up and returned the computer program to the library.

A few months later I got excited about a new French program called Assimil because it used a method of improving passive listening skills first, by having the student listen and repeat each lesson. Th fact that it didn’t stress production until thirty lessons in sounded like a great way to learn so I tried it.

What surprised me when I started working on it was how much had stayed with me from the last time I had worked on French. Previously when I would try working on a new program I felt like a beginner again, starting from scratch. Vocabulary never stuck and could never remember what the little words meant or how to say them, but this time that didn’t happen. I remembered most of what I’d learned before being exposed to the oils. Assimil went very well, my accent improved tremendously and I got fairly far into the program before I had another oil exposure. This time I didn’t even try to continue learning, I stuck Assimil on the shelf and decided to wait till my brain recovered.

I am nothing if not stubborn however and returned to learning French when I was healthy again, using a method described in Gabriel Wyner’s book Fluent Forever. This time I really saw that I had learned some French, but I also saw that over the many years, I had learned a lot of bad pronunciation habits and so I spent much of my time unlearning them. I did really well. It was amazing how much I learned in a very short time. My accent become almost acceptable and I could think of words. Right up until the next oil exposure. French was again set aside until I could actually work on it.

I am trying once again to learn French but this time I am not starting from scratch. The other day I had a whole fifteen minute conversation entirely in French with my mother. It was very basic and broken but it was a conversation. I have watched television shows and YouTube videos and understood at least the gist of what was going on. I get tired very quickly but my stamina in the French language is improving by leaps and bounds. It is very exciting.

What I have learned from this is, that although people tell you that anyone can learn a language, that is not true. Anyone with a functioning brain can learn a language.

The brain functions that seem to be most critical to my learning a new language are:

1) Memorizing or remembering names, places, or dates. I used to be terrible about this and I think it made it so I could not learn vocabulary.

2) The ability to use alternate words. I used to be unable to think of another word for a concept. We all use the thesaurus when writing to a certain degree but I used it a lot more often that I should have. Just being able to find another word in not enough though, I also had trouble thinking around sentences to find alternate ways of expressing ideas and concepts. It seems to me that this brain function is critical to producing in a foreign language. I find that when I speak in French now and try to find words, my brain tries out several different English words, before at last thinking up the only French word that expresses whatever I want to convey.

There may be other brain functions that improved but those were the ones that seemed the most dramatic to me and the most useful to learning French. Brains are incredibly plastic and unless there is some health reason (such as an oil sensitivity or Alzheimer’s) that is degrading a brain it is completely possible to strengthen a brains capacity for doing many functions. Turns out many games and activities are really good for these two brain functions specifically and I was doing many of them just keep myself entertained.

1) Crossword puzzles. I like the really cheap dollar store books with incredibly easy puzzles. I find them soothing.

2) Word games. There are several on my kindle and online but one that I play whenever I am stopped at a stop light or am waiting in lines is a simple matter of using synonyms. I think of a word such as ‘red’ and come up with as many synonyms as possible e.g. crimson, rouge, scarlet. I find it very entertaining.

3) Name games are great for boring wait times too. I often try to remember actors names in films or character names in different books.

4) I try and remember what is in each cupboard or drawer before I open it.

5) When I go shopping I will try and remember whats on my shopping list and only check the list at the end of the shopping trip to make sure I have it all.

Almost every one of these games I’ve gotten pretty good at but when I started I had a lot of trouble. I don’t think just getting off the oils was enough to make learning a language possible. Without having exercised my brain I think I would still be struggling.

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