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This is a true story. The events depicted in this text took place in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2013.
That is a good start for this story because I know it might sound unbelievable for one or two folks out there, but I guarantee you that at the time, I was as shameless as the next paragraphs are going to demonstrate.
I am a better person now, I swear. 🙂
Who is this Shameless Person Who Learns French on the Toilet?
My name is Fabrício Carraro, I am Brazilian, and nowadays I speak something between nine and fourteen languages, depending on the day and on what you consider it means to be able to “speak” a language.
I currently work for Alura Lingua, a language learning platform from Brazil, where I had the challenge of developing what I think is the best English course for Brazilians possible, based on my experience as a language learner, and that included its concept, method, and the lessons, videos, and exercises.
Over the years I gathered a lot of experience in learning foreign languages by myself, and this case was one of my first successes.
Back to the “Learning French on the Toilet” Story
This was not my first attempt to learn French. I had tried to start learning this language a couple of times before, around 2008, when I was still a Computer Engineering undergraduate student at a renowned Brazilian university. However, back then, I lacked two of the most important things when it comes to self-study: a real motivation and, mainly, discipline.
I tried to sign up for regular classes at the Institute of Linguistics, but it was nearly impossible for an Engineering student to get a position at a beginner level French course, since most of them were reserved for students of (…guess…) Linguistics, Literature, Philology, and others.
I Ended Up Split Between Two Worlds of Languages
Fast forward five years… I was then a Junior Software Developer, working at one of the top internet companies in Brazil, our version of PayPal. And I was bored.
Not that I did not like programming, I did. But maybe not as much as many of my colleagues. While they would get excited about the new versions of Java or PHP, I would spend my evenings researching how to learn foreign languages more effectively, the best methods to teach yourself a new language, and all of those things that you fellow language learners also love to do.
In my research I found out that Assimil was one of the favorite self-study methods among polyglots. I had already used it to learn Dutch a couple of years before, and I really liked it. I also discovered Anki, a flashcard app, also highly praised in this sphere, that I had never really properly used.
Here’s What Changed the Language Learning Game for Me
I know it might sound very nerdy (oh, well… we’re among language learners here), but apart from being a beautiful, exciting, important language, what really made me decide to take on French again was polyglottery. Since Assimil is a French company, most of its books were French-based. Yes, I learned French to be able to use it to learn other languages in the future.
Ok, ok. That was only one of the reasons. Back then I also used to attend the Sao Paulo Language Exchange meeting pretty much every week, and there were always some nice French people. It was the perfect opportunity. But when would I have time to do it, being married and having a stressful full-time job?
My Game Plan: How I Found 20 Minutes a Day to Learn French
I needed time. Some free time, even if it wasn’t much. I decided to try the “slow-but-steady” approach, doing a little bit every day – 15 or 20 minutes would suffice. And here’s where the toilet comes into the story. The company where I worked had a good set of three toilets on every floor, the one on the right side being particularly comfy.
I would come back from lunch, work for about an hour (while the other guys were occupying all the “places”), and when the time was right I would stand up, take my old Motorola with me and run over to the toilet. Most often, my favorite spot was free and I could spend some relaxing for 20 minutes while learning the language of Dumas and Alizée.
I had a PDF version of the Assimil book and the audio recordings both on my smartphone, and I would do one new lesson per day. My approach was:
- Listen to the audio recordings a couple of times first, without looking at the book
- Then listen to the audio again while reading the text (more or less out loud) simultaneously
- Read the translation to make sure I understood the whole text
- Listen to the audio again, without looking at the book, and making sure I understood every word
- Read the grammar notes
The next day, I would start by listening again to the audio of the previous one or two lessons, just to keep it fresh in my mind, and then do the same process shown above for that day’s lesson.
As I mentioned, this whole process would take me about 20 minutes, and probably made my boss suspicious that I had bowel problems. Well… worth it.
After that, I would add the new words to my French deck on Anki, always with a sentence, because learning words in context works much better than just learning them alone. This task could be done while still at work if it was a slow day, but mostly at home in the evening, and it would take me an additional 15 minutes a day.
The Results of My “French on the Toilet” Experiment
Surprisingly, for me at the time, this approach worked much better than others I had tried before. At the same time, it was something too short to get boring, so it was easy to stay consistent. And it would also give me a break from a stressful workday. The best of both worlds.
The Assimil books usually have about 100 lessons. Divided by 5 weekdays, this equals 20 weeks, around four and a half months to complete. That was how long it took me to finish the “main track” of the book. What is the “main track”? Well, after the 50th lesson the book tells you to go back to lesson 1 and review. So, in the same day you would do the new lesson 51 and review lesson 1. The next day, the new lesson 52 and review lesson 2, and so on. I considered the “main track” to be the new lessons, that is, up to when I finished lesson 100 and the review lesson 50. That’s what took me 4.6 months. After that I kept doing the review lessons, but my focus shifted elsewhere.
Remember when I mentioned the Language Exchange meetings in Sao Paulo? I met a lot of lovely French people there, some of whom are still good friends of mine. After about 1 month of study, I started adding some phrases in French here and there to my conversations with them. And after the second or third month, I felt comfortable enough to have full (short) conversations in French. That helped me practice what I learned and gave me a huge motivation boost!
I consider that after about six months of study, by the time I finished the review lessons of the Assimil book, my level was at a solid B1 (lower intermediate), which was more than enough to have longer conversations with native speakers. That was put to the test some time later, when I spent two weeks in Belgium and France, CouchSurfing in the first and staying at a friend’s in the latter, and not using English at all. My CouchSurfing host took me out to meet his friends in Brussels and we spent the whole evening speaking nothing but French. The same happened in Paris during a night out with friends of my friend, who also only spoke French the whole time.
It felt really great to be able to travel, meet new people and do pretty much anything I needed in this new language — one I already loved.
All thanks to a little time on the toilet, in the right corner of a regular company’s office in Brazil!