When you want to learn practical French, it helps if you focus your efforts on words and expressions you’re likely to use on a daily basis. It’s not just that this is the vocabulary that’ll be most useful to you. It’s also that frequent encounters with the same words help make the knowledge stick.
A daily voice diary is a simple way of maintaining that focus. All it requires is for you to be equipped with a mobile phone or a computer with a microphone.
If you are just beginning with French it may be hard work at first. But the rewards are well worth the effort
Setting up your system
All mobile phones have a speech to text input functionality. It’s the little microphone icon you see on their virtual keyboard.
All you will need to do is to tell your phone that you are speaking French. You’ll do this by adding French to the voice input languages in the settings of your phone.
Android phones vary somewhat but the setting you need will be somewhere like:
Settings > More Settings > Language & Input > Google voice typing
On an Iphone you need to install French as a keyboard language option:
Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards Languages
Then switch your keyboard to French using the language icon when you want to dictate in French.
If you are on a computer you can open an application such as Google Docs. Create a new document and select
Tools > Voice Typing
and then choose your language from the dropdown menu. You are ready to go.
Am I hot or not?
Now just speak into a microphone and a perfect transcription of your words will appear in the document.
If what appears is nothing like what you thought you were saying, you have a problem. In the old days it would have been ok to blame the inadequacies of transcription software; these days that excuse no longer washes.
Look for a pattern to the words that the computer cannot understand. It may for example be all the words with an r in them – in which case you will know that’s the sound you need to focus on (to get the French r sound, stick your tongue near the bottom of your lower row of teeth).
Keep working on it: forget spontaneous self-expression at this stage, just read French texts so you don’t have to worry about the content of what you are saying.
Let it flow
Once you’ve got your system set up and it understands you, you are read to chat away. Describe your day, the people you’ve met or seen from afar, whatever takes your fancy. Two to three minutes will be plenty to give you enough grist to the mill.
Learning from your gaps
The first benefit of this exercise is discovering your sticking points: the ideas that you wanted to express but for which you were unable to find the words.
These you can look up in the dictionary of your choice: Wiktionnaire is a good online option for a curated dictionary, Reverso will give you more idiomatic examples. Typing in Deepl is good for getting whole sentence translations. Add the results to Anki flashcards if that’s your kind of thing.
When acquiring new vocabulary in this way it’s alway best to cross check any new-found expressions with a French native speaker to ensure they are idiomatic.
Learning from your transcript
A second benefit of your audio diary is discovering your tics: your own personal turns of expression that are not quite right and may therefore be less easily understood.
If you have a French teacher, you can ask them to take a look and check your transcripts for you.
To check your output by yourself, take the transcript and stick it into Deepl for a translation. Read the translation in your native language and check that it corresponds to what you wanted to say. Now translate it back into French. Compare the Deepl French version of your text with the original transcription, looking out for differences. The subtle changes of syntax and different choices of words are a rich source of improvement points.
AI tools like Deepl are a great help, but they do need to be treated with care – they can occasionally make mistakes. If in doubt, double check with a curated dictionary, or better still a French native-speaker.
The advantage of keeping your own French language diary is that you’ll be building up your skills around your own personal experience. Knowledge acquired this way will stick well. It’s also an exercise that you can do on your own, complementing your other learning activities.