Why is French so frustrating?
You know the feeling.
You are speaking French, crafting a sentence that starts off on the right foot. And suddenly, your mind goes blank. You can’t recall a word that you "should" know because you learned it.
It’s on the tip of your tongue, you keep racking your brain, frustration is building up... Until you finally resort to asking for help. And of course the moment you get the answer, you remember the word instantly.
“I knew it! It’s so obvious! Why can’t I express myself better? I sound like a child!” might be some of your internal monologue.
Whether it’s the gap between passive and active command of French, struggling with pronunciation or feeling that you’ve plateaued despite consistent work, there are countless situations where frustration can occur during your language learning adventure.
Frustration arises whenever your actions yield fewer results than you think they should—when there is a gap between your expectations (for yourself or the external world) and reality.
Why frustration is necessary to learn
While feeling frustrated is indisputably uncomfortable, it’s actually required for the brain to adjust and learn new skills.
If you make a mistake and feel frustrated about it, then you get feedback and realize why you got it wrong, your brain will make that experience into a memory—because emotions trigger memory creation.
You will also be more likely to remember the word next time because by making the effort to recall it, you’re telling your brain that it’s something useful and worth remembering (thus worth storing in long-term memory).
Do you never feel frustrated? Ask yourself what’s wrong.
If we picture language learning as a staircase, each new step requires actions that are challenging for your current self. Stepping out of your comfort zone means accepting to be on shaky ground for a little while, until what you master becomes your new normal. A healthy dose of frustration should be your regular companion in the process.
If you keep your level of challenge too low, you will certainly feel more relaxed and comfortable using French (especially at higher levels where it’s easy to become complacent), but the cost of this comfort is stagnation.
Being aware that frustration is part of the game will keep you going. If managed well it could even push you to never stop improving your French. Isn’t it wonderful that a language is an infinite territory to explore? I learn new French words every day!
How to keep a healthy dose of frustration
▪️Be patient & consistent
If you are already studying consistently, be kind to yourself.
For example, accept that a word might need several occurrences to stick. A daily study session of flashcards using a spaced repetition system will make it happen (to get started with flashcards check this article).
Starting to feel comfortable in a new situation might take several tries. Learning a language is a gradual process that takes a lot of time and practice to hone. Honing your language learning process takes a lot of time and practice.
▪️Celebrate your wins
Push through and don't let a temporary feeling discourage you and hinder your progress. Look back and remember every milestone you’ve reached thus far. Be proud of yourself. Those small but regular wins will boost your motivation and keep you eager to learn more.
Success lies in regular improvement—not in only reaching some big end result. Stay in your lane with your eyes forward. Don’t look too far ahead. You are getting there, step by step.
3 steps to making your frustration actionable
Take the time to reflect on a frustrating moment that occurred recently. Understanding the underlying causes that triggered frustration might lead you to a fresh perspective and a more effective method of reaching your goal.
How to reduce frustration in a French conversation
If you can prepare for the situation you’re about to experience, make sure you have some of the vocabulary needed. Ask yourself :
What are the set sentences used by native speakers in this context?
Which questions do I want to ask?
What ideas do I want to express?
Imagine the situation. What would be the worst case scenario and your reaction to it?
Realize that no matter how bad it goes, it’s not that important. Feeling awkward for a few minutes is worth it if it allows you to improve next time.
▪️Choose the right level of challenge
Make each interaction a reachable goal and don’t be too hard on yourself. Your aim should be to communicate, not to reach grammatical perfection in each sentence. If the person understands you, you win.
▪️Take it lightly
While it’s natural to feel self-conscious speaking French in a new situation, try not to take yourself too seriously. Learn to joke about yourself and don’t let your expectations prevent you from enjoying the conversation.
If you’re aware that a conversation with you is a bit of a struggle, apologize and describe your situation. Share a bit about your studies and your goals. Thank the person for taking the time with a kind « Merci de votre aide. » (Thank you for your help).
When you’re thinking about your next word, you can say « Comment dire... » (how to say)
Don’t get stuck in your head if you don’t find the right word. Find another way to convey the same idea or do a quick search on your phone.
Similarly, dare to ask the person to repeat themselves or to provide you with a translation. Knowing a few useful, common French phrases will lower your stress level and buy you some time.
Here are some good ones to assist you :
The more you improve the way you understand and manage frustration, the more it becomes a valuable tool to guide you, rather than a burden you’re trying to avoid or get rid of as fast as possible.
By all means, don’t let a temporary frustration rob you of your freedom to experiment with French. The border between frustration and fun is sometimes surprisingly thin.