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English is my native language, and when I hear it or read it, I automatically recognize mistakes without having to consciously think about it at all. I couldn't always tell you the part of speech or which is the subordinate clause and so on, but I can always tell you when you've made a mistake, and how to correct it.

My French comprehension has recently become strong enough that I've started reading novels in French. And with frequent help from a dictionary, I understand what I'm reading, and I could translate it to English easily. But I don't know it innately.

If there were errors in the order of words, or something similar, I would read right past them. And I would not be able to write the french that I can read, because I simply don't know it that strongly as to know exactly where everything ought to go. It's just that same old "I understand it, but I can't speak it" phenomenon. (Although I can speak it, just not particularly well at this juncture.)

How can I change that? How can I really get a strong grasp on the language? I have a giant book of French grammar which I've been reading, but it just slips out of my head as I read it. I can't remember so many technical rules. They make sense as I read them, but I can't keep them all in my head and make proper use of them without thinking about it.

For those of you who have learned a second language before, what do you recommend for more permanently and deeply embedding grammar patterns into your mind?

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Just in case you didn't read these questions (might be others on the topic, didn't fully search)... they could be useful. –  Romain VALERI Jun 21 '12 at 8:59
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I would say that you are perhaps trying too hard at this point. Getting to a point where grammar becomes almost innate takes a very long time, in any language, whether it is your second or your first (let's face it, we all know people who massacre their first language on a regular basis).

Read modern literature to keep familiarizing yourself with how the language actually looks. Don't only read one type (e.g. only novels) because they all have different structures, which are all correct, mind you. You can try to read the Saturday newspaper in French, borrow a few comic books from the library if it carries them. You could even try to read French articles on Wikipedia, but keep in mind they can contain some errors. You will eventually recognize patterns and likely be able to apply them in different contexts.

Don't forget to also listen to French. Watch television or movies in French. Radio is also an option, but unlike television, you do not have visual references to help you. Dubbed movies and shows are potentially easier when learning since they are usually translated and dubbed for a larger audience (most dubbed series in Québec were dubbed in France, for example). There is also the possibility of having subtitles with movies, but do keep in mind that subtitles are almost never made by the same people, or even same company, as dubbing. As such, they often differ greatly from the dubbing.

You might then want to start writing in French more often. You can have a diary where you can, for example, keep track of what you've been doing. Perhaps when you're ready, you can pop into the chat here and start discussing with people there.

Basically, there's no magic solution, unless you're ready to pack up your things and go live in a French community for several months. And then again, you'll learn how to speak, but written grammar might still elude you.

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+1 for "go live in a French community for several months" – easily the best way to become fluent! –  Bill Michell Feb 3 '13 at 21:50
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You can listen to Audios of Michale Thomas ... or Roseta ....They were really help for me

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I once came across a book called English Grammar for Students of French.

It seems like an interesting approach, based on the assumption that a better understanding of English grammar (your own) will give you a better understanding of French grammar too.

I think this makes sense. It seems a number of native English speakers find it difficult to understand grammar at all, mostly because it wasn't part of their school curriculum. Getting familiar with the notions related to the structure of sentences (the grammar) with words you know (in your native language, or a language you speak fluently) seems like a good starting point before moving on to a different language.

EDIT: (Adding a few points and reacting to other answers.)

My original point was more concerned about grammar than innately. (You can't really learn something innately, by definition of innate. Nevertheless, let's assume you want a more natural grasp on grammar.)

There are suggestions that you should read poetry and listen to music. I'd entirely disagree with that. Music and poetry tend to sacrifice grammatical correctness to make the words fit into the rhythm. What happens in English (mistakes like "I can't get no satisfaction", just to pick one) also happens in French. Even for texts that are on the more correct end of the spectrum, it's often quite difficult to determine where the sentences start and end across verses. You may also end up with learning constructs that are awkward or archaic, despite being correct. I'm not saying that you shouldn't listen to poetry and songs, but that they're not what you need for grammar; they're might do more harm than good in that respect.

Living in a French-speaking country is good, but that's mostly to get accustomed to the environment and encourage you to try to "think in French", if you can. On its own, it's not sufficient to learn grammar and to speak and write the language correctly. If you have long-term immigrants around you (in your native country), it's quite likely that most of them can speak your language but a number of them will still make a number of grammatical mistakes that you would easily identify. Granted, natives certainly make grammatical mistakes too, but it's a usually different set of mistakes.

Past a certain age, you just won't pick up grammar naturally only by ear, even if immersed in a country that speaks that language: you need to be proactive, have someone correct you if you can (or self-correct, which can be quite difficult, but sometimes doable). I'll re-iterate that learning your own grammar should help, if only to give you a certain degree of awareness of the structure of the sentences.

This being said, grammar on its own shouldn't be a purpose. Learning the language should be a balancing exercise between grammatical rules and actual content. Try to analyse the texts that you read in French using the grammatical rules you learn in parallel. The more you do it, the more constructs you'll pick up.

Be selective in the reading, audio and video material you use, at first at least. Everyone makes grammatical mistakes, but some make fewer than others. Reading newspapers like Le Monde seems reasonable, for example; reading comments on a random YouTube video in French is less. I don't watch it regularly, but France 24 (the French version) seems to have a reasonable combination of text and videos. (Reading the news of the day in two languages can help too, since knowing the bulk of the story should help you fill in the blanks.)

Regarding videos, one thing that I found particularly useful when learning English was to watch DVDs in English, with English sub-titles, so as not to "cheat": this way your brain doesn't fall back to your native language. Plenty of English-speaking DVDs (at least popular releases) have these sub-titles (sometimes with hearing impaired comments, but it's easy to ignore those). I found it harder to find DVDs of French films with French sub-titles unfortunately (even on the French market): French DVD publishers don't seem to care that much about the local hearing impaired (despite the fact that these subtitles do exist, since they're often available on satellite channels).

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Une façon très efficace :
Trouver l'occasion de vivre dans un pays francophone et de rencontrer beaucoup de personnes dans des milieux différents, et si possible dans des régions différentes pour savourer les accents.

.... et s'apercevoir que beaucoup de frenchies font des fautes d'accord, usent d'un argot parfois très localisé, ont une expression orale limitée ou inaudible, et un écrit limité au SMS.

Cependant, certaines rencontres, certains échanges seront fructueux et vous transmettront ce glamour qui font oublier la grammaire pour la langue, même si quelques erreurs peuvent subsister.

... sinon : la radio (grandes ondes), la télévision (très peu de fautes grammaticales dans les journaux télévisés, les débats de toutes sortes ou les documentaires et émissions destinées à l'information de la vie quotidienne).

Il y a des règles qui s'apprennent à l'oreille plus que par le mental.

Bienvenu en francophonie, espace linguistique plus vaste, plus riche, plus poétique, plus créatif que la francosciptie, et qui perdure, évolue, se réinvente, se mélange sous les oreilles académiques parfois courroucées.

EDIT
P.S. "Why are you not using French in your answer?", le thème est plus contraignant que la version, ... d'où ma réponse paresseuse.

P.S.2
Il y a aussi les chansons françaises dites 'à texte' dont la musique permet de mémoriser les tournures grammaticales.

PS3

Pour ma part j'ai été plus sensible au mot innately qu'à grammar, tout simplement parce que la grammaire que l'on enseigne actuellement est très différente de celle que j'ai apprise à l'école et que l'orthographe a été revue.
Je fais des phrases en étant absolument incapable d'y coller les nouvelles étiquettes, en usant d'exemples anciens, et de formules reconnues à l'oreille.

Le naturel s'apprivoise en écrivant en français les idées formulées silencieusement (ou à voix basse).

Pour s'entraîner (quelque phrases par jour peuvent suffire à affiner ce 'naturel') utiliser un traitement de texte libre auquel il faut ajouter les *langpack-deb_fr* et *helppack-deb_fr* qui correspondent à votre système.

Une fois installé et lancé, vous découvrirez un icône souligné d'une vaguelette rouge qui permet de corriger (rouge) les phrases ou d'attirer l'attention (bleu) sur des problèmes potentiels.
La dernière version arrive à maturité et corrige de nombreuses erreurs, sans toutefois être parfaite.

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Seule la première moitié de la deuxième phrase n'est pas hors-sujet, et par ailleurs il n'y a pas qu'en France que les gens parlent français. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 21 '12 at 22:03
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@StéphaneGimenez - Sujet : Voies de la grammaire naturelle - Réponse : on apprend aux enfants la grammaire par l'oreille à l'aide d'exemple. Il y a une musicalité et un rythme sous-tendu par les règles grammaticales (les -sse du subjonctif par exemple) . La Voie du sens auditif est première, naturelle, celle de la combinatoire des règles est seconde, scolaire ; mea-culpa, correction territoriale effrectuée –  cl-r Jun 22 '12 at 6:38
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L'auteur du post n'est certainement pas à la recherche du subjonctif imparfait… Je passe sur le blabla mou ; mais je déconseille urgemment à quiconque de tenter d'apprendre la grammaire en écoutant des chansons ou de la poésie. Elles sont d'autant plus traitres qu'elles contournent les règles subtilement. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 22 '12 at 10:17
    
@StéphaneGimenez - C'est le regard de l'approche systémique sur l'approche intuitive ... à l'auteur de voir ce qui lui convient le mieux. –  cl-r Jun 22 '12 at 13:44
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I think I agree with cl-r. IMO, the most important point is that memorizing texts (poetry, short pieces of literature, songs, etc) helps you to learn the cadence and grammar of a language. Cl-r says that grammar is closely related to rhythm, and I agree wholeheartedly with that. If your goal is to know instinctively that the passed participle agrees with the direct object when the latter appears before the former and the auxiliary verb is "avoir", then aggressive language practice and memorization of texts strike me as the best way forward. –  Samuel Lisi Jun 26 '12 at 9:08
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