The most difficult choice to make when deciding to learn French is how best to go about it. With so many different ways of learning, it can be a challenge to know where to start! Should you just use one of the many popular apps perhaps and concentrate on this for a few weeks or months?
Alternatively, do you just hire a private tutor or maybe some group lessons? Or perhaps adopt the old-fashioned route and just use textbooks?
The honest answer is you shouldn’t do any of these things independently.
Why listen to me?
I’m the best person to provide you with this information – and I should add (because most blogs couldn’t say this) I’m not here to sell you anything. There’s no overpriced course or YouTube channel I want to send you to. I’m purely writing this as I enjoy writing – I wish this information was available to me 18 months ago!
Am I the best person to teach you this because I’m a professional teacher? Or maybe I’ve been learning French for 30 years? No, I’m neither of these. I’m the best person to steer you in the right direction because around 18 months ago, I could barely speak French at all. If there was a French A0 level, that’s where I was. I could say a couple of words, like ‘Bonjour’ (but I’d pronounce it incorrectly) and I could count to 10.
I made a lot of mistakes during my learning process – I could have saved months and months by not doing many of the things I did. I’m going to share my experience so you can learn from these mistakes!
What to expect whilst learning French
Your learning experience will consist of large periods of frustration, with small glipses of achievement and success. Once you accept this, believe me, it will make things easier. It’s normal. It never ends. Sometimes it feels like you take a step forward only to take two steps back. Just know that as long as you are actively engaging in French, you are moving forward.
What you can control though is the efficiency of your learning.
To succeed you’ve got to want this, a lot. Learning a new language can change your life but you’re going to need to put a lot of effort and time into it. You’re going to have less time each day to do the things you usually do. However, you’ll start to enjoy this a lot more than those other things!
The first few weeks
It needs to be simple and it needs to be fun. You’re going to stare at some words many times and they won’t sink in. Don’t worry about it and don’t spend too long on the same words, some will stick, and others won’t. For what it’s worth – this still happens 18 months in.
For the first few weeks, just use three learning methods- you’ll probably have encountered the first couple in your research to-date.
- Radio & Podcasts
You won’t be able to learn French just by using Duolingo. It’s a very good tool but it will only ever be used to complement your learning. This may seem an odd thing to say – but don’t use the app. Only use the desktop version, it’s better. With the app, if you don’t want your mistakes to hinder your progress, you’re going to need to pay. With the desktop, you can make as many mistakes as you like – without it costing you.
If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning. If there’s something in place that will reward you for not making mistakes (such as the app not charging you) then you’ll always want to take the easy route in the app. You need to make it hard for yourself.
Also, don’t be tempted to use the word bank (like I did for months). It’s easy when you’re using the word bank, you don’t have to worry about spelling and grammar. With this off, you have to type in a lot of the responses in full – and by doing this you’ll really need to learn how these words are spelled.
Anki, simply put, is a web-based flashcard utility that uses Spaced-Repetition which means the more difficult you find a word, the more frequently you will see it pop up. If you’re getting a word correct every time, you’ll see it less and less.
However, be warned that Anki can be a huge time-sink if you don’t manage it properly. Some people become obsessed with it. My two bits of advice are 1) Put a time limit on how long you spend with it each day and 2) if you’re getting the same word wrong every time, you need to add more substance to the word you’re trying to remember.
Don’t just put the word in English and its translation in French. Make a sentence out of it. You need to put it in a form that you will remember, like in the example above.
Radio and other methods of listening
Radio will be a constant during your learning along with other resources where you’ll just be listening. I neglected this at the start and it’s caused me some problems. You’re not going to understand much (or anything) at first, but that’s fine.
Just have it on in the background and listen to the language. It’ll help you when you’re trying to sound French (something I can still struggle with). There are many places online to find French radio stations online, but I’d definitely recommend this place (radio.garden).
Also, take a look at some podcasts, I’d recommend Coffee Break French, start from the very beginning though.
Moving on after the first few weeks
Don’t ignore mistakes. If you’re making the same mistakes over and over again, it’s easy to ignore them and focus on some easier things. These mistakes won’t magically resolve themselves and you’ll end up learning these mistakes which will become harder and harder to fix the longer you leave them.
A great example of this is French genders – and everything that goes with it. Because I wasn’t sure (or cared) what gender a particular word had, I’d just make a sound before the word that could be interpreted as either ‘le’ or ‘la’ – trying to cover up my lack of knowledge!
I got away with this whilst teaching myself but as soon as you start talking to others who actually know the language, you won’t be able to pull the wool over their eyes. The longer you leave it, the harder it’ll be to correct.
So, here are my tips to best move forward after the first few weeks:
- Get the basics right – spend a bit of time on grammar (I know, it’s dull)
- If you’re making mistakes, which you definitely will be, now is the time to correct them. Do this now and it’ll make later a lot easier.
- Keep listening to French on a daily basis – listening to the way the French speak will help you when you’re trying to sound French.
A great book to get at this time would be ‘Bescherelle – Le conjugaison pour tous’ – as you progress it’ll really help you with tenses and the conjugation of verbs. You’ll use it more and more as you progress. The tenses might not make much sense to you at this point but they will in time.
Should I do an online course in French?
I completed the whole of the Pimsleur French course and you can check out my review here.
In short, the Pimsleur course was great – I really enjoyed it. There are others out there also of course but I found Pimsleur the best. However, I made a huge mistake with this and it’s easy to see now that it cost me a lot of time.
The problem was I focused entirely on this course pretty much for a good year. Although I learned a lot from it and it really helped with my confidence and getting a lot of phrases in the bag, there was a problem.
To go through the course correctly can take a lot of time and really, there are better (and quicker) ways to get this knowledge. Pimsleur does not give any time to grammar/spelling, etc. So, although you may know how a particular word sounds, you’ll have no idea how it’s spelled or why it’s spelled in that way. This will cause you problems later.
So, by all means, take a course like Pimsleur if you really fancy it – but don’t rely on it totally and don’t spend all the hours of your free time on it! There are better ways of spending your time.
Practice talking in French – and learn from it
At the end of the day, we’re learning French with a view to being able to have conversations in French. A huge part of learning another language that’s typically neglected is this – conversational French.
You should start practicing this as soon as you can, and this is how you should do it:
- Think of a subject you want to talk about, something that’s of interest to you is best. Don’t script it, just have an idea of what you’re going to say. Just make a few bullet points.
- Record yourself talking about it. Use simple vocabulary. Nothing too complicated. You’re going to make mistakes, not know a lot of words and it’ll probably be a complete mess at first. This is normal and is required for you to progress. Only talk for a couple of minutes, any more than that will be so difficult at this point, it’ll put you off and you’ll stop doing it!
- Listen to your recording and make notes of the words you didn’t know or couldn’t remember. There will be several.
- Put these words into Anki.
- Repeat every day the same subject for a week, then change it.
What you will find is every day, what you will say will differ somewhat or you’ll say things in a slightly different way. Therefore, during the review, you’ll be putting new words into Anki every day most likely.
You will find that every day it will get just a little bit easier.
The great thing about this is you will come out of it being able to talk for a couple of minutes, albeit slowly and with simple words about subjects that interest you. This will help you out massively when later, you’re practicing your French with tutors or others that speak it.
Structuring your day (first 6 months)
Of course, it depends on how much free time you have per day. Let’s assume you have a couple of hours – if I could go back in time, knowing what I know now and what I should have prioritised to make the journey quicker, I would structure my day like this.
This is how I would structure these two hours every day at this stage of your learning:
|30 minutes||Anki Flashcards (reviewing)|
|20 minutes||Listening to podcasts (I recommend CoffeeBreak French at this stage)|
|45 minutes||Talking about something interesting (as mentioned above)|
|25 minutes||Watching YouTube vlogs (in French with English subtitles if required)|
The structure is important. Spending too much time on any one thing will add less value than the value you will lose by not doing one of the other tasks. If you have less time (it will happen) then focus on keeping on top of Anki and any spare time, listen to some French YouTube channels or a podcast.
If you have more time than this, focus more on managing Anki and conversational pratice.
French Lessons – When and How?
Other opinions will vary, but I don’t see a lot of value in taking lessons for the first six months, unless you have more than a few hours per day to spare. You will extract an enormous amount of value from lessons, but leave them until after the first six months.
The reason for this is simple, by that time you will have learned the basics and your tutor won’t have to teach you the things you can easily learn online.
You will be using your tutor to assess your level of comprehension, grammar and general vocabularily. You will find, once you’ve found the right tutor (more on this in a bit) that you will gain an enormous amount of confidence during this process.
I recommend using Italki for this. There are a lot of teachers to choose from and prices are reasonable. You may get lucky but you’ll probably have to try a few different tutors before you find one that suits your needs. The ones you don’t go back to aren’t necessarily bad, just it helps if you ‘click’ with them. You’ll know when it happens.
Usually, the lessons are via Skype and utilise video – this can take a little getting used to for people that aren’t familiar with it but soon feels very natural.
There’s no need to have one for more than once a week. At the moment, I’m seeing my tutor around 3 times a month (60 minutes a lesson) and the structure of these lessons is typically:
- We say ‘hi’ and have a bit of small talk, usually about the weather but might include short conversations about what I’ve been watching on TV or what I’m doing during the weekend.
- We then move on to homework from the previous week. This includes reviewing the mistakes I made previously, as well as talking about things the tutor asked me to do for home work (i.e. learn about what’s on your desk) – so we will have a brief conversation about that.
- Then, we move onto the next subject – it could be about directions, or sport, or cinema – whatever. I usually read some text in French and I’m corrected whenever I make mistakes (I also make notes of these mistakes).
- Comprehension is tested throughout, as I’m asked things in French where I need to respond.
- Finally, homework is set for the next lesson.
The hardest part for me here is comprehension. Because I didn’t focus on this as much as I should have in the early days, it’s still an area that needs improvement. I often have to apologise (in French of course) and ask the tutor to repeat or speak more slowly so I can try and understand what’s being said!
Dealing with nerves
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome when taking lessons with a French speaker 1 on 1, was nerves. It’s a scary process. The first time I did it, I was nervous for a week up to the event itself. I mumbled and fumbled my way through it and was so anxious about just getting through it, I don’t think I actually learned anything!
This is where structure and practice helps. If you know what you’re going to be doing during a lesson, you can practice. That first lesson, bizarrely, I used any excuse to start speaking in English. I made up things I wanted to ask just so I could have a few minutes rest from talking French!
For me, the solution for this was two-fold, getting the right teacher who offerred a structured approach to lessons and secondaly, being able to work on things between the lessons that I know we’d be talking about in the lesson itself.
Finally, like anything, the more you do it the easier it gets and the more you get out of it.
Formalisation of French Learning via DELF
A lot people learn better when there is more formaility around learning. I totally understand this and think I should have focused more on it at the early stages.
I won’t go into the details of DELF as there’s a lot of information online that you can digest. However, if you focus on DELF A1 initially, then there’s a pre-defined level of skill that you need to be at to obtain this (in reading, writing, comprehension and oral).
The downside of taking DELF (if indeed there is one) is that it can take up quite a bit of time and if you don’t have much time per day, then it can consume a lot of it.
However, there are more upsides than downsides and taking the DELF pathways will most likely produce a more rounded French-speaking individual that one that hasn’t. Consider it and determine whether it’s right for you.
After a year of the above, you’ll have your own structure and path that you’ll be comfortable with. Although the hardest part is done, the frustration never ends. You’ll start to find that you can speak about more varied subjects, and for longer.
At this point, you really just need to practice and you may decide to have more lessons, more frequently. You’ll get more out of them now and you’re able to get into the more complex areas of French that was previously a little out of reach.
There are still times when I’m trying to learn a new word, yes – just one new word, and it just doesn’t stick. It keeps coming up in Anki and I keep getting it wrong. After some time though you learn to accept that this just occasionally happens and is actually quite normal. Sometimes you feel like you’re going backwards – you’re not, you’ve just hit another wall that you’ll soon(ish) get over.
Finally – my main tips to sucessfully learning French quickly
- Don’t skip the basics, learn the grammar. My English grammar was poor before I started which made the journey even harder. It’s boring, well – it was for me. Can you learn French without understanding the grammar? Yes – absolutely. It’s a lot easier if you get what’s going on though.
- Do a little often – rather than spending 6 hours in one day, then nothing for a week – try and do at least something every day.
- As soon as you can, practice talking about things you know well. You’ll build up a lot of things that you can easily talk about in French when you need to – and you’ll learn a lot of new words in the process.
- Use Anki – it can get repetitive, but it works.
- Consider the DELF pathway and formalise your learning. There’s loads of resources on YouTube for you to discover this. This may be mandatory if you’re learning for work and an organisation is asking for French speaker at ‘B1’ level for example.
- After six months, start having lessons with French-speaking tutors.
- Listen to French radio/music/podcasts/YouTube as much as possible. Emmerse yourself in the language. Accept that you won’t understand most of what’s being said, but slowly you’ll understand more and more.
- Don’t give up. Learning French will change your life – there are literally no negatives to any part of the process.