I wasted a lot of time when initially learning French as, quite simply, I didn’t know how I should go about it. I only originally had an hour a day to learn and found myself wasting most of that time on methods that weren’t moving me in the right direction quickly enough.
The very best advice I could give to anyone wanting to learn French would be to ensure they spend every second of their precious free time on something that will actually help them move forward. It’s too easy to take the easy option and many new learners will get sucked into using apps that claim to be able to fast-track your learning.
The problem is that many of these apps are really good fun and make you believe you’re making progress. Which, in a way, you are, but slowly. They’re a long way from being the most efficient learning tools available to you and your learning progress will be a lot slower if you rely on these apps rather than if you allow them to simply complement your learning.
Therefore, what I’m presenting to you in this article is a simple guide on what you need to focus on when learning French, depending on how much time you have free.
How to use this guide
Depending on how long you have to spend each day will dictate exactly what you prioritise. For instance, smaller amounts of time each day will mean you will need to focus more on spoken French than grammar. The more time you have, the more time you can spend on more areas of the language.
Each section below will list one or more of the below techniques. Simply apply these for the amount of time suggested. It’s all about keeping it as simple as possible as when something becomes complicated – it’s natural for us to lose interest and start doing our own things.
The different categories are:
This is where you build up small elements of French conversation that you can use and insert into your language going forward. The method for this is very simple however putting it into practice is more challenging, as it should be. It can be frustrating – actually, I’d go as far as to say that it should be frustrating for you to know that you’re going in the right direction! Here are the steps:
- Think of a subject that you’d like to be able to talk about in French, and write in English (or record in a video) what you want about it. Ensure that what you’ve recorded takes between a minute or two to read.
- Convert what you’ve recorded into French without looking up words. This might mean that you have to translate the vast majority of the words from English into French, but that’s fine.
- For any words you don’t know, create a flashcard using Anki (see below).
- Repeat step 2 until you’re reasonably confident you know the words, if it’s taking too long – move on to a different subject from step 1.
There are many positives to this method. Firstly, you’re going to learn little snippets of conversation that you’ll be able to use when you first engage in conversation with someone in French. Secondly, your vocabulary will be forced to improve. Thirdly, your confidence will go through the roof.
The reason why this method is so effective is that you’re learning to talk about something that you’re familiar with. You’ll be more comfortable with it and more interested in it.
Vocabulary / Flashcards (via Anki)
You’re not going to get very far without knowing some actual French words, right? There are a few ways we’re going to improve vocabulary but the foundation of this will be via flashcards utilising Anki.
Anki uses spaced repetition in order to help you to remember the words you’re trying to remember. The underlying algorithm for this is a little complex, but in a nutshell what it means is that if you are continually able to get a word correct, you’ll see it less often. If you are struggling to remember a particular word, you’ll see it often.
It’s very important to understand that with Anki, you’re only going to get out of it as much as you put in. What I mean by this is that you need to put in enough information for you to be able to understand what you’re trying to learn.
For example, in the below – I could have simply stated the differences between ‘qui’ and ‘que’ – but that won’t help me actually understand it – so I put more information so I not only get the answer but the reason why. Here’s what I put:
Also, there are many ways to use Anki to determine what words you’re having trouble with. For instance, let’s take a look at a particular deck of cards. The higher the percentage, the easier I find them. So, you can see in the below, there are 3 cards in red. These are cards that I’m continually getting wrong:
If you were then to click into this red bar, you’d see all the cards that it consists of (i.e. the ones you’re struggling with). What you should then do is modify the card to provide more information that can be used in order for you to remember it. What’s in there at the moment, considering how many times those cards aren’t being committed to memory, obviously don’t have enough information to help you.
How you create these decks is up to you, however, I’ve found that for me, what works is by having a new deck for each month.
Anki is simple to use and every time you discover a new word you’re unfamiliar with, create a card for it but ensure that you have the ‘Basic (and reversed card)’ type selected. This will ensure that you are not only forced to remember the English -> French, but also the French -> English translation also. It’ll double the number of cards you need to get through but there’s no point in being able to translate only one way!
By the way, perhaps I should say here that I have no affiliation with Anki! Just I’ve used so many of these flashcard programmes – Anki is the best and the most configurable. Also, you can use it for free!
Oh, how I wish I’d spent more time on this when I first started learning French! It’s all very well being able to get by and speak the language in the basic form, but if you can’t understand what’s being said back to you, it’s not going to be that much good to you.
This takes a lot of time. The French can speak very quickly and you simply don’t have the time to be able to translate each word from French to English as they’re speaking. You need to just ‘know’ what each word means otherwise by the time you’ve translated a particular word the sentence has finished and you’ve lost track of what’s going on.
The only way to do this is with a combination of vocabulary building (via Anki as mentioned above) and by practising listening to French.
There are a few ways to do this, but these are the best:
- Listening to French YouTube learning channels, initially with subtitles in English, then subtitles in French, then without altogether.
- Watching French programmes, a great example is a series called ‘Extra’ – just search for it on YouTube. It’s pretty poorly produced but good fun and the language is designed for beginners/lower intermediate viewers.
- Watching TV/films with French subtitles
- Listening to French radio
You’ll find that you won’t understand a lot of what’s being said, even after some time of learning. However, you are still learning. You’ll become more familiar with how the French speak (and the speed) and you’ll start to pick out one or two words that you actually understand.
For words that keep coming up that you don’t understand or can’t work out given the context, add them to your Anki vocabulary deck.
Writing / Grammar Practice
For those people who want to take formal qualifications or will have a requirement to write in French, you’re going to have to get to grips with the written language and its grammar. It does of course help if you have a decent understanding of English grammar but if you don’t – it doesn’t matter.
My grammar was pretty appalling prior to learning French but the great thing about learning a new language is that it will additionally improve your grammar.
Practice writing postcards, emails, little notes, etc. They don’t have to be long, just find topics that you think you’d like to talk about and go for it. Be honest and strict with yourself when checking your spelling – add the mistakes that you made to your Anki deck. This is actually something that Duolingo can help you with, more on that below.
There are so many French courses available it’s easy to get lost and not know where to start. Some of them are video-based, some are audio-only and some are the old-fashioned book method.
But are they a good way to spend your time if that time is limited? Having spent too much time on one of these courses myself, I think I can categorically say no, spending all your time on one of these courses is not a good way to use your time.
However, they can be a good way to complement your language learning. If you’d like to check out my review of the Pimsleur learning course, take a look at my comprehensive review here. Don’t get me wrong, this was a fantastic course and really helped me set the foundations of my learning.
However, I spent too much time focused on just this and neglected other areas that were actually more important. This meant I was playing catch-up for some time after completing the course.
So, I would not discount courses totally as long as you manage them as part of the time you have each day correctly.
Apps (particularly Duolingo)
I’ve lost track of how many French apps I’ve downloaded since I started learning. Most of those were deleted a little after installing but some still remain.
I’m going to focus primarily on Duolingo here as this is the one that gets so much attention. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with it as such – as long as you use it in the right way. What do I mean by this? Well, don’t use the app – for starters. Use the web-based version, it’s just better.
With the web-based version, you’re not restricted by how many mistakes you make. On the app, if you make a few you either need to buy it or wait until the next day. On the website version, it’s unlimited.
You also need to use it in the right way to get anything from it. When you’re giving your answers, you have a couple of ways of doing it. Either by using the ‘word bank’ where the possible correct (and wrong) answers appear on the screen and you need to choose them. Or, they don’t appear and you have to type in the answer manually.
Let me demonstrate, here’s the method using the word bank:
Here’s the method without using the word bank:
As you can see, the bottom screenshot doesn’t give you any help. So, here you can’t take the easy route – you have to get the answer correct as well as the spelling. You must use this method if you want to get anything out of Duolingo.
So, you can get something out of using it – your vocabulary can improve as well as your grammar (if you use it as I’ve suggested above). But don’t rely on it, you’ll never become fluent just using Duolingo.
How to learn French if you have 30 minutes a day
If you only have a short amount of time each day to spend learning French, you’re really going to have to focus on your priorities. These should be speaking and understanding French. Being able to write, understand grammar and read will come with time but the focus here is to be able to eventually engage in a conversation in French, and understand what is being said to you.
Therefore, your 30 minutes a day is going to be split between speaking and comprehension. This really isn’t a lot of time to utilise and we’re going to need to focus on just the basics.
20 minutes – Conversational Practice
Given the amount of time you have here, you’re unlikely to complete this in 20 minutes. So, you’ll need to just continue during the next session.
10 minutes – Vocabulary / Anki
You won’t always get time to complete all the words you have in your decks that are due for that day given the amount of time you have. Just do your best.
How long will it take to get to French B2 level if I study for 30 minutes a day?
Using the estimate of 650 hours to get to the French B2 level, it will take you around 3.5 years to get to this level of competency.
How to learn French if you have 1 hour a day
This is probably the most common amount of time that people have to learn French. Even just an hour every day can be hard to find sometimes.
25 minutes – Conversational Practice
15 minutes – Vocabulary / Anki
10 minutes – Writing / Grammar
10 minutes – Comprehension
How long will it take to get to French B2 level if I study for 1 hour a day?
Studying French using this method for one hour a day, every day, will get you to the French B2 level in just under 2 years. Remember, this isn’t just five days a week – it’s every single day.
How to learn French if you have 2 hours a day
30 minutes – Conversational Practice
25 minutes – Vocabulary / Anki
20 minutes – Writing / Grammar
30 minutes – Comprehension
15 minutes – Apps (Duolingo)
How long will it take to get to French B2 level if I study for 2 hours a day?
Studying French using the above method for two hours a day, every day, will get you to the French B2 level in under a year (possibly 10/11 months).
How to learn French if you have 3 hours a day
30 minutes – Conversational Practice
30 minutes – Vocabulary / Anki
30 minutes – Writing / Grammar
60 minutes – Comprehension
10 minutes – Apps (Duolingo)
20 minutes – Course
How long will it take to get to French B2 level if I study for 3 hours a day?
Studying French using this method for three hours a day, every day, will get you to the French B2 level possibly between 6 and 9 months.
How to learn French if you have 4 hours a day
40 minutes – Conversational Practice
40 minutes – Vocabulary / Anki
30 minutes – Writing / Grammar
80 minutes – Comprehension
20 minutes – Apps (Duolingo)
30 minutes – Course
How long will it take to get to French B2 level if I study for 4 hours a day?
Studying French using this method for four hours a day, every single day, will get you to the French B2 level possibly after around 6 months.
Bear in mind, that the more you study every day, the harder it is to maintain. Therefore, the actual chances of getting to this B2 French level in such a small timeframe are very difficult.
It’s very easy to become distracted and (I’ve noticed this myself) if I give myself an hour to do some part of French learning, often I find myself on Instagram or Facebook or getting a cup of tea. Basically, I procrastinate all the time. So, the point is – actually studying for these timeframes is really challenging and needs a lot of dedication.
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have a structured learning plan when learning French (or any language actually). The above plans are based not on science, but on experience. They are based on the mistakes I made whilst learning and what, looking back, I should have done which would have accelerated my learning.