How To Learn French
Bon jour! Ça va? Welcome to French, the language of love, literature and all of those fascinating, one-of-a-kind sounds. French is the official language of over 29 countries throughout the world and is the second-most widely spoken first language in the European Union. Now that you've decided to learn this beautiful and widely spoken language, you may be wondering where to start. After all, learning a language like French is both an amazing and challenging process that requires plenty of dedication, motivation, and helpful learning tools. Here at Rocket Languages, we'd like to help you on your French learning journey. We'd like to provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to learn French the best way possible. Allons-y!
How to Learn French in 5 Steps?
1. Make a Game Plan
No great achievement ever happens overnight, and learning French is no different. The first step to learn French is to make some smart, realistic goals to help yourself organize your time and plan your studies. Here are a few tips:
Make SMART Goals
Your New Year's Resolution may be to "learn French," but what does that actually mean? Vague final goals like this are both frustrating and unproductive. After all, how will you know when--and if--this goal is ever achieved? Instead, try making some SMART goals. SMART goals, as advocated in world of management, are Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. In order to best apply this concept to your French studies, it's recommended that you become a little familiar with the European Common Framework that defines the different language levels. Here's a quick breakdown of the Framework and levels: Level Group
Breakthrough or Beginner
Way Stage or Elementary
Threshold or Intermediate
Vantage or Upper Intermediate
Effective Operational Proficiency
Mastery or Proficiency
On average, many speakers are considered "fluent" in a language by the time they've reached a B2 level or higher, a level which allows them to comfortably interact in almost all social situations. Aiming for a B2 level of a language is therefore a more specific and results-focused goal, and, thanks to the criteria provided by the Common European Framework of Reference, it's also measureable. It's much more attainable than aiming for the vague notion of "fluency" (which, seems to elude even fluent speakers!). It can easily be made time-bound by keeping in mind the criteria needed for each level and making yourself a schedule with your goals in mind.
Make a study plan
Now that you have some realistic goals in mind, it's time to make a study plan. A study plan will help you to organize and maximize your time, keep motivated, set goals, and make sure your brain gets the repetition and structure it needs. Consider it your very own, personalized plan d'attaque. Before you can make a great plan, however, there are four things you need to keep in mind:
- How much time you can dedicate to learning French. You should ideally set aside a little bit of time to study French every day, although this time may vary. Even just 10 minutes a day can be helpful, but keep in mind that the more time you can dedicate, the better.
- You French learning goals. Would you like to dedicate an equal amount of time to all language learning skills? Or are you more interested in speaking and listening than reading and writing? If you plan to prioritize some skills over others, make sure to incorporate this into your plan.
- Your deadlines. This also plays a major role in determining how much time you should dedicate to learning. If you need to learn French as fast as possible for an upcoming trip or move, then you will need to dedicate as much time as possible to learning the language.
- Your resources. What resources do you have available? Fortunately, we have more French learning resources at our fingertips than ever before. Take advantage of as many resources as possible when making your study plan. The more interactive and fun, the better!
With this in mind, you're ready to make your personalized study plan. Here's what it should include:
- A detailed description of each activity.
- Start and stop times for each activity.
- A description of the skill(s) you are practicing.
- As many fun, varied and motivating activities as possible.
Try and make sure your learning time is free of distractions and your workspace is organized. Schedule short breaks to keep yourself motivated when you're in the middle of long study sessions. Most importantly, have fun with it!
2. Start with Sounds
Once you have a realistic, smart plan for approaching language study, it's time to dig in and start to get your hands dirty. But where should you even start? The answer is simple: sounds. Learning how to hear, pronounce and spell French sounds is a great place to get started even before you begin memorizing words and their meanings. As in English, the consistency between written and spoken French is rather weak, which means that learning how to write and read in French doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to master the spoken language. That’s why it’s a good idea to get familiar with French sounds before moving forward to the second stage and studying writing. Standard French contains 13 oral vowels and up to 4 nasal vowels, but it only has 5 different letters for all these sounds. Crazy right? But don’t freak out, it’s just a matter of studying a little bit, listening to a ton of French, and repeating the sounds until your tongue hurts. Spend some time just focusing on French sounds and spelling so that they are longer foreign to you. Study the French alphabet, work on identifying the letters and pronouncing all of the sounds that differ from English sounds. Get started with these!
See the whole French alphabet here. You can also listen to pronunciation guides on YouTube, watch movies or series with subtitles in French and read along to learn to recognize and repeat sounds.
3. Learn Some Basic Vocabulary
The next step is to start recognizing and memorizing vocabulary words. There are several great tips for making the best of your vocabulary learning:
Keep it Practical
Learning French requires learning a lot of new words. There's no way around it. Many people use their "bad memory" as an excuse for not learning a new language, but we have some comforting news for these people (and even those with great memories): you don't need to know all--or even the majority--of the French words to be able to speak it well. In fact, you don't even need to know half! Le Grand Robert de la langue française, one of the biggest and most renowned dictionaries of the French language, contains about 100,000 words and over 350,000 definitions. Do you need to know them all? Of course not! Don’t waste your time learning words and phrases that you'll never use. Many experts believe that 300 words may be enough to carry on an everyday conversation in French, which means that very little memorizing will do the work. That's right, only 300 words!! So what does that mean for you as a French learner? By learning the 300 most common French words first, you can cut your work in less than half. You'll be able to communicate faster and with significantly less effort. However, it’s highly recommended that you gradually expand your vocabulary at least to the 1,000 most commonly used words in French. With just 1,000 words, you'll be able to understand about 80% of written texts. Here are some of the most common French words to get you started...
Note that you should study French greetings, numbers, basic travel questions, how to tell time, the 6 French pronouns and the most practical French verbs as soon as possible to help get you started.
Your Friends Cognates
Believe it or not, you already know some French words even before you even start studying it. While French may seem like "Greek" to you, the majority of foreign languages actually share some words or roots of words. These words that look or sound like words in your language and have the same meaning are called cognates. Almost all European languages share countless cognates with English thanks to their shared roots, history, and evolution. Take the English words "identification," "attention," and "direction," for example. The very same words exist in French with the very same ending and just a slightly different pronunciation. These cognates are your friends and can make your language learning much easier and faster. Here's a handy list of French words that you already know thanks to cognates. And, you can get started with these:
4. Dive into Grammar
Now that you've got the French sounds down as well as some basic vocabulary, it's time to start tackling grammar. Don't worry! We'll help make it as fun as possible. Here are a few things that can help:
Keep it Practical and Live in the Present
Just like with vocabulary, it's important to make sure you learn the most practical French verbs first. These are the verbs that you use the most in your everyday life. Instead of plunging into all of the different and complicated conjugations, make your life easier by learning the present tense first. Start by learning the present tense of the four most practical French verbs: être (to be)
- je suis
- tu es
- il/elle est
- nous sommes
- vous êtes
- ils/elles sont
aller (to go)
- je vais
- tu vas
- il/elle va
- nous allons
- vous allez
- ils/elles vont
faire (to do)
- je fais
- tu fais
- il/elle fait
- nous faisons
- vous faites
- ils/elles font
avoir (to have)
- tu as
- il/elle a
- nous avons
- vous avez
- ils/elles ont
Then, start to learn verbs that end in -ER, which is one of the easiest endings to conjugate. Some of these verbs include:
Break Down the Grammar
Grammar provides the rules for the game in a language. It helps us tell a story. While French grammar may seem complex, it can actually be broken down into three basic operations:
- Adding words (You are learning French > Are you learning French?)
- Changing existing words (I learn French > I learned French)
- Changing the order of words (French is fun> Is French fun?)
That's it. That's not too bad, right? Keeping this in mind, we can use the grammar explanations we learn to help us break down the rules into easily memorized chunks. When studying verb tenses, for example, practice saying the same sentence using every different pronoun in the same tense. Then, practice changing the sentence into a negative sentence and into a question. Later, you can then practice saying the same sentence in different tenses with the same pronoun, in the negative form, in the question form, etc. You can even make your own flash cards to help you with this. This is a great way to break down rules and make them easier to memorize.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
Finally, the cliché saying that "practice makes perfect" has never been more true than in the language learning world. Learning French involves a lot of practice, but there are a few great tips to practice without even needing a passport.
Read, Watch, Listen
Movies, music, television series, books, newspapers, magazines and anything you can read, watch, or listen to are unbelievably useful for learning. Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to French, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you're learning without feeling like you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using French words and constructions that you didn't even study thanks to your brain's ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book or watching a series. One word of warning, though: if you really want to get useful grammar and vocabulary, make sure that what you're reading, watching or listening to is modern and in a dialect that you would like to learn.
Interact...Without Needing to Travel
Try to interact in French on a daily basis. This can involve:
- Speaking with a French-speaking friend, family member or neighbor in person
- Writing a letter to a friend, family member, or coworker in French
- Writing a letter in French to yourself or keeping a journal in French
- Visiting a local store or neighborhood where French is spoken and interacting with the locals
- Joining a weekly or monthly French conversation group or starting your own group
- Speaking French online with a friend, family member, coworker, or fellow language learner
- Writing an email in French
- Contributing to a blog or forum in French (Rocket Language has some great forums for this!)
- Singing along with French music
- Watching a French movie or series and repeating the character's lines (you can use French subtitles to help)
- Reading a passage from a French book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
- Talking to yourself in French (this really works!)
Unlike other academic subjects, learning French is a continuous, never-ending adventure that requires constant practice. Don't live in fear of making mistakes. In the language learning world, mistakes are a sign of progress. Mistakes help you to learn faster. Don't worry about upsetting native French speakers for being too "bold" and trying to speak with them in their native language. Don't worry if you say something that sounds a little strange. Just go for it! Odds are, they'll love it and want to help you. Don't let fear get in your way. Interact in French as much as possible, and you'll be amazed by the results. No matter what, make sure to keep your studies fresh and fun. You'll stay motivated and learning French will be faster, easier and more enjoyable than you expect! Bonne chance! Marie-Claire Riviere Rocket French