It’s estimated that over 270 million people worldwide speak some variety of French.
Over 75 million of these are native speakers.
Aside from the most obvious reason that most people want to learn to speak French (tourism), it’s an enormously useful and important global language to learn. Whether you’re traveling to France, Africa or Polynesia in the Pacific, it will open up communication.
“What’s the best way to start learning French?”
I get this question all the time. Or:
“How do I revive the French that I learned in school?”
Well today’s post is designed to help new and old learners alike get started learning French.
The most important thing when learning French
There’s one thing that will literally determine whether or not you learn to speak French fluently.
One word: why?
As controversial as this is, learning French ‘because you like France’ is the worst possible reason to start.
Here’s a piece of advice:
If your only motivation for learning French is ‘interest’ then I can almost guarantee you’ll give up.
How do I know that?
Interests come and go. They don’t last. I can’t tell you how many learners I’ve met who have been highly motivated out of interest one week, gone out and purchased books, courses, etc. and then a week later moved on to another thing.
Motivation is key.
Assess your motivation and change it if need be.
These are some strong reasons to learn French:
- Career change.
- Relocation to France or another French-speaking part of the world where communication is vital.
- A course requirement at college.
Notice the one thing they all have in common?
If you need something, you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen, right? You have no choice. It must be done.
Another tip: stay accountable when learning French
Adding to motivation, I want to emphasize accountability.
If you’re the only person who knows about your effort to learn the language, then nobody can keep you accountable. Make sure you announce it to friends and family. Blog about it if need be. This is so important.
Let people keep you accountable.
They’ll come up to you and say:
“How’s your French coming along?”
Nobody likes to be thought of as a quitter. These questions will force you to stay on track when you feel like giving up.
How to find the best French language resources
Now that motivation and accountability are covered, it’s time to find out what resources you should use to learn French.
Obviously before you can start learning French, you need to know what tools are available to help you.
My number one step before learning any language is to spend some quality time researching all the resources that are on the market for that particular language. This includes documenting them and reading lots of reviews.
What you’ll appreciate (or maybe not) is that French is one of the most popular languages when it comes to books and resources. Since so many people want to learn this language, there is an absolute abundance of material out there.
Compare this to other languages (like Polish for example) and you’ll see what I mean.
But it can also be stressful having so many choices.
Very different learning styles but it depends on what you’re after.
My advice is to put together a list and categorize it: draw up some columns where you place resources into respective categories.
For example, you might have a “Grammar” category and list some of the best resources you’ve come across for learning French grammar. Then another column just for “Videos”, and in this column place some of the most useful YouTube channels you’ve come across for learning French.
There’s also a good musical phrasebook called Earworms (Rapid) French (UK company) that I always recommend as a phrasebook alternative. It uses a scientific method to get songs “stuck in your head” (hence the name ‘earworms’).
There are just so many options (too many to recommend in fact).
Take the time to do your research and it’ll pay off later.
How to have a basic conversation in French
It should go without saying that in the very beginning, you need to get a grasp on fundamental conversation points.
You need some kind of foundation to build on and a way to communicate the most essential phrases.
The resource list should be in your hand.
Here’s where you go back to your motivation and use it to guide you on what content you need to hone in on.
It should be a no-brainer:
Bonjour – Hello.
Ça va? (formal: Comment allez-vous?) – How are you?
Je m’appelle… – My name is…
Enchanté(e) – Nice to meet you.
Comment dit-on… en français? – How do you say … in French?
Je ne sais pas (or Je ne comprends pas) – I don’t know (or I don’t understand).
And so on.
Write these down.
You might even be familiar with most of these already. The English language is primarily made up of French so we’ve been exposed to a lot all our lives without even realizing it.
Build your basic, conversational foundation with these phrasebook expressions.
I mentioned your motivation before.
This is key.
If you’re learning French for tourism for example, then you probably don’t need to spend much time learning business vocabulary.
It’s vital to hone in on the French content that matters most to you.
For me personally, I need to talk a lot about language learning and my children.
So I write out a list of predictable phrases and expressions that I need in order to talk about these things.
Here are some typical sentence examples:
“I have two kids.”
“My son is 18 months old and my daughter is 1 month old.”
“I am learning French.”
“I also speak Arabic, Russian, Irish and Korean.”
When amassing my resource list as mentioned earlier, it’s important that I gather material which covers these relevant topics.
But then the next question is:
“What if the dialogues you find in your resource list don’t cover the exact content you need?”
Where to find the best (and cheap) French teachers
In this day and age, there really is no excuse for not practicing your French with other people.
It used to be that if you weren’t living in a city with a French-speaking population, you were basically out of luck unless you traveled to France.
These days, most major cities in most Western countries have a sizeable French or French-speaking community to hang out with.
But if you live in a small town or genuinely have trouble finding practice partners, listen up.
I use an amazing tool called italki.
You’re able to meet and connect with French speakers and teachers all over the world at whatever time suits you.
And amazingly, you can do it for less than $8 an hour in many cases (prices vary but some are very low).
I recommend setting up a free 30 minute trial on their site with a native French speaker and see what you think. Use the expressions you created in my previous point.
Just keep in mind:
- They should only speak French. Absolutely no English. If they keep trying to explain everything in English then they’re not doing their job properly. FRENCH ONLY.
- Make sure they’re patient and not trying to push you too hard before you’ve had a chance to catch up. You’re the one in control!
- Focus on high repetition. Learn a little at a time but repeat it frequently to let it sink in.
Remember that you’re the one paying.
If it’s not working out, then pull the plug and try another teacher.
How to learn French without studying grammar
This is the most controversial point you’ll hear on this site.
People often wonder how it’s possible to learn a language without studying grammar. You can!
You can find great detail about this here but to put it simply: studying grammar rules in order to speak is a very unnatural way to learn.
In fact I believe it’s the single biggest reason why people fail at learning to speak foreign languages.
Languages should always be thought of as building blocks. You learn languages naturally in whole chunks.
Even a basic expression like ‘how are you?’ is learned in pieces – it’s learned whole.
Before you know how to conjugate French verbs or understand French pronouns, you acquire that whole expression.
With English, you learned how to speak before learning its grammar.
Grammar is something we study much later on in life (in primary school) to help us refine our literacy skills – not to make us fluent speakers.
We learn through lots of repetition of phrases and collocations (Glossika French is a great resource for this).
It’s also a more enjoyable way to learn.
You’ll be amazed over time as you naturally start to acquire grammar without even thinking about it.
Read here for more details on this.
Understand French when you hear it – how to improve listening comprehension
Listen to French daily.
Whatever your situation and wherever you live, you should make it your mission to be surrounded at all times by the sounds of French.
Surround and immerse yourself.
This includes music, TV, movies and of course (most importantly), surround yourself with French native speakers (in person or online through italki).
Listen to the language even when you don’t understand what’s being said. The goal is for French to become totally audibly familiar to you. Familiarity is the goal.
Even when you’re not “studying”, just listen.
French will become natural to you over time.
For more ideas and tools, visit my French resources page here.