A practical guide to learning French

Learning a new language is no walk in the park. There are many different ways you can learn depending on your objectives and your capacity to learn and retain information, but the most challenging part is finding the method that best suits you.

Want to learn French by yourself? Let’s get going then.

Reasons to learn French

It goes without saying that learning French is the best idea in the whole wide world. At the end of the day, French is the language of love, pains au chocolat and je ne sais quoi, is it not? All fun stuff. But bear in mind that there are countless ways you can learn the language.

We all have very busy lives: work, friends, hobbies, grooming ferrets (well, I guess that’s just me) and one would think it’s virtually impossible to make time for yet another activity. You could decide to take up French evening classes, but how can you slot them into your already busy schedule?

The pros of learning a language by yourself are having no restrictions on how you learn, what you use to learn or when you learn. But these same considerations could also be a hindrance if you’re someone who prefers to learn with a more structured approach.

How to teach yourself French

Learning French is no longer an unattainable dream. You can learn French and jump on the next Eurostar or the next plane to try it out with the locals. What’s more, nowadays you have unlimited access to a wide range of learning tools, regardless of your level of French. No excuses guys.

  • Books – from French classics to comic books or textbooks (audio books are an eco-friendly alternative)
  • Distance training (online classes or programs with The Open University for instance)
  • Music – start by listening to Edith Piaf, then move on to Céline Dion
  • TV series and filmsDix pour cent, Intouchables…
  • The Internet (articles, blogs, videos…)

There are countless ways to learn a foreign language, the key here is to persevere and take the time you need by learning regularly and at a steady pace.

How to determine your level of French

Just a minute. Before going any further, it’s important to assess your level of French. Thanks to Frantastique, you can test your French level for free.

Once you have completed your free trial week, you will receive a personalized level assessment which outlines your strengths and weaknesses.

Try out 7-day free trial, no strings attached (well, apart from your email address to receive your lessons that is).

The challenges of learning French alone

If you decide to learn French by yourself, you’ll inevitably have to face the numerous difficulties of self-studying.

Generally speaking, there is one big issue when learning French alone: too much freedom. No, really.

How can having too much freedom be an obstacle to learning French?

It’s all about discipline. If you successfully maintain a nice and steady learning pace, you’ll memorize what you have learned step-by-step and you’ll remember everything the following day, and the day after. Just like that.

What’s more, once you start teaching yourself a new language, time management is essential. You may find yourself wondering: which course should I choose? Which lesson should I start with?

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, as long as you are consistent and thorough in your studies. But even if you structure and plan your learning path, you’re bound to come across some obstacles along the way.

Time constraints

It’s simply impossible to learn French in just a couple of weeks. Even though you can quickly learn a few basic sentences before your weekend getaway to Bordeaux (un croissant s’il vous plaît), it will take (much) more time to get a genuine understanding of the nuances and the culture of the country.

You can start learning a language at any point in your life, but even when you think you know a language, chances are you won’t remember it over a long period of time unless you practice on a regular basis in order to memorize the vocabulary and, above all, to keep the spontaneity going. Practice makes perfect.

Having said that, if you have money to spend, you can learn a new language faster and more efficiently by taking up private French lessons, online classes, reading books, or even planning trips and outings and subscribing to Netflix or Spotify. Who would have thought?

Motivation and participation

Without attending French classes every day and unless you set yourself a clear goal, you may find it grueling to learn a foreign language.

Never forget the reason you started learning in the first place, especially when you’re doing it alone without the help and guidance of a teacher. Any excuse is good to learn French – it will be a long and tough journey but trust us, it will be very rewarding in the end.

There are countless ways you can learn French, the real trick is to find the method that best suits you.

Distance learning French courses

Before the Internet was a thing, students used to receive course material by mail. Assignments would be sent back to the teacher who would review and return it to the student.

Postal correspondence courses still exist (ABBC or ACS Distance Education for instance), but today, virtual learning has become much more accessible with the help of MOOCs and other online courses.

These courses don’t involve any face-to-face interaction (except for video conference courses that is) and no teacher will be spying on your every move. Instead, an educational team is in charge of creating training programs which appeal to all students regardless of their level. However, there isn’t much supervision and the content isn’t tailored to suit each student, making it difficult for them to memorize what they have learned. In other words, there is a crucial aspect missing: personalization.

Of course, such problems can also arise in a classroom. Whilst more advanced students will find a lesson too easy, less advanced students will have trouble following.

If students have their own needs and weaknesses, we must be able to create a course tailored to meet their needs and weaknesses.

Meet our online French course, Frantastique. Our custom artificial intelligence helps overcome this issue by offering lessons which adapt to the needs and weaknesses of each and every student to help them progress.

Frantastique won’t replace a (real) French teacher. In fact, nothing will ever replace a good old teacher. That being said, having a one-to-one session with a teacher can be quite costly (between $10 to $25 for just one hour!). As our lessons are produced by actual teachers and therefore have a genuine educational approach, Frantastique can help you build the foundation of your learning journey. Our online course is designed to help you brush up on your French language skills or complement an on-site training or a previous course you took.

At the end of each lesson, you receive personalized corrections which are automatically delivered by our artificial intelligence software. Each of your answers are thoroughly reviewed in order to make your learning experience as effective as possible by identifying your mistakes and weak points.

We suggest you spend a few hours with a private tutor to understand your strengths and weaknesses before moving on to an online French course which will help you focus your efforts on the needs previously identified with your tutor.

Learning French through immersion

Some learners are able to learn and progress better than others, just by reading books and textbooks. These tools, which can appear tedious, remain nonetheless effective in the process of learning the grammar rules of a language. These learners tend to prefer studying in a familiar and secure environment, while other more adventurous learners will prefer stepping into the unknown – well not really. Hold that thought.

Learning French at home through cultural immersion

The idea is simple but can be frightening – immersing yourself in the French culture.

You need to force yourself to think in French in such a way that it becomes natural. Ideally, you should already have some basic knowledge of the French language. The trick here is not to switch to English each time you don’t know a word, because that would be too easy.

Thanks to our state-of-the-art 21st century technology, you can now learn all about French culture in the comfort of your own home and improve your grammar or vocabulary.

Many resources are available online and they are mostly free. Depending on your level of understanding, you can read French books and newspapers, watch series or listen to music. Whatever suits your fancy really.

In order for this to work, you need to focus solely on the French language and move away from English. You could for instance watch TV series and films without English subtitles, but we know that’s easier said than done, as you are very likely to encounter unfamiliar words along the way. To avoid this, you can either more or less guess the meaning of the words depending on the context (we call this “coherence” in linguistics), or you can write them down and search for their meaning later on.

This method is recommended for intermediate learners who are looking to take things up a notch. For beginners, we would advise a more structured learning method.

Learning French “alone” through immersion abroad

Even better: if you step out of your comfort zone and learn a foreign language by interacting with native speakers, it will help speed up the learning process, as your new environment will be unfamiliar but really exciting.

You don’t necessarily have to pay for these interactions, and even if you do, they’re not that expensive. But keep in mind that for the first few contacts, you should be totally alone with your correspondent. If you’re all by yourself, you’ll have no way of speaking English, so no use looking for Daisy or John – if you know anyone by that name.

To get into the swing of things, we also recommend you attend local cultural events or join foreign international student or professional organizations, where people are looking to mix with the locals. In larger cities, you could also join cultural exchange communities.

Unfortunately, some native speakers might, in turn, want to learn English! That would give you the opportunity to switch between both languages, it’s risky, but a risk worth taking.

Alternatively, you could travel the world. If you live in the UK, you’re only a couple of hours away from Paris by Eurostar. If you really want to push yourself, you could even pop over to New Caledonia or Senegal. If you’re from the US, we bet you’ve heard of this great exotic destination called Quebec.

Immersion language programs are all the rage today. They’re intense, but they can be a great way to dive head first into the French-speaking world. It goes without saying that short-term stays aren’t sufficient to learn the whole French dictionary.

If by any chance you’re a university student, you might be lucky enough to join an international exchange program in France or Belgium for a semester, or sometimes even for a whole year. Numerous partnerships have been signed in universities and international school all around the world. It could be worth looking into.

But don’t forget that each country has its own requirements and spaces are limited.

Resources, methods and learning materials

There are many paid or free resources to help you learn French, even more so since the birth of the Internet.

We would recommend using textbooks and starting distance training, but also reading the international press, books or blogs, listening to music, watching films, series and random videos, as well as signing up for online French courses, listening to podcasts and playing video games.

French textbooks

By visiting your local library, you’ll find here are thousands of French textbooks to choose from – we suggest you pick out those adapted for self-studying. That way, you’ll be able to expand your vocabulary, perfect your grammar and improve your written and oral comprehension (for textbooks with audio recordings). For instance, you could try Easy French Step-by-step by Myrna Bell Rochester or En bonne forme by Simone Renaud and Dominique van Hooff.

Pros

  • Well structured, written by professionals
  • A classic method which doesn’t unsettle the learner
  • Easily accessible
  • Affordable
  • Available for every level
  • All topics covered

Cons

  • Can be tedious and demotivating
  • Don’t necessarily meet every learner’s needs (difficult to self-assess and identify needs and difficulties)
  • Make memorization difficult
  • Require user participation and motivation

Distance learning programs

Distance learning programs are created by certified teachers and educational support is provided by remote tutors. These courses are suitable for learners at all levels. Unlike regular textbooks, students are coached on an individual basis and receive regular feedback on their strengths and weaknesses.

These courses also require students to complete assignments and tests in order to effectively assess what they have (or haven’t) learned. Exercises are corrected rapidly, allowing learners to get a better idea of their level of French and ways they can make progress in the future.

Pros

  • A “back to school” method (can suit some people….)
  • Very well structured, created by certified teachers
  • Affordable
  • Available for every level
  • Continuous assessment with feedback
  • Broad based training

Cons

  • A “back to school” method (…not for everybody though)
  • Don’t necessarily meet every learner’s needs (difficult to self-assess and identify needs and difficulties)
  • Make memorization difficult
  • Require user participation and motivation

Learning French through the news

Learning a language goes way beyond looking up words in a dictionary and memorizing grammar rules. Today, French is spoken by 300 million people and the number is growing.

Learning French through the news will both help you improve your vocabulary and reading skills, as well as strengthen your understanding of written French.

The press is a great resource to learn all about French culture. Not only will you stay up-to-date on breaking news and scandals (you can skip the strikes and political scandals), but you will also get a better understanding of the culture. If you’re looking for a quick run-down on what’s trending in France, you might want to start with 20 Minutes. If you want to change into second gear, you could try out Courrier International, which translates excerpts of articles into French from over 900 international newspapers. Why not also try Le Monde (the French equivalent of The Guardian or The New York Times). We also suggest BBC Learn French, an excellent free and interactive resource designed for beginner and intermediate learners – although it hasn’t been updated for some time.

Our tip: try switching from an English newspaper to a French newspaper.

Pros

  • Reports the news with a modern twist
  • Easy to follow thanks to the variety of topics broached: sport, culture, politics, science, etc.
  • Great for learning everyday vocabulary and more specific terms in certain fields (healthcare, politics, technology)
  • Sometimes free

Cons

  • Basic command of French required
  • Doesn’t really help to improve French grammar
  • Should be used as additional learning material

French literature is a real treasure trove. As a matter of fact, before becoming successful musicals, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables were originally French novels.

You might be tempted to start with the most famous French authors: Albert Camus, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Emile ZolaAttention! Going down that route might not be the wisest choice. You will soon be discouraged by the length (Notre-Dame de Paris is close to 1,000 pages) and the complexity of their novels. Even French people are sometimes put off. We’d advise you to start your reading journey with books you’ll be likely to understand, and what better way than with children’s books! Le Petit Nicolas by René Goscinny is definitely the way to go for any beginner en français. If you feel comfortable enough, you could go on to reading Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a book which can be enjoyed time and time again, and so is Les aventures de Tintin, a timeless French comic book following the life of a Belgium reporter and his trusty fox-terrier Snowy (Milou). When it comes to contemporary novelists, Guillaume Musso and Marc Lévy are definitely people you want to get to know. They are the country’s widest read authors of the 21st century and chances are you’ll find bilingual versions of their bestselling books.

We would also recommend you read books you’ve already read in English. That way, you’ll already know the story line and you’ll only need to look up some vocabulary or idioms (sparingly though!).

There are so many books to choose from, the trick is to find the one that best matches your understanding of French. You don’t necessarily have to read novels, you could go for biographies of your favorite French politician, cookbooks (to learn the name of ingredients le beurre, le sucre, la farine…) history books, academic journals… we could go on forever like this.

To keep things interesting, don’t forget that audio books are also a great way to learn new French words and work on your listening skills. What’s more, they’re a great resource to learn about French culture and to hear the different accents – 28 accents in France alone, good luck with that.

Pros

  • Available for every level and all ages
  • Super fun!
  • Cheap (especially second-hand books)
  • Will significantly improve your vocabulary
  • Great for written comprehension

Cons

  • Don’t really help to improve French grammar
  • Can soon have your bookshelves overflowing
  • Should be used as additional learning material

Music

What more fun way of learning a language than singing along to a catchy tune. But chances are it will be in English because, unfortunately, French music is less widespread and less likely to be in the Billboard Hot 100 charts. That’s a shame, because the French music scene offers a huge diversity of styles. So whether you’re of a pop, rock or rap fan, you’re bound to find something out there to tickle your fancy. All the more so thanks to online platforms such as YouTube or Spotify, which make discovering (or rediscovering) good old French tunes fun.

Even though learning French en chanson is not necessarily the most effective of ways, otherwise your conversation will mostly revolve around the world being pink or Joe the Taxi taking you for a drive down the Champs-Elysées at noon and midnight, it will help you recognize different French accents and intonations. Not to mention how they will improve your speaking skills if you were thinking of karaoke.

Pros

  • Suitable for all ages
  • Available everywhere
  • Helps improve your listening and speaking skills
  • Mostly free

Cons

  • Learning French solely through music is too restrictive
  • The language used is not always grammatically accurate
  • Should be used as additional learning material

TV series and films

No need to hide, we’ve noticed you skipping the French film section on Netflix to catch up on the latest episode of Black Mirror. But today, we’re lucky enough to have access to French TV series and films anywhere in the world.

Ever since the arrival of streaming media and platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, literally everybody seems to be watching series day in, day out: cookery shows, cartoons, reality TV… There’s something for everybody.
You could start learning French by watching TV series, especially now that they’re available with or without subtitles. But bear in mind that not all French series will be useful in your learning journey. You’ll need to pick out series that match your level of understanding. The seven-minute series Un Gars, une Fille featuring young Jean Dujardin remains one of France’s most popular TV shows – try watching a few episodes, you’ll get hooked in no time. Then, we suggest you move on to Fais pas ci fais pas ça, a feel-good TV show which follows the lives of the Bouley and the Lepic family. A personal favorite of ours: Dix pour cent (or “Call my agent!” on Netflix), a more recent series that will help you get up close and personal with France’s most renowned actors whilst learning about life in a typical Parisian office.

When it comes to French films, you can’t go wrong with Intouchables: an unlikely friendship between a rich quadriplegic (Philippe) and his ex-con care assistant (Driss). You’ll find it to be a memorable and heart-warming film which highlights the difference between informal and sophisticated French. Whilst Philippe uses formal vocabulary, Driss’s lines are filled with colloquial expressions and idioms. Then, we suggest you watch Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, one of France’s most iconic films. Released in 2001, this romcom filled with offbeat French humour set in the Montmartre district of Paris follows the destiny of a young waitress who becomes a guardian angel to those around her. But we do have a soft spot for Les Choristes. When a new teacher arrives at the Fond de l’Etang boys’ school (literally “Bottom of the Pond”, charming), he decides to introduce his troubled pupils to singing. Les Choristes is great if you want to hear a pure French accent, and will improve both your vocabulary and pronunciation. Warning: you may be singing the soundtrack for a while. Or maybe forever. If this six-hour marathon isn’t enough, try going through this endless list.

Bear in mind that TV series should be used as additional learning material, as some may be more difficult to understand than others.

Pros

  • Suitable for all ages
  • Accessible on every device
  • Help strengthen your listening comprehension
  • Useful if you want to hear conversational French
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Depending on the series and the film, the language might not be grammatically accurate
  • Should be used as additional learning material

Online French courses

Over the past two decades, virtual learning courses have flooded the market and today, learners can find a wide variety of MOOCs, ranging from the basics of human rights to online marketing fundamentals and language courses. They might not be to everyone’s liking as they require participation and motivation, but they remain very similar to distance learning courses.

Virtual learning courses have an undeniable advantage – they’re much cheaper than private lessons, for which you can be charged up to 50 $ an hour. While this learning method won’t replace classroom teaching, it can be a means to complement your ongoing training.

Online courses are very effective if you want to earn by yourself at your own learning speed. But the quality of online courses can vary immensely from one website to another. Some simply provide you with lists of vocabulary, others merely send you questionable PDFs and promise you’ll become bilingual in two weeks. Spoiler alert: it’s impossible.

Frantastique offers French online course whereby you can learn French by yourself, at your own pace, using content adapted to your objectives. Try Frantastique for free for 7 days and receive a free personal level assessment.

Pros

  • Fairly affordable
  • Well structured
  • Can be flexible
  • Can sometimes be personalized

Cons

  • Some courses are better (or worse) than others
  • Learners must be rigorous and thorough
  • May not be to everyone’s taste
  • Content can be too generic
  • Don’t cover oral expression

Podcasts

Just like virtual learning, podcasts have only recently come to light. If you didn’t know this yet, podcasts are audio recordings which deal with a specific subject such as politics, music, current affairs, science, entrepreneurship or education. The concept began to take hold 15 years ago and today, podcasts have become a very popular and convenient way of communicating. There are many French podcasts to choose from, all you need to do is find the right ones for you.

Check out our article on 5 podcasts to learn French.

Pros

  • Often free
  • Available at any time of the day and on every device
  • Use modern and conversational (sometimes technical) French
  • Cover a variety of topics
  • Help improve oral comprehension

Cons

  • Can sometimes be challenging to follow from beginning to end
  • Often created and targeted for niche audiences
  • Should be used as additional learning material

Video games

While video games were difficult to find back in the 90’s, the market is now extremely lucrative and games are easily accessible. Moreover, gamers can now play in the language of their choice.

While it’s possible to learn French with video games, it will require even more patience than with books or films, because you might find it frustrating to press pause every time you don’t understand something.

An easy way to get started with video games in French is to simply switch the game language from English to French. You could also play online with gamers from anywhere in the world, but beware as the language used may be Internet slang and therefore not grammatically correct.

Pros

  • Interactive, fun and engaging
  • Plenty of genres to choose from
  • Good to work on your written comprehension (to a certain extent)

Cons

  • Online language is not always accurate
  • Can be costly
  • Should be used as additional learning material

Blogs

Just like podcasts, blogs will also help you learn about a wide variety of topics but in written form, although nowhere near as formal as the press.

Looking for a blog to brush up on your French? The Gymglish blog of course!

Pros

  • Generally use modern and conversational (sometimes technical) French
  • Help to broaden your knowledge on a wide range of current topics

Cons

  • Can be difficult to find
  • Often written and targeted for niche audiences
  • Should be used as additional learning material

Mobile apps

Mobile apps are now part and parcel of each and every one of our smartphones. Often, the content of most online learning apps can soon become repetitive and is often mainstream. Even though they remain an effective tool for users to learn basic French, they are usually not appropriate for learning everyday French. However, apps can be useful for memorizing and learning new vocabulary thanks to flashcards.

There’s a hidden gem among these apps, and that’s Frantastique. We highly recommend it. Did someone say “biased”?

Pros

  • Generally use modern and conversational (sometimes technical) French
  • Cover a variety of topics

Cons

  • Difficult to find a quality app
  • Often created and targeted for niche audiences
  • Should be used as additional learning material

Learning French while you’re asleep

We nearly got you there.

Even in your wildest dreams, it’s obviously impossible to learn French while you’re asleep. However, sleeping does enhances memory consolidation, so a good night’s sleep will play an important role in your learning process – healthy lifestyle, but that goes without saying.

Good night!

Learning to speak French (alone)

Wait a minute, it seems we have forgotten to mention oral expression. One of the reasons for this is because self-taught learners will find it extremely challenging to assess the accuracy of their pronunciation without the help of a teacher.

For the bravest learners out there, you can learn French pronunciation by using phonology, which basically involves breaking up words in distinctive and unique sounds to pronounce them à la française. Having said that, there are countless ways of pronouncing a word in French depending on the country, or even the city (a French speaker from Paris, Marseille or Montreal won’t have the same accent, you can be sure of that). Even though it’s possible to learn French with phonetics, sadly you won’t go beyond the basics.

The Gymglish method

Since 2004, Gymglish delivers short, personalized and fun French lessons.

Our goal: your motivation, participation and progress.

How does it work?

  1. Each day you’ll receive a lesson adapted to your needs, capabilities and goals.
  2. Once it’s completed, you’ll immediately receive personalized corrections and explanations.
  3. Your lessons are customized based on your strengths and weaknesses
  4. You’ll get a certificate of completion when you finish the course.

Try Frantastique for free for seven days and receive a free personal level assessment.

Photos: Unsplash

Leave a Reply