13 Practical Tips for Learning French

French is one of those languages that people seem to either love or hate. It’s said to be beautiful, or difficult to master. It’s also one of the most useful languages to spend your time learning. Then, why do so many people put off learning it? Here’s one reason, and some tips to conquer it and start learning French now!

French is what’s known as a megalanguage — a language that has more than 1 million mother-tongue speakers, and that’s just the start. In fact, according to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, there are roughly 274 million French speakers, 212 million of which use the language daily, and 62 million of whom use it as a second language. French is a versatile bridge-language, too, allowing you to communicate in dozens of countries where the primary language may be less accessible.

So what holds us back from learning French? Having learned French myself, I think a lot of it comes from the need to feel confident about it — whether it’s confidence about learning the verbs, pronunciation, or simply how to get started. With this in mind, I’ve put together some practical tips for learning French with confidence.

13. Face the verb fear, and conquer it!

When you really think about it, there isn’t too much variation in French verbs. What?, you say? Yup. That’s right. Let’s break it down:

What we’re talking about here is the difference between written and spoken language. Take the verb ‘to love’, aimer. They may be spelled quite differently, but take a moment to read out the first person singular form (aime), and the third person plural form (aiment). They’re pronounced more or less the same. In addition, French has that really useful ‘on’ that get’s used interchangeably with third person plural.

But what about those pesky irregular verbs?, you cry, wringing your hands!

Well, it’s only some -ir verbs and most -re verbs you have to worry about. What’s more, -re verbs are the smallest group of verbs in French and no verbs that are newly adopted into French can be added to this group!

12. Audio is key

Meet Mathieu & Céline, Lingvist's French voices!

Here’s the part where I’ll tell you to listen as much to radio, film dialogue, music, audiobooks and the like as much as possible. Sure, you may have heard it countless times before, but there’s one reason why it’s so often repeated. It works. Audio immersion will not only help you to improve your comprehension, but it’ll also help you to improve your natural use of expression.

There are loads of great French language audio resources out there, all it takes is a simple Google search. Also, remember to check out our challenges and News in Slow to practice your auditory French with Lingvist!

So what about listening to pronunciation?

Glad you asked. This is where audio becomes really important — but it needs to be high quality audio.

For those of you learning with the Lingvist French course, the audio for it was designed with this in mind; each audio-pixel has been digitally calibrated for accuracy, clarity, and natural tone. Next time you’re doing your Lingvist cards, be sure to tap to listen and repeat along with the charming and realistic tones of Mathieu and Céline, our French voices!

11. Know your learning style, and capitalise on it

Taking a rest is as important as learning. The MIT ACADEX (MIT Center for Academic Excellence) recommends studying for no longer than 50 minutes at a time, followed by a minimum 10 minute break. What’s most important is how focussed you are in your active study time. Taking a break to stretch, grabbing something to drink, and resting your eyes can make all the difference in giving your brain some much-needed time to integrate all that new language information and to stay focussed!

10. Variety is the spice of… language learning

Lingvist has analysed the most common variations of words for French and prioritised them for you.

We’ve all heard it before: One of the most surefire ways to learn a language is to go to the place and immerse yourself. Indeed it’s true, but what happens when you can’t do that? There’s no reason you can’t do all you can to support immersing yourself in French to the fullest extent possible through self-study — either as a way to learn in and of itself, or in support to taking conventional language courses.

Studies show that a variety of input helps us to put new language information into more natural contexts, and ultimately to help us to better use them. Self-study is a great way to give ourselves a variety of language input because we can control the sources we get it from. We can look at contemporary media, video, and hear real radio with a few strokes of our keyboard keys, instead of being stuck with dated material.

An added benefit: This variety can also help you find the language that’s most useful and relevant to you.

9. Try skipping the native language middleman!

Sure, when you’re just starting out with French, you’ve got to translate the basics to get your bearings. As soon as you don’t have to rely on it just to get by, it’s best to try to avoid translating to your native language as much as possible.

Not only will your brain form more direct and lasting connections between the French words and phrases and what they actually mean at their fundamental level, but it will also help you to improve your fluency and natural expression as your practice more.

8. Visualise, experience, and emote!

To reinforce the value of not translating French into your native language where possible, try to connect your new French words and phrases to your feelings — both physical and emotional.

If you learn the phrase, “J’ai faim” to express that you’re hungry, imagine hunger and repeat the phrase to yourself. Sound a bit dramatic? Not really, when you think about it. It’s not all that different to what we do when we’re learning to speak in our mother tongue and all we know at first are our physical sensations and emotions.

Again, the trick is to connect the new sounds and vocabulary to the most direct experience of the word.

7. Careful with the cognates

Unlike loanwords (words from one language that get adopted into another) cognates (words that have identical or virtually identical roots, spellings, pronunciation, and meaning) between French and English can be double-agents. On one hand, they can be a big boost to your vocabulary because they’ll fast-track your comprehension, but they can also cause a problem because you may be tempted to use them the way you would in English. These are, generally, mostly problematic in terms of pronunciation (words like téléphone, chocolat, automobile, and other words that are so close to their English counterparts).

Which leads us to the topic of false cognates, aka false friends — like the textbook example found in attend vs attendre (to wait). Instead of encountering them with anxiety, try re-framing your idea of them and turn them into an advantage by emphasising that they are “not the same” as in English. Often false friends have a rather opposite — or completely unrelated — meaning, and if you concentrate on that strangeness it could be the very thing that makes it stick in your memory!

6. Sentences over words

Context is everything, and language learning research has shown that learning new words in the context of a sentence that shows its meaning is more effective than learning a word on its own.

If you study with Lingvist, then you’ll understand why the course presents vocabulary as part of a sentence and has you provide the word as part of that context. Not only do you make more associations between the word and everything related to it, but you also get a feel for tone.

As soon as you learn a new word, try putting it into sentence right away and you’ll increase your chances of remembering successfully and using it effectively.

5. Make French yours

Again, this is about context, but specifically about French in the context of you. When you learn that new word, associate it to the people, places, things in your life. Think of your life as a French film à la the New Wave and narrate your life in French with all your new words in context. When you learn the verb for being bored (s’ennuyer) give it some drama by looking at your pet cat and saying, “Mon chat, il s’ennuie toujours.

4. Vocabulary: It’s all in the family

If we haven’t yet convinced you how important context is, then think about this: Words occur in families.

Learn one word root, and your chances of understanding a new word on sight increase. You’ll start to pick up different word forms and related vocabulary and then you’ll see your French vocabulary start to multiply exponentially.

Prefixes and suffixes come in extra handy for sight reading in French. I’m talking about ones like anti-, -mal, super-, -ain/e, -isme, and -iste. Even if you haven’t ever seen the word before, you’ll be able to give it a good guess.

3. Prioritise to Maximise

One of the most exciting things about learning a language is the excitement of it. We want to learn all the French, and as quickly as possible! Enthusiasm is great, but you could be setting yourself up for feeling overwhelmed too.

If you feel yourself getting a bit rabbit-in-the-headlights with the prospect of learning French, give yourself a reality check. Remember: You don’t have to learn it all at once. In fact you shouldn’t. Prioritise the things that you use in your daily life first — they’re the ones you’ll most likely need to use, will be most relevant to you, and will build your confidence instead of chipping away at it.

If you really start to feel overwhelmed about taking the French plunge, try making a small habit first. You can build out this small habit into a bigger one that you’re more likely to keep in the long-term.

2. Regularity vs Intensity

Active study time is the most important factor.

One of the things that can be most discouraging to us to take the first step towards learning a language are the study-planning questions: How long? How often? How much?

The truth is that it’s not necessarily about how often or how hard we study, but that we do it. Of course, the more regularly we study, the better — but even 20 minutes a day can make a big difference. This is why the small habits I just mentioned are so important.

Putting our brains into French-mode on a regular basis will help us to put it into language perspective. What’s more, Lingvist’s Data Scientist found that it’s not about how long or intense each of your study sessions are. Here’s why.

1. Repetition is key

Language: If you don't use it, you'll lose it.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but repetition is important. It’s this repetition that moves new information into short-term memory and keeps it in circulation once it’s been stored in your long-term memory.

Language learning is a lot like keeping fit — if you don’t use your muscles, you’ll lose your muscles, so doing those reps is important. But, you can do them in efficient and smart ways to get the most out of your learning time. Luckily we live in a time when technology has brought learning to a whole new level, and advances like machine learning and AI can help us by reminding us of those words we’ve been struggling with just as we’re about to forget them.

Occasionally reviewing what you’ve already learned has the added benefit of showing you how far you’ve come, too. Looking back at older material will for you to step away from the “now” and get some instant perspective on how much you’ve learned. That can be really motivating — and will give you a chance to give yourself a pat on the back.

Hopefully this list of tips will have motivated you to take the French-learning plunge, whether it’s your first time or your fifth!

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