The 3 Stages of Learning French

When you learn French, you constantly have to wonder what to work on next.

Should you learn more vocabulary? Should you work on your listening skills? Should you look for a conversation partner?

This can quickly be overwhelming.

Which is why I’ve created a roadmap you can follow to know what to study next and guide you every step of the way.

After reading this article, you’ll know exactly where you are and what you should work on next.

Beginner

What it’s like

At this stage everything is new. You only know a few basic French words such as “merci” and “bonjour” and you’re not even sure you’re pronouncing them right.

This is a critical phase, because how well you start often determines how likely you’re to later become fluent in French.

The mistakes most French learners make at this point is to try to do too much at the same time.

They try to understand all grammar rules, to learn as much vocabulary as possible and to get a perfect pronunciation.

The problem is that this is too much. You can’t possibly memorize all that, and trying to is the number one reason why so many French learners give up at this stage.

They try to learn too much, get overwhelmed and come to the conclusion that they’re simply not good at learning languages.

What you should do

In reality, there are only three things you should worry about as a beginner:

#1 Learn useful vocabulary

You need to know at least a few thousands French words if you want to understand the language and communicate.

What you may not know is that roughly 20% of words are used in 80% of conversations.

These are the words you should learn first as a beginner, because these are words you’re guaranteed to use, read and hear.

Learning these words first means you’ll quickly be able to correctly guess the meanings of most of the sentences you encounter, because you’ll understand the most important words in them.

The other advantage of learning these words first is that these are words you’ll regularly hear, read and use, which also means you’ll easily memorize them.

#2 Do your best to pronounce the vocabulary you learn correctly

As a beginner, you don’t know how to pronounce French words.

In fact, your brain probably can’t even recognize all French sounds.

So the first step in your journey should be to spend lots of time listening and repeating.

This process will help you pronounce the words and sentences you learn right and prevent you from pronouncing French words as if they were English words.

You could also choose to begin your French learning journey with a pronunciation training course like the Flow of French.

A course like that will help you have a perfect pronunciation before you even start learning vocabulary.

It works so well that the creator of the Flow of French was once mistaken for a native German speaker when he asked for directions in Cologne.

#3 Try to understand how the sentences you learn are constructed

There are two ways to learn grammar as a beginner. You can get a grammar book and learn grammar rules by heart.

Or you can learn sentences, work on pronouncing them right and then wonder how they are constructed.

The second approach works much better in my experience. If you follow this approach, you’ll quickly realize that the French language and English language are actually pretty similar.

Let’s take one of the first sentences you learn in the French Together course:

Où est le métro ?
Where is the subway?

You don’t need to learn grammar rules to understand this sentence, because the French and English language use the same structure in this case.

You can naturally learn the word order of French questions just by looking at this example sentence.

The only thing you need to know in addition to that is that “le” is the masculine “the” in French which means you use it before masculine words like “métro”.

There is also a feminine “the”, but you don’t need to learn that at this point. In fact, you shouldn’t try to, because you’ll learn, understand and memorize the idea much more easily if you wait to encounter a sentence with the feminine “the” to learn the new rule.

That’s because your brain is much better at noticing patterns and understanding based on context than at learning abstract rules.

Once you know a sentence, can pronounce it right and understand its construction, you can move to next one and repeat the process.

After only a few weeks (or months depending on how much time you spend), you’ll realize you can now understand more and more of what you read untill you finally reach the intermediate level.

Intermediate

What it’s like

At this stage, you can understand the general meaning of most of what you read abd talk about familiar topics.

You also know how to pronounce and construct most sentences, but you still feel that you need to learn more vocabulary.

You may also struggle to understand spoken French and speak.

What should you do?

As an intermediate French learner, you no longer need to study the most common French words, because you already know them.

You can choose to study with authentic material. For example, you could decide to read French fashion blogs if fashion is something you’re interested in.

You knowledge of the most common words and grammar structures means you should be able to understand the general idea of what you read. You still struggle of course and there are some words you don’t know, but you can still find pleasure in reading French provided you have a dictionary nearby or use one of these useful browser extensions.

You should also make sure you listen to a lot of authentic French content (Youtube and podcasts are great ways to do that). This will help you improve your understanding of spoken French.

In addition to that, you can and should look for a conversation partner. This will help you get feedback on your pronunciation and get used to actually using the language.

After a while, you’ll realize that you can now express yourself freely and understand without always using a dictionary.

Welcome to the advanced stage.

Advanced

What it’s like.

As an advanced French learner, you can easily understand almost everything your read and hear except for a few words.

You’ll know you’re in this stage when you realize you can watch French movies or French TV and focus on what you watch without worrying about the language anymore.

What you should do

The advanced stage is amazing. You don’t need to use materials made for language learners anymore and can easily join conversations and enjoy content created for native speakers.

There is no limit to what you can do and you can now learn French by using the language.

This could mean signing up for a cooking class in French, reading French books or enjoying a nice conversation with your French friends.

At this stage, the French language isn’t what you learn anymore, it’s your new way to see the world.

At what stage are you?

At what stage of the French learning journey are you? How do you plan to get to the next one? Answer in the comment section below!

Benjamin Houy
Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters. You will also find him giving blogging advice on Grow With Less.

7 thoughts on “The 3 Stages of Learning French”

  1. In my experience it helps to read a lot. And to get to reading French fast you can try sites like readlang or find interlinear translations on Amazon or Google. Once you’re reading French books your passive vocabulary expands and it gets much easier to use it actively as well. Also, learning new vocabulary is done best in context of a story in my opinion.

    Reply
  2. I’m definitely in the intermediate stage, and wondering whether I will ever get to the next step! I plan to continue taking French classes in school and also to visit French speaking places if possible, and to watch French movies on Amazon and Netflix.

    Reply
    • I would also recommend you to look for a conversation partner, this will allow you to get feedback and improve your understanding of spoken French.

      Reply

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