Learning another language isn’t easy. I’ve been a fluent French speaker for a long time, but I’ve never forgotten how challenging it was to get here.
Along the way, I learned some lessons and discovered some strategies that helped me with everything from studying, to self-esteem (a crucial part of learning just about anything).
If you’re looking for some advice, here, in no particular order, are fifteen tips to help you learn French:
1. Find your learning style
Some people in the psychology and education fields believe that there are different learning styles, including visual, verbal, auditory, and physical (hands-on). On the other hand, others don’t believe this concept is accurate.
Whatever the truth may be, if you’re having trouble studying and retaining French, looking into learning styles could give you some insight and ideas for things like study strategies, practice exercises, and memorization techniques that would work for you. I know it’s helped me.
A lot of information about learning styles varies, at least slightly, but the overall concept and most of the categories are the same, regardless of the source you use. If you don’t know your learning style, this article lists seven of them and this one describes eight. Have a look to see if you can find which one best describes how you learn.
If you’re still not sure of your learning style after reading those articles, you can take a free learning style quiz.
Keep in mind that your learning style may also be a combination of a few of these.
2. Don’t forget about freebies
Whether you’re paying for school, a tutor, or an online course, learning another language can be pretty expensive, right? Well, not exactly.
It’s actually possible to learn a language completely for free.
Even if you use a paid course like the French Together course, or if you have to attend classes, you can still find so much material to supplement and improve your French skills.
If you’re wondering where to start, feel free to check out an article I posted a few months ago, which lists countless free resources for learning French.
And in general, remember that thanks to the internet, it’s easy to do a search for things like vocabulary lists, explanations of different grammar rules, and practice exercises – not to mention free French content of all kinds, including TV shows, podcasts, books, and more. Just type what you’re looking for into your search engine and get ready to get in on the free stuff!
3. Your community can help
We often hear about “community” in terms of people banding together and whatnot, but believe it or not, on a smaller scale, “community” can also equal “language learning resources”. For instance, your local library probably has lots of French learning materials, including audio recordings, workbooks, books on French history and culture, and subscriptions to French periodicals and French courses.
Not all libraries are the same, of course, but finding out what yours has on offer is a great idea.
And it doesn’t stop there. If you’re in school, check what resources are available through that library, as well as the foreign language department.
Another way to find out about local French language resources is to look around for message boards (whether online or IRL) and organizations and clubs dedicated to French and French learning. You may also be able to post your own ad if you’re looking for a local French speaker or fellow Francophiles.
4. Post lists in strategic places
Whether it’s for class, work, or something you want to reinforce on your own, if you’re learning French, you probably have at least one list of tricky vocabulary and phrases that you need to study and memorize.
If that list lives in a notebook or backpack, it’s not doing as much as it could. So, take it out and tack it up where you’ll see it often every day.
Maybe this is beside your bathroom mirror, or by your plate as you eat. You might even tape it up on the wall by your toilet.
Bonus tip: Instead of just using a list of vocabulary to memorize, try to add an example phrase beside each word. This will help you learn words in context, which will make them stick more easily in your mind. For instance, if you have to learn the word la vie, you could include Edith Piaf’s famous lyric, Je vois la vie en rose.
If you don’t already have phrases to go along with your vocabulary words, do an online search for a word and see what statements or videos come up. You could also use examples from the French Together course (or any other course you’re learning with).
5. Don’t be intimidated
Learning a language isn’t easy. When I used to feel overwhelmed, one of the things I did was remind myself that lots of people around the world speak another language. Some of them had access to excellent resources – say, the best courses money can buy, or the ability to study abroad and be immersed in the language.
But many of them had nothing more than the basics. Maybe it was a class at school. Maybe it was a learning system or other resources they found on their own. Maybe they learned with their children, or through watching shows and movies.
Whatever the reason, however they came by it, they managed to learn another language. So whatever you have or don’t have, whatever your background, if you want to learn French, you will. It will take time; that’s just what language learning is. But you will get there. It seems like a massive task, but it will happen.
6. Do your homework
Okay, I sound totally square, right? I promise I’m just trying to be helpful. I also hated homework when I was a student…and I hate having to help my son with his now that he’s in school.
But the thing is, while some assignments are mindless busywork, that’s not usually the case with homework for your French class. In this case, homework is actually a way to help you review and absorb what you’re learning, and also to keep you using French more frequently than you would otherwise.
Think about it: You have French class during the day. Then, you leave the world of school and…forget all about it. But because you have homework, a few hours later, you’re back in French mode!
7. If you don’t have homework, give yourself some
I’ve just discussed the benefits of reviewing French more than once a day, but if you don’t have a teacher or course giving you homework assignments, take on that role yourself! Make yourself review what you learned earlier when studying on your own, or find additional activities that can reinforce it. You can invest in a course or coursebook, or do an online search for worksheets and activities that cover what you’re working on.
8. Find a study time that works for you
You may feel like there’s a “right” time to study. For instance, people at my school used to stay at the library and work on hard assignments. For me, personally, that never worked. I preferred to head home, grab a snack, get a few other assignments out of the way, and focus on my French work later on in the evening. Neither schedule is the “best” or “right” one – it just depends on what works for you.
Find a time of day where you feel awake and alert (well, as much as possible) and where you actually have some free time that you’d like to fill.
For instance, you could study during your commute to or from work, listening to audio in your car or while walking. Or do written work while on public transport. If that isn’t a good time, how about while you’re waiting to pick someone or something up, or whenever you’re on the toilet (seriously)? Or if you regularly do housework, you could listen to audio or keep glancing at a list or book pages to quiz yourself. Or maybe the quiet time before you get ready to go to bed works for you, or a moment in the morning before everything starts up and gets busy.
These are just suggestions, of course; again, remember that there is no right or wrong moment to study or practice French – it just has to work for you.
9. There’s no shame in subtitles
Sometimes I feel like there’s this major goal for language-learners to watch a movie or show without subtitles. It’s true that when you’re able to do that, you do feel pretty good. But this mentality can also make it seem like subtitles are a crutch or a sign of weakness – and that’s a shame, because subtitles are actually really useful.
This isn’t just about watching a French show or movie with English subtitles; the idea is to start there and then work your way to French subtitles, till one day you won’t need them at all. Along the way to that moment, you’ll probably discover that subtitles were a helpful learning tool, helping you better understand things like pronunciation and word order.
10. Use your French connections…or make a new one
If you know someone who is a native French speaker, ask if they’d mind if you speak only French when you’re together. Talking to a real native Francophone is an amazing way to train your ear, learn how people speak the language in their everyday lives, and test how well you can be understood. This may sound like some sort of test – but actually, if you’re dealing with a person you enjoy being around, it’s more like a game, where you learn a lot, even from your mistakes.
If you’re worried you might make some embarrassing mistakes, you’re right. I’ve made a number of still-notorious gaffes when talking to Francophone friends, and so has every other non-native French speaker I know. But the great thing is, my French friends and I were able to laugh about them together – and those have also made for mini-French lessons I’ll never forget.
If you don’t know any native French-speakers, don’t worry. You can easily talk to French people around the world thanks to conversation exchange sites, many of which are free.
11. Have fun putting pen to paper
If you need more practice writing French, or if you’re a visual or verbal learner, there are lots of ways to have fun with the written word.
Writing can be a really important part of learning and mastering French, but remember that it can also be something that really inspires you, which not only means you won’t be bored, but that you’ll be more likely to work hard and finish whatever you plan to set down to paper.
If you like to journal, why not try doing it in French? Or if you’ve got a big imagination, it could be really fun to try writing a short story in French. If that doesn’t spark your creativity, how about poetry or song lyrics?
You can check if you’ve made mistakes by looking up grammar or vocabulary issues you might have, or even ask a trusted French speaker you know.
For those extraverts out there, another writing option is to get a Francophone pen pal. You can do this via certain websites.
12. Find a French-language story you love
Learning a language means a lot of work and studying. Sometimes, it feels hard to stay motivated. That’s why you need a secret weapon: a French story you can get invested in!
This could be anything from a book or series of books in French, to a French TV show, movie, or even simply the varied content of your favorite French YouTuber.
The idea is that you’ll want to keep learning, because you’ll want to fully understand and follow what’s going on.
When I had gotten a decent grip on French, my first beloved French story was the book Le Petit Nicolas. The funny adventures of these French school kids utterly delighted me. Meanwhile, one of my best friends fell in love with the stories of a much more recent group of Francophone schoolkids, those in the comic book series Titeuf. Regardless of the medium, we both needed to keep up with vocabulary and grammar to follow the stories. And, of course, while reading, we learned a lot, as well.
You don’t have to stick with the same story. As my French skills improved, I discovered the world of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief. The books and short stories about his adventures often include complicated descriptions and vocabulary, but I was so invested in them that I didn’t care. I kept a French-English dictionary handy and learned a lot along the way.
If you don’t already know of a French story that would captivate you, check out our list of different types of resources in French – all or most of which are completely free, to boot. You can also do a general web search for something like “French stories about ___” or “French movie about ___”, etc.
13. Listen to French music
Listening to French songs includes some of the benefits of having a favorite French-language story: you’ll become familiar with the lyrics, and if you don’t understand something, you’ll feel motivated to look it up.
Songs are also a great way to learn vocabulary and grammar in context, set to a catchy tune that will help you remember them better.
14. Mix it up
It’s natural to have one way of learning French that you prefer. For instance, I’m a visual learner so studying vocabulary lists and doing written grammar exercises was important for me. But I had to keep in mind that I also needed to learn how to say and understand those things when I heard them.
That’s why you may want to use something like the French Together course, where you get a good mix of visual and listening practice (even our free lessons include audio). Then, to reinforce vocabulary or concepts you’re finding really difficult, use additional ways to practice and review that are targeted specifically to your learning style. This might be listening to audio clips for auditory learners, writing or saying practice sentences aloud for physical learners, or simply using a traditional vocabulary list for us verbal or visual learners.
But always have a way to learn that also exposes you to all aspects of a language.
15. Be kind to yourself
Here’s a sure thing: You’re going to make mistakes. You’re just learning, after all. Here’s another sure thing: If you keep judging and criticizing yourself, if you tell yourself you’ll never be able to speak or understand French, you won’t.
Try to savor the small victories, and see the setbacks as a learning experience. Believe me, even the most awkward mistakes can often lead to lessons you’ll never have trouble remembering!
I hope these tips are helpful as you continue on your French learning journey. Do you have any advice that’s helped you with your French learning? Feel free to share in the comments!