What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Learning French

When you start to learn a language, you may feel intimidated or overwhelmed. There’s so much you don’t know, so much to study and so much knowledge to acquire. Or maybe you only feel overwhelmed when you come upon the first challenging thing.

I had my first French class when I was in sixth grade (about 11 years old). I didn’t have any special knowledge or connections, just classes at school and passion-inspired jaunts into learning in other ways.

Today, I’m a fluent French speaker, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an accent and never make mistakes. Still, I speak, read, write, and hear French every day, and mostly it goes well.

There is some advice I wish I’d gotten when I began my journey to being a French speaker. It would have saved me a lot of worry and disappointment, so I’d like to share it with you.

Here are five things I wish someone had told me when I started learning French:

1. Learning French and using French are different things.

A person's hand holding a pencil hovers over a worksheet.

French is notorious for not looking the way it’s pronounced. But even if it were a more phonetic language, I don’t think there’s any language you can learn by studying alone.

I was one of the best students in my French classes. By the time I graduated high school, I considered myself a fluent French speaker. And for someone living in a foreign country, with no need to interact with French people or exist in a purely Francophone environment, I might as well have been.

Then I moved to Paris.

I found that despite all of my years of studying French, despite my good grades, I often had trouble understanding what people were saying – and they often had trouble understanding me.  I had watched French movies and listened to French audio recordings for my classes. I had Edith Piaf’s music in my iPod playlists (yes, I’m dating myself). But nothing compares to actually talking to a real French person, or being in a situation where you can’t just turn on subtitles.

It was disheartening. I felt disappointed with myself. After all these years of hard work, I get to France and can’t even carry on a short conversation without some kind of difficulty?

Luckily, it all worked out. My ear got used to real French people speaking to me in everyday situations. I found ways to improve my accent (at least a little), and to recognize when people were having trouble understanding me. For years, now, I’ve been able to live and interact in a completely French environment without much trouble.

But if I had wanted to make that happen faster, I wish I had known that….

2. It’s completely possible (and a great idea) to find a French conversation partner.

The idea of a language exchange or conversation partner may seem a little weird. I mean, it’s like you’re forcing someone to hang out with you and be your friend. In some arrangements, you may even be paying them or giving them help with your native language, in exchange.

But weird as the concept is, it’s also really helpful.

The reason why is that as you talk to an actual, everyday person -not a teacher, not someone hired to make things easier for you – you realize how well you really can be understood, and how well you can understand them. You start to find techniques to get around vocabulary you both lack. You learn new vocabulary when this person shares their interests or thoughts with you.

Your conversation partner might comment on something you do – maybe an expression you’re using wrong or something you’re pronouncing incorrectly – and because it comes from a real human interaction, not just a grade on an assignment or a comment on a professional assessment, you’re very likely to remember it for a long time.

When I got back to the US after a year abroad in France, I started to panic. I didn’t know any Francophones where I lived. So, I put a few ads on online forums and ended up finding a French college student who went to a school near mine. We met up (always in public, of course) and ended up having some great conversations.

That was in the early days of the internet. Today, it’s even easier to find a French person to talk to, even if you can’t do it in person.  For instance, many sites offer French language exchange partners you can talk to online.

3. Language is about balance.

One hand searches for pebbles while another holds a small pebble between two fingers, about to place it onto a small pebble tower that looks a bit like a frog, although this is probably not intentional.

Some people go into learning a foreign language with a focus on one particular thing. Maybe they want to become fluent as quickly as possible. Maybe they want to know every single word they possibly can. Maybe they want to master grammar above all, or have an impeccable accent.

These are understandable and noble goals, but the problem is, if you only focus on one of them, you aren’t going to be able to speak a language.

I used to know a fellow American expat who was revered for her amazing French accent. She sounded like a native Francophone.  As someone who’s slightly hard of hearing, and who has a tin ear besides, I knew my accent would never be as good as this girl’s…and I have to admit, I was pretty jealous.

But then I started to notice something. Whenever we were in situations where we had to speak French – say, hanging out with a group of French people, she was lavished with praise for her accent, but she couldn’t really talk about much. It turned out that she was so conscientious about pronouncing words that she hadn’t really bothered to learn very many of them.

Meanwhile, my accent was nowhere near as good as hers, but I could talk much more fluidly and about many more topics than she could.

So who’s the winner in that situation? Well, neither one of us, exactly. The dream, of course, is to speak French with ease and sound like a native speaker.  

The truth is, you’ll probably have strengths and weaknesses when you speak French (or any foreign language). If you completely focus on just one goal, though, you’ll find yourself at a loss. My accent wasn’t perfect and will never be perfect but I was able to engage and talk with our French friends, whereas the girl with the perfect accent just didn’t have the vocabulary to do that.

So when it comes to learning French, don’t totally neglect one aspect of the language. Try to learn and practice as much as you can, in as many ways as you can.

But remember…

4. You will never be perfect.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a French speaker. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked, what kinds of grades or awards or praise you’ve gotten. It doesn’t matter what kind of proof or validation you have. If you are not a native French speaker, there will be times when you’ll mess up.

It might come from being tired or maybe if you’re caught up in a strong emotion, like anger. It might be hard to shake your native accent. It might be vocabulary you’re unfamiliar with, or movie dialogue that’s garbled or very hard to understand. But you will have a moment – actually, lots of moments – when you will completely know that you are not a native French speaker.

And that’s okay.

When those moments happen to me, I try to think of all the progress I have made. I focus on all of the times that I interact with French people and have absolutely no problem understanding or being understood. Sometimes I even savor particular little victories, like the time I made a clever pun when talking to one of my neighbors.

Even if you aren’t able to attain perfection, you can still be kind and encouraging to yourself. And you definitely need to keep speaking French. Think about it: If you know someone who speaks another language, you’re probably impressed, even if they don’t always have perfectly correct grammar or an impeccable accent. Treat yourself the same way.

5. Few problems are unfixable.

A view of the peak of Mount Everest in the distance. Three Tibetan prayer flags are in the foreground. The peak of Mount Everest is framed by a bit of cloud.

Do you have a French Everest?  You know, that enormous challenge that rises before you and seems almost impossible to climb?

Even though it may tower over you, your French Everest (or one of them, at least) could even be something relatively insignificant, but that blocks you or brings you down, anyway.

One of mine was understanding French actor Romain Duris. Duris is known for his bold and versatile acting and sort of bad-boy indie persona. He also has a very garbled way of speaking, at least to me. While I can understand most other French actors with little or no effort, Romain Duris remained a challenge for me for years.

And yet, the more French I listened to, and the more French movies I watched (with or without Duris in them), the more I found that I could understand him a little bit better.

I would never have believed that if you’d told me this just a few years ago.

Some things in French will come to you fairly quickly. Others will take a lot more time. But never give up and never stop yourself from trying.

It’s easy to think that you’ll never be able to do something, or to have several bad experiences and just think “this is the way it is.” A lot of French learners tell me things like “French people just don’t understand me.” or “I don’t know how to speak grammatically correct French.” or “I can’t follow a French conversation.”

Does one of these sentences sound like your French Everest? The good news is, like climbing a mountain, you can overcome most language challenges – you just need practice and the right gear.

Maybe you need to listen to more French.  In that case, find some French movies, TV shows, cartoons, radio stations, YouTube videos, podcasts, and , as I’ve mentioned already, a French conversation partner – and keep practicing. Train your ear. If you need to use subtitles at first, that’s okay. Just keep listening.

If you’re afraid to make grammar mistakes when you speak, try speaking anyway. If someone seems confused, think about re-wording what you said, or even simplifying. Try to memorize key phrases like Je suis… Je voudrais… and so on. Over time, as you gain confidence with using simple grammar, you can try to use more complex wording.

When you’re not speaking, read. It can be a French newspaper or magazine, short story, novel, children’s book, or even French websites. By reading, you start ingraining grammar and structure into your brain. Trust me, it’s really weird – suddenly one day you realize that a particular turn of phrase in French sounds wrong, and you can’t really explain why, but you’re correct.

It’s hard to climb Mount Everest. Actually, that is a huge understatement. But those who’ve  done it have come away with an amazing, life-changing experience. By pushing yourself and rejecting the fear that’s blocking you, so will you.

If you’ve just started learning French, or even if you’re a seasoned French student who feels intimidated or held back by certain challenges, I hope what I’ve shared was reassuring and helpful. You can learn French. You will be fluent if you want it and if you work for it. It doesn’t matter where or when you start – you just have to keep climbing.

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

22 thoughts on “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Learning French”

  1. Thank you so much , it’s very encouraging to me, going through this has really make me to see solution to a lot of problem I encountered in learning french and I thank God for our French teacher Mme Udoh who posted this to the group for us. The problem is money I would love to get the French Together Course immediately, because I really love to know how to speak and write french language. Thank you very much

    Reply
    • Hi Alice, I am so glad to hear that this article was helpful! As for not having the money for the French Together course, I’m sorry to hear that. I would suggest looking at our Free French Lessons – there are many here on this blog that can help you with a lot of different aspects of French learning, and they include audio as well. You can also ask your school, library, or any other organization that offers educational opportunities and resources to people in your area, to purchase the course for members to use. In fact, your school or library might already be signed up! Good luck and all the best.

      Reply
  2. Just wanted to say thanks for the encouragement. I just started learning French during this Covid crisis and sometimes asked myself if I’ll ever get to fluency as their are so many exceptions to the rules and the presence of so many silent letters and liason and non phonetic prononciations and fast speaking made me think of quitting and brushing up on my Spanish instead as I did it in high school.

    Reply
    • Neil, I so hear you on this. It can be incredibly intimidating to learn a foreign language, especially one rife with tricky pronunciation and silent letters. But stick with it! It can be especially helpful to watch French TV shows/movies/documentaries, etc., with French subtitles so that you can see how words are being pronounced. Trust me, it will get easier, I’m proof that it’s true.

      Reply
  3. Salut Alysa!
    Thank you for your words of encouragement.
    I have been studying the French language since high school as much as time allows. I am in love with the way it sounds and expresses itself. To me, as I always tell my French friends, “Il a l’air de la musique classique.” I hope that’s correct.
    I have always tried to, “Sound French” because of this.
    I’m hoping to some day move to Paris and work in opera. (Maquilleur.)

    Reply
    • Salut Christophe, I love your musical relationship to French. To answer your question, the way to express what you wrote like a bona fide French person would be “Pour moi, c’est comme de la musique classique”.

      I think it’s wonderful that hearing French makes you feel like you’re listening to classical music…and how exciting that you want to come here and work in opera! I love to go to the opera; I’m looking forward to seeing some of your makeup work one day!

      Reply
  4. lately, watching films or television programs, i catch much of what is said. i also talk back to the screen en français either repeating dialogue for practice or just talking to the characters. (attention! regardez là!)

    other times I become disheartened because i struggle to pick out common phrases. this usually seems to happen in modern tv shows like Engrenages based in a large metropolis. it all blends together, peut-être comme les phrases de M. Duris.

    and news broadcasts. are they speaking si vite pour les Parisiens? much different vocabulaire than the dialogue of
    a crime thriller. (lots of tuer, et meurtre, et mourir.)

    then there is knowing vernacular, or colloquial speech. the French love to shorten words making words i know sound unfamiliar. and i love it when i catch the verlan.

    best tip you mention is to be kind and encouraging to yourself. i have a friend from Costa Rica who speaks English far better than he gives himself credit.

    j’espère que my French ce n’est pas si mal que parfois je crois.

    Reply
    • Hi c, your account of watching different French shows made me smile, especially how you talk back to the characters. I’ve never thought of doing that and think it’s a really great way to immerse yourself into the show AND practice French at the same time! What a cool idea!

      It’s interesting that you noticed that some shows have faster speech than others. I think it does have to do with the fact that the modern trend in TV in most countries is to make characters speak naturally, even if it sometimes means garbling or swallowing their words, rather than enunciating like they did in the past.

      French newscasts are indeed a different story. They are definitely made for the French public, but since the information they’re transmitting is important, and since they must also take into account that some of the public could be hard of hearing/elderly/distracted, etc., they keep that tradition of enunciating alive. So it’s completely normal to find Frenc news anchors much easier to understand than a lot of modern-day French actors!

      Still, keep at it, and just remember that there will always be challenges, no matter how advanced your level gets. Heck, even in English it can be hard to understand actors on some TV shows these days, what with that trend of mumbling, low talking, etc. The most important thing is that you remember the lesson of being kind to yourself.

      Reply
  5. Merci beaucoup. Je suis reconnaissant de vos encouragements. Sometimes it feels I’ve stuck with my learning but I know I have to keep plugging on!

    Reply
    • De rien, Nick. I’m so glad that you know you have to keep going, no matter those discouraging days. If you feel stuck, you could also try practicing in a new way. For instance, change what you’re watching/listening to for practice. Bonne continuation!

      Reply
  6. This was really helpful and encouraging. Merci beaucoup.
    Now I know what to expect on this journey to speaking fluent French

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you found this post helpful and reassuring, Anthonia. It came from the heart. All the best to you on your journey!

      Reply
  7. Dear Ms Salzberg:
    I have been inspired by your most forgiving article. I needed to hear all that you expressed in it. I adore French, and just want to be able to speak fairly comprehensibly. Delusional I am not! I am therefore not reaching for the stars, just possibly the moon. I would like to be able to gain enough confidence to be bold enough to initiate conversation with a French person, to experience the joy of conversing with a French interlocutor, of being understood, and importantly, corrected. Correction is key. I am 77 years old, and would love all of that to happen before I go to the great beyond.

    I would like to ask if you could direct me to someone who would be willing, moreso in these COVID times, to spend some time, however limited, in engaging in regular French conversation with me. I would be more than willing to do the same for them in English at whatever level. I enjoy teaching English. Thank you for your attention.

    Reply
    • Hi Rose, I am so glad that you found this article helpful and inspiring. I am inspired by you and your fellow commenters’ and readers’ desires to continue practicing and learning, despite the difficulties.
      As for finding a real French-speaking conversation partner, right now that’s a fairly easy thing to do, luckily. There are several websites that allow you to talk to real French speakers – usually as part of a language exchange (you spend part of the conversation speaking English and part of the conversation speaking French). You can find links to some of the top sites for this, as well as general tips for staying safe, here: https://frenchtogether.com/learn-french-free/#Free_Language_exchange_sites

      If you want to meet in person, you may be able to post an ad on a neighborhood message board, or get in touch with your local branch of the Alliance Francaise….but as you point out, in the times of COVID, that might be a bit complicated, so online seems like the best place to do this, at least for now.

      I hope you find a wonderful language exchange partner – or even several of them, and get to practice and have lots of lovely conversations!

      Reply
  8. I realy want to learn french but l don’t know where to start ,each word in french has so many anonmys l tend to get confused.l am still going to school so l need help but l get more confused when l go back to school as they we have our own vocabulary and the internet has its own vocabulary and l have also realized that some french words are upside down when transferring to English,what should l do l have the heart and passion to learn french and korean please help.

    Reply
    • Hi shezzanie. One thing you said that’s very important is that you really want to learn French. The desire to learn a language can be a HUGE help. It will be confusing, but stick with it. Since you’re in school, I would say that you should focus most on what your teacher(s) gives you to do. This is because you may be following a lesson plan or curriculum that’s proven to work best with most students. Then, if you find you need extra help with a particular lesson or aspect of the language, ask your teacher(s) – they may have extra exercises or resources that can help. If they can’t help or if you don’t want to ask, try to see what you can find online. There are a lot of resources out there, but usually if you have a particular thing you want to explore more in-depth, there are a lot of articles, study guides,and other resources dedicated to it. Another good idea is to consider using a learning system like French Together to complement what you’re learning in class (this is not an ad btw, just a suggestion – many of our students do this). It may take time and a bit of adjustment to find the right strategy for you, but if you feel discouraged, pull back a little and just focus on what you’re doing in class for now. As you get more familiar with the basics you’re learning there, you’ll probably find ways to branch out and practice – for instance, you might hear or learn about a French movie or TV show or book and decide to check it out on your own – I know that is often what happened when I was in school. Best of luck to you and don’t give up!

      Reply
  9. Well written – inviting – encouraging — I am using your email site / recommendations with my newly started French classes this year! Your email came “just in time” today for one class — EST/Etats-Unis! Je vous remercie!

    Reply

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