7 tips for learning French that are guaranteed to make the most of your time in France

Without a doubt the best way to learn French is to come and live in France. But what you do once you get here will make a huge impact on how effective that time will be.

Here's a collection of the most useful things that helped me learn French quickly by boosting my learning curve.

In case you're wondering I've been living in France for over 15 years and the tips in this post are common traits to others who've walked the path.

1. Avoid English speakers

This is the classic mistake - you've just arrived, you're feeling a little overwhelmed and you just need a quick dose of familiarity. But it's also a huge trap and I would recommend you resist the temptation to seek out other anglophones and even actively avoid them.

Of course if you're in France for work in an English-speaking company or environment then you can't really avoid this. But at least try to separate work from private life as much as possible and right from the outset if you're serious about getting on top of your French.

What will happen is that you'll get very quickly attached to that comfort. Consciously or inadvertently you'll stack things towards seeing those people. Eating with them, hanging at cafés and bars, sightseeing, meeting their friends. You could even end up sharing a flat with them.

I've known people who've fallen into that trap and even eight years down the line could still not properly string more than a few sentences of French together. And they'd always be at that same Irish pub with their English flatmates and chums.

Desperation and the the survival instinct are immensely motivating forces and you should harness them. There are certain things you'll only learn when you really have to!

2. Embrace ridicule

That’s right, you can take it, make a fool of yourself. Because of course you're not going to get it right - your accent will be laughable (but cute) and you'll be making all sorts of ridiculous mistakes.

But it's vital to force yourself into the flow at every possible opportunity. In fact you should even be engineering opportunities to make this happen.

If you need to ask for another hot chocolate and can’t remember how, don’t just hope they’ll understand a bit of English, whip out your phone if you have to and look up the French version with your favourite translator app (you do have a translator app don't you?).

You’ll feel so much better for it as confidence is all about turning the unknown into the familiar. You walk with confidence because you know from experience that when you repeatedly put one foot in front of the other and lean forward, you won’t fall over. You eat with confidence because you know that shoving stuff into your mouth, chewing it and swallowing is going to work out just fine. You know the outcome, and so you eat confidently.

The more times you can show yourself a positive outcome from speaking, the more you'll learn that the outcome is likely to be positive in the future. And that's where confidence comes from. Nowhere else.

3. Listen carefully to French

If you want to speak French it's vital that you listen to it regularly and consciously. Try to hear the nuances in pronunciation. Spoken French and written French are very different and there are many subtleties like unusual vowel formations and additional sliding sounds that link words. You wouldn't guess these from reading.

There are a number of ways of listening to French:

  • The radio. This can be quite fast though, especially for beginners.
  • Other people's conversations. Sitting alone in a café? Sit yourself near some other people and soak it all up.
  • Your own conversations. We're actually used to listening in a very passive way. When you're talking with someone, while they're speaking, try to zone in on the sound as well as working out what they're saying.
  • Specially recorded slow audio. This is a great method for slowing things down and there are a number of excellent resources such as this one available.

Surprising, listening is not something that comes naturally, so training your mind to hear actively will be of great benefit to your learning. This is one of the reasons why musicians tend to learn languages a little faster, as a big part of their training is related to learning how to hear detail.

4. Get this book

Maybe you’re taking lessons, maybe you’re not. Self-learning is not for everyone. I didn’t take lessons, but I had this book instead and combined with a bit of throwing yourself in there and embracing ridicule, it worked a treat.

It explains things as they are, one grammatical subject at a time, and then you’ve got exercises that aren't too tedious because they stay so focused on the specific grammatical point you're learning. It's very gradual which is what makes it a classic (5 star review on amazon).

I'd throw in a pencil with your order too.

5. Find a French soulmate

It may not be easy but you need to find that one person that you click with, who has the patience to wait for the end of your homegrown Frankensentences. Maybe it’s a partner, maybe it’s a friend, maybe you have some sort of linguistic deal like swapping English time for French time. Whatever it is, whoever it is, however it is, it’ll do you wonders.

I was lucky enough to meet someone and it was a really fun relationship for both of us, even though we didn’t understand a great deal. In fact avoiding all the depth for once was a huge part of the appeal and a great motivator for learning more French. It’s also immensely rewarding when not only are you pleased with yourself for seeing a tricky sentence through, but your partner’s proud of you too.

6. Find your way of learning

Everyone's different. Not just in the obvious ways, but we can also be fundamentally different in congnitive ways. Some people think, learn and recall through predominantly visual means. Some people manipulate sound more readily than others. Others memorise their PIN number by the pattern their fingers make on a keypad.

These axes will also partly determine what works best for you in terms of learning new words and grammatical constructions in a lasting way. You may need to see it written in a certain way, or write it yourself. You may need to keep on saying it and hear yourself saying it at regular intervals (which is what works best for me).

The first step to learning is learning how to learn. A big part of this is trial and error. If something goes in and stays in, think back to how it got there and what it was that made it stay.

7. A little regularly is better than a lot now and again

Consistent repetition is a more immersive way of keeping the French juice flowing around the synapses. In fact, repetition has been clearly shown to be key to progress.

If you learn something it won't stay in unless you use it soon and repeatedly. All that hard work would just be slipping away. One of the best ways to do this is to join one of the many conversation groups available in bigger cities.

Ask a question