Learning French — 5 things you need in your toolkit

Whether you’ve started learning French as a hobby, or are considering quitting your corporate job in the city to lead a simple life as a goat farmer in the Swiss Alps, you’re here because your language skills need a leg up. Perhaps your “bonjour Madame” lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, or maybe you’re having trouble telling your croissants from your pains au chocolat. Whatever the case may be, every language-learner needs a toolkit.

The following tools can be used by everyone, from absolute beginners, to those looking to further develop their existing skills. Before you begin, here are two things you can do to make them as effective as possible:

  1. First of all, prioritise systems over goals. You will probably have already been given the advice break the process down into manageable goals. This is very good advice, but there’s another step needed. Once you‘ve established your goals, it’s necessary to put systems in place that will allow you to achieve them. A bodybuilder who designs a training plan, finds a workout buddy, and plans a time each day to show up and train, is much more likely to succeed than one who simply creates a goal to go to the gym five times a week. The same goes for learning a language.
  2. Secondly, get feedback. Every language-learner has areas of unconscious incompetence, that is to say, areas where they make errors they aren’t aware of. To move from unconscious incompetence, through to conscious incompetence you need a teacher who can engage with your work and provide feedback. For most people, their independent learning is coupled with school or university where they have teachers who mark their work. But if you are learning at home, you don’t necessarily have this aspect built into your learning. If you really want to progress, make sure you are finding a way of generating feedback. This could be by taking evening classes once a month or finding a native speaker to practice with who is happy to correct you. This will allow you to progress to unconscious competence (e.g. the way a native speaker knows when to use ‘qui’ instead of ‘que’ without having to think about it) where you can express yourself confidently and with ease.

1. Memrise

If you are learning French at school, you will probably have been subjected to the occasional vocab test. However you choose to do it, learning and memorising vocab is indispensable to the language acquisition process. I was first introduced to Memrise when studying for my GCSEs and I have since gone on to use it throughout my education and beyond. The application offers specially designed courses that range from beginner to advanced. The courses feature clips of native speakers to help with pronunciation and mimic the experience of immersion. I found this feature particularly helpful when I picked up a course in beginner’s Italian while studying abroad in Lyon. You can also create your own course by typing in the words or phrases you want to learn, or choose from any of the existing courses made by other users. My favourite feature of the application is the leaderboard. Gaining more points the more you progress, you can compete against your classmates for the highest score. My GCSE French teacher used this feature to encourage our class to revise in the lead up to exams. We would look at the leaderboard each lesson to find out who was the winner for that week.

2. Duolingo

You’ve seen the memes (if not, see below for examples!), you’ve heard the rumours, but have you tried Duolingo for yourself yet? For me, this app is best as a tool for learners who want a fun way to master the basics. Aside from the terrifying owl, the only downside to this app is that there is not much room for personalisation. You are limited to learning the vocab assigned for each lesson, and in the order that it is offered. You cannot progress to the other lessons until you unlock them, which can be quite frustrating if you have a particular area in mind that you want to work on. This being said, there is the advantage of an aptitude taken at the start of the course so you can bypass any lessons for which you already have a firm knowledge of the content. I would recommend it if you’re going on holiday and you want to get some words and phrases under your belt before you go.

3. Word Reference

Out of all the tools mentioned, Word Reference is probably the one I use the most! Word Reference is essentially an online dictionary. The site also has a forums feature which allows you to ask and answer questions from other speakers. You might have queries that are not answered in your initial search which you can flag up here. There are strict rules applying to the forum, however. Sadly, you cannot simply copy and paste a sentence from your translation homework and ask “how do you say this in French?”, as it doesn’t tend to go down too well with the other users. A great way to use Word Reference is to combine it with the other tools in the list. For example, one way I’ve learned vocab is by keeping a note every time I come across a word or phrase I don’t recognise, looking them up on Word Reference, and learning them on Memrise. Try a few different approaches and find out what works for you.

4. Read, listen, watch

If you are looking to immerse yourself in the French language but don’t live in France, there are loads of other ways to get stuck in. Reading is, of course, a great place to start, but it doesn’t have to end there! Here are some things I recommend:

  • Podcasts. Coffee Break French (an amazing resource for everyone from beginner to advanced); La Poudre; Les Baladeurs; anything made by France Culture
  • YouTube. If you’re looking for help with grammar and explainers on language points then check out Parapluie French, Comme Une Française or DamonandJo. If you’re looking for something more relaxed you might prefer some French lifestyle or comedy YouTubers. Check out: Cyprien, Natoo, Norman Fait Des Videos, Sulivan Gwed, Squeezie, Guillaume Pley.
  • Netflix. There are hours of French-language content on Netflix to keep you entertained. I normally watch with subtitles so I can read along as I listen. Some of my favourites recently have been: L’Origine du monde; Dix pourcent; Plan Cœur; Je ne suis pas un homme facile; Lupin; and La Vie scholaire to name just a few.
  • Radio. While I’m not a big radio listener, I would highly recommend tuning in to France Inter. Even if you don’t understand every word, it’s a great way to get a hang of the accent and rhythms of the language.
  • Music. For pop, try Angèle, Cara Luciani and L’Impératrice. You could also check out Camille Bertault, a phenomenally talented vocalist and composer who also happens to be my favourite French artist. Her latest album is Le Tigre, released in 2020.

5. Practice

The final thing to do is to jump in! Put your skills into practice and start interacting with native speakers. You could try:

  • Becoming an au pair. Working abroad is a fun way to travel, meet new friends, and improve your language skills all in one go. If you hope to use your language skills in your career, then it is also a good way to build experience and demonstrate to future employers that you can use your French in a professional context. Au pairing is a popular choice but can be risky. If you are thinking about becoming an au pair for an extended period of time, I would recommend trying to find a family that you already have some connection to through mutual friends. This helps to ensure you will be happy and comfortable living under their roof. I have had friends who went to live with families who they found through agencies and ended up not enjoying their time there. This said, I worked as an au pair for a month over the summer after my first year of university and had a wonderful experience. I lived with a family of six based in the South of France, near Nice.
  • WWOOFING. WWOOF stands for Worldwide opportunities on Organic Farms. There are hundreds of organic farms across France where you can volunteer to work and stay: https://wwoof.fr/en/ This is another great way to travel and meet people without breaking the bank.
  • Tandem. If you want to practice speaking and writing French but remain within the comfort of your own home, you could try Tandem. Tandem is a language-exchange app which connects language learners to native speakers. It works similarly to a dating app in the sense that it allows you to browse the profiles of other users until you find a suitable match!

I hope you found these tips helpful. If you have any other ideas on how to learn French, let me know in the comments! I would love to hear your feedback and suggestions.

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Anna Houchen

Anna Houchen

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