Believe it or not, you actually already know some French words before you even begin studying it. While a foreign language may seem like “Greek” to you, the majority of foreign languages actually share some words or roots of words. These words that look or sound like words in your language and have the same meaning are called cognates.
Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to French, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you’re learning without feeling like you’re learning. After a while, you’ll find yourself using French words and constructions that you didn’t even study thanks to your brain’s ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book or watching a series.
There are hundreds of ways to learn French for free on the web. From French grammar wikis to online courses, there’s no shortage of information out there, but it’s often presented in a cluttered and inconsistent way that’s harder to read than a grammar book.
First of all, anything is possible with the right method, motivation and dedication. Some language programs will definitely prepare you with practical language elements within the timeframe they promise, but you will definitely not be fluent. You won’t be able to talk with anyone about absolutely anything in French, but you will know some of the basics that can help you survive in France without being completely lost.
Growing up in Montreal in the 1950s I had French every day at school – elementary school and high school – starting from grade two. After ten years, as I entered McGill University at the age of 17, I couldn’t hold a conversation in French and had great trouble understanding the language.
Take a look at the two verbs in bold for a moment. Whereas the Spanish version uses the imperfect subjunctive, the French phrase uses the imperfect indicative (standard past tense use of the word, like English) to express the exact same idea. In French, the imperfect subjunctive is a stodgy literary tense that nobody even uses anymore!
“Accord du verbe. In French, the past participles in compound tenses and moods sometimes have to agree with another part of the sentence, either the subject or the direct object. It’s a lot like adjectives: when a agreement is required, you need to add e for feminine subjects/objects and s for plural ones.”
This situation persists to today. The ability of English Canadians to converse in French remains low and recently has even declined. Kids are not learning French at schools, despite a tremendous effort at teaching verb conjugations, reflexive verbs, verb agreement and all the other fine points of French grammar to uninterested little learners. Or is it precisely because of how it is taught?
Dialogue is essential. Idiosyncrasies in speech are good for practice. Listen for speakers mumbling and saying “Euuuuh…” Try to make sure that most of your sources contain at least some dialogue and a lot of continuous speech. You’ll hear where they naturally omit syllables and blur speech. You’ll hear incomplete thoughts and sentences. The longer people talk without breathing, the better. This is the kind of real-world French dialogue for which you need to prepare yourself.
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Other rules, especially those about the pronunciation of vowels, should be learned as you immerse yourself in the language. One tool that can help you is Pronunciator. As for intonation, one of the essential rules is that the accent of a word or phrase always bears on the last syllable or last word. To mark this difference, the penultimate syllable is weaker than the antepenultimate.
If you want to have more “tools” added to your arsenal of French words, it’s a lot easier to continue on with a conversation. I would recommend using google, word reference, and/or a French dictionary to help you translate ANY word you stumble upon (reading, writing, or listening to the news). Follow up finding the definition with writing it down in a journal or notebook, maybe even make a correct French sentence using the word! All the extra trouble takes no longer than a minute and will allow you to retain words better. I know that in Italian, I look up words all the time, but only a small fraction of them will stick in my memory unless I write it down somewhere or use the word soon. As a little tip, reading is by far the best way to get more vocabulary and useful verbs. My mom and my friends (who don’t understand French) miraculously have the ability to understand French sentences which contain English cognates.
IE Languages offers an e-book on informal and spoken French that comes with numerous audio files, so you can study spoken French directly. You can also get this at a discounted rate with their combo pack, which includes the French tutorial (helpful if you’re still struggling with grammar concepts or you want a complete overview of the language).
Very soon you’ll discover that whereas in English verb forms don’t change much for person, in French every form of the verb changes, depending on the person, and tense and “mood”. We call these verb changes, the different conjugation forms of verbs. It’s very difficult to remember these conjugations. You can spend all kinds of time pouring over conjugation tables. In my experience it’s a very unsatisfying thing to do because you forget them. You might remember them for tomorrow’s test and then you forget them, so you constantly have to refer to them and see them in context.
French grammar may at first seem strange to an English-speaker, but its rules are actually easier and less irregular than English grammar. Once you have a handle on French grammar, the rules are effectively unchanged for Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Since they are all derived from Latin, the Romance languages have several grammatical rules in common: adjectives come after the noun they modify, all verbs are conjugated, the subject-verb order is inverted when asking a question, and all nouns have a gender designation. Being familiar with one Romance language will allow you to pick up others more easily.
Nerdy historical tangents aside, what does any of this have to do with learning French nowadays? Linguists estimate that about a third of English words are derived from French, meaning that, as an English speaker, even before you crack open a phrasebook for the very first time, you have a ready-made vocabulary that you can start using from day one. Do you have six hours to spare? Great—have a crack at this Wikipedia list of shared vocabulary. Second spoiler alert: it’s long.
In years of constantly comparing the many successful vs unsuccessful language learners to see what really makes them different, I can share another huge realisation with you today. Many of the major questions most people start asking themselves in language learning are, in my opinion, things that should be coming much later in the priority
Well, there you have it! By practicing everyday for 30 minutes to an hour a week, you will definitely achieve something depending on how effective your practice is. I know at first it goes slowly… I started going through Italian now and I feel as if I’ve hit a wall with what I can say. After you get a good foundation, you can move faster and faster, hopefully achieving that conversational-level before your next trip to France. Bon courage.
Overloading yourself in this manner daily will definitely show improvement, even if you are a beginner and know nothing! Watching the news not only challenges your oral comprehension, you’ll pick up on how the French tell the weather, how they introduce one another, and how they pronounce words, which is extremely important for the later steps. Watching your favorite videos with subtitles/ dubbed doesn’t cost you a thing a gives you more exposure to French.
The subjunctive is used when there is uncertainty about whether something is going to happen, as in “you have to go”, “I want you to go”, “although you went” etc. Begin by noticing the subjunctive. Don’t worry about whether you can get it right when speaking or writing. Save the subjunctive form of verbs when you think you might have come across it at LingQ. Check it out in Le Conjugueur or in another conjugating dictionary like Context Reverso. Both of these dictionaries are available at LingQ.
Get set up with your video source in a comfortable space. Try creating a designated French space in your home, where you’ll always be in the mindset to immerse yourself in French language learning. You’ll be doing a lot of pausing, so arrange for this with whatever devices you’re using. Pour yourself a beverage, get relaxed and take breaks as frequently as needed. It’ll be fun, but it’ll also be a lot of work.
French grammar, explained in a way you can actually understand. Many English speakers have not studied grammar in school, so the method shouldn’t expect them to know the difference between an adjective and an adverb, or what a direct object pronoun is.
While those of us who are very experienced in the language will have a lot to say about it (I used to translate French professionally for instance), we can forget what it’s like for those who are starting off, and it’s why I think Zack did a great job summarizing how it isn’t that bad, despite having learnt the language for such a short time. As such this is a nice guide for those of you just starting to learn French, especially if you dabbled in Spanish in school first.
The moment a native French speaker starts to speak with her about something that isn’t the way to the bathroom, how she’s doing, or what she would like to order, she’s stuck. She speaks enough to get by, but not enough to fluently communicate. While she may “speak French,” I probably wouldn’t recommend that she puts it on her resume just yet.
French also uses an imperfect tense—the imparfait—which has only one set of endings (unlike Spanish), contains only one exception (être, meaning “to be”), and is used in exactly the same way as the Spanish imperfect. In order to form the imparfait, take the present indicative Nous form of a verb, slice off the conjugated ending, add the imparfait ending, and voilà! You’re in business.
Cheek kissing is another common type of greeting in most French-speaking countries. However, the rules for cheek kisses can be complicated matter. The rules change depending on the country you’re in and even the region of the country. For example, in Belgium, it’s customary to greet everyone in your generation or younger with one kiss, but anyone that’s a generation or more older than you should be given three kiss (right cheek-left-then right again). In Paris, most people stick to a four-kiss rule, but in most of the rest of France, two kisses is the norm.
Brain Training – Even if you decide to only learn French as a hobby, knowing multiple languages will keep your brain healthy and nimble, even in old age. This is because knowing another language creates another network of connections among your neurons. The higher your neural interconnectivity, the better your memory and problem-solving skills.
Conjugate verbs properly. Again as a basic french learner, learn to conjugate the verbs properly. If you’re going to write the verb as it is then the whole sentence goes wrong or sometimes becomes meaningless.
Some people are intimidated by these verb forms or moods in French, without realizing that we have the same patterns in English. The English conditional, of course, revolves around the word “if”, as in the sentence “I would go if…” etc. The same is true in French with the word “si”. Type some “if” sentences in English into Google Translate to see how French deals with this issue.
For Business – being bilingual isn’t just good for your resumé, it can change your career. As a major language for global commerce, knowing some French can be extremely advantageous for anyone doing business in western Europe or the western half of Africa. Countries in West Africa represent rapidly emerging markets that will be harder to access if you can’t understand French. In Europe, French remains an important language for many businesses.
Hence the importance of finding the right French tool to study with. If the method is all fun, and doesn’t have you drill on verb tenses, or tackle grammar concepts, chances are you will not become fluent in French.
If you’re on the computer, just Google “French conjugations” or “conjugation” of any verb and you will find what you are looking for. The same is true, by the way, with pronouns, adjectives. Anything you want to look at, you just Google and it will be there.
Traveling – France is one of the most pleasant countries in Europe to vacation – if you can speak French. Seek out the kinds of genuine places that are out of bounds to non-French speakers. If you get away from Paris hotels and Riviera resorts, you’ll discover that most of the country consists of farms, vineyards and small villages. The common denominator, whether you are in Provence, Champagne or Brittany, is excellent food, world-class wine and inexhaustible country charm.
So how do French speakers talk so fast, anyway? Well, part of it is the language itself, as mentioned above. But also, not everything that’s being said is necessarily crucial. This little bits of linguistic fluff do not require a whole lot of thought to put together.
The adventures of Mary (from “A Moi Paris – The Beginnings”) continue. In a fun and enticing realistic story in the present tense, you’ll learn a ton of really useful French vocabulary and grammatical structures.
Today, I want to mention one of the most important points in my life, when my destiny changed and my faith in the traditional system of study hard, get a job, work up the ladder, and retire with as much money as possible, was absolutely shattered and I decided to start over from scratch, and why I’m really glad that I did. Sorry it’s a little long, but I do want to give the full picture so you have the context of how my philosophy on life evolved dramatically in a very short time.
This was typical. In fact, I was a good student, and did better than most of my classmates in French. I passed all the grammar tests and other school French tests with high marks. Yet when it came time to speak, I could only string words together with great uncertainty, and really didn’t understand what I heard. I certainly didn’t read French newspapers, which were available in Montreal. Nor did I watch French movies. I couldn’t understand them.
Aiming for a B2 level of a language is therefore a more specific and results-focused goal, and, thanks to the criteria provided by the Common European Framework of Reference, it’s also measureable. It’s much more attainable than aiming for the vague notion of “fluency” (which, seems to elude even fluent speakers!). It can easily be made time-bound by keeping in mind the criteria needed for each level and making yourself a schedule with your goals in mind.
“To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy language learners resemble each other. They develop a passion for the language they are learning. Each unhappy language learner, on the other hand, finds his or her own reason to be turned off. I got turned on to French flair long ago and my passion for French has stayed with me for over 50 years.”