(the text in the image is from one of my real class exercises)
How I learnt French in just 10 months by someone who did it!
Btw You can apply my methods to learning any major foreign language.
This is a story of my French language learning journey. I know it is very long but I wanted to get everything down, to write the most helpful guide possible, to encourage you and to show you that anything is possible, but only if you want it badly enough.
I’d taken 6 months of French at the beginning of high school when I was only 12 years old (in Australia we don’t generally have a middle school or collège so high school or lycée immediately follows primary school or école primaire), and from that I’d memorised a bunch of numbers, colours, and phrases like ‘Comment t’appelles-tu?’ (‘What’s your name?’ or literally ‘How are you called?’) and objects such as la piscine… because I’d say, “la piscine the pool” which sounds like “la piss in the pool” and as a 12 year old I found that outrageously funny so it’d stuck in my head my whole life…
I actually did very well in that French class but that’s because I’ve always been good at memorising stuff. If a test involved memorising a bunch of facts or figures, or simple words, I’d do well in it. But I didn’t understand a single thing about grammar or how the sentences are constructed or WHY it’s written/said the way it is… Fast forward to 2009… I decided I wanted to move to France and my whole future depended on me finding a way to move there.
I decided that if I wanted to go and live in France I’d HAVE to learn French. There’d be no way around that.
I thought back to the last time I’d taken a language class, it was about 3 years prior, my sister had asked me to come join her in a beginner’s Spanish class. I remember hating that class because the teacher went too fast and we’d go from chapter to chapter in the textbook when I hadn’t even understood everything from the previous chapter.
I also thought back to those swimming lessons I’d had as a kid (aged 6-12) and remembering how ineffective they were because I was a weak swimmer who was afraid of drowning and I just can’t learn well in group/class situations. Part of that is because I’m quite introverted.
Despite having had lessons for 6 years and growing up in Australia, I still can’t really swim. At best I can swim 20-25 metres, I cannot go below the surface or touch the bottom of the pool with my hands, snorkelling is the only way I can swim easily without worrying I’m going to run out of breath and drown.
It’s in my experience and opinion that beginners (of any subject) are best taught in a 1:1 situation.
Had I a private swim coach, I’m sure I would have learnt faster and better.
I’ve also noticed that kids and teenagers also learn the subject quicker when they have a parent who helps, teaches and encourages them in addition to having a formal teacher/tutor/instructor. Since neither of my parents can swim they never spent any time with my sister and I in the pool or beach, today neither of us can swim well and my sister even hates swimming.
So.. back to my story, at that time in my life I wasn’t quite ready to go the route of having a 1:1 French tutor. Afterall, I didn’t want to waste my money if they weren’t the right fit for me. So did I just give up or did I join a class (like everybody immediately does)? No!
So there I concocted my own self-taught French learning method…
Most introverts are extremely good at being self-taught
I decided I wouldn’t join a class until I was past the baby-beginner level, you know, the level where you know absolutely NOTHING and you can’t pronounce or understand anything. Most people jump straight into a class when they’re at this level and IMHO it’s often not the right thing to do. Do we send 1 or 2 year old babies to school? and force them to read? No!
Why you can’t learn a foreign language
1. You’re learning it for all the wrong reasons
Learning a foreign language takes up an inordinate amount of time. If you are not extremely passionate about the idea, then don’t even start. If you want to learn it just because it seems ‘cool’ or ‘fun’ or because your parents/teacher/partner/friend/colleague etc told you to do it, it’s not enough. If you don’t have the intrinsic motivation and a purpose for why you are learning it, then honestly I don’t advise it. Some purposes are: you want to move to a foreign country (like I did), you want to get a job in a foreign company, you want to study in a foreign country, you want to be able to talk to your partner or distant relatives, in-laws or close friends who speak this other language, you need it to pass a certain exam or gain entry into a certain course, etc etc. Having a purpose/goal will really help you on your way and having a target deadline also really helps. Without a concrete deadline you could just do it halfheartedly and let it drag on for decades without making much progress… I like to use the SMART objectives acronym would advise to set a concrete goal such as I want to reach x level (usually A1-C2 in Europe) in 6 months, 12 months, 18 months or 24 months’ time.
2. You don’t have the right mindset
Learning a foreign language requires – first and foremost – the right mindset. I can’t stress how important this is because if you don’t have the right mindset it won’t matter how much money or time you spend, you most probably won’t succeed.
Now I spend a lot of my free time reading psychology and personal development stuff as I’m passionate about this area… many people aren’t living life to their full potential as they aren’t conscious of a lot of stuff that’s happening to them and what they’re doing to themselves…
From just spending a few minutes speaking to someone I can usually tell if they’re going to be successful in learning French (or doing their New Year’s resolution or whatever) or not and the answer is most likely ‘not’ and this is not due to their ability but their mindset.
The problem is a lot of people these days like to say things that sound good such as, “I’m going to lose weight/eat healthier”, “I’m going to quit smoking/drinking/coffee”, “I’m going to spend less”, “I’m going to go to bed earlier”, “I’m going to travel the world” and… “I’m going to learn French/some other language” etc etc… All of these things sound great to say and sound great to hear but the vast majority of people will never actually carry out these things. Why?
3. You don’t want it badly enough
If anyone wants anything badly enough in life, they’ll do anything to get it. I really and truly believe this. For me it was moving to France and I did it. I didn’t let the naysayers get in my way. But as I said earlier I think a lot of people delude themselves into thinking they want to achieve these things when deep down they couldn’t care less if they achieve them or not. Because what’s going to happen if they don’t do those things? Nothing much… unless we’re talking about someone who’s so obese or so addicted to substances they are going to die if they don’t cut down…that is pretty rare… But it’s true, you’ve heard of those cases where a doctor will say to a 300kg person they’re going to die if they don’t cut down on junk food and they finally start taking action, right…?
I feel that the majority of people will only achieve a goal if they want it really really badly OR they feel that something bad’s going to happen if they don’t do it. And so, learning foreign languages is far far far at the bottom of that list because noone ever died from not learning a foreign language, did they? ;P Especially for native English speakers, they cannot see any real ‘use’ in learning a foreign language. Afterall, everyone speaks or should just speak English, right?
Why could it be that that somebody doesn’t want to learn a foreign language (even if they have already moved to a foreign country)?
Consciously or subconsciously, many people believe that everyone should just speak English.
Likewise – as I have experienced – many French think the whole world should speak French. What is it about the English and the French, huh? They both think the whole world should just speak their language and be done with it. I feel there’s a bit of this arrogant attitude that stops people from acquiring a new language even when they make efforts to learn it.
The reason why people in the northern European countries are so good at languages and why they speak English so well is because they know that noone will learn their language so that they’ll have to learn other popular languages (such as English, French or German) if they are to get anywhere in life.
Likewise, many people from third world countries will learn English in order to get ahead in life, get a better job, move abroad, give their kids a better life, etc. Most people from western first world countries do not have this sort of pressure.
That being said, while living in Geneva, Switzerland (which is quite international in case you didn’t know) I met many people from first world EU countries who were multilingual speaking at least 3 languages up to 5 or 6! The majority of people I met from English-speaking countries could only speak English. However, people from other countries say Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil, etc, could speak their own language + English + French! Nearly every person I met in Geneva could speak at least 3 languages (at least 2 to a fluent level) which I think makes it a pretty cool place and shows what is achievable. Again, it’s all about mindset and motivation!
4. You don’t have enough confidence
This sounds simple enough and I’m far from the most confident person around but you just have to ‘fake it till you make it’. Much like when you’re at a job interview, you have to brainwash yourself into thinking that you’re much more capable than you really are. Only once have you convinced yourself can you convince your potential employer.
Similarly, you have to convince yourself you can do it! Many people like to poke fun at foreign languages because they sound different. From a psychological point of view this is usually done to hide their own shortcomings, insecurities and inferiority complex. I mean hahahah Isn’t that funny? It reminds of me kids at school making fun of other kids who are different in some way. It’s a bit childish. Instead of embracing the differences and thinking that it’s something wonderful many people are offended by anything that is ‘different’ and with an attitude like that you’re unlikely to ever pick up a new language.
5. You’re too self conscious
It seems like the majority of people these days are too concerned with what others think of them but what they don’t realise is that because EVERYBODY is too busy being obsessed with themselves these days (especially in this era of social media) nobody has the time and energy to worry about YOU, seriously. For example: Many people have told me they are too ‘scared’ to travel, go to a restaurant, or a movie or do anything alone. What exactly are you scared of? Is it because society says that you cannot do anything alone? When you go to work do you not commute alone? When you go to a library or a bookstore do you not go alone? Most people do many things alone in their every day lives and don’t even think about it but when it comes to certain activities they seem to get the idea into their heads that it’s not acceptable. pfffttt… They are just too self conscious.
Stop worrying about sounding silly, or assume everybody is laughing at you. They’re not and if they are they are just immature idiots… Which leads me to my next point…
6. You’re too scared to make mistakes
Likewise, people get the idea into their heads that it’s not acceptable to make mistakes when they are starting to learn a foreign language (or anything else). Heck, I’ve been in France/Switzerland 6 years and I still make tons and tons of mistakes. Who the heck cares? Making mistakes is the only way we can learn. If we never tried and never made any mistakes we’d never be able to walk or talk or anything. Think back to how many times you had to try to learn to ride a bike or drive a car.. I know for me it was a long, long time… and I eventually succeeded and I’m happy I can now ride a bike and drive a car, just like I can speak French! So my advice is simple:
Get over your fear of failure. If you never fail, you’ll never succeed.
You just have to spend some time watching little kids. They don’t have the thought processes that we do. They’re not self conscious, they don’t have a fear of failure, they do not berate themselves if they make mistakes. They simply try try and try again.
7. You make a lot of excuses and self-fulfilling prophecies
You tell yourself things like, “I’m just not good with languages”. People like to tell themselves stuff like that, that way when they fail they can say to themselves or their friends, “See? I was right.” This is called self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of putting yourself and your abilities down (before you have even started) you should talk to yourself in a positive way. Instead of saying, “Languages are hard, I hate languages, I don’t have the ‘language gene’, this sux ” etc etc, say something else like, “I find languages difficult, but I’m determined to give it a good try and put all my effort into it and if I don’t learnt it quickly it doesn’t matter. I’m going to stay on track and persevere.” I think a lot of professional people give themselves pep talks like that. As long as you stay positive and motivated, you’ll be right, but if you start off being negative and finding every excuse under the sun then you’ll never get anywhere.
8. You think spending a lot of money solves the problem
Just because you spend a lot of money on courses and books doesn’t mean you’ll learn quicker.
I see people do this all the time… Shopping is fun and exciting and gives you a ‘high’. Sure, I get that. And I’m as guilty as the next person. But just because you’ve joined a gym, bought a weights set and cute gym gear doesn’t mean you will automatically lose weight, just because you’ve bought a really expensive camera doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be an accomplished photographer, just because you’ve bought an expensive Thermomix, Kenwood or Kitchenaid cooking appliance doesn’t mean you’ll become an accomplished chef, just because you buy every French learning book under the sun and take course after course or even getting a private tutor does not necessarily mean instant success.
If you can’t get past the first stage of having the right mindset and motivation no amount of money spent or courses will help you.
Spending a great deal of money does not equal success unless you are prepared to use all this equipment on a regular basis, and put in the time and effort to learn and practice.
9. …but you’re not prepared to spend the time
Apparently the average person spends around 40-50 minutes per day looking at their Facebook feed. Think about how much you could improve your life if you spent that same amount of time learning French/other language, or doing something to improve your mind, body or life. Saying you don’t have enough time is just an excuse. People spend time on things they love doing. The thing is, nobody loves doing something that feels like a chore, so you’ll have to make it feel less like a chore (more tips about that below). You’ll have to brainwash yourself into thinking that it’s as fun as scrolling through your Facebook feed! 😉
I’ll admit that when I first started learning French I was not working full-time so it was easier, however even when I was working full-time in Geneva, I still made learning French a priority and constantly took classes.
10. …nor the effort
Learning a foreign language is close to a full-time affair if you want to succeed. Like most things, if you aren’t prepared to put in the time and effort you won’t go very far. Just like those get rich quick schemes, or weight loss schemes, there are hundreds of companies out there preying on lazy people who tell you you can achieve xyz quickly. Don’t believe them.
Tip: Never ever listen to advice from someone who writes an advice article or has a video with the word ‘quick’ or ‘fast’ in its title.
If I had a dollar (or euro) for every time someone told me, “You can teach me French”… I’m never quite how to respond to this statement, demand, question? I want to tell them, “Are you serious? Do you know how much time that involves? Do you know that neither you nor I have that kind of time?” It’s not like someone asking me, “Can you shop me to way to the nearest supermarket?” Also, just repeating and memorising words or phrases is not learning. It’s what I did back as a 12 year old learning French. It’s completely useless.
It’s not something that can be done in 5 minutes, hours, weeks or even months. It takes months and years of hard work and dedication. And if you haven’t gotten over the issues mentioned above you’ll never succeed.
Even when my level was fairly decent, when I first moved to Geneva I was working full-time and still taking classes 4 hours a week either before or after work (for a total of about 8 months). I actually really really enjoyed the classes so it didn’t feel like a chore, even though it was quite tiring on the ol’ brain.
11. Get over the age prejudice
Many many people seem to believe that once you’re out of primary school you can’t learn a language anymore. Frankly, that’s a load of crap. You can learn a language at any age and I honestly believe from my personal experiences and from people I know that the best age is somewhere between 15-25. Why this age bracket? Because once you get into your late teens you’re probably starting to think about your future and you want to learn things because you want to, not just because your teachers or parents want you to. Towards your early 20s this is the age where people are in university/tertiary education which is of course prime time for learning and at this age you don’t have the pressures of paying off a mortgage or having/looking after your kids or elderly parents, etc yet. While you may be busy with your studies you’ll still have a lot more holidays and free time than if you would if you were older so use this time wisely. However if you’re already over 25 (like I was) it’s still not too late. It’s only too late if you believe it’s too late!
12. Follow the mantra “Conceive Believe Achieve”
… but add in ACTION so Conceive (the idea), Believe (in yourself), Take Action and Achieve (your goal). Sure spending money on text books and courses helps but you need to use those methods in conjunction with the things I’ve mentioned above. And you need to take ACTION. I myself am guilty of this sometimes. I’ll buy a lot of stuff for a particular ‘project’ which I never get off the ground, or I don’t necessarily spend a lot of money but sometimes I spend a lot of time researching stuff and it makes me feel productive but in the end I haven’t actually done or achieved anything. The only way to succeed in anything is to take ACTION. And persevere. Don’t give up.
How I learnt French (to B2 level) in just 10 months
A summary of my timeline:
- In July 2009 I started teaching myself French.
- In November 2009 I started my first French class.
- After only 2-3 weeks of formal lessons I applied for the Language Teaching Assistantship program for France, where you are required to have B1 level French. I didn’t think I was nowhere near this level but I was accepted and this was what initially allowed me to live in France.
- In December 2009 I took a placement test at Alliance Française in Sydney where they put me in the second highest class. I was totally shocked.
- 10 months later: In May 2010 I attained B2 level at the AF school in Sydney and this was confirmed with an official TEF test not long after.
- In September 2010 I moved to a very small town in France to start my English teaching job where I had no choice but to speak exclusively in French.
- In May 2011 I took the TCF test in AF in Lyon and scored C1 level.
- In 2011 in Geneva I took about 6 months of French classes and completed C1 level.
- During 2011 I attended many job interviews which were held in French and I ended up getting two jobs in Geneva: one at the CERN and one at the UN.
- In September 2012 I took a placement test for the language school at the UN in Geneva and was placed in the highest class (out of a total of 9 levels), upper B2. Again, I was totally shocked. I actually didn’t believe I was at this level. Once I’d completed the course I felt it was closer to C1 than B2 though. It was the most difficult course I took.
- In March 2016 a completed a 1 year MBA taught entirely in French. I haven’t taken an official test for a while but I’m sure I’m at upper C1 level lower C2 level by now. Without being at this level it would have been impossible to complete this degree. (In France generally you need B2 level to do a Bachelors and C1 level to do a Masters degree).
- I can now watch a French film without subtitles and understand 95% of what they are saying. I can understand nearly everything people are saying in real life (except some technical terms and slang words).
- I estimate my level of French to be the equivalent of at least English IELTS 7.5-8.0 or TOEFL 100).
Only once have you realised all the above points are you ready to learn a foreign language. If you haven’t gotten over any of those hurdles, go back and figure out what is stopping/blocking you and then continue…
Understand that learning French as an adult is entirely possible, but only if you’re dedicated and motivated enough to put in the time and effort. Most people aren’t.
Now while I do have some advantages having grown up bilingual, and having learnt piano (more about that below), I also had however, some setbacks. When I wanted to start learning French I was already way out of university years. A lot of people think you can’t learn a foreign language past the age of 10 or 15. What a load of crap! There are people in their 60s and older still learning foreign languages and good on them!
I also have no European heritage, I never had any exposure to anything French. So…
How did I succeed? Tips and Info
1. I ‘studied’ how babies and kids learn languages
Of course I didn’t make any official tests with real life babies and kids but I thought back to my own childhood. I am lucky because I did grow up bi-lingual. My parents spoke to me in Chinese Mandarin and at the age of 5 I started kindergarten where I started to learn English. I was completely equally bi-lingual around the ages of about 6-8 but after the age of 8 my English language skills took over simply because I was spending much more time in school than I was with my mother (as I had done when I was a toddler).
I remember being 5 or 6 years old, seeing words on a page and dying to know how they were pronounced. I always had a thirst for knowledge and I was always a perfectionist and I became very good at spelling. I loved learning new words, I loved reading and I had to make sure every word was spelt perfectly. Initially my progress was slower than that of my Australian classmates. Afterall, they had at least 3 years head start ahead of me in terms of vocabulary and speaking. But soon I caught up and even surpassed many of them.
So what actually happened was I learnt to speak and read at the same time and that’s what they teach you in high school or in adult language classes too. People begin reading immediately. This is IMHO not the right way to do it, however.
People do not and should not learn to read before learning to speak.
Every culture in the whole world teaches languages the same way. Everybody learns to listen before they speak (from the time in the womb till 24 months), and then they learn to speak (from about the age of 18 to 24 months) before they learn to read (around the age of 5 or 6).
Just like babies have to learn to crawl before they learn to walk, and walk before they can run, there is a proper order to learning things. We’ve been taught languages the wrong way: backwards.
Typically in school and adult language classes we’re taught to read first, then speak, then listen. Many language learners (particularly introverted, shy, self-conscious or those without any self confidence) will say that they are good with reading or writing but can’t speak.
Why should we learn to listen and speak first? The reason is clear. You need to know how to pronounce words properly before you can read them. If you don’t pronounce words properly nobody will understand you. People try to lie to themselves saying that adults cannot learn foreign languages. That is a load of crap. I was already an adult when I first started learning French (bar that useless 6 month period in high school). However….
There is one major advantage to learning languages as a child rather as an adult.
A child (especially a child or young teenager) will have perfect native pronunciation whereas an older teenager or adult will usually not ‘catch up’ in that area.
Children are not ‘better’ at languages or ‘smarter’ as people commonly believe, it’s because children simply have much better hearing.
So when people say learning languages is ‘easier’ for kids this is what they actually mean. Kids can hear all the tiny little nuances due to their acute sense of hearing but the older we get the worse our hearing gets and the less sounds we can hear accurately, and therefore pronounce.
The better you can hear, the better you can speak. That’s why deaf people sound funny when they speak. They can’t hear themselves speak!
The best way to start learning a language is to simply listen and speak! Forget reading for now!
2. Having a keen sense of hearing really helps
I fall into the approximately 15-20% of people classified as “Highly Sensitive People“. I have an extremely keen sense of sight/vision, smell and hearing, much better than peers my age but I’ll never hear all the sounds a native speaker can.
Having a keen sense of hearing is really important in being about to differentiate between sounds. You think you can hear the difference between two sounds but often you can’t (but a child or native speaker can).
Example: I can’t for the life of me say the French word ‘cirque‘ (circus). No matter how much I try to perfect the pronunciation nobody knows what I’m saying! They think I’m saying ‘sec‘ (dry), ‘siècle‘ (century), ‘circle‘ (circle) or something else. When I finally tell them what I mean (by an explanation or the word in English) they’d go, “Oohhhhhh cirque!” and I’d be like, “That’s what I said!” and they’d be like, “No you didn’t!” because we were both hearing two different things. I’ve also had the same experience myself teaching other people English or Chinese. What I hear and what they hear are two completely different things because the ‘range’ of sounds I hear in these languages is much larger.
Want to find out how ‘old’ your ears are? Do this simple test (remember to use headphones for accurate results!)
(mine is around 18000Hz range).
The better your hearing the better you’ll be able to hear and pronounce foreign words. If your hearing isn’t as great as it could be, don’t fret. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn a language, it just means accurate pronunciation will be a tad harder for you.
I don’t believe your hearing ability is fixed though. You can strengthen it with practice. An example of myself is that before I couldn’t really tell if someone was speaking French with an accent or not. I just couldn’t hear them. Now I can easily determine different accents such as the Quebeçois accent, Anglophone accent, Northern and Southern French accent, Spanish accent, etc. In oral exams they often use people with accents to make it harder for you.
3. Playing a musical instrument helps
I learnt piano for 8 years and I think that this could have helped with my language learning ability. Why? Because training your ears to hear different sounds makes it much easier to pick up the nuances in a foreign language. It also exercises the brain in a certain way. Many studies have shown that music learning has all sorts of benefits for language learning. According to the study mentioned here, research concluded that children who were taught music one hour a week exhibited a higher ability to learn both the grammar and the pronunciation of foreign languages, compared to their classmates who had learned a different extracurricular activity.
4. Watch kids tv shows and music videos in French on Youtube
But no matter your level of hearing, you should get used to hearing the sounds first by watching tv or movies, or (even easier to access) clips on Youtube. I watched tons of episodes of ‘Thomas le train‘ (ie ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’), I listened to lots of Disney soundtracks in French. Because I already knew the tunes I could sort of sing along (even if I didn’t know what the heck they were singing). I listened to the songs over and over again until I had memorised them by heart.
But wait! Resist the urge to look up the lyrics just yet! Keep listening and listening…
5. Watch polyglots on Youtube
I found it extremely encouraging to listen to polyglots speak many many languages. It gave me real hope. Like if they can speak 10 or more languages surely I can learn just ONE new one! I watched a lot of videos of foreigners speaking Chinese Mandarin because although I can speak it, I’m nowhere near fluent and it was quite humbling (and impressive) to me to watch/hear westerners speak Mandarin with perfect Beijing accents.
6. Know that learning a foreign language is NOT about memorising vocabulary lists
Most people think that learning a foreign language means learning it the way we were taught in school. Just give us a bunch of words and phrases, repeat them over and over again and let’s rote memorise them for the test (and then forget everything a week later). That’s not how kids learn languages and that’s not how adults should either.
7. Extroverts and Introverts: Use your unique gifts
I’ve spent a lot of time ‘studying’ the differences between extroverts and introverts and where language learning is concerned I noticed that extroverts typically say they are bad at listening and introverts typically say they are bad at speaking. This mimics their normal every day life where extroverts prefer to talk more and introverts prefer to listen more. Use this to your advantage!
Extroverts – speak as much as you want without being afraid to make mistakes. Whereas the introvert is usually too shy to speak, just get out there and talk to as many people as you can. Then, in your spare time, try to do more listening of other people. Just listen listen and listen! If you cannot listen to a real person then watch a film or a tv shows or listen to music. At first it will be really really frustrating but resist the urge to get subtitles or lyrics in the beginning. The goal is simply to get used to hearing the sounds, not follow the plot.
Introverts – I’m an introvert so I know how we work. As an introvert we love to self teach and this is actually really useful because we can go at the pace we want, not the teacher’s. This is exactly why I wanted to teach myself in the beginning. We are also better at listening which is useful because I really believe, just like a baby, it’s the FIRST skill we should learn. So go and watch kids shows, movies and listen to pop songs or kids songs! Once your confidence levels increase then you can start speaking. I would suggest going 1:1 rather than into a classroom sistuation. If you cannot afford a tutor you can find free languages partners online (see below for more details).
8. Teach yourself before taking classes
If you find classes too intimidating or that they go too fast for you, you can do what I did and try to teach yourself first. Much like most people (myself included) will take a few driving lessons with one of their parents first before having the ‘official’ lessons with an instructor, teaching yourself first prepares you for the classes. Get the tutor or classes when you’re at an intermediate level. The best thing about these book/tape sets is that you can use them over and over again until you feel confident. You can also pass them onto a friend once you’re done with them.
Note: This is what worked for me but it may not work for you. Maybe teaching yourself is enough, maybe taking classes is enough but for me I liked to use both methods and learn in as many different ways as possible.
9. Resources I used:
Developed by Paul Pimsleur, a professeur of applied linguistics, Pimsleur was created way back in 1963 and now comes in over 60 languages. He uses a principle known as ‘spaced repetition’ to help you remember new words. Why do I like Pimsleur? I stumbled upon it on Amazon one day (around the time I was learning Spanish and just KNEW there had to be a better way), and I liked the premise. It is not like most book/tape sets which just require you to (as always) repeat and memorise a bunch of phrases. It actually encourages you to use your brain and converse with another person. At first it is quite difficult but it becomes easier and easier. In the beginning I had to listen to each lesson many many times, sometimes 5 or 10 times until I could say everything perfectly without taking too long to think of the ‘answer’. I didn’t let myself go to the next lesson until I had ‘passed’ each lesson. But once you get the hang of it it becomes really fun! This is a listening and speaking course which I liked because as I mentioned earlier, it mimics the way kids learn languages. It does not distract you with reading just yet.
I did the whole course of Levels 1-3 (so 90 lessons in total).
I have also used Pimsleur to get started with learning basic German and Spanish and found it much much easier. Having tackled one European language makes it much easier to learn successive ones.
Michel Thomas was a Polish jew who was imprisoned and survived WWII and moved to the US. In 1947 he started his own polyglot institute and developed his own language teaching method. At the time of his death in 2005 he spoke 11 languages.
I also used Michel Thomas French in conjunction with Pimsleur. It is also a listening/speaking course but set up in a different way. Michel Thomas recorded himself teaching 2 beginner students (live) and you learn along with them. There is one student who is a bit faster and one who is a bit slower. It feels very intimate as if you really are learning with a tutor and 2 other friends. He also gives very helpful tips to help you understand why words are the way they are for example: cher in French means dear (expensive) and also dear (like a dear friend or partner), and chéri or chérie means darling, which originally came from the word dearling. The way he explained it really made me remember it well. Now it’s been 7.5 years since I took his lessons and I still remember this as it stuck in my head so much.
The Radio Lingua Network who make Coffee Break language learning podcasts was created by Scottishman Mark Pentleton in 2006. In 2013 Coffee Break French won the European podcast award. I downloaded this onto my ipod (it’s free!) along with Pimsleur and Michel Thomas and I would listen to it in my spare time, while commuting, etc. Mark narrates his own lessons and presents it along with his student Anna. He has a great personality and it’s just fun to listen to. It’s a bit like a modern version of Michel Thomas.
This is an incredible video/book learning series created in 1987 by Pierre Capretz, a French professor at Yale University. It took him roughly 30 years to come up with the final product he created. He passed away in 2014.
It is very comprehensive and takes a very long time to go through it all (I never ended up finishing it) but it’s unique in that it doesn’t use English at all to explain things. You end up having to figure out everything yourself (like a child does). But it really works – slowly – as if by magic! It’s fun learning this way as watching videos is always fun and the storyline (yes there is one!) is quite intriguing and hilarious so it makes you want to continue… It has captivated its audience with the love story between the protagonist Mireille and her American admirer Robert… and you learn a lot of (pop) cultural things and see a lot of Paris from a local’s point of view.
It’s also good because (like Pimsleur and Michel Thomas) it trains you to hear the language and get used to the sounds rather than trying to get you to read first.
You can watch it for free online on their website but only if you in the US or Canada. It can be hard to get a hold of as it’s so old (they still use francs in the series), but people upload the videos onto YouTube and DailyMotion all the time. Sometimes they get taken down and then people will re-upload them again.
You can get the accompanying French in Action workbooks on Amazon.
FiA became quite popular in the US, there is even a website for French in Action fans, which follows the lives of the actors after the series ended.
Once you’ve done all of Pimsleur and Michel Thomas you can move onto more book-based self learning. I came across Assimil, which is a French company founded in 1929 by Alphonse Chérel. Assimil was initially created to teach French people English but has since expanded to many other languages and of course versions for teaching Anglophones French, etc. The latest version (2016) is called Assimil French for English speakers but the one I used was called Assimil New French with Ease.
The book is really cool because it has short stories and conversations on one side in French and on the other in English so you can learn to translate yourself between the two. There are the accompanying CDs/MP3s of course too.
French people have made many jokes and parodies about the phrase, ‘My tailor is rich‘ which was the first sentence in the first version for French people learning English.
Apps weren’t really around when I started learning French and even if they were I didn’t have a smartphone so I never used any. I’ve heard good things about them but to be honest I don’t like the way most of these apps and online courses teach, they just use memorising methods which IMHO don’t work long term. Also as I’ve mentioned above, I don’t like the way they make you read first. I find the older, more established methods more effective. But give them a try if you want, they may work for you. Here are some of the better known ones:
- Babbel ( iOS | Android )
- Busuu ( iOS | Android )
- DuoLingo (iOS | Android)
- Memrise ( iOS | Android )
- Rosetta Stone ( iOS | Android )
A note about pronunciation, if you like to read and aren’t sure how to pronounce a word – This site Forvo is great.
10. Take Classes
If you don’t like the thought of learning online or learning alone (fair enough, I can understand that everyone learns in different ways) and prefer the social atmosphere of classes, I can recommend the ones that I used.
For all of my classes they were all around 4 hours a week with the exception of the first one which was only 2 hours. I think 4 hours is perfect. It’s enough so you learn a lot and don’t forget anything. I don’t feel that 2 hours is enough. Note that you don’t just go to class 4 hours a week and then do nothing the rest of the time. You still have to study yourself at home or else you won’t improve and start to forget what you’ve learnt.
A lot of schools (especially Alliance Française) offer intensive full time weekly classes, about 20 hours/week. I don’t think I could handle that as it would drive me crazy (and remind me too much of high school). I actually think it’s good to give the brain a break and remember the key is to ENJOY learning. Once it starts to feel like a chore, you know you’re doing something wrong and you might end up wasting your time and money. But choose the hours which suit your learning style and schedule.
I first did a course at WEA adult community college, in Sydney. As it was my first ever proper French class I remember feeling totally scared and lost but as the weeks went on I felt more and more confident. It helped, too, that the people in the class were from all walks of life and they weren’t all young. There were many people much older than me in their 50s and 60s and that was very encouraging. I liked my teacher and it was a good way to get started with classes.
In your town I’m sure you probably have something similar – adult community colleges, so give them a try!
After I did a session there I went on to Alliance Française Sydney as I was always intrigued by this place. I had walked past the building so many times over the years and never gone in. Now was my chance! I was really lucky because in 2009 they had just completed 4 years of renovations, and the gorgeous new interior had been designed by renowned Austrian/Australian architect Harry Seidler. As well as that there was a genuine French cafe inside where I ate croque monsieurs in between classes. They also have high tech interactive whiteboards that could save screens. I really liked my teacher and classmates (who were again from all walks of life and all ages) and had a great time there, so much so I ended up taking 4 months worth of classes there. Getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning didn’t even bother me as I just loved going to class there!
Alliances Françaises are found all over the world in almost every major city. You can see a list of locations here.
I took several months of classes at Ecole club Migros, which are the Swiss adult community colleges, found in all major cities. In contrast to my experiences in Australia, everyone in the class was roughly around the same age – mid 20s to mid 30s but the cool thing was that everyone was from so many different countries. I enjoyed the classes and for such an expensive country they were an affordable way for me to get back into learning French again.
Once I started working for the UN in Geneva I took classes (1 session – 3 months) in its own UN language school. In terms of structure and quality of education I have to say that it was the best out of all the schools I went to. Unfortunately it’s not open to the public.
Funnily, I haven’t taken any French classes while I’ve been living in France. I have thought about it though.. I probably need a refresher course. From my research these schools came highly recommended (please don’t ask me whether they are good or not as I have not studied there).
- Alliance Française
- (Institut Privé) Campus Langues
- Institut Catholique de Paris
- Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne (CCFS)
- Langue Appart
- Lutece Langue
- Alliance Française
- Ecole Interculturelle de français pour étrangers (EIFE)
- Lyon Bleu
11. Find a language learning partner online
When I started learning French there were maybe only 4-5 language partner websites. Nowadays there are dozens. Unfortunately, my favourite and the best one, LiveMocha has closed 🙁
Here is a list of a few. I cannot vouch for all of them as I have not used all of them, only italki and My Language Exchange.
You can speak to them via Skype, but you can also type to them via Skype (or Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp, etc). This actually helped me because I got used to seeing abbreviations and slang terms. And it also made me learn to type French quicker.
After a while I also began writing emails to the language exchange partners I’d met through LiveMocha, italki, etc which helped improve my written French and reading skills.
12. Find a language partner in real life
If you live in a large-ish cosmopolitan city like I did (Sydney) you should be able to a native speaker willing to practice French with you in exchange for practicing English with them. In my case I used Couch Surfing to find native French speakers in Sydney and this helped me a great deal.
Note: You don’t always need to find a native speaker. Sometimes finding someone who speaks the your own language as you (ie English as me) and who has gone through all the trials and tribulations of learning the target language (ie French) is very helpful even if they don’t have perfect pronunciation. I have told some native French speakers some things about their language that they didn’t even know themselves. Most people don’t recall learning their own language because they simply ‘absorbed’ it all as a young child in school whereas if they had learnt the language as an adult they are actively learning everything including grammar from scratch and it’s still relatively fresh in their minds.
Often native speakers (unless they have language teaching qualifications) cannot explain grammar or why something is the way it is. I know because I’ve had my parents asking me about English my whole life and I could never explain anything and now I know French grammar much better than English grammar!
13. Go to France but don’t go to Paris!
If you’re serious about learning French do NOT travel/move to Paris, just like if you’re serious about learning any foreign language do NOT travel/move to a place that is extremely touristy and/or where English is widely spoken. Throw yourself into the deep end by going to smaller towns and trying to converse with locals. If you cannot move countries easily find native speaker language partners online and speak to them via Skype (see previous point).
I spent almost 4 years living in Geneva, Switzerland (where the native language is French) but nearly all the people from English-speaking countries that I met could not speak French. What did this tell me? Many people and companies speak English so the Anglophones didn’t feel a ‘need’ to learn French. So if you want to learn French in Switzerland don’t move to Geneva! In fact my French didn’t really improve till I moved to Lyon as I mainly spoke English with everyone in Geneva. Even when I spoke French to people I dealt with on a day to day basis in Geneva, they’d reply back to me in English and the same thing happened in Paris.
14. Do a degree completely in French in France (but not Paris)
Why not Paris? Because you’ll be surrounded by other international students and spend all your spare time speaking in English! Doing a Masters in Lyon did wonders for improving my French. Sometimes we had 12 hour days (can you imagine? Yes, classes for 12 hours straight bar 30 minutes for lunch!). It was extremely exhausting and difficult but I got there in the end. There are many advantages to doing a degree in your chosen foreign language. You will learn a lot of technical words/jargon related to your field of study, and you will also learn a lot of slang/colloquial terms from your fellow students. And let’s face it, they do not teach you those words in French class!
Once you’re at B2 level and have the opportunity to study abroad I would highly recommended it. You will improve so quickly. But do it in a smaller place. Small towns are better for acquiring the language and French/Europe has a ton of wonderful, small university towns to choose from.
So that’s it for my tips! You see? It’s entirely possible to learn French but you really have to want it badly and you have to believe in yourself. You can do it! Bon Courage!
If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them down below 🙂