Before You Start Learning French (Managing Expectations)

So you’re thinking of starting to learn French. Or, even better, you’re trying to start learning French again.

Before you start learning French, you need a solid foundation. I don’t really mean grammar and vocabulary (today.) I mean: lasting motivation. Structure. Feedback. There’s a lot going on in your life, distractions and people and the news and… In the middle of all that, you need a powerful management of learning French.

And you know what? You can start today. C’est parti.

1) Before you start learning French: Goals

Patience and persistence

French is hard. Even for native speakers!
So first of all: whether you started learning French yesterday or at school 30, 40, 50 years ago and are still struggling to speak it, please be patient and kind with yourself.
Learning French takes time. But not only time: if you spent 30 years concentrating on formal written French, you might need some more time to re-wire your brain for spoken French.

My only rule here: Don’t give up, and follow a structure you can trust. While you’re here on Comme une Française, I’ll be your guide and push you out of your comfort zone when you need it.

Progress happens at all ages

Lots of students tell me “I’m too old to learn!” (no matter their age). “My grandson is learning French and he’s almost bilingual already!” “Only children can learn a new language.”

That’s not true. And:

  1. You’re not a child anymore. You don’t have all their free time to learn 24/7.
  2. But, you have the benefit of age: the experience of what works for you and the strategy to concentrate on what will make a difference. Leverage. Maybe you won’t learn nursery rhymes nor read Paw Patrol in French but you can concentrate on how to efficiently buy croissants and make friends with a neighbour.

Use your age to your advantage!
You will be slower than your granddaughter to memorize all the color names but you’ll have fun talking about your passion for cycling, even if you have to use Google Translate from time to time.

I’ve taught students from 30 to 90. It’s not age that slows you, it’s motivation.

Realistic goals and timelines

I always start my live lessons with students with the same question.
What do you want to achieve with your French?
Not what level you want to reach. Nor what exam you want to pass. Or what tense you are struggling with.

Do you want to:

  • Book a tour in French at the Office du Tourisme during your next visit to Carcassonne instead of hiding behind your spouse whose French is bad but who is not afraid to speak?
  • Have coffee with an elderly neighbour who speaks French and who would love some company?
  • Finally join a conversation class without the shame of not speaking French even though you’ve been studying it for 30 years and can read ” Les Misérables “en français”?

As you can see, none of these are about “a level”, or “being fluent” or “mastering the French subjunctive”. It’s about connection, fun, and enjoying life. You’ll be so proud of yourself, and I’ll be very happy for you too.

And no matter your current level, all these goals are realistic. It’s about setting up the right timeline and milestones.

2) Before you start learning French: Ressources

Ressources I recommend:

  • “Progressive du Français” books by CLE International → My favourite way to understand the fundamentals of a language. Yes, it’s a bit old school because you’ll need to sit down and study with a pen and paper. But I know you can do it!
  • “Pratique révision” A1 exercise book →If your French is rusty and you just want exercises.
  • Duolingo → You know that app. Not a great cultural tool, but at least it makes practice a fun game that can hook you in efficiently. Any start is a good start!
  • Spoken French Essentials → My online program for students whose French is rusty, and for those who want a solid start to learning real everyday spoken French
  • Exercise Your French → My structured program with deeper lessons and regular quizzes, about French culture and etiquette – what all French people know but won’t tell you directly.

A good learning hack is to supplement any of these programs with flashcards and spaced repetition. They’re an effective way to actually remember what you learn in the long term. You can make them yourself on paper, or use an app like Anki, for instance.

Finally, the best recommendations always come from the learners, you! So please share your recommendations with the other students in the comments!

3) Before you start learning French: Regular practice (and immersion?)

No matter how much you study, you need to use your French. Otherwise, it’s useless, and your practice will fall on the wayside.

Popular excuse to avoid doing anything #1:

  • “I (“only”) need a native French language partner to practice.” → No you don’t. See below.

Practicing is about getting the words from your brain to your mouth. So you can:

  • Talk to your dog in French when you walk them, to your cat when you cuddle them or your favorite tree when you hug them in French. (Many of my students’ dogs are now bilingual.)
  • Talk to yourself in the mirror in the morning.
  • Fake a conversation using headphones. People will think you have a very patient French friend with great listening skills.
  • Or get a fellow francophile on board and have regular French coffee sessions!

Practicing with another French learner is what my best students do in my French Conversation Club program! Some have been meeting each week for years. A great way to make friends.

What matters is to speak French, not just absorb lists of vocabulary.

Popular excuse to avoid doing anything #2:

  • “I (“only”) need to spend two years in France to learn French.” → No you don’t.

Immersion can actually backfire: in France, you’ll be faced with people speaking fast that you won’t understand, or you’ll find yourself speaking English for your whole trip. You risk feeling quietly ashamed when you come back and still don’t master the language…

Don’t get me wrong: learning French in France is fantastic! But you should still prepare beforehand anyway – and you still need structure to make real progress, even with immersion.

4) Before you start learning French: Your personal interests

Best way to keep your motivation? Learn what’s interesting to you.
Learn French about your passion: gardening, opera singing, pet caring, art history, cycling…

If you live in France, please join “une association” around your passion in order to make friends who will love hiking, art history or cats as much as you do. There are 1.3 million associations in France, I’m sure you’ll find your new BFF.

If you’re far from France, find a French TV show about your passion, like:

Children (or teenagers) books can also be fantastic ways to learn the vocabulary you need. I’m thinking of:

5) Before you start learning French: Phases of Learning French

Phase 1: Introduction and Basic Vocabulary

When you start learning French, it’s easy to start with greetings (because they’re very cultural), catch a few essential phrases and understand some basic grammar.


  • Bonjour = Hello, “goodday” (polite)
  • We don’t have “good afternoon” or “good morning,” it’s “bonjour” for the whole day
  • Bonsoir = Good evening (after 6pm)
    Never say “bonjour” twice to the same person in the same day!

Basic French essentials:

  • Merci = thank you
  • S’il vous plaît = please (polite)
  • Excusez-moi = Excuse me (polite)
  • C’est très beau. = That’s very beautiful.
  • J’adore ! = I love it!

Basic Grammar:

  • C’est + adjective = That’s… It’s…
  • Basic conjugation for a few verbs in the present, especially être (to be), avoir (to have), aller (to go), chanter (to sing, as template for all the other verbs in “er” except “aller”)
  • Add “pas” after the verb to make the negation in spoken French.

Simple ressources to practice:

Phase 2: Building on Basics

Now that you have the basics, let’s start expanding your vocabulary and grammar understanding.

For vocabulary, my best recommendation is to try to translate nouns you need in everyday life. Have a son? Learn “Un fils”. Have a granddaughter ? Learn “Une petite-fille”. You are a lawyer? It’s “un avocat” or “une avocate”, etc. Start with the core of your life. You’ll get to learn the gender of these nouns too, and get a first feel for how it works.

For grammar, keep an eye on everyday spoken French grammar. It will give you the biggest return on investment if you want to speak French quickly and understand Netflix. Unless you’re studying for an exam – if you want to pass, stick to your textbook!

At this level, you can also start to form simple sentences and have short conversations, like:

  • Le train arrive à huit heures. = The train arrives at 8. → notice the gender of “le train”, masculine
  • J’ai faim, on va déjeuner ? = I’m, hungry, shall we go have lunch? → notice the informal “on” (“someone”, third person) for “we”
  • Je vais prendre un café, merci. = I’ll have a coffee, thank you. → notice the “near future” construction “Je vais…”
  • Bonjour, je voudrais une baguette, s’il vous plaît. = Good morning, I’d like a baguette, please. → notice the polite words, and the polite conditional “Je voudrais” = I would like

It’s also great to start exploring French music strategically (not just listen to Edith Piaf’s La Vie en rose), find things you like that you can listen to in French, and read the lyrics to spot new words and expressions you’d love to remember. It’s easier with songs! And you get the habit of listening to French pronunciation.

Phase 3: Intermediate Proficiency

When you reach intermediate proficiency, you can start engaging in more complex conversations.

Practice deeper conversations about your own life: describe your everyday life in French, talk about the last movie you watched, talk about a trip you made recently (in France, maybe?). The point here is to give your nuanced opinion.

A good idea would be to join or create a French book club (or even just a WhatsApp group with other francophiles) where you can have discussions in French about a topic. For example, that’s something that my students enjoy in our 30-Day French Challenges, where we explore French places and French culture.

You can start exploring French media:

  • TV5 Monde: a classic with news and programs from all around the francophone world
  • (more widely available than Great programs, great app. Use subtitles in French!
  • Streaming services, of course ; I like to recommend the programs The French Agency, Call my agent or Lupin – but you can pick any French film from history of cinema too!
  • Newspapers: beyond the classic Le Monde, check out “Le 1” (available online), La Croix (nominally Christian newspaper, but a great read for anyone), Marie Claire (woman’s magazine, I like their interviews), Télérama (cultural recommendations)…

And finally, it’s time to use French “for real” !
For example, next time you plan a trip to France do it entirely in French! Research accommodations, transportation, and activities online using only French websites. Then, practice making phone calls or write emails to book reservations or ask for information all in french.

6) Before you start learning French: How to Stay Motivated

Celebrate small victories → Don’t take them for granted! You will always be “just behind” your next goal. If you don’t stop and notice what you actually achieved, however small, you’ll only feel the frustration of not being perfect. Take time to celebrate! “First French movie without English subtitles.” “First conversation entirely in French with Madame Martin.” “First email in French without using Google Translate.”… Bravo!

Journaling → It’s great for life in general – and it applies to learning French. Don’t just take notes about grammar or conjugation; write about your struggles and successes and celebrate those milestones. When you re-read the journal in 12 months, you’ll see how much you accomplished!

Community → Online communities or local groups are core to long-term motivation. It can be a local class, your Alliance Française club, or an online program like the French Conversation Club and my 30-day French Challenge.

Adjust regularly → Take a look at your progress (and celebrate.) Assess your learning habits, structures and tools. Are they still a good fit? Do you need more accountability? Some feedback on your accent? More context for all the vocabulary you learn? Or even… to take a break from French for the summer to prevent a burnout?

I often recommend students to get a 1-1 lesson with a private teacher, even online, to get you back on the right track. A yearly check up is always a good thing.

Your turn now
Share with us in the comments: which tools and structures do you use in your French learning journey? What are your passions, that you can use to learn French? What are your French goals for this year?

Write it down in the comment – in French, if you dare!

Or you can start with another lesson: Basic French Conversation: Everything You Need to Know

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Allez, à très vite !


→ If you enjoyed this lesson (and/or learned something new) – why not share this lesson with a francophile friend? You can talk about it afterwards! You’ll learn much more if you have social support from your friends 🙂


Join the conversation!

  • Hello dear Geraldine. A while ago you recommended talking to your dog, your flowers, even yourself, in French, to practice. That was a terrific recommendation. I talked to myself (silently of course) while I was having an MRI, describing my home, my neighborhood, my family, etc. !

    • Bonjour @Carole,

      It is pronounced “ee-kay-ah” in French.

      Bien à toi,

      Comme une Française Team

  • My two challenges are
    1) 100% recognition of all nasal vowels – I am on about 95% ish -on and -an still fool me from time to time
    2) fast spoken French – fully understanding it

  • Bonjour, Geraldine. May I also recommend my book, “Swanson’s French: An Unusual Guide to Learning Modern “Street” French,” available on Amazon. The second addition is coming out very soon with lots of updates and improvements. And was it just me, or were a few of those tips inspired by my book? 🙂 (And you get a major recommendation in it, too!). OK, back to watching Stage 8 of the Tour de France. Hey, the guy from Eritrea, Biniam Girmay, just won that stage! A bientot! Bill

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