So, you’re a complete beginner in French. Maybe you remember a word or two from your high school lessons, but not much. You think you maybe still know how to ask if you can be excused to go to the toilet, but everything’s still a little rusty.
But this year, it’s decided. You’ve made the commitment. You finally want to learn French!
Maybe you want to learn so that you’ll be more prepared for your upcoming trip to France… maybe you want to reconnect with some distant family living in Provence, or discover your grandmother’s heritage from Normandy… maybe you want to impress your spouse with a super romantic talent… or maybe it’s just for the fun of learning a new skill!
No matter what your motivations are for learning French, there’s always one question that all beginners ask:
Where do you start?
French is a difficult language. You have to worry about pronunciation, understanding spoken French (which can be really, really fast), dealing with sometimes complicated grammar, understanding local accents, not to mention the conjugation…
Plus there are almost too many choices when it comes to resources for learning beginner’s French. There are hundreds of “French for beginners” books and CDs on Amazon. There’s also Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and other apps. What about a children’s book? A podcast?
Some of these resources are outdated, others are just plain wrong… and it can be hard to find a reliable, modern, fun method that suits you, your needs and your busy life.
BUT, don’t worry – I’m here to help! By the end of this lesson, you’ll have a clear, concrete plan on how to learn French from scratch, with confidence. Let’s dive in!
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1) Why do you want to learn French?
First of all, think about why you want to learn French. As with learning anything, knowing your “why” is key to getting on the right path and keeping yourself motivated along your learning journey.
I always recommend that beginners write down their reason. Don’t just keep it in your head, where you can forget about it when things get hard (because they will get hard!). Write it down in your learning notebook, or even write it on a piece of paper and stick it to your mirror so you see it every day.
In my experience, there are some common reasons why people want to learn French. They are:
- To learn French language skills: “I love French, it’s my favorite language. It’s a beautiful language. I’ve always wanted to learn, it’s been on my bucket list for years.” You want to feel the pride and excitement of embracing a new hobby, perhaps one that you’ve wanted to start for a long time.
- To learn practical French you can actually use: “I’m going to France soon to visit, live or study and I want to be comfortable and speak with the locals.” You want to feel like you can ‘get along’ when you visit France because you have the confidence and the knowledge to speak French.
- To connect with family & friends: “I want to connect with my french friends, in-laws, family, French husband/wife.” You want to feel you can exchange more than polite smiles with your French in-laws or integrate and make friends in France instead of just hanging out with other expats.
- To better understand French culture: “I want to connect with my heritage: my grand-mère is from Normandy and I’ve always wanted to learn.” OR “I love French culture (especially the music, not to mention the cheese and wine) and I’d love to learn words and phrases that help me connect with it on a deeper level.” You want to feel exposed to new and exciting things: new people, new ideas, a greater appreciation for French culture that maybe even runs in your blood.
Do any of these reasons sound familiar? Maybe even a couple of them do! Before you continue with this lesson, take a minute to pause and think. What is your reason for wanting to learn French? Write it down! And share it with me in the comments 😉
2) Common difficulties for beginners in French
Okay, let me tell you a little secret that I think is going to help you. No matter what your French learning goals are (whether you want to learn French speaking, or want to learn how to write a romantic love letter in French, whatever), there are three areas where French is most difficult for English-speaking learners.
I want to take some time to talk through each of these with you and explain why they’re so hard, and so common. That way you’ll feel less alone (and less likely to give up) when you come across them.
1. French pronunciation.
Some sounds are hard to say, plain and simple. There’s the nasal-y “an/ein”, as well as the French R.
Then there are some sounds that might even seem impossible to hear or say, like “u/eu”.
My Mexican mum still can’t pronounce a few common French sounds, after 36 years in France, while being bilingual! Sometimes when she’s at the market she even rephrases what she wants to say (“Deux oignons doux”) to avoid having to repeat herself 10 times!
Relax. Yes, you’re going to sound and look ridiculous when you’re trying to practice articulating these sounds in front of your bathroom mirror. But with context, when you actually speak French, you’ll mostly be understood.
My shortcut for beginners: You can avoid 99% of the pronunciation mistakes tourists make by learning NOT to pronounce the silent letters in the new words you learn. This puts you on the right path from the start and will save you time in the future. I’m tired of C1 students saying “Bon appétit” with the T. You can do it. For example: cross the silent letters with a pencil from the words you learn!
My tip for perfectionists: Be aware of the differences between written and modern spoken French from the start. This will save you headaches when you hear French in real life, right away. Spoken French is a bit like music, it HAS to “sound right”. We make “la liaison” where words merge into each other, we eat letters and cut words. It will help you avoid sounding like a rigid textbook or old-fashioned French (which I compare to speaking English like Hamlet in a Shakespeare play).
2. Gender of nouns
French nouns all have a gender : masculine or feminine (no neutral). And most of the time, the rest of the phrase has to agree with the gender of this noun: the adjective, the article and the verb. Argh!
Students learning French, especially beginners, focus way too much on the gender of nouns. But can you keep a secret? No French person actually cares.
My friend Christina (see video lesson with her) has been in France for 15 years and is also bilingual. BUT, she completely gave up on learning the gender of nouns in French! Her French is still completely fantastic, but when she’s speaking French she just gives up getting the gender right. (When she’s writing emails, it’s a different story— she looks for the gender on the internet.)
My shortcut for beginners: ONLY learn the gender of nouns you NEED. Don’t worry about the lists of vocabulary you’ll only use once a year. And relax. Again, French people know it’s hard. Some even find your mistakes sexy. You’ll remind them of Jane Birkin. 😉
My tip for perfectionists: Always check the gender of nouns you use when writing in French by using autocorrect or a spell checker on your computer. Be ruthless in your writing when you’re using a computer (but take it easy on yourself when you’re speaking).
3. French grammar, conjugation and… all their exceptions
Learning French is endless. So don’t assume you’ll learn all its grammar and conjugation at an A1 level before moving to A2. People don’t even know it all at C2. Even French people don’t know everything!
Instead, double down your efforts on learning the correct foundations when it comes to French grammar and conjugation. Don’t try to “self-teach” yourself these complicated things. It’s going to be way more difficult, and chance are you’ll focus on the wrong elements.
Want some tips on what you should focus on?
- Beginner verbs: first group verbes (ending in -er) + être, avoir, aller, vouloir
- Beginner conjugation: present + shortcuts, as below
- Shortcuts for conjugation: for example, aller + infinitive (instead of learning the future tense, which we don’t really use in spoken French)
My shortcut for beginners: Make short sentences. I say this all the time when I correct students’ homework in my live program “Le Salon de Géraldine”: MAKE SHORT SENTENCES. Sounds like, “duh”. But by making short, well structured sentences, you make less mistakes and you’ll be more confident in your French. Mistakes don’t matter but clarity does.
My tip for perfectionists: Grammar and conjugation are the biggest trap for perfectionists. Forget about the subjunctive, the “en” VS “y”, the passé simple (tip: never learn this one). Focus on modern spoken French grammar instead, like dropping the “ne” in negation, replacing “nous” with “on” and conjugation shortcuts. You’ll sound French very quickly this way.
BONUS: Waiting to speak perfectly to start speaking.
Ok, this applies to all languages, but it’s a problem that’s very common when it comes to people learning French.
I’m constantly hearing students who are already at a B2 level confessing they’re too shy to speak French. This is a common perfectionist trap. All you really need is a big hug and some reassurance. So here it is, virtually 🙂 Don’t wait – practice your French speaking now!
3) How to learn French according to your goal
Full disclosure: NONE of the resources I recommend here are affiliate programs or links. I don’t earn any money by sharing them and the creators didn’t ask me to. These are resources that I recommend in real life to friends of friends who want to learn French, as beginners.
I picked methods that are available online or all around the world. If I don’t mention a resource, it’s NOT because I don’t like it. Please share your experience in the comments if you love a method I didn’t share here.
First, let’s go back to your reason for wanting to learn French. We talked about this at the beginning of the lesson. What’s your “why”? Which category that I mentioned most closely relates to your “why”? Below, I’ve made some recommendations based on those categories.
You want to learn French language skills (only)
You’re not very serious about learning French, it’s just for fun.
My recommendation: Duolingo.
It’s free and accessible, plus it’s popular and is played like a game. I rarely recommend Duolingo because it provides no cultural context, teaches you lots of useless vocabulary and the forums about French are often wrong. But it’s a start, their repetition system is great and I know lots of students who started with this app. My partner started Spanish with Duolingo to meet my Mexican family and it’s was a good fit for our 2-week stay because I provided the cultural elements and told him what lessons were useful while he was learning.
You’re serious about learning French language skills.
My recommendation: Learn live, like with your local Alliance Française or any other (good) French class with a teacher.
If you can join a real life class to get the foundations of French right, do it! You’ll have a live teacher who can take care of you as you learn and answer any questions you might have. What’s tricky with live classes is that you need someone reliable to tell you if the French taught is right or not. Of course, some classes may also be over budget, not available in your city, or don’t really work with your busy schedule – so this isn’t for everyone.
My other recommendation: Learn online, with ‘French for Beginners by Géraldine.
My first online program for beginners will open next week, in late January 2019. You can already pre-register to be notified when we open by clicking here! With this class, you’ll master all the French basics and give yourself a solid foundation of French. PLUS you get unlimited access to the course with lifetime access to all lessons, so you can learn on your own schedule. (Of course, the downside is that you don’t have a live teacher to correct your pronunciation right away – so if this is something you think you need, it’s probably better to find a live class.)
You want to learn practical french you can actually use
For a purely “tourist” or short professional stay
My recommendation: Earworms
An efficient, organised phrasebook. Doesn’t cover culture at all but the French is 99% right and the phrases are perfectly suited for a visit to France. I recommend purchasing the app to get the audio + the text all at once.
For interaction with locals, in French
My recommendation: → Earworms + ITalki
ITalki is a platform where you can find teachers and practice partners to learn a language online in 1-1 sessions. The strategy I recommend is to learn from Earworms and practice your French with Italki afterwards. This way, your pronunciation is corrected by a teacher and you can add a little bit of real life and French culture to your French.
Extra tip: Pick a francophone native teacher. If you’re visiting a francophone country that’s not France, pick a teacher from this country so they can teach you slang, regionalisms and customs from there.
You want to learn French to connect with family & friends
My recommendation: Any of the above + a BIG French customs/culture element.
Do not rely only on your ‘French 101’ background to connect with French people. You’ll do much better by adding some subtleties of French culture. My recommendations according to your learning style:
- Books: Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé and David Lebovitz’s The sweet life in Paris
- Video lessons: Comme une Française’s free lessons on cultural customs and big embarrassing mistakes + my more advanced programs (when you’re ready, of course…)
You want to better understand French culture
My recommendation: Any of the above (optional) + French-related resources with English subtitles
For cultural French, don’t pressure yourself into reaching a C2, bilingual level. Just follow your passion. I’d recommend the basics of French 101 above but focus on written comprehension rather that speaking and writing. Use your French as a way to understand French resources on your French heritage. You can also explore French customs and cultural subtleties, to understand your family’s choices and life.
French cultural resources you’ll enjoy:
- Echappées belles
- Des racines et des ailes
- C’est pas sorcier (any episode on History)
- Many other documentaries on https://www.france.tv/documentaires/ (art, cuisine, history, travels…)
- Documentaries on Arte : https://www.arte.tv/fr/
The goal is just for you to grasp enough French to understand the French subtitles and enrich your knowledge of French culture, beyond the clichés.
To sum it all up...
Learning French from scratch can be scary, but once you’re clear on what you want to achieve and know what to do, everything gets easier.
I hope your found your path, let me know in the comments below what you’ll do to get started!
My program “French for Beginners by Géraldine” will open next week. If you want to receive all the details, here’s the link to “French for Beginners”. That way you’ll be able see to see for yourself if it’s a good fit for you.
Bonne chance !
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Et bonne année 🙂