How to learn French — 9 tips from a French tutor

Claudio Guasti
Published: 1 July 2024
How to learn French — 9 tips from a French tutor

Proven and useful tips for learning the French language with ease.

It's easy to get your priorities wrong when you start to learn a language. You may visualise a grammar book open by your side. A dictionary. Maybe a verbs book. It turns out that these are just props. Whilst they are undoubtedly useful in various stages of learning French, they will only help you speak confidently to an extent. Put your pen down, for a moment, and find room for the following in your week instead. 

1. Listen, listen, listen

When you start learning start learning a language, you may think you only need to learn a few words and that this will be enough. There are of course a lot of words to learn in any language, and French in no exception.

It is estimated that you need 5000 words to understand a conversation fairly well. However, most adult students learn those words from reading them, rather than by hearing them. But in fact, listening to vast quantities of French is the best thing you can do. You should never learn words without hearing them. This is crucial because written French has a lot of silent letters.

Listen to others speak

Listening is important because we spend as much time (or more) listening to other people as we do speaking. As any language learner knows, this is the hardest thing to do though, as you can't control the speed and so the most useful exercise you can do at home is almost always neglected.

You should never learn words without hearing them

Listen to music

To help with feeling on top of it, try choosing music. It’s quite addictive (even when you don’t like the song!) and is very effective whether you start singing along to the songs, or not. You may need to listen to the same songs many times to “tune in”. There are many benefits to listening to French music when you’re learning French.

  • Music will introduce you to new words
  • You’ll learn the different ways that words are commonly used.
  • You’ll learn proper pronunciation because songs follow rhythmic rules
  • Music helps you understand humour or how people casually talk to each other
  • It will help you tune into those difficult French vowel sounds more easily.
Paris, France

Listen to podcasts and radio

Be brave and listen to radio podcasts and watch foreign films from very early on and don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. A lot is not about understanding the words, but about getting used to the pace and intonation.

It takes hundreds of hours of active - and passive - listening to develop good listening comprehension. This should be at the heart of your learning.

2. Speak, speak, speak

It’s important to practice speaking French from very early on - from day one, in fact. In fact, this should be your priority #2.

Some students think that everything needs to be correct and hesitate to speak, but you can communicate fairly well with a few mistakes. A good communicator listens and responds with very little hesitation, and that usually means accepting that some grammar rules will be broken.

Get into the habit of not looking for a specific word, but finding simple words that help you share your ideas. Then, afterwards you can look up that word.

Grammar is not everything when you speak. It’s more important to focus on finding simple words that help you move your ideas forward and keep your listener interested. You will feel a lot more confident in the process. Make them laugh, ask them questions - don't be afraid to jump in.

It takes a lot of speaking practice to help your mouth word those new difficult sounds. It's a bit like kicking a ball for the first time even if you don't know anything about football. You are learning to train your mouth to come to grips with new sounds, and it takes some practice to do that.

3. Copy - don't translate

Don’t try to translate things literally from your native language into French.

It helps at first when you don’t have too much of a grasp of a language, but as you start to learn more vocabulary, try to think of what you want to say in French and copy chunks of words you have heard or read.

For instance, compare
I’m going to the cinema at the weekend
je vais au cinéma ce week-end”.

We say “this weekend” not “at the weekend.

A lot of people think translating things is enough only to realise later that copying French speakers makes them sound much more natural and easier to understand.

One way to achieve this is to watch natives speak and pick up on the phrases that they commonly use. Don't ask search engine translators - learn word clusters instead. 

4. The role of grammar

Grammar is not everything when you speak but it is centre stage when you write.

Good grammar helps the reader understand your line of thoughts more easily, and good grammar helps you correct those mistakes that could become set when you speak. Grammar, therefore, helps you structure your learning and clarify things but does not really help you gain more confidence when speaking.

A lot of students think that it is the most important thing - perhaps, because a lot of it is needed in the first couple of years. But accuracy will only help you minimally as you move up the levels.

Dedicating your free time to listening and speaking are more valuable once you've left the beginner's stage. You should not forget accuracy, of course, but work it into your speaking and written practice.

5. Give it time

A lot of students think they only need a few weeks to learn.

French cannot be learned that quickly though and the journey may be uneven at times.  One day you will feel that you have reached a milestone, the next that your learning isn’t moving past that certain stage. This probably is true of any learning. Keep persevering: a key element is to enjoy every second of it. This will carry you through the levels.

6. Don't be afraid of making mistakes

It may sound like a cliché, but a lot of people are terrified of making mistakes.

Our education system (and broader society, as a whole) looks down on mistakes, and it often stops people from “jumping into” a conversation to avoid feeling out of control. The reality is that mistakes are not a problem, except if you repeat them a lot, i.e. if these repeated mistakes are not corrected.

In the example above, saying “je vais au cinéma au* week-end” is not really a problem when you are a beginner, but it could become problematic as the conversation develops to a higher level and the listener gets a bit confused about when you are actually going to the cinema (wondering if you mean this coming weekend or most weekends …).
What to do with mistakes?

This is when writing short texts and reading corrections is useful. Watch, observe and understand the correction, make a note of it, and use it in a new context as soon as you can to check if you do understand it.

Mistakes should therefore be seen as a learning tool, not as something to stop you in your tracks. 

The Louvre Museum — the world's largest art museum and a historic monument in Paris, France.

7. Bring French into your routine

A lot of people think they can learn by just attending French sessions, or by adding a little bit of weekly homework to them.

In fact, the best learners incorporate the language into their daily routine. Learning languages is all about routine, even if it is just 10 minutes a day. I often compare learning a language to learning to play the piano or tennis. It really is doing a little every day that will make a difference.

How can you do that? Well, there isn't a general method that works for everyone. You have to find the best method that works for you. For some, it will be doing a French Wordle in the morning. Others will enjoy listening to a short French podcast on a topic they know well (and will not feel bad if they don’t understand everything). And so on. Vary the tasks - be imaginative.

8. Have interesting and meaningful conversations

A lot of people don’t know how much they will enjoy learning a language before they start it. French people really like to talk about topical issues, and French sessions will help you concentrate and reflect on a wide variety of topics.

You will find yourself having real and insightful conversations, even from fairly early on. Learning French is not just learning the language but also about French culture - a bit like sitting at a Paris café and soaking up the view - but in a classroom or online these days!

9. Looking forward to it

Finally, most newcomers do not know how good the atmosphere in a language class is before they start. They do not know that they will look forward to that time of the week when they meet their fellow students, will laugh, and feel supported by the tutor and the rest of the group. It really is a very enjoyable experience, but very few people know this before they start. This enjoyment is essential to keep you going.

Learn to speak French

We offer courses for all levels. Whether you are a beginner, a tad rusty or already fluent and want to enjoy French conversation or you want to improve your knowledge with an advanced course. Browse from our range of courses choose a date and time that suits you.

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How to learn French — 9 tips from a French tutor