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Language Hacking French: How to Learn French, the Faster Way

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From 27th September, my new book Language Hacking French is available in bookstores all around the world.

Get your copy tout de suite!

What’s the deal with language hacking?

Language hacking is all about looking for the faster, smarter ways to learn languages. I’ve been sharing and developing my ideas on language hacking ever since I launched Fluent in 3 Months in 2009

Now, for the first time, I’ve developed Language Hacking into a series of beginner courses for language learners, published with Teach Yourself.

Language Hacking: French is a conversation course that starts at ground zero, and helps you speak from day 1.

In other words, it’s all about learning French by speaking French.

Rather than go in-depth on how language hacking works (you can read more about that here), I thought I’d give you a sneak peek inside the new course, so you can try out some French hacks for yourself.

I’ve included that page numbers so when you get your own copy of the course (order here) you can look them up for yourself.

Read on for a sneak preview of ten key language hacks from Language Hacking: French.

1. Get a Head-start With Words You Already Know (page 10)

French and English share thousands of words in common. In fact, linguists estimate that up to one third of the English language is directly influenced by French. Thanks, Norman Conquest! (Too soon?)

Words that have identical or near-identical spelling, and the same meaning in two languages are called cognates. There’s not enough room here to list all the words that English and French have in common. But here are a few simple rules to help you figure out how to determine which English words are likely to have a cognate in French:

  • English words ending in -tion: Most English -tion words have the same spelling and meaning in French. For example: admiration, association, instruction, option, etc.
  • English words ending in -tude, -or, -ist, -nce and -ty: These words usually have the same meaning in French, and nearly the same spelling. Examples: altitude, acteur, optimiste, arrogance, université.

2. Learn French Vocab Faster with Memory Hooks (page 24)

Memory hooks are all about linking new vocabulary to powerful images, ideas or even sounds. That way you can memorize a lot of new words in a very short time.

Here’s an example. Back in university, a friend of mine overheard some economics students studying for an exam. One student said to the other, “Know how to remember the four types of unemployment? Just imagine a guy throwing up on the wall of a building on a hot day. He’s vomiting, so his food is being recycled, so that’s ‘cyclical’. It’s a hot day, so that’s ‘seasonal’. He threw up on a building, so that’s ‘structural’. And the vomit sticks to the wall, so that’s ‘frictional’. And there you have it, all four types of unemployment!”

If this image sounds kind of gross, it’s supposed to. Because this student used such shocking imagery, my friend never forgot this story, and it happened years ago!

You can use the same technique to memorize French vocab.

An easy way of doing this is to look for an English word that sounds like the French word you’re trying to learn. For example, suppose you want to learn that sur means “on” in French. Are there any English words that sound like “sur”. What about “syrup”? And where do you usually put your syrup bottle when you’re having pancakes? On the table. So to remember that “sur” means “on”, picture a bottle of syrup on the table.

Memory hooks work best when you create them yourself. Try to come up with a funny, shocking, or dramatic sound or image to connect a new French word to its meaning. It might sound like hard work at first, but it’s really not. Soon it will become second nature. Then you won’t have to worry anymore about hearing a French word that you know you’ve heard before, but can’t quite remember.

3, Learn French Word Genders with this Simple Trick (page 59)

Learn just two rules about word endings in French, and you can guess the gender of new words and have a pretty good chance of being right.

  • Words ending in a consonant (except -ion) are probably masculine. E.g. “le poulet”, “le mur”, etc.
  • Words ending in -e and -ion are probably feminine. E.g. “la rue”, “la différence”, “une université”, etc.

Of course there are exceptions, but don’t worry about those for now. You can learn them as you go. The more you speak, the more you’ll hear the exceptions, and eventually, you’ll just get a “feel” for the gender. This is how native French speakers figure out the gender of less-common words that they’re not sure of.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to figure out whether the noun the word refers to is inherently masculine or feminine. This doesn’t work. There is no relationship between the gender of the noun and the gender of the object it refers to. The gender of words can even change from country to country. For example, in France, the word “job” is “le job”, but in Quebec, it’s “la job”!

4. Five Booster Verbs so You Can Say Almost Anything (page 82)

When you’re talking in French, the last thing you want to do is pause every few words to remember how to conjugate your verbs.

You can use verbs even before you learn to conjugate them by rephrasing your sentence using one of the following five “booster” verbs. You can use all of these verbs with another verb in its dictionary form – no conjugation required.

Aimer (for interests)

Instead of trying to remember the “je” form of every verb for every activity you’re interested in, just use aimer (“to like”) plus the verb in its dictionary form.

For example: “I play baseball” can become “J’aime jouer au baseball” (I like to play baseball). “I go out every weekend” can become “J’aime sortir chaque weekend” (I like to go out every weekend).

Aller (for future plans)

Use aller (“to go”) to talk about what you’re doing in the near future. For example:

  • “Je vais manger” (“”I’m going to eat”)
  • “On va travailler” (”We’re going to work”)

Vouloir (for intentions)

Vouloir (to want) is a great verb to use when you intend to do something but can’t remember the “je” form of the activity you want to do. For example: “I’m seeing the movie tomorrow” can become “Je veux voir le film demain” (“I want to see the film tomorrow”).

Devoir (for obligations)

If the activity you want to talk about is an obligation, you can rephrase your sentence using devoir (to have to). For example:

“I’m working tomorrow” can become “Je dois travailler demain” (“I have to work tomorrow”).
“I’m writing this article for Friday” can become “Je dois écrire cet article pour vendredi” (“I have to write this article for Friday”).

Pouvoir (for possibilities)

Use pouvoir (to be able to) for clarifying that you ‘can’ or ‘are able to’ do something. For instance, the verb recevoir (to receive) can be quite tricky to get right, so you could say:

“Je peux recevoir la lettre ici” (“I can receive the letter here”)

5. Pronounce Words You Haven’t Even Learned Yet (page 97)

All those silent letters in French that make it difficult to spell words correctly are actually good news for your pronunciation.

For all regular -er verbs, the je, tu, il/elle, and ils/elles forms are pronounced exactly the same way. For example, the verb visiter in je visite, tu visites, il/elle visite, and ils/elles visitent sounds the same each time.

For -ir and -re verbs, they’re pronounced the same in the je, tu and il/elle forms.

Any time you hear a new regular verb in French, even if you’ve never seen it written down, you’ll already be able to pronounce at least three forms: je, tu, il/elle, and (for -er verbs) ils/elles. So when it comes to speaking French, most of the heavy lifting will already be done for you!

6. Sound More Fluent with Conversation Connectors (page 130)

Conversation connectors are words or short phrases that we all use when we want to soften what we say, elaborate on an idea, or transition smoothly between topics in a conversation.

They make conversations sound more natural, and keep them from fizzling out prematurely.

Learn these conversation connectors and watch how much better your French conversations flow:

  • franchement (frankly speaking)
  • entre nous (between us)
  • j'ai l'impression que (it seems to me that)
  • c'est pourquoi (and that is why)
  • d'autre part (on the other hand)

You’ll find plenty more conversational connectors inside Language Hacking French.

7. Time Travel – Talk About the Past and Future Using the Present Tense (page 152)

French is well-known for its common use of the present tense even when talking about the past. Documentary films, for example, will narrate historical events using the present tense. People also do it every day when telling stories and anecdotes.

You can do the same thing when talking about the past and future in your French conversations.

For a story in the past, start by giving the setting (“So last week, I’m reading in the park, minding my own business…”), and then tell the rest of your story using the present tense.

For the future, you can just add a time indicator to your sentence to show when the action will take place. For example:

  • “J’appelle mon père dans deux heures” (“I’m calling my father in two hours”)
  • “Je vais au Mexique en décembre” (“I’m going to Mexico in December”)

8. The Rephrasing Technique for Talking Your Way Through Complicated Sentences (page 178)

Even in your native language, you might struggle from time to time to express an idea precisely the right way. This is even more of a struggle in French, a language you don’t yet speak fluently.

Don’t worry – the elaborate, nuanced phrases you’re used to in your native language will come eventually in French. But for now, just let it go. Communication should be your first priority. Embellishing what you say is secondary.

Figure out the main idea of your sentence, and say that instead. For example, if you want to say, “I’m looking for a flatmate that speaks French and wants to rent the room for at least 12 months”, you could simplify it to “J’ai besoin d’un coloc. 12 mois. On va parler français ensemble !” (I need a flatmate. 12 months. We’ll speak French together!”).

9. Make the Most of Hidden Moments to Get French Immersion for the Long Term (page 204)

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “To establish just how much time you waste, get someone to follow you around all day and watch what you’re doing.”

Instead of taking such a drastic step, simply take a good hard look at your typical day. Add up all the “idle minutes” you find yourself with. Riding the bus, waiting for a slow lift, standing in line in the supermarket, zoning out during TV commercials (and watching a lot of TV in the first place!)… These are all time-killers, and they can really add up.

Take advantage of these hidden moments to squeeze in some French practice. Pull out your phone and study some French flashcards. Listen to a French song or read a page or paragraph of a French book.

Are you genuinely short on time some days? Then change your browser or operating system to French. That way you’ll get exposure to the language every time you use your computer.

10. Develop a Cheat Sheet to Go into ‘Autopilot’ During Your First Conversation (page 210)

Language Hacking French is all about helping you have real life conversations with native French speakers.

Too many language learners delay this step. They think: “I won’t know what to say!”, “What if the other person asks me a question I don’t understand?” and “I’m too nervous”.

These feelings are all completely normal.

A cheat sheet will help you with all of them. Write down the phrases that you want to use during your conversation, and you’ll always have something to say. Make a list of “survival phrases” so you can ask the other person to repeat what they just said, or to tell them that you don’t understand. Having these phrases handy will automatically make you a lot less nervous.

I like to divide my cheat sheet into four sections:

  • Essentials: “Hello”, “How are you?”, “I’m well, thank you”, “Goodbye”, as well as typical introductory questions like “Where do you work?”, “Where are you from?”, etc.
  • Survival phrases: I’m sorry, I don’t understand”, “Could you please repeat that?”, “Could you type that out?” etc.
  • Questions you plan to ask: “What do you do in your free time?”, “What’s your city like?”, etc.
  • Any material that you want to practise saying: for example, “me-specific” phrases like your hobbies, your job, or any upcoming plans you have.

Keep the cheat sheet handy during your conversation. Refer to it as often as you need to, and Voilà! You’ve just had your first real-life conversation with a native French speaker!

Here's an article about how you can create your own cheat sheet.

Want to Speak French – the Faster Way?

I hope you’ve found these French hacks helpful.

Language Hacking French takes you step-by-step through speaking French.

From the day you pick up the course, you’ll learn how to speak French in real life situations.

One early tester of Language Hacking French recently wrote:

Prior to this, my French was nonexistent when it came to speaking. I wouldn't speak French to anyone. But this book has really given me the confidence to speak French with its useful hacks and the personal scripts that you develop throughout the book

Order your copy of Language Hacking French today.

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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