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So you want to learn how to speak French? Très bien !
French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, being official in 29 countries. These include Canada and Haiti in North America, French Guiana in South America, more than a dozen African nations, five European countries, and Vanuatu and several French overseas territories in Oceania.
French is beautiful, popular, and very useful.
Yet, despite what some native French speakers would have you believe, there’s one thing that French definitely isn’t: difficile.
French might have a reputation for being incredibly difficult for non-natives, but I can tell you from experience, this isn’t true. I actually found Spanish to be more difficult. That was mainly because Spanish was my first foreign language – so I made lots of mistakes in how I learned Spanish. But the time I got to French, I’d discovered the best ways to learn a foreign language.
Approach French the right way, and avoid the mistakes that many first-time language learners make, and you’ll find that French isn’t nearly as difficult as you’ve been led to believe.
While you certainly won't master it in three months, especially if you can only put a few hours a week into it, if you want to have your initial plan of action here’s how I’d suggest you learn French.
Let’s take a look at what you should do in the first hour, first day, first week and first month of learning French. From here you'll have the start you need to keep your momentum going and keep learning!
Before we get started, if you’re looking for an online French course, here’s the course I recommend: French Uncovered – Learn French Through the Power of Story, a course with a fascinating new method by my friend Olly.
How to Speak French: Equipment and Time
Before we begin, you will need the following:
- Computer or tablet with internet connection
- French phrasebook
- $10 – $20 per week to spend on language teachers
To follow this guide, you’ll need to set aside around four hours each weekend (I recommend scheduling out Saturday mornings), plus around 45 minutes per day on weekdays.
I also suggest you start at the weekend to give yourself a “first day” boost.
Here’s where to start on that first day…
How to Speak French: The First Hour
Your first step in learning French is to create a personalised French phrasebook.
Why do this? In my approach to learning French, you’ll focus on learning French that’s relevant to you, your life, and your reasons for learning French.
Get a fresh notebook, and a pen, and write “My French Phrasebook” on the cover.
This notebook will contain the French phrases that you need to know, rather than the one-size-fits-all phrases found in most French courses and phrasebooks.
Let’s get that first page filled!
Go to the Omniglot.com French phrases page and search for the phrases you use when you meet someone for the first time. Here are the phrases I’d look up:
- My name is…
- What is your name?
- Nice to meet you
Write down each word or phrase along with its English translation. Click on each phrase in Omniglot to hear its pronunciation by a French speaker, then speak out loud what you hear. Repeat this until you’re comfortable with creating French sounds in your mouth.
How to Speak French: The First Day
What should you do with the rest of your time on day one? Continue using Omniglot to collect French phrases and questions that you would use when talking with a native speaker for the first time. These will be the same phrases that you would use when meeting a speaker of your native language for the first time:
- Where are you from?
- I’m from [country or city of origin]
- What do you do?
- I’m a [job title]
- What do you do in your free time?
- In my free time, I like to…
If your job title and hobbies aren’t listed on Omniglot, use Google Translate to translate them.
The phrases you collect now don’t have to be grammatically perfect. The aim is to be able to say basic things about yourself, using what I call “Tarzan speak”. For example, I might learn how to say, “Je Benny. Je irlandais.” Sure, it’s far from perfect. But you get the point. And so will your first conversation partner.
Write down the phrases with their translations, then say them out loud.
Do your best to commit them to memory – but don’t spend too much time on this. You can always keep your notebook handy when you have your first conversation. Besides, you’ll be using these phrases almost every time you encounter a new person, so you’ll learn them by heart soon enough. Don’t be too fancy. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Just learn these few phrases and worry about elaborating later.
As you’ll have noticed by now, French pronunciation is very different from English. It will take time to master. You might feel silly trying to say the above phrases while trying to get the R just right, or figuring out which letters are silent. Don’t sweat it! It’s only your first day. Do your best, repeat after the recordings, and worry about the rest later.
How to Speak French: Week 1
Very early in your first week (even on your first day!) you should head over to italki and schedule your very first conversation with a native French speaker. Schedule it to be seven days from when you started learning French.
Speaking is by far the best way to learn a language.
There’s no feeling quite like the rush you get when you say something to a native speaker using your target language for the very first time, and the other person understands you. You’ll feel empowered to continue using your language, knowing that you can use it to connect with another person.
I recommend that you schedule your first conversation to be with a French teacher rather than a conversation partner. There are tons of French teachers on italki. Lessons do cost money, but the prices are generally very reasonable. Many teachers and tutors also offer free trial lessons.
And remember what I said about how global French is! If you restrict your search to only those in France or Europe, it may indeed be more than you can afford, but if you look all over the world, then you will definitely find someone who fits your personal requirements.
Why a teacher? Teachers will have experience of working with other language learners. When you’re a beginner, it’s important to have a teacher who’s supportive and patient. Teachers also know the best way to help you progress – pushing you hard enough to keep you learning, but not so hard that you feel overwhelmed.
You’ve scheduled your first conversation. The rest of your first week should be spent preparing for this conversation.
Review your conversation phrases from day one every day this week. If you can say them quickly and easily, then start adding some more phrases. These can be anything you want, but make sure you pick phrases that you’ll use often.
Considering that you’ll be chatting with a native speaker soon, phrases you’ll use a lot will be:
- Please speak more slowly
- Could you say that again?
- Please write that down
These can all be found on Omniglot, and will help you keep your first conversation in French going for several minutes. Remember to listen to the Omniglot recordings so you know the correct pronunciation.
Nearing the end of your first week and are still too nervous to schedule a conversation with a French speaker? Then sign up for my free Speak in a Week course.
How to Speak French: Week 2
By now you’ll have had your first conversation with a native French speaker! (If you haven’t, go on italki right now and schedule it).
You probably won’t have to worry much about motivation this week after your first conversation. But any time you do feel yourself struggling to stay motivated from now on, book another conversation with a teacher, tutor or language partner. You’ll come out of it feeling refreshed and ready to keep going. I recommend having a minimum of three conversations a week.
Now you’ve got a conversation under your belt, this week is about making sure that the words and phrases you learn stick in your memory. For this, I recommend using virtual flashcards, which you can create with Anki.
Remember the list of personal phrases you started creating on your first day, and then added to throughout your first week? You can import it into Anki to make your very own flashcard deck to practise French with.
Now you can review these phrases anytime you want. Anki’s SRS algorithm will automatically have you spend more time practising the phrases you’re less familiar with, and less time on the ones you know well. Practise your flashcards for at least fifteen minutes per day. When you start to get really good at the phrases, add more. A French phrasebook is a good reference if you’re having trouble thinking of phrases you want to learn.
It’s a good idea this week to start learning to read in French, beyond the simple words and phrases you’ve learned so far. You’ll be well-aware by now that French reading isn’t quite as straightforward as other Romance languages you may have studied, or heard of. Until you get the hang of it, you can’t rely on the spelling of French words as an indicator of pronunciation. There are too many silent letters, and multiple spellings for a single sound. The sooner you master the basics of reading, the sooner you’ll be able to use French literature as a study tool.
To start reading French, check out Languageguide.org’s Beginning Readings page. Click on any link to view a short French excerpt. A recording will begin to play so that you can listen to a native speaker read the text as you follow along. Clicking pause will highlight the word where the recording stopped. Hover your mouse over the punctuation mark at the end of any sentence to see its English translation.
By the end of this week, make sure to have at least one more French conversation with a native speaker. You’ll be able to see your own progress in the language, and it will give you the push you need to move on to your third week.
How to Speak French: Week 3
Week three is a good time to evaluate what’s worked for you in learning French, and what hasn’t worked so well.
That is, if you’ve kept up your practice. Have you? Chances are you’ve had some days when you felt super motivated, and some days when life happened and you didn’t do any language learning.
If you feel like you’ve stalled, this week is the time to put things right.
Something I’ve learned over the years in my many language missions is that it’s far more effective to distribute your total weekly study time over every day of the week, than to do all of your studying in one or two days. Studying less often means you have to spend more time in each study session reviewing what you learned last time. You also risk falling out of your routine and giving up on your language mission. So keep up the daily studying! Even if you can only commit to a few minutes each time.
Your main task this week is to create a study schedule that works for you.
Aim to set aside time every day to study, even if it’s just ten minutes per day during the week, and longer on weekends.
Throughout this week, keep reading, keep scheduling conversations, and keep building your Anki deck. No matter what else might get in the way of your studying, you can always find a few spare moments to check in with your Anki deck.
Make sure to schedule at least two conversations with native speakers this week. If you’ve only spoken with teachers so far, consider chatting with a conversation exchange partner instead.
Chatting with a language exchange partner is a very different experience from chatting with a teacher. It’s more relaxed – a bit like hanging out with a friend, and the conversation can go anywhere. As an added bonus, it’s free!
How to Speak French: Week 4
This week is all about maintaining the healthy study habits you set up last week. Follow the schedule you set for yourself, and see how it works.
What if you find you’ve been too ambitious? Tweak your schedule so that it works for you. The important thing is that you study every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Set your sights too high, and you’ll overwhelm yourself and end up quitting.
Here’s what to focus on this week:
- Keep adding to your French Anki deck
- Listen to a French podcast or radio show (we’ve collected some of the Internet’s best French listening resources). Don’t stress about understanding what you hear, just treat it as an immersion experience.
- Find a French song that you enjoy. Write out the lyrics then sing along.
- Most important of all: aim for four conversations with native speakers this week.
Need more help finding native speakers? Depending where you live, there may be a French language Meetup group in your area. Take a look on Meetup.com for groups in your town.
Making friends in person with native speakers will let you combine language learning with social activities. This will give you a bigger purpose to your French learning – and a motivational boost.
How to Speak French: Month 2 and Beyond
So you’ve spent a month learning how to speak French? Great job! Now it’s time to look back and see how far you’ve come in just a few weeks. Even if you weren’t able to study as much as you wanted, as long as you studied consistently and didn’t give up, you’ll be amazed by your progress. You’ll find it hard to believe that at one time, you could barely pronounce Bonjour.
Throughout the past month, if you found that any part of your study routine didn’t work for you, then ditch it and find something else. How you study is far less important than studying often and consistently.
Keep learning every day, and keep using your French by speaking as often as possible, and fluency will come sooner than you think.
What approach do you take when you learn French? Tell me about it in the comments!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.