mesaventure: Mom's mishap, Smokey's in limbo, and I choked on a pill
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6 Little-known tips to successfully learn French

Jules-and-poppies
Field of poppies in Bandol.  See the recent photos of Mom's first days in Provence, here at Instagram or on my Facebook.


This is a guest post from Benjamin Houy, author of How to Learn French in a Year and founder of French Together, a website where he makes learning French easy. You love France, you may already live there or plan to live in this beautiful country in the future. There is only one problem, you don't speak French, not as well as you would like at least. You may think you are not good at languages, you may think you are too old too learn French. After helping thousands of people learn French at French Together, I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty, anyone, at any age can learn French and reach fluency. Here are 6 tips to succeed.

1. Learn sentences, not words

On May 7, Kristin taught you the word "mésaventure" (mishap). You could learn this word alone and repeat mishap = mésaventure until it sticks in your memory. But you would be missing on lots of benefits that come with learning sentences instead of words. That's why Kristin often includes sentences when she teaches you a new word. When you learn sentences rather than words, you:

  • Know how to use the word when you need it
  • Memorize the word more easily, because you can imagine it being used
  • Learn grammar naturally by noticing how the sentence is constructed and the verb conjugated

Let's take the following sentence as an example: Grandma Jules a eu une petite mésaventure à l'aéroport. Grandma Jules had a little mishap at the airport. Because you learn the word in context, you also learn that:

  • "Mésaventure" is a feminine word
  • A sentence usually starts with the subject, followed by the verb then the complement
  • "à l'aéroport" means "at the airport"

As a result, you improve your French and don't simply learn a word, but a sentence you can use in the future.

2. Use a Spaced Repetition Software

If you are like most people, you either write the words you discover in a notebook or keep them in your memory and hope you will remember them. This is fine of course, but there is a much more effective way to memorize vocabulary, Spaced Repetition Softwares Spaced Repetition Softwares work like flashcards. You enter a word or a sentence on one side, and its translation on the other side. The software then asks you what the answer is, and how easy it was for you to give the answer. If the answer came immediately, you know the word well and you won't have to study it for a few days (or months). If you struggled to give the answer or couldn't answer, you may have to study the word again 10 minutes later or the next day. SRS softwares are based on Hermann Ebbignhaus research on memory and allow you to easily learn lots of vocabulary in only a few minutes per day. Instead of randomly reviewing words, all you have to do is open your SRS software and review words before you forget them. Here are a few great (and free) SRS softwares you can use:

  • Anki
  • Memrise

3. Study regularly

You probably can't spend two hours studying French everyday and that's okay. But it's important to at least study regularly. It's better to spend 10 minutes everyday studying French than two hours only once a week. When you study everyday, you make learning French a habit, so you are less likely to give up. Not only that, but regularly reviewing what you learned makes it much easier to memorize in the long term (that's why SRS softwares exist). The main problem is that you don't necessarily feel like studying French after a hard day of work. In this case, you can simply do one of the following activities:

  • Watch a movie or a TV series in French
  • Read a book in French
  • Open HelloTalk, Italki, Interpals or Speaky and exchange a few messages with your French pen pal
  • Write about your day in French and post what you wrote on Lang-8 to get free corrections from native speakers
  • Listen to a French podcast while you wash dishes or commute to work

These are all activities that will help you become a better French speaker, but they are mostly fun and you can easily find some time in your day for them.

4.  Speak from day one

There is a French proverb that says that "forging makes the blacksmith" (c'est en forgeant que l'on devient forgeron). The same is true for French. It's by speaking French that one becomes a good French speaker. Speaking French is as essential as it is terrifying. If you don't speak French as soon as possible (that is as soon as you can create a sentence), you will make the learning process considerably slower and miss on one of the most powerful learning tool available, human interaction. So many great things happen when you speak. Your brain recalls the vocabulary you know, you use grammar, you practice pronunciation, you gain confidence and you get the chance to get feedback. Not to mention that since you also listen to someone, you improve your listening skills. Here are several ways to find a conversation partner

How to find a conversation partner near you

If you live in a big city, chances are you can find someone willing to learn your native language and help you with French in exchange. Here are a few places to check out:

How to find a conversation partner online

Can't find anyone who speaks French near you? Don't worry! There are plenty of opportunities to practice French online. Here are my favorites:

5. Don't focus too much on grammar

One of the most common mistakes French learners make is to focus too much on grammar. It's great to know how to conjugate French verbs or how to use "le" versus "de", but how useful will it be if you don't know enough French to create a sentence? Instead of starting by learning grammar, I recommend you to learn sentences, and then look at specific grammar aspects you don't understand in the sentence. This way, the grammar you learn is adapted to your level and immediately usable. It's also much easier to understand and remember a grammar concept when you see it directly in action.

6. Live French

Can you guess what all of the most successful French learners have in common? Immersion. And by immersion, I don't mean that you need to live in France to learn French, you can perfectly become fluent in French without ever going to France. By immersion, I mean that you should live French and do as many of your daily activities in French as possible. Read news in French, read books in French, watch movies in French, listen to the radio in French...and speak French. By doing this, you get used to the French language, and at some point you will realize you now think in French.

Over to you

Learning French is a long process, it may take years before you reach fluently, but if you follow the tips given in this article and work hard, you will succeed. Do you want to get started right away? Download the French Together Toolbox! It's free and contains several ebooks I created to make learning French easier for you.

*    *    *  Benjamin-Houy
Thank you so much, Benjamin, for this excellent post! Here is a picture of Benjamin and his girlfriend Aysa in the smoothie bar Juicy Jones in Barcelona... which reminds me, all of Benjamin's tips are perfect for learning Spanish and any additional language you which to acquire.






Benjamin-and-Aysa
 

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety

Comments

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Phili

Thanks very much for these helpful tips. I'm downloading Anki and looking forward to giving it a try...

My only contradictory comment would be that the popular immersion method has not worked at all for me. However I may be in a class of my own here - I have poor working/short term memory but an excellent long term memory, so an experienced French teacher suggested that I would be better off with the old school rote learning method. That does seem to be working for me a lot better, thankfully. I may never excel as a French speaker with this method, but some French is better than none!

Benjamin Houy

Thank you for the opportunity to post this article Kristin :).

@ Phili The main problem of immersion is that it can take lots of time before you see the benefits.

But if you feel that a more traditional method of rote learning is working better for you, Anki is the way to go. You will be able to learn much faster with it while still doing what works for you.

MMK

Thanks for the great ideas and resources.
I have one question that I've been wondering for years. Benjamin suggested podcasts and I'm wondering if he (or you) has any suggestions. I love listening to NPR in the United States. The audio clips are usually short, informative, and sometimes fun (depending on the program). I was wondering if there is something like this in French. The only talk radio that I found when living in French had only long discussions that was hard to follow, and more based on opinion than just the news.
Do you have any suggestions?
Thank you!

Benjamin Houy

@MMK

I don't know NPR, but this website has lots of podcasts in French:

http://www.franceculture.fr/podcasts

Otherwise, here are a few podcasts in French. You will find a few that may be what you are looking for in the advanced part of the article

https://frenchtogether.com/french-podcast

Cindy Mc

Merci Benjamin for your article. From my personal experience I can agree with you. My French teacher taught the old way and it didn't work for a 50 year old novice. While I was trying to translate individual words the speaker would finish and I would miss most of the conversation. Very frustrating! I should have been taught to listen for phrases, or spent more time simply listening.

Ellen

This is the most helpful article I have read on learning French; many thanks, Benjamin & Kristin! I have a lot of experience in French and am now teaching English in a French American school (yay!). The hardest thing for me is still understanding what I'm hearing. I had this problem when I learned Portuguese while living there for 5 years, too. I get a lot of compliments on my accent (in both languages) and fluency, but I only "get" about 60% of what people are saying to me! And once they hear me speak, they assume I'm equally adept at understanding their language ... and I'm not! My husband says I dwell too much on each individual word, trying to understand that rather than getting the context. He's right, but I can still be in an awkward position when I "get" the point of the conversation but miss a specific question or key word.
I'm sorry this is so long, but all this to say that I'm going to follow your advice -- and if you have anything more specific, other than moving immediately to France (would love to!) (and when I've been there for extended periods, I do comprehend faster and better), please share them. Thank you so much!

Kristin Espinasse

Thanks,  Ellen. I agree! This is one of the most helpful article on learning French. Huge thanks to Benjamin! Check out his books, and his Twitter handle is @frenchtogether

Benjamin Houy

@Ellen

Having a hard time understanding spoken French is perfectly normal. And the most effective way to improve your listening skills is to...listen :).

Apps like FluentU or Yabla are particularly useful for this. They allow you to read and listen at the same time so you learn to recognize the words and sentences you hear.

Written French and spoken French are quite different, so if you were used to learning single words, you may not recognize them in a sentence, because they simply sound different once they are part of a sentence. That's one of the reasons why I always recommend to learn sentences not words.

The other thing is that our brains lose the ability to recognize the sounds of all languages a few months (or years I forgot) after our birth. Which means that a native English speaker may not hear some French sounds at all. A study made in Japan showed that the best way to correct that is to use a pronunciation trainer. That's something you can find on Gabriel Wyner's website. You may not need one though depending on your native language and your exposure to the French language.

Richard Mahoney

Kristin and Benjamin. This is very helpful. I have completed most of Frenchpod101.com and need to move to the next level of conversation (speaking and listening). I am sure these suggestions will be helpful. Great job!

Mim (Richmond, VA)

Love this post. Ben did a terrific job with it. As I was reading it, I thought about how I have to share it with some of the people in our Spanish Meet-up group, beginners who are relying on devices to translate for them or too concerned about grammar to enjoy a conversation. I found RadioLingua's podcasts helpful. They have Coffee Break French and Coffee Break Spanish. Hello to your Maman and family, and again, thanks for this post.

Gwyneth Perrier

Merci to Benjamin and Kristin, and I definitely empathize with Ellen's comments! I studied French for 4 years in high school and always tried to brush up on it over the years. I ended up marrying a Frenchman, but he always replies to me in English, so it's hard to "immerse" myself in the language. I get a good amount of practice when I go to France and I'm told that my accent is very good, but there is so much that I miss in listening comprehension. I have listened to French radio and TV over the years, but I feel that unless one is interacting, it just simply isn't enough. Miss a few key words and I've lost the entire meaning of the conversation. I love all the suggestions from Benjamin and Kristin and I intend to keep plugging away. We plan on moving to France in the next couple of years, so I hope he's right that anyone can reach fluency at any age! :-)

Grammy

Just tried to sign up for Benjamin's French Together Toolbox, and was sent a message that the campaign was "oversubscribed." It offered a number of links to "get rich quick" sites. How do I sign up.?

Grammy

Disregard my previous post, please. I just received a message with download info from Benjamin.
Merci beaucoup, Benjamin.

Leslie M. Ficcaglia

I try to choose French when I have an option; for example my car navigation system guides me and my microwave instructs me in French. I have also found that listening to and learning French songs is helpful with syntax and phrasing. When I put them on my iPad or iPhone I include the lyrics so I can follow along. Also when I watch French films, if there's an option for subtitles in French I choose that. I can't follow without some kind of subtitles, but French works and it's easier to pick up the spoken word when the subtitles are in the same language. I also listen to Radio Canada's Chansons on Sirius.

When I'm reading in French, either on my computer or on my iPad, I can highlight a word and get a translation (Ultralingua) or definition (through the Kindle French dictionary.)

That's about as much as I can do without being in France!

Nancy

Great tips. Thank you try much. Hope you are enjoying your visit with Jules. A special ear rub for that beautiful doggy. Get well soon.

Faye

Great article from Benjamin. Most of this info. resonates & hope to avail myself of these resources. I am bilingual but better at understanding than speaking.
Read article in France Today on Bandol wines. Sounds like perfect place to make perfect wine!
Still waiting for news about Smokey...hope I didn't miss it.

Eileen deCamp

Hi Kristin and Benjamin,

Thanks so much for the helpful tips!

Janet

Another helpful thing is to change settings on computers, etc., to French. I use Chrome in French, Facebook in French and when I installed OpenOffice on my laptop, I installed the French version. What you choose to change depends on how comfortable you are in French and how critical things are, I suppose.

I also (when I can) listen to Montreal Canadiens games in French. When I started, all I knew were the players' names (gibberish, gibberish, gibberish Carey Price! LOL), but word by word, I started to pick up more of the play by play terms. I still have trouble with the "commentary", but that will come in time. :)

Trina, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA

What an accomplished young man and great advice!

And Kristin, thanks for sharing the lovely photos of Jules & Smokey. Gorgeous and so joy filled. Everyone else, too, but the photos of Jules and of Smokey amongst the flowers are priceless.

Come to think of it, everyone (in all the photos) looks very content and satisfied with life :) Wonderfully uplifiting to see!

Tracy Wood

Thanks Kristin for posting this. Really need to get back into my french, this might be just what I need.
xxTracy

Benjamin Houy

@Richard Mahoney Français Authentique is awesome for more advanced French learners like you. It's completely in French and more challenging than Frenchpod101, but definitely worth it.

@Gwyneth Perrier Better understanding spoken French is mostly a matter of getting used to hearing French. A great way to do that is to read and listen simultaneously. Here are lots of ways to do that:
https://frenchtogether.com/category/how-to-learn-french/spoken-french/

@Leslie M. Ficcaglia These are definitely great ways to improve your French ). What you could also do is look for a conversation partner.

@Janet These are some great tips :). You can also install "google dictionary" if you are using the Google Chrome browser. Once it's installed, you can show the translation of any word by simply clicking on it. This makes reading French much easier.

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