Easy ways to learn French

Posted by on January 21, 2021 · 11 mins read Categories: French

I’ve always been interested in languages. I love that it unlocks new concepts and opens up communication between cultures. Growing up, I was lucky to be exposed to a few languages, but unfortunately I was never able to really master another. Read more below to find out what content and tools I used to improve my French.

French Fundamentals

Here in Ontario (Canada) it’s mandatory that everyone takes a French class but the standards aren’t particularly high. Outside of certain pockets like Ottawa, the East coast, and Quebec, it’s hard to find many people who’ve retained much of their French. Highschool french classes weren’t bad but because the french requirements are so limited few people remember much beyond counting and basic verbs.

At the beginning of my leave, my French was around an A1 - B2. Or at least that’s what I thought after reading up on the guidelines written by CEFR. At this point, I already had a lot of the building blocks so it was really just a matter of practicing it and increasing vocabulary.

  • Reading: This was basically the only aspect of French that I had retained. I could grasp the meaning of videos with subtitles and understand basic articles.
  • Listening: Very limited. I couldn’t understand movies at all without the subtitles and still find it fairly difficult. When I heard native French people speakers speaking I found it really difficult to find where one word ended and the next started.
  • Speaking: Not existent. The only time I had tried to speak in the last decade or so was when I was in an Uber in Quebec
  • Writing: Very limited. It would probably be second to reading - but that really doesn’t say much.

Throughout these past few months, I found practicing and learning French to be really fun and natural. And the reason why? Well, most of it was focused on improving and immersing myself in it, and so I was lucky that I didn’t have to spend all my time going through grammar.

Here’s some of the content and tools I used while learning French:

I spoke French with people and scheduled weekly video chats

  • Using iTalki, I found a French tutor and scheduled weekly 30 minute lessons. This platform makes it incredibly affordable to take classes and to find a teacher. I went with a ‘community teacher’, where the lessons were unstructured and we would chat about different topics and she would help write down corrections or vocabulary in the chat.
  • I also had weekly calls with a ‘Language Partner’. , which in my case was a French speaker who was looking to improve their English. You typically spend half the time speaking in one language and then switch halfway. I actually found him on iTalki, which is lucky since their platform isn’t very good for finding language partners.

I watched a lot of French Netflix. This was great since I already spend so many hours watching Netflix and so this way I could be ‘earning’ passively. Below are a couple of the shows I watched that were popular in France (you usually have to search on Netflix for their “English name” as opposed to their French title):

  • Call My Agent (Dix pour cent) - A lot of the French stars in the show are the actual French actors themselves!
  • Plan Coeur (The Hook up Plan) - Not bad show but also not great in my opinion. I thought Call My Agent was better, but it was still entertaining.
  • Lupin - New show that was released that has been Netflix’s Top Ten charts. It has a vibe that’s really similar to Sherlock.
  • H - This is a much older show that’s sit-com esque, but they speak fairly slowly and clearly.

I watched French YouTube videos. These typically fell into two categories - educational and recreational. YouTube has a ton of great ‘educational’ content that is made specifically for language learners. They might highlight specific vocabulary, review grammar, or talk more clearly. However, they’re not always as ‘fun’ to watch, which is why I prefer to look for videos that I would ‘normally watch’ but in french.

  • Piece of French - Great because subtitles are available in both English and French. French videos usually only have auto- generated French subtitles. She also talks really clearly and has a good mix of content.
  • Les Artisans de demain - Vlogs are generally good for listening to conversational French. This channel was fun to watch since it’s made up of vlogs created by a couple as they travel.

I listened to Podcasts in French (or at least I tried to). Similar to YouTube, I listened to a mix that were both educational and recreational. I find these to be very difficult due to the nature of them being audio-only; however, listening to these helped with the ‘immersion’ and being able to recognize sounds better.

  • InnerFrench - Absolutely great for beginner / intermediates. He talks a bit so slow that it’s a bit misleading since regular French isn’t usually articulated like that. Also great since he publishes a transcript online.
  • Quoi de Meuf - Discusses pop culture. Was highly recommended on Reddit. Definitely more difficult than InnerFrench as it’s a podcast that everyday French listeners would listen to.
  • GrowthMakers - This is a podcast on marketing (e.g. Loom, Drift). Since the topic is a bit complex and they talk fairly quickly my overall comprehension is still quite low.

I read online articles in French (very few). Unfortunately I was unable to find many “French equivalent” blogs or websites similar to the ones I normally browse in English. But I think that reading magazines or other content could be an easy way to read more (as opposed to diving into a book).

  • Refinery29 - A lifestyle blog for women. I normally read this site in English, so I think the trick might just be to find international sites which have geographic publications

I used these tools to help make learning French more natural (chrome extensions)

These are all essentially apps that you can install if you’re using Google Chrome. It doesn’t seem like the other browsers have as many people developing apps for them, so I’d recommend using Chrome if you aren’t already (I prefer Safari but realized that switching over was easier).

  • Language Learning with Netflix - This was really helpful since it allows you to see two sets of subtitles while you watch Netflix. It shows both the target language as well as your native language (e.g., both French and English).
  • Fluent - This helps you to Learn French while browsing the web since the extension switches words on the page into your ‘Target Language’. This makes it really easy to effortlessly expand your vocabulary. Toucan is a similar extension that does the same thing; however, they seemed to be aimed more at beginners since they highlight easier vocabulary.
  • TransOver - This app shows you instant translations just by hovering or clicking, which made it a lot easier to read French articles. By right clicking or hovering on a word, it immediately showed the English translation, which meant I didn’t have to spend all my time looking up words one by one. I believe it’s supposed to be better than the Google Translate extension.

What I did was essentially chat with people to learn more about their culture and consume a lot of content - essentially two things that I already liked to begin with.

I was only spending a few hours a week ‘learning French’ but I do feel that I made progress these past couple of months:

  • Reading: I think that my biggest challenge at the moment is now vocabulary. These two are probably tied with one another and will be what I try to focus on more next.
  • Listening: I still find this to be really difficult but I think that at a “normal” conversational pace I can actually understand French speakers now. I can finally distinguish the words (really difficult given the high usage of liaisons and apostrophes) so now I just need to know what the words actually mean 😅 (see above).
  • Speaking: This is probably what improved the most. It’s not to say that I couldn’t say anything at all to start, but it was the first time in years where I tried to string thoughts together. Speaking is also generally very difficult, as it’s easy to be scared of sounding bad! The benefit of having a teacher is knowing that they’re not judging you as a beginner.
  • Writing: No improvement

I definitely have a strong accent and have to ask a lot of “Comment a dit.. / how do you say..” but for the most part, I can carry regular conversations discussing the same content that I would in English (news, events, general interests).

General thoughts..

  • It’s interesting to see how much ‘language learning’ has been enabled by technology. In the past, most of these tools wouldn’t have existed (e.g., Talki, Fluent) and aside from French schools it essentially wouldn’t have been possible to self learn without moving to France (obviously still the best case scenario).
  • What’s pretty cool is that after spending all those sessions speaking in French, sometimes I can feel myself continue thinking in French!