french refresher

8 Painless Ways to Get a Daily French Refresher

Took French classes several years ago?

If you want to remember your hard-earned knowledge of French grammar and hilarious colloquialisms, prioritize practice.

I’m not saying it’s not important to take classes (it is), but you need to practice almost every day in order to remember what you’ve learned and improve upon that.

You can make French a fun, regular part of your daily life!


Why Refresh if You’ve Already Taken Classes?

Classes can’t replace practice. Someone might wonder how many classes they must take before further practice is no longer needed to retain what they’ve learned. I hate to break it to you, but no amount of coursework will hardwire your brain to understand a foreign language.

The students I mentioned earlier had already taken almost every class offered in our department. On the other hand, if you’re already an advanced student of French, you don’t need more classes to make great strides. In my case, just one hour per day of independent study is enough to make as much progress as I would in a formal class. It’s all a question of time and dedication.

Daily practice doesn’t need to be difficult. Practicing every day might sound daunting, but you don’t have to work as hard as you worked in class.

Practicing can be as simple as watching French videos on YouTube or keeping a journal. Ever try writing a story? You could do it in French with just a few minutes of writing per day! The key is to practice by doing something that’s fun.

Maintain now, improve later. At the very least, you should aim to preserve what you’ve already learned. This will make it easier to deepen your knowledge of French as time permits.

However, you can still learn something new each day in as little as a few minutes. For example, I find time to read one article on a French news site  every day. More often than not, I’ll stumble on an unknown word which I’ll subsequently look up and commit to memory. If you do this daily, there won’t be many common words you don’t understand!

Partners might not be available. In class, you were expected to speak French regularly. Since you may now live somewhere where other francophones are rare, it’s all the more important to practice independently. Lack of French exposure will compromise your skills, as I’ll now explain.

Tips for Refreshing Your French

Even immersion takes effort. If you live in a country where French is spoken, you don’t need to set aside a few minutes per day to maintain your linguistic skills, but you still need to practice by speaking.

Even kids forget languages they don’t use! I once knew someone who had this happen to him. He (a native English speaker) grew up in a house where French was spoken. Originally his immigrant parents only spoke English at home but, when he was about 10, they tried to immerse him in French by “banning” English.

That means he spent 8 years at home plus another 4 years in college practicing French. 12 years! However, after college he ceased practicing. Now, decades later, he has forgotten almost everything. Grammar, listening comprehension, all gone!

Given his exposure early in life, had he practiced a little bit each day after leaving college, he could have taught French today. So if a child, intensely exposed to a language from a very young age, can forget an unused language, so can an adult! Learning a language as an adult is like loading golf balls onto a flatbed truck: everything falls out if you’re not careful.

Don’t give up! Like learning to ride a bike, learning the basics of French is straightforward.

The retention obstacle. Unlike riding a bike, however, you can forget what you’ve learned if you don’t practice. Perhaps retention is the hardest aspect of learning a language. You already cram your head with new knowledge every day just by living, so how can you expect to remember a language?

Challenge yourself. You might get frustrated and be tempted to give up practice, telling yourself: “I can’t practice on my own!” or “I’m just too busy!” But it’s the frustration that lets you know you’re making progress.

You’ll improve with consistent, daily practice. Even if you only practice a little bit each day, you’ll make progress. Over the years your skills will accrue. This may happen imperceptibly in the short term, but one day you’ll realize just how much you’ve learned.

In casual practice since college, I’ve learned more French than in all of the classes I’ve ever taken, and I’m no polyglot. If I can develop a casual practice routine that works for me, then so can you!

How to Refresh Your French

Understanding the importance of practicing your French is great, but what if life gets in the way? What if you don’t have time to practice? Trust me, I’ve been there. So here are a few methods I use to practice when retreating into an immersive cocoon is not possible:

1. Listen to French Audiobooks

Does your office not object to headphones if your work’s getting done? Why not listen to audiobooks?

Even if you don’t understand every word that’s being said, it still trains your brain to recognize key sounds. Just make sure you don’t unconsciously sprinkle foreign words into your memos! If you work on your feet, all the better. Simply load the books onto your phone and you’re off and running! Many sites offer free public domain audiobooks.

2. Think in French

This is a little trick I use when no other practice methods are available. For example, your workplace may have a strict no headphones policy. In that case, try pretending that French is your native language. Think in French and translate those thoughts into written or spoken English when work “gets in the way”.

3. Change Language Settings to French on Commonly Used Apps

Spend a lot of time using a word processor or email host? There’s no reason why you can’t change their language settings. You’ll learn common phrases and have a constant reminder of your linguistic goals, plus you’ll learn a few new technical words!

4. Departmental Transfer in Workplace

If you work for a large company there might be another department that communicates with French speakers regularly.

You may be able to get paid while gaining language experience in a fast-paced, real-world setting. Who knows? Your French language knowledge might be rare in-house, so it’s worth a shot.

5. Stream French Television

Several TV channels from French-speaking countries stream their broadcasts online.

Much like with audiobooks, you can listen passively at work or at home to gain insight into that francophone country’s culture.

One resource for French TV and other authentic content is the video-based language learning program FluentU. The music videos, commercials, trailers and TV clips come with interactive subtitles to help you hone your reading and listening skills.

Since the clips on FluentU are short, you can easily fit them into a daily French routine. A session might look something like this:

  • Choose a video to watch. Videos are organized by difficulty level and topic so you can find something that suits your needs easily.
  • Read the transcript and browse the key words list. This is a chance to become familiar with the content before you watch it. You can also hover your mouse over any word in the transcript for an audio pronunciation and definition.
  • Watch the video. As with the transcript, you can hover over or click on any word in the subtitles to see its contextual meaning. You can also replay individual sentences. Try watching the video again with the English and French subtitles turned off for a listening comprehension boost.
  • Take a post-video quiz. These quick quizzes test your understanding of the vocabulary contained in the video and give you a chance to try translating.

With FluentU, you can also create flashcards from videos and review them with personalized exercises. And if you get the iOS or Android FluentU app, you can always have your learning on hand.

6. Find a French Penpal

french refresher

Several free websites like Interpals or will put you in contact with other language learners.

And you know what’s wonderful about these sites? Native English speakers are highly sought after as penpals! You’ll be able to Skype or exchange letters (formal or email) with francophones learning English. It’s a great way to improve your grammar while making friends and learning about new cultures.

7. Challenge Yourself with Notecards

The bells and whistles of our technical age offer invaluable language learning tools, but when it comes to enlarging your vocabulary, nothing beats good old-fashioned memorization.

I make notecards with a French word and its English translation on the other side. You could even take things a step farther and put the French definition on the other side. Thumb through a few of these on your breaks and you’ll be on your way to developing an impressive vocabulary!

8. Practice Avoiding the “Um”

Case in point, I once took a class where students delivered presentations (in French) about a semester abroad, an internship abroad, etc. More often than not, they still couldn’t string together more than two coherent sentences without resorting to the ubiquitous “um,” despite having spent a year in so-called immersion.

Now, stage fright is a problem for a lot of us, but their choppy speech tells me that they didn’t take advantage of their surroundings and practice. Granted, it’s possible that their French friends wanted to practice English as much as my classmates wanted to practice French, so they may have been tempted to “revert” to English.

That being said, you must always soldier on, practicing French speaking without stopping, hesitating or doubting. Just keep talking until your streams of spoken French become totally fluent.

The key to each of the above strategies is to never miss an opportunity to practice French.

It’s easy enough—just fill your spare moments with French.

You’ll start improving without even realizing that you’ve been studying!

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