Thirsty for some satisfying French refreshment?
Took French classes several years ago?
Ending classes now and looking to maintain your new skills?
Read on to find out why it’s important to keep practicing and to get some useful tips for getting started (again).
How many times have you met someone who said: “I’m fluent in [insert language] since I studied it for [insert number] years!”
That’s great and all, but when asked to say something all they can come up with is a few jumbled words.
What happened? They didn’t practice!
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.
If you do things right, this doesn’t mean you’ll be studying grammar every day for the rest of your life.
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!
8 Smart Strategies for Refreshing 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 of my favorite sites that offers television streaming is centraltv.fr, where you can find content from almost 100 French-speaking channels.
Another long-time favorite is FluentU—this French learning system doesn’t just provide you with entertaining French video content, but it helps you to actively practice and improve your language skills.
If you love learning French by watching television, you’ll love FluentU!
6. Find a French Penpal
Several free websites like Interpals or LanguageForExchange 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!
And one more thing...
If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.