Want to become fluent in French?
Consider me your French personal trainer. I’m here to tell you that the key to French fluency lies in your favorite workout plan.
The same routine you use to kick your butt into shape can be adapted to thoroughly exercise your French language skills.
Even if you aren’t a gym rat, you’ll soon see how repetition, persistence and consistency all factor into French fluency.
Unfortunately, eating copious amounts of delicious French cuisine will only help you so far. You might have the food lingo down, and know how to order cocktails while you’re out enjoying Parisian nightlife, but now it’s time to strive for a full, rich French vocabulary and impeccable grammar or, in other words, French fluency.
Don’t worry that this’ll be too much work—there are plenty of fun methods of learning French out there that can be incorporated into the plan presented here.
But let’s start from the beginning. What exactly does “being fluent” mean?
What Does “Being Fluent” Mean?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fluent as being “capable of using a language easily and accurately.”
While this isn’t a very thorough definition, my guess is that the majority of language students have a similar way of looking at fluency. They think using a foreign language with ease and accuracy means they’re fluent.
As a language teacher who’s been teaching students for almost two decades, I believe defining language fluency is much more complicated than that, so for the sake of space and time, let’s say a fluent speaker of a language is someone who is able to produce (i.e. speak and write) and understand that language with ease.
The problem with fluency is that it can mean very different things depending on the person you’re talking to.
For example, one of my students, Karol, wanted to be conversational in French. He started devouring French podcasts and series and studied close to zero grammar.
As a result, he’s been able to achieve such a level of French that he can easily have a conversation with me on the ethics of the death penalty, but he makes a bazillion grammar errors along the way.
However, he feels he’s achieved fluency in French because he can communicate easily and say everything he needs to say without having to think too much.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s another student of mine, Ania. She’s on a mission to pass the C2 DELE exam in Spanish, so she knows she has to be grammatically perfect and to have a vocabulary close to that of a native speaker.
She doesn’t think she’s fluent at all because she’s struggling with the subjunctive, but she makes way fewer mistakes than Karol. By far!
Between Karol and Ania there’s a whole continuum of degrees of fluency, and all of them are valid.
Nevertheless, I’d like to give you a few hints as to what being fluent can mean in general, so that you can assess yourself and see where you are in the “fluency continuum.”
I’ve gathered a few traits I personally think are good indicators that a person is fluent in a language. Remember that this is very subjective and your definition of fluency may be different.
So, what are the main traits of a fluent language learner?
- They’re able to communicate their thoughts in the target language easily (without having to think too much).
- They’re able to use their target language to define words they don’t know.
- They think in their target language (not only when they’re using it).
- They understand their target language.
- They can learn their target language in their target language.
- They feel comfortable when using their target language.
- Native users of their target language understand them without issues.
This list of traits will probably make you wonder how long it takes to achieve fluency.
That’ll also depend on your definition of fluency. It took Karol six months to be conversational, but Ania has been studying Spanish for four years now.
But let’s try to answer a very specific question I get from students quite often: Can I be fluent in [insert foreign language] in one year?
Can You Become Fluent in French in One Year?
I’ll start answering this question with an obvious answer: You need a lot of practice to become fluent in a language.
Regardless of your definition of fluency, you’ll need to practice the language if you want to master it.
If you want a short answer, yes, you can become fluent in French in one year (or even less), especially if you follow the 10 steps included in the next section.
However, your success will depend on a series of aspects you need to take into account.
Do you want to be able to communicate during your trip to Canada, or pass an official exam?
Do you need great grammar skills to land that awesome job, or just some survival core French vocabulary?
Depending on your goal, you’ll be able to call yourself fluent in French sooner or later.
Your Contact with the Language
Obviously, the more often you have contact with French, the faster you’ll reach fluency.
Strive for immersion, even if it’s home immersion instead of abroad.
Listen to, watch, write, read and think in French. Surround yourself with the language as much as you can.
You can use FluentU to do that. FluentU uses authentic resources to give you a sense of immersion in a fun and engaging way. Give it a free try and get one step closer to your dream goal.
Your Time Commitment
Are you planning on learning for 30 minutes a day, or two hours?
Do you want to study every day or every other day? Perhaps only Saturdays and Sundays?
The time you commit to learning French will determine the time you’ll need to reach fluency.
Use your time wisely and efficiently (as I said, strive for immersion, since it’s the most time-efficient technique available).
Your Study Method
You’ll need to use different study methods depending on your goal.
If you just want to learn how to speak with ease, perhaps watching French movies and listening to podcasts are the best options for you.
If you need French to get a job or pass an official exam, grammar and vocabulary books are going to be your best choice.
Whatever you decide to use, make sure it’s a resource that’ll allow you to reach your goal fast without it being detrimental to your actual learning.
Your Overall Commitment
If you want to be fluent in less than a year, you can’t possibly commit for two weeks and wait for a miracle.
Once you’ve established your goal and the time you have to reach it, make sure you stay committed to your plan from beginning to end.
Don’t give up mid-way. We’re talking less than a year to learn a language. You can do it!
To help you with that, I’ve created a list of 10 easy steps you can follow to reach your goal faster.
Going back to the sports metaphor, remember that all the principles of an effective workout translate directly to language skill training and memory muscle strengthening.
Switching your brain into gear with French means that your brain will be, overall, fitter than ever. So fire up those neurons, eat some brain food and prepare yourself for a serious workout sesh.
By following these ten easy steps, you’ll be in perfect French shape to become fluent in no time (whatever fluent means to you).
How to Become Fluent in French in 10 Easy Steps
1. Exercise Your Four French Muscle Groups
In the same way that you exercise different muscle groups to ensure that all parts of your body get stronger, so should you be sure to pay close attention to your four French “muscle groups.”
Language learning can be divided into at least four main sections: oral expression (speaking), listening comprehension, written expression and reading comprehension.
Some also include a fifth category encompassing culture, and if you’ve ever traveled to France, you’ll understand exactly how important it is to know about French culture, customs and etiquette.
When you’re working on your French, exercise each of these skills equally:
- Join a French conversation group to practice speaking.
- Listen to French podcasts to give your ears a workout.
- Write in French and be sure to get your writing corrected by a native French speaker, like a French teacher or French language exchange partner.
- Read French books or do reading comprehension exercises in French to ensure that you understand the words on the page.
Divide your time as best you can to make sure that all portions of your French learning experience are being practiced.
2. Do Daily French Vocabulary Exercises
You need to make studying French a habit that sticks.
Even if you’re totally out of time, reserve a few minutes each day to devote to French.
Short study time doesn’t equate to ineffective study time. In fact, there are studies that show that language micro-learning (studying a language in short sessions) can be more beneficial and efficient than long study sessions.
Sometimes, the best way to sneak in a quick micro-learning session is to push yourself as hard as you can go for a short period of time. This is especially useful on days when you don’t have hours to devote to your French studies.
At those moments, just a few minutes is all you need to make sure that you get in some useful French study each and every day.
How do you go about doing a French vocab microsession? Just as you’ll find many cardio machines at the gym, there are many ways to go about it:
- Try using flashcards to memorize vocabulary words quickly and easily nearly everywhere. You can make your own flashcards or buy themed packs of flashcards from a bookstore or specialized website.
- When you’re at home, use a simple piece of paper for your microsessions. Fold it into three columns, and write the French words on one side. Open the column and write the English words on the next side. Fold it so that the French is hidden, and write the French equivalents on the next column. Be sure to check your work as you go!
- If you have a “study buddy” working towards French fluency with you, try racing to see how many words you can each come up with in a given category, or play a version of Boggle by trying to make as many words as possible with a given number of random letters.
3. Slow and Steady Wins the French Fluency Race
In other words, be consistent.
While sprints (learning microsessions) can be useful for quick memorization, don’t forget the power of the long-distance run.
Set small goals for yourself every few days, weeks or months. Some goals may be to finish a book or watch a French movie without subtitles.
Do something small every day to help you achieve them:
- If your goal is to finish a French book, find out how many pages you need to read each day before your goal day, and commit to reading them.
- If your goal is to watch a movie in French without subtitles, start by watching shorter clips on FluentU before diving into full-length features.
- If you’re working on your reading comprehension, read a newspaper article in French every day.
- For listening comprehension, listen to a podcast or some French-language tunes during your morning commute.
Small steps and changes in your habits are the best way to lead to big results.
4. Grammar Books, Workbooks and… Dictionaries? Picking Your Poison
You’re in a hurry. You want to become fluent fast and put in the least amount of effort.
I get it. My students are the same.
However, if you really want to reach fluency, even if it’s just conversational fluency, you need at least one good book to learn French:
- Pick a reliable French grammar book if your goal is to sit an official exam or master French to get any kind of office job in a French-speaking country. I know grammar can get boring sometimes, but there’s no way you’re going to be a proficient user of French without it.
- Choose a workbook if you enjoy drills and repeated actions like me. The great thing about workbooks is that they allow you to practice the same concept time and time again, so you’re able to see words and grammar rules in many different contexts.
- Go for a phrasebook if you’re learning French just to be conversational. My student Karol was so obsessed with phrasebooks that he even created his own one. He took all the flashcards he’d made during his first four months of studying French and created a super handy book full of phrases, expressions and idioms he now puts into use whenever he can.
- If you’re a visual learner, opt for children’s books and comic books. You’ll be surprised at the stuff you can learn from a book that’s been created to entertain!
- For those of you who like to learn with translations, the best option is to get a bilingual or an interlinear book. Learning with the translation technique, i.e. learning a language with authentic text created for native speakers, is harder at the beginning, but the benefits, in the long run, make it worth it.
- The final poison is my favorite: a French dictionary. This can be a bilingual English-French dictionary or a monolingual one (French-French). Some students find it relaxing to read the dictionary. This crazy activity allows you to practice several skills at the same time, from reading and learning vocabulary and grammar to practicing pronunciation if you know the IPA alphabet.
5. Go Digital: Apps, Online Courses, MOOCs and All That Jazz
We live in the era of the internet. Take advantage of it!
More and more people are turning to resources they can access on their digital devices because this type of learning makes their language path easier and much more enjoyable.
Besides, this learning option fits beautifully into the microlearning system, and together they become the perfect combo for fast learning.
What are some of the options out there?
- Mobile apps are possibly one of the resources people use more often while microlearning because they can be taken with you everywhere you go.
Any little break is an opportunity to learn a couple of French new words or do a grammar exercise. Maybe five minutes alone won’t do much for your French fluency, but four 5-minute microsessions a day are 20 minutes of fun learning that’ll surely help you in the long run.
One app you can use to implement this is the FluentU app (available for both iOS and Android devices). The videos used are short (around 1 to 3 minutes), which makes them perfect for short study sessions. The annotated subtitles will allow you to practice your reading and spelling, the audio will improve your listening skills and pronunciation, and the interactive flashcards will give you grammar info and teach you vocabulary.
- Another type of resource very commonly used by language learners is online courses.
There are literally thousands of options available, each designed with a specific type of student in mind. From general conversation and grammar courses to more specific ones like French for hotel workers or the French subjunctive, everyone can find something that appeals to them.
- If you want to boast about having studied in one of the “big universities,” you can always enroll in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).
MOOCs are generally free courses on any topic imaginable offered by universities from all around the world (yes, Oxford and Cambridge are there, too).
There are tons of MOOCs for learning French or aimed at native French speakers. Choose the perfect one for you and, if you want to, pay a little extra to get a certificate after you complete it.
6. Change Up Your Routine: Add New French Activities to Your Daily Life
At the gym, most professionals suggest switching up your routine a few times a month or after every several workouts to keep your body guessing. Otherwise, you get too used to what you’re doing and it doesn’t have the same effect as it did at the very beginning.
The same is true of French, so you need to spice things up a little bit:
- If you start by reading an article on a French website every day, the first day may be hard, but every day after that will get easier. So step it up a notch! If you started with Yahoo France, change to Le Monde after a few weeks to give your brain a bit of a shock.
- If you’ve been listening to the same French podcast for a few weeks, choose a new one that’ll give you a new voice and accent to get used to.
- Do you have a speaking partner? If you’ve been meeting with the same French conversation partner for a while, consider finding another one—or, at the very least, change up the meeting place for your conversations so that new vocabulary words become necessary. For example, visit a museum with them and discuss art in French.
Little changes to your routine are the best way to make sure that you keep learning new things as time goes on.
7. Connectors and Filler Words for All Your Needs
Connectors and filler words make our speech more fluid and smooth, no matter the language we’re using.
They allow us to create longer sentences and express our thoughts in a more precise way, and most importantly, they make us sound more native-like when we use them in a language that’s not our own.
English has countless examples of connectors and filler words. Some examples can be however, so, then, as well as, like, well and uh.
French isn’t different in this regard. There are a whole lot of French connectors and French filler words you can use to improve your conversation and writing skills and get closer to your goal of being fluent.
It’d be impossible to include all of them in this post, so here you have a selection of a few I personally love to use:
- Euh (uh)
- Hein? (Right? Huh?)
- Alors (So, then)
- Enfin bref (Long story short, anyway)
- Tu sais (You know)
- Genre (Like)
- Ainsi que (As well as)
- Bien que (Even though)
- Quoi que (No matter what)
- Donc (Therefore)
For an excellent recap of French transition vocabulary and tips on how it can help you speak French more smoothly, check out the video below.
In the clip, French language instructor Kritika takes you through some of the most useful French connectors and how they can help you speak French like a native.
For more great videos like this one, be sure to subscribe to the FluentU French YouTube channel and hit the notification bell.
8. Listening with Your Eyes: The Multisensory Approach
The multisensory approach to learning is no other thing than using more than one sense while you’re learning.
I’m sure you’ve done this many times without even realizing it. For example, if you’ve ever watched a movie with subtitles, you were using your hearing and your sight at the same time. In other words, you were listening and reading at the same time.
This way of learning French (or any other language) is fantastic because it allows us to use different channels to receive the information. For this reason, by the end of a multisensory study session, you most probably can remember more information (more French language) than if you studied “traditionally.”
Receiving information through different channels at the same time forces us to go from passive to active learners. This means we’re normally more engaged when we’re learning, and as a result, we learn more efficiently.
There are many different ways in which you can learn French and practice your French language skills with the multisensory approach. The beautiful thing about this method is that you can create your own ways of engaging different senses while you study!
Some ideas you can use, expand and make your own are:
- Listen to a podcast while you read its transcript.
- Read a book and listen to its audiobook version at the same time.
- Watch a movie in French with French subtitles.
- Watch a short video (ideally one that doesn’t contain people talking) and explain it to yourself (in front of the mirror, in writing or simply in your mind).
- Do dictations (you’ll practice both your listening comprehension and your spelling/writing skills).
- Follow a French recipe. You can use a cookbook, a YouTube video or a kitchen channel on TV. Name the ingredients in French, smell them, touch them. In the end, eat what you’ve prepared and think or talk about it in French.
- Listen to songs in French and work with the lyrics.
- Do an art activity (by yourself, with your kids, friends or family) and only speak in French while you’re doing it.
9. Your House, Your French-speaking Country
As I mentioned earlier, immersion is one of the most effective ways of learning a language, but not all of us can afford a trip abroad.
The solution? Create your mini French-speaking country at home!
You don’t need to spend a lot of money or even leave your city to immerse yourself in the French language. There are a ton of ways in which you can add French to your life and feel like if you were in France or Canada.
For example, you could:
- Stick post-its to objects all around your house to learn new vocabulary.
- Only watch French movies, series and TV.
- Listen to French music, radio and podcasts, and even use them as white noise.
- Change the language in all your electronic devices and social media to French. Additionally, engage only in French when possible.
- Surf the internet in French.
- Attend events, meetings and parties for the local French community to feel like one of them.
- Find a conversation partner who’s a native French speaker.
- Journal in French.
- Think in French.
10. Actually Go the Distance: Travel to a French-Speaking Country
In order to become fully fluent, sooner or later, you’re going to have to get your feet wet… that is, by jumping the Atlantic or crossing the border.
One of the best ways to become fully fluent in another language is to live in a country that speaks it. If you’re serious about French fluency, consider a long trip to French-speaking Canada or to France.
Depending on what your lifestyle allows, you may wish to spend from a few weeks to a few months in a foreign country:
- When opting for a shorter route, choose a trip that’ll allow you to make the most of your time in a foreign country. Many programs, particularly in France, allow learners to sign up for intensive language courses lasting around three hours per day. After the course is over for the day, you have the choice of exploring the new city on your own or signing up for another class, perhaps a more specialized one, in the target language. Consider learning how to paint, cook or knit alongside locals. Not only will this increase your vocabulary, but you’ll also meet new people with whom you can share your thoughts in French.
- If you decide to opt for a longer trip, you’ll be able to see what’s really like to live in another country and another language. Many expatriates find it easy to find a group of fellow expatriates to spend time with, but you should try to avoid falling into this trap. Spend time with as many native French speakers as you can to get the most out of your stay and make your French language training truly go the distance.
As you can see, becoming fluent in French is indeed possible if you take the right steps.
By following this guide, you’ll get all the necessary tools to achieve your goal in a fun, efficient and engaging way.
Whether you want to be just conversational or a proficient user of French, it’s you who decides how, when and where you’ll learn the language.
Have a safe journey to fluency!
Stay curious, my friends, and as always, happy learning.
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.
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.