Looking for a way around French language firewalls?
Wish you could just download the French language into your brain?
Well, until the cyborg revolution it won’t be that easy…
But there are some smart study hacks you can use to make French fluency a lot more accessible (and even more fun to achieve).
Our nine French learning tips will help you avoid some of the many big obstacles beginner language students often face. They’ll also help you build good habits so that French learning only becomes easier over time.
So if you want to learn French but don’t know where to begin—or if you’ve already started but aren’t sure you’re on the right path—we’ll help you hack your way to French success.
Why Do Language Hacks Help?
When we talk about computers, hacking means gaining unauthorized access to data in a system.
Language hacks are similar in that they can often make you feel like your new knowledge was unauthorized. These hacks allow you to improve your language skills in ways that seem to bypass the traditional idea of long, strenuous memorization exercises for conjugations and vocabulary.
Now, don’t get us wrong—it’s still going to take significant time and effort to become fluent in French. But language hacks can help you learn more in less time, and let you enjoy the learning process more while you’re at it.
They can also give you confidence to tackle the harder aspects of language learning with momentum and tenacity.
Let’s get started!
How to Learn French Like a Hacker: 9 Tips for Easy Language Access
1. Learn the Most Frequently Used French Words
You know what they say: Don’t study harder, study smarter.
Focusing your vocabulary studies on the most common French words is one of the best ways to do this.
It’s common sense, right? If you spend hours memorizing literary terms or flowery adjectives that rarely come up in conversation, it’ll take you forever to get comfortable just asking for directions around Quebec ordering a pastry at a Paris boulangerie (bakery).
Vistawide has a helpful list of the 100 most frequently used French words, including basic articles and prepositions that you’ll need to string together a sentence. Intermediate learners will find this list useful for seeing which verbs they should immediately learn conjugation rules for.
Next, you can take things up a notch with Memrise’s set of 5,000 common French words.
If you find that this strategy works well for you, you could expand on it by purchasing a French frequency dictionary.
2. Incorporate French into Your Daily Routine
This strategy ensures that the French vocabulary and language concepts you’re learning are as practical and easy to remember as possible.
Making a new recipe at home tonight? Great—enjoy it with a side of simple review for cooking vocabulary. Getting dressed and ready in the morning? Sounds like a perfect segue into a quick revision of personal grooming vocabulary.
You can also do this in a more passive way by labeling objects around your home in French. That way, every time you see your bed, you’ll cement the French word lit in your mind.
And you don’t even have to make the labels yourself! Vocabulary Stickers have done all the hard work for you, with more than 130 durable French labels for household objects including clothes, kitchen utensils, technology and more. Better yet, they’re color coded by grammatical gender, which often poses the biggest memorization obstacle to English-speakers.
3. Learn What You Already Love
This tip is similar to the one above, but helps ensure that the French language starts to resonate with you on a deeper level. The idea is to bring French into the hobbies and activities that you love, so that you develop positive associations with the language and studying feels less like homework.
If you love to play tennis, chances are you’ll frequently find yourself talking about this when you use your French, too. It makes sense, then, that you’ll want to know tennis vocabulary inside and out. You’ll find that learning and retaining this vocabulary is much easier because you’re naturally interested in the material.
You can think of key vocabulary as any words that you would be likely to need in order to hold a conversation about that activity for more than a few minutes. I find that the easiest and most efficient way to start making lists of key words is to take pictures of the different elements you engage with while doing an activity.
For tennis, you might take a picture while tying your lacets (shoelaces), when approaching la ligne de fond de court (the baseline) and then when your friend shows you his revers (backhand).
Once you’ve finished playing, you should’ve easily gathered between 20 and 30 pictures of objects of interest that’ll be conveniently sequenced one after another in your camera roll. When you’re back at home, you’ll be able to start looking up translations with a picture handy, which will increase your chances of retaining the new word in French.
After translating, you can check your list against themed vocabulary lists to see if you missed any essential words for your hobby.
4. Supercharge French Subtitles with FluentU
You may already know how useful subtitles can be for language learners. Watching subtitled French movies or TV shows is one of the most engaging ways to discover new vocabulary, while also boosting listening comprehension skills.
But if you really want to boost your learning, you can get more out of French subtitles with FluentU. This innovative tool offers real-world French videos (like movie trailers, commercials, inspiring talks, news clips and more) that have been transformed into interactive language learning experiences.
Each video comes with clickable subtitles you can use to get in-context definitions and native pronunciations for any word you don’t recognize. No need to pause your video and flip through a dictionary! It’s all built in. You’ll also get pointed to other videos that use the word you’ve clicked on.
After you watch a video, FluentU has tailor-made flashcards and exercises to make sure you retain the new words you’ve just heard. This way, you’ll be actively building your French vocabulary while absorbing French culture and entertainment.
Best of all, FluentU remembers what you’ve watched and suggests new content based on that info, so you get truly personalized learning.
5. Make Memorization Easier with French-English Cognates
You can take advantage of the fact that many English words come from French by mastering cognates. Cognates are words that look almost exactly the same in both languages and have the same meaning.
Take a personal inventory of the words you find yourself using a lot in English—you’ll be surprised to see how many have cognates in French! Isn’t it refreshing to know that you can start using them immediately with minimal memorization effort?
Critics of this strategy will point out that there are many false cognates between French and English. However, you shouldn’t sweat this too much as long as you focus on learning cognates before you use them, rather than assuming a familiar-sounding French word is a cognate.
If you train yourself to abstain from doing this, you should be able to avoid any major embarrassments like asking your Parisian waiter if your food contains préservatifs (condoms)!
6. Give Structure to Your Studies
Some of the methods mentioned above can help you circumvent the traditional classroom learning experience. But that isn’t to say that French courses aren’t worth your time.
In fact, one of the biggest positives of the classroom is that there’s a logical learning structure set up by professors with years of experience seeing how students learn French as a foreign language.
Emulating the lesson plans of real French professors can give you access to the benefits of tried-and-true building blocks for learning without forcing you to complete exercises and memorize things you’re sure won’t serve you.
French MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, or free/affordable programs typically offered by universities) are a great place to look for this kind of study structure. Udemy offers a ton of online courses for all French proficiency levels. You can either use a course’s syllabus as a jumping off point for your own studies, or sign up and take full advantage of the video lectures, study resources, assignments and teacher support.
The New Zealand Association of French Teachers also offers free access to their online discussion forum, which you could use to connect with and bounce ideas off teachers and other learners.
7. Study for Shorter Periods of Time
A common mistake that new language learners make is to charge into the language learning process full-speed and burn out after a few weeks.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s much better to take a more consistent, longterm approach. Our brains are more capable of focusing on things for shorter periods of time, so there’s a better chance that you’ll retain what you learned in a shorter study session than a prolonged one.
Try studying in “sprints,” or brief but consistent exercises and drills. You can still have the intensity of learning that you would get from going all out, but at a rate that’s sustainable over the long term.
According to the Harvard Business Review, so-called “small wins”—small amounts of progress in meaningful work—have a huge positive effect on workers’ morale and confidence. If you followed steps two and three, you should already be focusing on things that are relevant and meaningful to you, so now it’s just a matter of timing your studies right.
8. Use All Your Senses to Learn New Words
Visual dictionaries are widely accepted as being an excellent memorization tool because they force language learners to gravitate away from translating between their native language and the target language. In other words, they help you start making associations and thinking directly in French, which is essential for fluency.
The idea is that if you learn the French word for “kitchen” (cuisine) from a picture, this is what’ll pop into your head whenever you see a kitchen. This method is preferable to using an elaborate mnemonic device that you won’t have time to think through in a real-world scenario when you need the word for kitchen right away.
You can also try linking words to sounds. This works best for words that have a very distinct sound, such as la pluie (rain).
You can even learn through smells and tastes. This is a particularly effective way to learn the words for many different foods. Invite some friends over for une soirée (a party/get-together) with drinks and snacks and let the sensory exploration begin!
9. Put It All Together with Dialogues
Dialogues let you practice comprehension and also help you internalize French grammar that’s necessary for written French.
Most of the hacks covered above have focused on how to effectively learn and retain large numbers of individual vocabulary words. This is important because you won’t be able to recognize these words in the context of full sentences if you don’t know the individual words. To take your French to the next level, however, you’ll have to begin working on your comprehension of full sentences by using dialogues.
To start getting the hang of hearing groups of sentences strung together, you can take a look at some free dialogues with both audio and written components here. Once you feel more familiar with French’s intonation and flow, you may also find it worthwhile to invest in some more in-depth dialogue resources like those offered by French Today, which features audiobooks for French learners of all levels.
A huge step towards effectively learning a foreign language is dispelling the misconception that it always has to be hard. Reset this way of thinking and rest assured that if you work smart by using the language hacks above, you’ll be well on your way to maximizing the processing power of your inner language hard drive!
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