Yes, you can learn French.
I’m talking to toi, cher internaute ! (you, dear Internet user!)
I don’t care if you failed high school French or you couldn’t quite get your mouth around bonjour (hello) on your last trip to Paris.
Maybe you’ve never dared to wade into French or any other language at all. But if you set out with the right motivation, the right tools and a good plan, you really can do this.
I say this as someone who learned and struggled with French as an adult, eventually became fluent and went on to study and teach other languages as well.
We all have particular strengths and weaknesses in language learning, so there’s no set time frame, no set degree of fluency or other language goal that has to be achieved.
This post is about the individual motivations that can put you on your own personal path to your adventure with the French language.
Some of this is informed by my experience and some by the book “How Languages are Learned,” which summarizes the academic world’s current take on language learning in general, and includes a number of examples concerning French and English education in Quebec.
Setting your overarching motivation for learning French
Your motivation(s) for learning French should be central to everything that follows. Reasons for learning French might include:
- “I want to understand Georges Brassens’ lyrics.”
- “I want to flirt with that cute Senegalese girl at work.”
- “I want to read Camus in the original.”
- “I want to really understand French wine.”
- “I want to enjoy French cinema.”
- “I need French for work, to communicate with clients.”
- “French will help me in my target career as a diplomat.”
Compare these with the following and see if you can spot why the first group of motivations is better:
- “I want to be able to tell people I speak French.”
- “I want to look smart.”
- “I want French on my resume.”
The second group of motivations doesn’t give you any concrete reason to truly communicate and understand the language. It’s hard to know what part of the language to study and why with such vague goals. Plus, this group does not seem genuine or like it comes from some internal desire.
Learning a language is a serious, long-term commitment, and rarely achievable without a genuine desire to understand and communicate.
Make achievable short-term French goals
Your overall motivation needs to next be translated into achievable short-term goals.
For example, if you’re hoping to be able to use French for business purposes, a good early project to try with an online tutor might be learning to leave a message with your name and telephone number. This would require you to know a few set phrases as well as the numbers from one to 99 (French pairs the digits together in phone numbers).
If you want to be able to flirt, a good advanced lesson might cover the French imperfect and give you the opportunity to talk about what a little charmer you used to be as a kid, and then ask the object of your affections about his or her past.
With each lesson that you do, think about what the ultimate purpose of the grammar or vocabulary is, and how that might help you in terms of your long-term motivation(s).
5 tools for learning French that match your motivations
Your individual motivations will determine the learning tools that you use.
1. French classes/language exchanges
Unless your motivations for learning purely concern written French, you’re going to need to put yourself in situations where you can practice actually speaking and listening to human beings who will provide correction.
This doesn’t need to cost money, as language exchanges are great options for anyone. You teach someone your native language, and they teach you theirs—all for free.
If you’re a total beginner, you might want to go for more formal classes with teachers or, best of all, online or offline sessions with professional tutors. This way you can work with a professional who’s used to helping students find the rules and tricks that make learning French go more smoothly.
2. Written materials for French learners
Your motivations for learning French also determine what types of textbooks or guides you should choose to learn from. Since French is one of the world’s most-studied languages, you have a lot to choose from, so take advantage of it.
If your goals concern academic written French, you’re going to probably choose a university-style textbook, whereas if you’re mainly concerned with spoken French you might choose a book that includes slang and spoken grammar.
Further on in your French adventure, you’ll also want to start reading native materials that mesh with your goals and interests. For example, a good friend of mine only allows herself to read what she terms “trashy women’s magazines” in French, thereby rejiggering her addiction to help her improve her language skills. You can do likewise with fixations on cars, political news, technology, whatever—pick your poison.
3. Videos for learning French
Videos are great to learn from, and while I’ve heard that there might be other websites hosting video somewhere on the Internet, FluentU is the only technology that gives you native French video in an integrated learning platform to help you understand, memorize and use new words from native French videos on all sorts of topics. Unless your motivation for learning French is really recherché, you’ll find videos of interest to you and at every skill level along your journey.
Every word of every video is carefully annotated so that learners have plenty of support. Every word comes with an in-context definition, image and multiple example sentences. You can even click on a word to see how it’s used in other videos across the site.
Along with these interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists and tailor-made flashcard decks will help you learn actively while watching your favorite videos, giving you an extra boost in French reading and listening practice.
But, there’s plenty more where that came from!
As a great supplement to the program, be sure to check out and subscribe to the FluentU French YouTube channel. The channel will introduce you to top learning strategies, native content breakdowns and more.
Many of the videos focus on a central piece of content, such as the video below, which uses a live comedy performance by French comedian Gad Elmaleh as a method to study grammar tenses, understanding questions, French humor and more!
4. French flashcards
For memorization, paper flashcards or a memorization app like Anki can be of great use.
Your motivation and goals are personal, so making your own cards—whether paper or electronic—can be more useful and meaningful than downloading someone else’s. You can draw pictures, write definitions in your own words, and use associations that are specific to you, and therefore more fun, compelling and easier to remember.
Also, many learners find that just the process of creating their flashcards can get them close to already knowing the material.
Setting a routine to stay motivated as you learn French
If you’ve done everything else right, staying motivated should be rather inevitable—these are short- and long-term goals that you really ache to achieve, right?
But even the best laid plans can come up against obstacles, so setting a personalized, fun and daily—yes, daily!—routine for your French learning can save you from tragedy. Do you not have even 15 minutes to set aside each day for French?
If that’s the case, this project might be a major time sink that doesn’t get you anywhere. A half hour or an hour each day for some sort of study, lesson or activity in French is much more likely to keep you motivated and constantly thinking about the language.
Another thing to consider is variety. Doing the same types of lessons and learning activities each day can get to be a drag, no matter how closely they match your interests and motivations.
This is why you might set a goal of learning to employ five new verbs that are relevant to your project on Mondays, a lesson from your grammar book on Tuesdays, a fun song from YouTube on Wednesdays, writing a short dialogue to integrate your new words or structures on Thursdays, etc. On top of this, you could select a new and exciting FluentU video to practice with every day of the week—there’s enough diverse content on the site for you to do that!
The closer that these different activities match your own personal motivations and lifestyle, the better.
For those of you who didn’t already have solid, personal motivations for learning French, I hope that this post has persuaded you to save yourself some trouble.
For the rest of you, I hope that this is the first step in a project that will bring you an enormous amount of pleasure when you reach your objectives—and other results that might surprise you. Perhaps you haven’t considered the joy of being able to order a fish on the beach in Senegal and chat with the cook while he fries it? But trust me, it’ll be fun and you’ll be glad you speak French.
More importantly, whatever business or personal force is driving you, I hope that the road towards your goals is even more fun than the destination.
Mose Hayward offers the world’s most complete coverage of French drinking, romance and hangovers.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.