Sneak Tactics: 5 Stealthy Ways to Improve Your French

Your plus-que-parfait (pluperfect) is more than perfect.

You know what a reflexive pronoun is, and you’re not afraid to use it.

You mastered all your French classes.

And you can talk circles around Pepé Le Pew.

Yet you know, au fond du cœur (at the bottom of your heart), that your French could stand improvement.

Now it’s time to get sneaky.

Why You Need to Be Sneaky to Improve Your French

If you’re going to make the most of your limited time, you need to improve your French through everyday activities. Figure out how to make French part of your daily routine, and you’ll grasp the baguette magique (magic wand) that conjures faster French learning.

  • Being sneaky unleashes unconscious learning. Despite the name, unconscious learning, also known as “implicit learning,” works while you’re awake. Very young children learn without being consciously aware that they are learning. They don’t over-analyze, and their conscious minds don’t trip them up. They instinctively observe, absorb and imitate. Studies have shown that implicit language learning—absorbing language unconsciously, the way young children do—could be the key to learning another language even faster.

Embracing unconscious learning means setting aside the flashcards and the grammar lessons. As you surround yourself with French, your subconscious brain will naturally detect and internalize the linguistic patterns it sees and hears. Go with it.

  • Being sneaky means personalized, fun learning. Sneaky French holds your interest. Why? Because it caters specifically to what you like. You’ll indulge in your favorite topics—in French.

Language learning stimulates pleasure centers in the brain, and increases the number of neural connections. Imagine how much more positively your brain will respond—and how much your French will improve—once you amp up the fun factor with a customized French curriculum.

Enough of the whys and wherefores—let’s get sneaky!

5 Sneaky Little Ways to Improve Your French

1. Transcribe, Then Translate, Favorite Songs

If you’re like 98 percent of the human race, you’ve had an earworm. You know how catchy music can be: Melody, harmony, rhythm and rhyming make songs stick in our heads—often, for a lifetime.

Music is invigorating. It can move us to dance, smile or cry.

Music is portable. You can listen in your car, on your tablet or on your smartphone.

Music, the universal language, is a perfectly sneaky tool for improving your French.

So don’t just listen and hum along.

If you already listen to French vocal music, you probably have at least a few favorite songs. Can you sing them all the way through, or do you just know the refrain?

While you’re enjoying a leisurely cup of tea, why not turn on some of your favorite tunes? Try jotting down the lyrics in a small notebook, or on your portable (mobile device), in between sips.

Not quite catching every word? Don’t worry—this can happen even in your native language. If you’re old-fashioned and buy CDs, you may find the song lyrics printed in the CD booklet. These will generally be more accurate than lyrics found online.

Little by little, translate the lyrics for yourself. You can gain a deeper understanding of the songs you love while improving your French.

French Music On the Go

Of course, there’s not always time to transcribe and translate. But French music can be your companion even as you bustle about your daily activities.

  • Try streaming French radio online while you’re tidying up, folding laundry or making dinner. France Musique and Chérie FM Frenchy are like free samplers, with dozens of Francophone artists. Even listening to the DJs and the commercials in between the songs will improve your French. (Several other French stations are available, but quite often play songs in English.) Load up your music app with the chansons (songs) of French-language artists. Since French is the official language of 29 countries around the world, you have a rich diversity of musical traditions to choose from.

Try several different genres and eras. Don’t limit yourself to current hits or a single artist. Mix it up!

  • Another way to sample French artists is via YouTube. However, the quality and legitimacy of videos varies, since virtually anyone can post on YouTube. Not all of the artist or song descriptions are accurate.
  • A quick way to hear various French vocalists is to listen to 30-second song samples from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. There are sound clips for most artists. Since you may not be familiar with many of these singers, it only makes sense to try before you buy.

Find French music in styles you enjoy, and you’ll keep listening.

And find artists whose French you can understand. Françoise Hardy, Charles Trénet, Georges Moustaki and Hélène Ségara all enunciate quite well, so you can easily recognize words you know—and learn new words.

But don’t limit yourself to occasional French music listening. Kick your French musical immersion up a notch. Dedicate one or more days a week to French-only music appreciation.

As you learn more French songs, sing exclusively in French in the shower—or in your car.

2. Get Involved in Online Book Discussions

Whether you save your reading for summertime or read yourself a bedtime story every night, slip some French literature into your reading list.

Reading almost anything in French can gradually improve your fluency. But books are especially powerful. Because of their length, books are a more immersive reading experience than newspapers or magazine articles.

Discussion adds extra dimensions to your French reading. Take advantage of online French book clubs to fit discussions littéraires (literary discussions) more easily into your life.

Options for Online French Book Clubs

  • Join the Livres (books) subreddit online. Comb the discussions for book suggestions. Find conversations about novels or nonfiction books that interest you.
  • Goodreads hosts an active, multi-national French book club called FrancophonieTheir Club de lecture (reading club) takes on a different topic every month, which is sure to keep the discussions stimulating.

Want to get closer to up-and-coming authors and French literary classics in the making? Try the Auteurs (authors) discussion board, where writers introduce and discuss their own work.

When you feel particularly brave, start your own threads about the French-language books you’ve read—and actively participate in the ensuing conversations.

Finding French Books

Seeing some great French book suggestions in your virtual discussion groups? Thanks to online shopping, it’s easier than ever to find French books. It doesn’t matter if you prefer hardcovers, paperbacks, a Kindle or a NOOK: French-language books are plentiful and readily available.

Still not sure where to start? Check out 10 of the best books for French learners.

Reading French Books

If you’re new to reading French novels, you’ll soon notice that dialogue is presented differently in French literature than in English.

Rather than using quotation marks, for example, French uses a new paragraph and an emdash to introduce dialogue:

—  Vous pouvez améliorer votre maîtrise du français aux moyens sournois, dit l’écrivain.
(“You can improve your command of French through sneaky means,” says the writer.)

In French-language dialogue, context—rather than just punctuation—is used to denote when the character’s dialogue ends, and the narration begins again.

It’s good to be aware of these differences. But remember: The key to sneakily improving your French is to focus on the characters and the story, and take any minor presentation differences in stride.

Find authors and subjects you truly enjoy. You don’t have to impress anyone. This is your literary journey. Don’t feel compelled to read Sartre or Molière if you’d rather read “La Planète des singes” (Planet of the Apes) by Pierre Boulle.

Relax into the flow of the storyline. Use context clues to decipher unfamiliar words, instead of constantly consulting the dictionary. Let yourself be enthralled and entertained as your French improves… and then enrich your experience with lively literary discussions.

3. Pick One News Story, and Follow It in French All Week

Are you a news junkie?

Pick at least one news story to follow all week, exclusively in French. Don’t resort to news coverage in your native language. Then discuss the story with your friends, family or coworkers. This is a challenging way to improve your reading or listening comprehension in French.

Take your Francophone news immersion further: Designate at least one day a week to get all your news in French—even sports coverage.

Plenty of French magazines are at your disposal, including news magazines.

Some publications offer a limited number of free articles every month. After you read your free monthly articles on Le Monde, for example, you’ll be asked to subscribe—or you’ll be blocked from further access to full articles until the next month. There are varying subscription levels, with special discounts for students. If you want to read Le Monde strictly on your laptop, smartphone or tablet, select the Formule Numérique (digital format).

Sneak in French news throughout your day by accessing it from your mobile devices. Got five minutes while your coffee brews? Pop over to Le Figaro and catch up on l’actualité (news). Waiting in a long line at the bank? Read about l’économie (the economy) in L’Express.

You can find more French news sources here.

4. Optimize Your French Movie and TV Time

Most of us enjoy a little mindless television at the end of a long day. Why not spend some of your TV time watching French-language shows and movies?

Maybe there’s something holding you back. It’s always at the bottom of your screen—or maybe the top. It scrolls, or it appears tout à coup (all at once). Perhaps you’ve been recoiling from its inexplicable caps lock, or its sans serif sneakiness.

Now you need to get sneaky right back.

Don’t let those dreaded sous-titres (subtitles) spoil your enjoyment of French movies and TV! Try these tips, and dread subtitles no more.

Especially if you’re new to French films and television, you may find it difficult to catch the dialogue. Subtitles can come to your rescue, but it’s important not to become so reliant on them that you tune out the French you’re hearing.

Over time, you may want to explore your subtitle options.

For example: Netflix offers subtitles for some French shows in several languages, such as English, Spanish and even Chinese. Occasionally, you even can find French subtitles for French shows.

In the rare event that French subtitles are available, eschew the English and switch to full Francophone mode. This can be a great way to learn new vocab as you hear and see it simultaneously.

Over time, you should find yourself relying less on the subtitles—even the French ones.

If you have the option, you can turn the subtitles off entirely. Removing all subtitles will make the film or series seem less “foreign,” and deepen the immersion experience.

Dealing with Persistent Subtitles

Many movies or shows only have English subtitles. Often, you can’t turn them off.

To keep your mind off the translation and on the story, concentrate on the center portion of the screen. Focus on the actors, on the action… anywhere but on the subtitles.

If you can’t keep your eyes from straying to mandatory English subtitles, play a game with yourself: See if you can catch where the French and its corresponding English translation don’t quite match up.

What to Consider When Choosing Movies and TV

Regardless of the subtitle situation, it’s important to let your own tastes and interests be your guide. The more entertaining you find the plot and the characters, the less you will dwell upon any technical glitches. That’s when the stealthy power of unconscious learning is unleashed.

Enjoy your French programming in couch potato mode: Don’t think of it as a classroom, even though it can be an excellent learning experience. Let the French language sneak into your brain while you’re chilling out, whisked away by a great story line.

The acid test: Is this movie or TV show something you would watch in your native language? When you’re watching it, do you get so absorbed that you forget it’s in French? If so, it’s a good choice for you—and a sneaky way to improve your French.

Now you’re equipped with a carefree attitude, and you can take advantage of your subtitle savvy. Allons-y! (Let’s go!)

Finding French Programming

If you subscribe to premium movie channels on satellite or cable, you may find a few French films as part of the standard lineup.

  • Major providers such as DISH Network and Comcast offer TV5 Monde and other French-language options. These are often part of tiered packages. You can get French-language channels added to your lineup every month for the price of a café et croissant (coffee and croissant).
  • Do you stream your entertainment? Netflix has a great selection of French-language offerings. Streamed films and television are also part of the Amazon Prime package. Nearly four hundred French films are currently available at no extra cost to Prime members. Hulu also offers a broad variety of French films, as well as several television series. Just be mindful that the licensing for movies—and especially TV series—may expire before you’ve had the chance to finish watching them.

Be on the lookout for French films in the “Foreign Films” or “International” category—often, going under assumed English-language names. One such gem is “Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément” (A Little, a Lot, Blindly)—currently available on Netflix as “Blind Date.”

When you regularly watch French TV, movies and videos, you get more than just casual language lessons. You get context and culture. You hear the accents of many different regions. This form of virtual immersion will improve your French in a very natural way.

With thousands of choices available, you can easily find movies and shows that appeal to you. Kick off your shoes, grab the popcorn and let your conscious mind relax… as you get more fluent in French, scene by scene.

5. Drive Your Way to Improved French

Make the most of your commute by improving your French via GPS.

Many GPS devices and smartphone map apps can give directions in French. A simple online search should yield instructions for making the switch. (In certain cases, you may need to temporarily change over the language for an entire group of apps, or even your whole phone. Before you try this, you might want to print out instructions to change the language back.)

Start by listening to French driving directions while taking routes you know well. On your drive to work or to the grocery store, let the French-language navigation seep into your subconscious.

As you become more familiar with common French navigational phrases, start using your French-language GPS for less familiar routes. (Don’t try this on your way to a first date, a wedding or a job interview!)

Get started with a few common words and phrases you may hear:

French Word or PhraseEnglish Translation
Empruntez l’autorouteTake the highway / freeway
Prenez la sortieTake the exit
le meilleur itinérairethe best route
le plus rapide trajet selon l’état actuel de la circulationthe fastest route based on current traffic conditions
le croisement / le carrefourcrossroads, intersection
Changez de voieChange lanes
Utilisez les deux voies gauchesUse (one of) the two left lanes
la route à voie uniquesingle-lane road
un brusque viragea sharp turn
le rond-pointtraffic circle, rotary, roundabout
la prioritéright-of-way
l’embouteillagetraffic jam
les feux de signalisationtraffic lights
RalentissezSlow down
Faites un demi-tourMake a U-turn
fermeture de portions de la routepartial road closure
la rue à sens uniqueone-way street
Cédez le passageYield

Want to plot out your French route in Google Maps before you go? Follow these directions for changing the language.

If you have time for a leisurely day trip, go someplace new—relying solely on your French navigation. Just make sure you have a full fuel tank and a fully-charged mobile phone before you set out.


There are countless ways to improve your French every day, and these five suggestions should give you a head start.

You don’t have to spend hours glued to a textbook, memorizing flashcards or doing tedious grammar exercises to improve your French.

With these tips, improving your French can be fun, creative… and sneaky.

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