An Introduction to French: How to Start Learning on Your Own in 4 Powerful Steps
You’ve decided to start learning French. Good for you!
By now, you may have glanced at some basic French survival phrases.
You may have even gotten yourself a good French dictionary, but you have yet to gain a sense of direction.
Worry not! I’ll be your compass. In this post, I’ll teach you how to start learning French completely on your own.
- Step Zero: Some Background Information on French
- Step One: Learn the Sounds
- Step Two: Memorize Basic Phrases
- Step Three: Tackle Those Subject Pronouns and Prepare Yourself for Verbs
- Step Four: Have a Plan
- And one more thing...
Step Zero: Some Background Information on French
First things first: What is French?
French is a Romance language spoken by 220 million speakers all over the world. Being a Romance language means it’s a language that evolved from Latin, and it has a few cousins in Europe. French shares similar grammar and vocabulary with other Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. So if you speak one of those languages, you may find some aspects of French familiar.
As a speaker of English, you also have a step up. During the Middle Ages, French was spoken by English nobility, and nowadays, quite a few English words have origins in French words.
Also, learning French is extremely useful for educational and professional settings. So there are thousands—nay, perhaps millions of resources for learning, and your options are unlimited!
Step One: Learn the Sounds
On first listen, French can sound odd to English speakers: It’s a fairly melodic language punctuated by less-than-desirable-sounding nasal and glottal sounds. However, French sounds aren’t as foreign to English speakers as you might expect.
Speakers of English have relatively little difficulty with French pronunciation since a lot of the sounds are similar, but there are some trickier sounds to familiarize yourself with.
Firstly, almost all of the consonants in French can be found in English (even the relatively rare sound found in the word “regime”).
The one consonant that will sound different to English speakers is the French “r” sound. Take note that this is not the same “r” sound as in English, nor is it the rolled “r” in Spanish or Italian. Instead, it’s made at the back of the mouth, almost like gargling water without actually using water.
What English speakers will find most different in French pronunciation are the vowel sounds.
Some French vowels are close to English vowels, but a few, like the French “u” sound, are completely different.
Check out this YouTube playlist to help familiarize yourself with the pronunciation of French vowels.
French has a special group of vowels called “nasal vowels.” These vowels are produced in the nasal cavity and generally occur when the vowel is preceding an “m” or “n,” as in the word vin (wine) or bon (good). Check out this handy video for pronouncing French nasal vowels.
Step Two: Memorize Basic Phrases
Now that you’ve gotten those French sounds sorted out, check out this list of the top basic (but most useful) French phrases.
Bonjour / Bonsoir / Bonne nuit
These phrases can be used as greetings depending on the time of day. Bonjour means “good day” or “hello,” bonsoir means “good evening” and bonne nuit means “good night.”
However, bonne nuit is really only appropriate (in France at least) when talking to somebody who’s actually getting ready to go to bed. If you want to tell somebody to have a good evening, it might be best to say bonne soirée.
Comment ça va ?
This phrase means “How are you?”
Ça va bien / Ça va mal
Ça va bien means “it’s going well,” and ça va mal means “it’s going badly.”
Comment vous appelez-vous ?
This phrase asks someone what their name is in a formal context.
Je m’appelle …
Use this phrase to respond to the previous question. The blank is where you would say your name. For example, I would say, Je m’appelle Michael (My name is Michael).
Quel âge avez-vous ?
Use this phrase to ask someone how old they are in a formal context.
J’ai … ans.
This response means “I am [number for age] years old.” Learning how to count in French is a basic skill you’ll want to cover early on. Use this video to help you learn numbers in French.
Comment dit-on … en français ?
This phrase means, “How do you say [insert English word] in French?” This can be used to ask people how to say a particular English word in French.
Pardon ? Encore une fois.
Literally translating as “Pardon? Once again,” use this phrase to ask someone to repeat themselves in order to better understand what they’re saying.
Au revoir / À bientôt
These two phrases mean “goodbye” and “see you soon,” respectively.
After looking at the phrases listed above, take note: Tu can mean “you” when a speaker is referring to just one person, and vous can mean “you” when a speaker is referring to more than one person. However, there’s quite a bit more to it than that. These two words can not only denote the number of people a speaker is referring to, but vous can also be used to denote formality in French.
For example, you would use tu to talk to someone you know well, like a close friend or family member. However, you would use vous to talk to someone you don’t know or someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher or the president.
This means that you can say a couple of the phrases above in a different way for more casual situations:
Comment t’appelles-tu ?
This means “What is your name?” when speaking in an informal situation.
Quel âge as-tu ?
This means “How old are you?” when speaking in an informal situation.
Step Three: Tackle Those Subject Pronouns and Prepare Yourself for Verbs
So, after essential phrases, what’s next? While there may be some debate about this topic, and some questions as to whether you should immediately focus on vocabulary building with noun charts and short readings, I believe that French learners should start with verbs.
Why, you may ask? Well, in French, verbs are pretty complicated, yet they’re arguably the most important part of any language. Don’t believe me? Try creating a coherent sentence without using verbs.
In any case, the ideal place to start when it comes to verbs is actually not the verbs themselves: First, you’ll need to know personal pronouns. Personal pronouns include words such as “I” or “he” or “she.” They’re words that denote a particular person in speech.
Take a look at how to say the personal pronouns in French.
|Tu||You (singular, informal)|
|Il / Elle / On||He/She/We (informal)|
|Vous||You (singular, formal), You (plural)|
| Ils |
|They (masculine), They (referring to a group of boys or a mix of boys and girls)|
They (feminine), They (referring to a group of girls only)
But what should I do with these personal pronouns, you ask? Well, conjugate verbs with them!
Verb conjugation is a little particular, but once you get the hang of it, it can be a fun mental exercise. In essence, verb conjugation has to do with how a verb will change form depending on which personal pronoun you put it with.
Here’s an example of conjugation with the verb parler (to speak):
|Je parle||I speak|
|Tu parles||You speak (singular, informal)|
|Il parle / Elle parle / On parle||He/She speaks/We speak (informal)|
|Nous parlons||We speak|
|Vous parlez||You (singular, formal) speak, You (plural) speak|
|Ils parlent / Elles parlent||They speak|
Notice that with this verb, we’ve chopped off the -er at the end of the verb parler and added endings depending on the personal pronoun. In fact, you can do this with all verbs ending in -er that are deemed regular.
A regular verb is one that follows a set pattern for its last two letters. One group of these verbs is -er verbs (such as parler). The two other groups of regular verbs are -ir verbs (such as finir , meaning “to finish”) and -re verbs (such as vendre , meaning “to sell”).
On the other hand, there are verbs that are irregular verbs. This means that they don’t follow a set pattern, regardless of their endings. These verbs have to be memorized.
To continue familiarizing yourself with verbs, check out more details and conjugations for French regular and irregular verbs in the present tense.
Step Four: Have a Plan
The final step to start learning French independently has little to do with the actual language. This final step is one that will last throughout your French journey: You need to develop a learning plan.
My suggestion: Whatever you do, make sure you do things that help you develop in all four of the major learning areas. These areas are speaking, reading, writing and listening.
Perhaps the most important part of learning a language is speaking (that’s how language was first used, right?). However, surprisingly, speaking is one of the most overlooked language skill areas for independent learners. So, break out of that shell, homebody, and get out there.
Find someone in your area who speaks French and practice with them. Take an in-person course. Those don’t work for you? You could try italki, an online platform that allows you to practice French (and other languages) with native speakers and other learners.
As you get further into your French language learning journey, the importance of reading real French texts will become apparent. But where does one find French texts, you ask?
Well, for starters, check out Lawless French. They have readings for learners starting at the beginning stages.
Also, you can check out Vikidia, a French Wikipedia for children aged 8 to 13. Yes, I know you probably aren’t that age, but your French reading will be at the beginning level, and this is a great place to find articles on many subjects.
The best way to practice listening skills is to listen. At first, you could start with an audio course. As you start to understand French more and more when you hear it, try listening to the language out in the wild (i.e., as everyday spoken French or in the media). Try watching a French daily news program like “Le 13 heures” or listening to French radio.
For French immersion with language learning support, you could also try to develop your listening skills with authentic French clips—like inspiring videos and movie trailers—available on FluentU. Each video on this language learning program is accompanied by interactive subtitles that you can hover over to quickly find the meaning of a word or click on to find a definition and more examples of the term used in context.
Having good writing skills in French starts with learning about French grammar. Where to best learn French grammar? How about a good textbook?
But grammar doesn’t just happen overnight; grammar takes time. Don’t forget to practice all that grammatical knowledge with online quizzes.
Columbia has some great French grammar exercises, and Français interactif (Interactive French) from the University of Texas is a great resource for grammar tutorials and quizzing tools.
I’ll leave you with my favorite resource: French learner, I introduce to you WordReference. WordReference is an online dictionary and verb-conjugator extraordinaire. I’ve used it almost daily throughout my French journey, and it has an app for on-the-go use.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Now, go forth and independently tackle French!
Bonne chance ! (Good luck!)
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 the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)