How to Learn French: The Ultimate Roadmap We Wish We Had as Beginners
Do you want to learn French?
You’re in good company.
There are more than 275 million French speakers around
C’est vrai! (It’s true!)
And they’re not all in France, either. (I mean, the boulangeries would be overwhelmed…) French takes ninth place on the list of most widely spoken languages worldwide, and it’s even the fourth most commonly spoken language in the U.S.
With such widespread use and global influence, learning how to speak French can create incredible opportunities for you. If you’re determined to learn French, you’re making a smart choice.
Better yet? There are tons of free and affordable resources that make it easy. You can learn French at home or in person, as a beginner all the way through the advanced stages.
You just need motivation and a roadmap to keep you on the right track.
If you want to be one of those 275 million francophones, then keep reading to find out the best way to learn French.
How to Learn French: The Ultimate Roadmap We Wish We Had as Beginners
How Long Does It Take to Learn French?
According to the Foreign Service Institute, native English speakers need about 600 hours to master French and can do so in about 24 weeks.
Learning French is actually considered much easier for English speakers and takes less time to master than many other, less similar languages.
The bottom line is that if you put in the right amount of time, you should be able to achieve fluency pretty quickly.
How to Learn French on Your Own
You don’t necessarily need to be taught by a trained professional to learn French (although we’ll have some tips for that, too, later in this post). Really, anyone can learn French on their own if they put in the time and effort.
According to research published in the International Journal of Modern Language Teaching and Learning, you’re more likely to succeed at learning another language if you’re motivated and have a positive attitude.
Try applying both while using the following resources to learn French online and at home, and you’ll be well on your way to French fluency.
Immerse Yourself in French with Authentic Resources
Using authentic resources, such as French news videos, blogs, books and podcasts, can help you emulate French like a native speaker. You’ll immerse yourself in the language the way it’s used in real life.
It’s also a particularly useful method to learn French on your own—research shows that studying languages with authentic materials doesn’t just improve linguistic skills, but can even make you a more competent independent learner overall.
As an added bonus, using authentic resources helps you improve your French skills while doing things you already enjoy doing.
Some examples of how to learn French with authentic resources include:
- Listening to French radio
- Watching French TV shows
- Reading the French news (to improve reading skills and absorb common grammatical structures)
Practice with French Learning Apps Regularly
By downloading a French app, you gain access to bite-sized French lessons that work for your schedule since you can complete them anywhere and anytime.
French apps allow you to easily save your learning progress, and some may even allow you to play French games with others or follow your friends’ progress if they have the app as well.
You should look for an app that includes games and plenty of exercises to practice French in a variety of ways (writing, translation, matching, etc.).
Start by downloading FluentU, which actually gives you a double-whammy: authentic French resources that have been transformed into personalized language lessons.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Not sure what a word in the video means? Just click on the interactive subtitles for an instant definition and grammar information. FluentU will also point you to other videos that have the word so you understand how to use it in any context.
Every video also comes with multimedia flashcards and fun quizzes to make sure you remember everything you’ve learned. You can save words from the videos to a customized flashcard deck, and FluentU’s “spaced repetition” algorithm will make sure you review them at just the right moment.
It’s so much better than just drilling words and grammar rules by rote. You’ll learn French naturally in the context of fun videos that native speakers actually watch.
The videos are organized by genre and level, so it’s easy to find the ones that work for you. Plus, FluentU keeps track of what you’ve learned and suggests new videos based on that information.
Take this immersive French practice anywhere you go with the FluentU apps for iOS and Android.
Invest in a French Course Book
Another way to improve your French on your own is to purchase a good course book that provides progressive, ready-made lessons and is easy to follow.
Make sure you don’t wind up with an outdated French textbook. Rather, look for one with a recent publishing date. You’ll want to make sure that you’re getting the freshest vocabulary and cultural insights!
You’ll also want to see if your course book comes with any online or CD counterparts. Supplemental materials that include audio components are especially important to ensure that you don’t neglect your listening skills when learning from a book—a common pitfall for French self-learners.
Additionally, be sure to double check how much material is covered by the book and whether or not it’s appropriate for your current French level.
A good course book will also have plenty of practice exercises, as well as an answer key to help you check your understanding. Some answer keys are sold separately, another thing to consider when looking for the perfect course book.
Learn French on YouTube
Using videos on YouTube to learn French can greatly improve your listening skills, as well as your speaking skills if you choose to participate in oral repetition.
One thing to consider when choosing French YouTube lessons is to shoot for those made by native speakers. This ensures that you don’t accidentally learn something incorrectly by using an untrustworthy source.
Secondly, try to stick to shorter videos that have targeted lessons if you’re looking for material created specifically for French learners. Sometimes the shorter, more direct lessons pack the most punch.
Finally, take advantage of all of the authentic resources available on YouTube, including French news videos, interviews and music videos.
FluentU’s French YouTube channel ticks all the boxes above and offers tons of videos that will help you learn French in a fun and engaging way.
Videos like this one, which will give any beginner the necessary phrases and expressions to kick-start their French learning journey:
Or this one, which will teach you slang words you’ll hear non-stop in France:
FluentU’s French YouTube channel also uses authentic videos like movie trailers and transforms them into superb language lessons. Subscribe today so you don’t miss a thing!
Listen to French Learning Podcasts
French podcasts also help you better your listening skills.
Due to the popularity of podcasts, you can find coverage on just about any topic you want. This means there are tons of opportunities to learn a wide variety of vocabulary.
You may also learn a lot of cultural tidbits while tuning in to your favorite French podcast.
When choosing a podcast that’s right for you, you’ll want to consider:
- Whether it’s specifically made for French learners
- It the language is easy to understand—and if not, whether you can understand better by slowing down the podcast audio
- Whether the hosts are native French speakers
- What accents the hosts have
- Whether you want to learn slang or more standardized French
Fortunately, there are podcasts that fit each of the above criteria, so you’ll have your pick no matter what you’re looking for.
Practice What You’ve Learned with Online Quizzes
Using online quizzes is a great way to practice what you’ve learned and test your knowledge.
Quizzes are often repetitive in nature, which means they can help you memorize concepts. Some quizzes also have options to automatically continue testing you on what you got wrong until you answer correctly.
Before diving in and taking an online test, consider:
- Whether you want timed or untimed quizzes
- Whether you can customize them or they’re pre-made
- Which quiz format (multiple choice, matching, open-ended, etc.) will best help you with the skills you struggle with most
Finally, some quizzes can be nitpicky, marking answers as incorrect when you simply misuse an accent, while others are more forgiving. Choose the type of quiz that tests you according to your personal language goals.
Where Do I Start? Try Dividing French Lessons by Subject
In order to not overwhelm yourself when learning French, it’s advisable not to stuff too much into one lesson.
One of the best ways to avoid studying too much at one time is to divide your lessons by target subject and make sure you vary the subjects each time so you can be a well-rounded language learner.
One idea for how to divide lessons is to split them into vocabulary, grammar and phonetics.
French Vocabulary: Word Clusters to Focus On
To get the most out of learning French vocabulary, focus on expanding your lexicon by adding the French words that you’ll use the most in real-life situations.
Essential French vocabulary categories include:
Certain French verbs are invaluable and used more frequently than others. Try to focus on the following list of commonly used verbs before moving on to others.
Être (to be)
Avoir (to have)
Faire (to do/to make)
Aller (to go)
Pouvoir (to be able to)
Vouloir (to want)
Prendre (to take)
Savoir (to know)
Venir (to come)
Comprendre (to understand)
French Grammar: Rules to Focus On
Certain French grammatical rules may be more challenging than others for native English speakers because they’re so different than English grammatical rules.
French Word Order
One area where you may need more practice than others is knowing how to order your words, and specifically where to put French adjectives in a sentence. Some adjective categories are placed before the noun while others are placed after the noun, which can prove difficult for some English speakers to keep straight.
For example, when a French adjective refers to beauty, age, numbers, goodness or size, it tends to go before the noun it modifies.
Il est un jeune homme. (He is a young man).
On the other hand, when a French adjective refers to color, mood, personality or nationality, it follows the noun it modifies.
Je suis une femme américaine. (I am an American woman).
It’s true that if you want to sound like a native speaker, it’s necessary to be able to distinguish where French adjectives go, but that’s not the only reason this lesson is so important.
French adjective placement is crucial for understanding the meaning of the sentence as well. For example, when ancien is placed before the noun, it means “former,” but when it’s placed after the noun, it means “old” or “ancient.”
Voilà, mon ancien petit ami. (Here is my former boyfriend.)
Voilà, mon petit ami ancien. (Here is my old boyfriend.)
The French Past Tenses
Another tricky French grammatical concept to master is when to use the passé composé and the imparfait, both past tenses.
The passé composé is used for completed actions and the imparfait is used for continuous past actions. They’re both quite different in terms of usage and conjugation and it’s worth taking some extra time to master them from the get-go.
For the large majority of verbs, the passé composé is constructed by conjugating the auxiliary avoir (to have) and adding the main verb’s past participle. Here are two examples of verbs conjugated in the passé composé:
Être (to be):
J’ai été (I was)
Tu as été (you were, singular)
Il/elle a été (he/she was)
Nous avons été (we were)
Vous avez été (you were; plural)
Ils/elles ont été (they were)
Finir (to finish):
J’ai fini (I finished)
Tu as fini (you finished, singular)
Il/elle a fini (he/she finished)
Nous avons fini (we finished)
Vous avez fini (you finished; plural)
Ils/elles ont fini (they finished)
Not only do you have to know how to form the passé composé, but there are also many irregular past participles that simply have to be memorized. There are also some rule-breaking verbs that use the other auxiliary, être, instead of avoir.
As mentioned above, the imparfait is used to describe continuous past actions, such as habitual things. For this tense, you’ll need to learn the appropriate conjugations, which differ depending on whether the verb ends in -er, -re or -ir.
Some example sentences using the imparfait include:
J’étais plus petit quand j’étais un enfant. (I was smaller when I was a child.)
Il y avait un restaurant dans cette rue quand j’habitais ici. (There was a restaurant on this street when I lived here.)
Mixing up these two important tenses can cause you to misunderstand a sentence’s meaning.
For example, the sentence “J’avais faim” means that you were hungry, but the sentence “J’ai eu faim” means that you became hungry.
French Gender and Possessives
Learning French possessives may seem easy at first, as it initially comes down to memorization.
However, remembering to make the possessive form agree with the noun that follows (rather than the person the object belongs to) might be a bit trickier.
In other words, even if the speaker is female, she would use the first person singular masculine possessive if she’s talking about a noun that’s masculine in French.
For example, she would say, “Ça c’est mon manteau” (“This is my coat”) instead of using ma (my, feminine) because “coat” is a masculine noun in French.
If that’s not enough to worry about, things get even trickier when you consider the fact that a small number of French words don’t use a possessive form like they do in English. Instead, they use definite articles. Here are a few examples:
Il se brosse les dents. (He brushes his teeth).
Nous nous lavons les mains. (We wash our hands).
Notice that the literal translations are “He brushes the teeth” and “We wash the hands.” This is because French uses reflexive verbs—like se brosser (to brush oneself) and se laver (to wash oneself)—in certain circumstances, making the use of possessives redundant.
Thus, learning how to use French possessives is extremely important to making yourself understood when you speak French!
French Phonetics: Sounds to Focus On
Phonetics lessons focus on improving pronunciation and studying which French letters or letter combinations form which sounds.
This often neglected skill is vital if you want to be understood when you speak French.
Because there are no English equivalents, some of the sounds that prove the most difficult for native English speakers to form include:
- The French “r” sound: This sound is what’s known as an uvular fricative. This means that it’s produced when the tongue is placed close to the uvula, causing friction as the air passes through.
People often feel like this sound is coming from the back of their throat. The French “r” sound is used to pronounce words like rouge (red), train (train) and être (to be).
- The French “u” sound: Native English speakers often confuse this sound with a similar French sound that’s formed by the vowel combination “ou,” but it’s completely different. The “u” sound is formed by positioning the mouth as if you were about to whistle.
Your tongue should essentially be pressing down against your bottom teeth. Some French words that use the “u” sound include jus (juice), rue (street) and bus (bus).
To master these and other French sounds, listen to tons of native French audio material and look up pictures or charts for correct mouth placement.
Speed It Up! How to Learn French Fast
French is a unique language and should, therefore, be approached in a unique way.
There are several things that native English speakers can do when learning French that can make the process go a lot faster.
Look for Cognates
There are a ton of French-English cognates (words that share a common origin) that can make understanding and remembering French vocabulary easier.
While some of them may seem a bit random, there are several word categories that contain many cognates. Some examples include:
Areas of study:
La biologie (biology)
Les maths (math)
Les sciences (science)
La géographie (geography)
Le chocolat (chocolate)
La tomate (tomato)
Le jus d’orange (orange juice)
La patate (potato)
Le musée (museum)
La France (France)
This is just a brief list to get you started, but there are loads of cognates out there, so be sure to keep an eye out for them!
Keep a List of Faux Amis (False Friends)
While cognates can be extremely helpful to accelerate your French learning, being aware of faux amis is equally important.
Faux amis (false friends) are French words that sound or look a lot like English words, but actually have nothing in common in terms of meaning.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of confusing these words. Some examples include actuellement (currently) and réaliser (achieve).
Keeping a list of the faux amis you come across can help you remember them and avoid comprehension or speaking mistakes down the line.
Focus Your Time on the Most Difficult French Concepts
Focusing on the French language concepts that you may need the most help with will ensure that you’re studying as efficiently as possible.
Recognize that the French concepts you’re going to struggle with most are the ones that are really different from English—like the vocabulary, grammar and phonetics topics we covered earlier. But every French learner has their own weaknesses and strengths, so stay attentive to the particular words and grammar rules that keep slipping out of your memory.
…But Be Open to Making Mistakes
One of the best ways to learn French quickly is to not be afraid to make mistakes, especially in regards to pronunciation.
French phonetics may be daunting for native English speakers at first, as French has some sounds that English doesn’t. The only way to get over this is to be fearless and practice your oral French no matter how bad you think it sounds.
The more you practice and are corrected, the faster you’ll improve.
Which brings us to…
How to Learn French Speaking and Conversation
In-person Learning Options
Learning French with others can be one of the best ways to improve your language skills.
Engaging with other French learners or teachers can help you better your speaking skills by ensuring that you practice talking exclusively in French. It can also help you build your French vocabulary, improve your pronunciation and learn to use French spontaneously.
As your conversational skills develop, you’ll be able to assess your progress in real time and will even get a boost in confidence when it comes to using French in the real world.
No matter what your budget is or where in the world you are, there are plenty of creative ways to get in some French speaking and conversation lessons with teachers or other learners!
Take a French Class in Person
Some French students learn best when face-to-face with a teacher and will benefit the most from a French language institute.
Taking classes in person is a great way to ensure that you follow through with your commitment to learn French, as you may be more likely to show up to class or do homework when others are counting on you than you would be to motivate yourself to study on your own.
Plus, having the help of a professional French teacher can provide you with invaluable guidance and feedback.
Language institutes will typically administer a placement test before putting you in a class, which means you’ll be with students of a similar French level.
Your classes will follow a logical progression and provide a structured space and time in which to learn.
Most language institutes offer a variety of options, so you can choose between taking a short class each week or intensive classes multiple times a week.
When you’re searching for a program, be sure to look for the types of class offered as well. Some organizations will have courses geared toward specific learning goals, such as grammar, speaking or business French. Other institutes will offer outings or cultural events to supplement your classroom learning.
Be thorough about doing your research before you choose a French class. Visit the institute in-person if possible, look for student reviews online and ask plenty of questions.
Hire a French Tutor
Hiring a personal French tutor can be a great way to get the attention you need through personalized lessons.
Tutors provide one-on-one guidance and spend the entire time catering to your specific French language needs. This can help you progress faster and get the most out of your lessons.
When looking for a tutor, you’ll need to consider whether or not they’re available outside of class to answer questions and what their qualifications are. A more qualified teacher will be certified in teaching French as a second language but will probably charge much more than someone who isn’t certified to teach.
Deciding which qualification you’re looking for in a tutor is a personal choice and may depend on what you’re looking to get out of your tutoring sessions.
For example, a native French speaker who isn’t certified as a teacher might still be a good fit for a student who’s looking to improve their French accent.
Go Abroad to a French-speaking Region
One of the best ways to learn French is to immerse yourself in the language by going abroad.
Traveling to a francophone country helps you practice your French in a real-world setting, but it also offers an unforgettable cultural experience as well. There’s no better way to understand the culture than to live right in the middle of it.
Plus, you’ll be forced to speak French frequently and the opportunity will push you beyond your comfort zone.
For those who are looking for more than a short trip, there are many ways to live in France for an extended period of time. Options include volunteering, studying abroad for college credit, participating in a working holiday program, working as an au pair or teaching English in a private institution or government program.
At-home Learning Options
If you’ve decided not to go abroad, it’s still vital to your success that you find ways to practice speaking French on your own. Fortunately, there are many ways to achieve this no matter where you live.
French Language Exchanges
If you’re looking for someone with whom you can speak French—and I highly recommend that you do—one of the easiest ways to do so is to simply join an online language exchange.
These are almost always free and are essentially made up of people who want to learn one another’s languages. In exchange for helping someone with their English, they’ll help you with your French.
Most language exchanges are simply laid back conversations to provide a chance to practice your target language orally and naturally, but there are also participants who prefer more structured “lessons” or have specific topics they want to practice discussing.
As for finding people you can practice with face to face, I recommend that you join local French clubs or meetups or ask French organizations or embassies in your area about any attend events they host.
If you want to get in some more oral practice but are learning by yourself, you can always repeat phrases aloud.
To achieve this, you can use French audiobooks, dialogues, videos or even songs.
Just be sure that you’re listening to speakers who enunciate clearly and that you’re using materials that are appropriate for your French level. I recommend pausing the audio or video and giving yourself enough time to repeat each phrase.
For those listening to dialogue, try listening multiple times, giving yourself the opportunity to switch roles and practice both parts.
Sign up for an Online French Course
Taking online classes is certainly a convenient option, as it allows you to complete assignments and lessons on your own time and right from home.
You can find everything from free or purchased course materials that you’ll study on your own, to classes led by professional teachers or tutors.
To ensure that you get quality speaking and conversation practice, consider the following when choosing an online French course:
- Are the lessons live or recorded? The former provides a great opportunity to ask questions and practice oral French (although the latter may be more convenient in terms of your schedule).
- Will your assignments be automatically graded by software, or will your teacher be manually grading them and providing feedback?
- Are there opportunities for additional support from the instructor or another teacher?
You can also check whether or not all additional resources, such as textbooks, are included in the cost of the course.
Level Up! Strategies to Learn French for Beginners and Beyond
Different French levels require different French resources and tools. Below are some tips to stay on top of your game as you advance in your journey to learn French.
Learning French for Beginners
- Write down verb conjugations and keep them as a reference. Being able to quickly check how to conjugate something can be a lifesaver when it comes to using French as a beginner. This is especially true when you haven’t yet memorized all of the irregular French verbs, like être (to be), avoir (to have), aller (to go) and voir (to see).
Unfortunately, the majority of the verbs you’ll use the most in everyday speech are irregular, making a good conjugation book an invaluable tool to have.
- When you learn new words from written sources, be sure to look up the pronunciations. When you’re just starting out with French, knowing how to recognize words based on sounds or how to pronounce things can be very difficult. Having a quick way to look up an audio clip of a word can be a huge help.
FluentU is once again a great option here. You can search for a word and FluentU will show you French videos where it’s used, so you can hear it spoken naturally in a variety of contexts.
- Lastly, as I suggested earlier, continue to practice new French concepts using online quizzes and games. There are tons of sites with these resources available to you for free, and using fun tools that hold your interest will ensure that you don’t lose motivation.
Plus, repetition is one of the absolute best ways to memorize new French grammatical patterns and vocabulary.
Learning French for Intermediates
Once you’ve progressed to a slightly higher, intermediate level, it’s time to start getting into more specific lessons and exposing yourself to more difficult subjects.
- I recommend that you search the internet for pre-made lessons that save you planning time but offer a more structured approach to learning French. There are plenty of resources available online that are either provided by French learning websites or posted by teachers.
- Another way to take your skills to the next level is to begin reading stories in French. This will help you expand your vocabulary and get used to recognizing more advanced grammatical structures.
If you’re still struggling with reading in French, try to purchase collections of short stories that use parallel text (the English translation right next to the French). This will help you better understand what you’re reading without having to manually search for each word in a dictionary.
Starting out with short stories rather than full-length novels will also be more manageable for intermediate learners.
- Finally, find a trustworthy translation dictionary. You may be tempted to use the first online dictionaries you find, but they don’t always provide accurate translations. Do your homework and find out which online or print dictionaries come from credible sources.
Dictionaries that allow you to look up vocabulary using both the English and French words are the easiest to use, and those that provide example sentences for each entry can be among the most helpful.
Learning French for Advanced Speakers
Advanced French learners should be focused on making sure their French is well-rounded, mastering those tricky grammar rules they haven’t quite gotten down yet and perfecting their pronunciation.
- You can begin by challenging yourself with French literature, either by reading printed versions or listening to audiobooks. Classic French literature has more advanced language than you’d find in a newspaper, for example.
- I also recommend that you purchase an excellent French grammar book that uses simple explanations that are easy to understand. Some grammatical concepts, like the French subjunctive tense, may be among the last that you master. Having a guide to quickly reference these rules is essential.
- Finally, use authentic videos and audio that are accompanied by transcripts to get in some French dictation practice. Copy down what you hear as you listen and then check your work using the transcript.
This is the ultimate way to perfect your writing and listening skills and model excellent French pronunciation.
Now that you’ve been thoroughly inducted into the wonderful world of learning French, it’s time to take the next step. Whether you decide to be a self-taught Frenchie, enroll in formal French lessons or spend a year in a francophone country, c’est le moment (now is the moment)!
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.