I learned French the hard way: before the modern Internet.
If you wanted to, you could pull out your smartphone right now, call a random Francophone username and learn phrases like Quoi ? Vous êtes qui ? Laissez-moi tranquille ! (What? Who is this? Leave me alone!)
I think there are even better ways to design online French lessons, however, and that’s the subject of this post.
This is for those of you who don’t necessarily need the institutional backing (or social support) of a university class or language school, and are self-motivated. For you, private French lessons are absolutely a more effective way to learn the language quickly.
The main reasons for online lessons are:
- They’re one-on-one, so you’re not going to waste class time listening to other learners mangle the language
- They’re often cheaper than language schools
- You can easily get native French-speaking tutors
- You won’t waste time getting to and from a class
- Classes can be individualized for your goals and learning style.
This post will cover the best technology for holding your classes, what to look for in your tutors and how to plan your own lessons. (Yes, as I’ll argue, for the most effective learning, that’s your job!)
While this is not how I personally learned French back in the day, I have since spent many hundreds of hours in online classes as a student of other languages. I have also been both a classroom and online language teacher, and for years I’ve been pouring over the academic literature on language learning as well as tips from other polyglot language hackers on blogs and podcasts.
While I’ve gotten a bit obsessive about this topic, I’ll try to distill my tips here down to the very best for learning French efficiently through online private lessons.
How to Set Up Your Private French Lessons Online
Online Resources for Private French Lessons
This is currently the best technology for taking French lessons online:
For finding tutors:
- WyzAnt is an incredible resource for locating stellar French teachers near you. This site is professional and polished, and it features well-educated and well-qualified tutors in your local area. Follow this link to see who's available close to home.
- Verbling is all about online language learning. You’ll be able to explore hundreds upon hundreds of French teachers and find exactly the one who’s right for you. When you search, you’ll get to search based on prices, availability and even the other languages they speak—so if your native language is Chinese or German, you can find a French teacher to teach you in that language. Plus, the technology here makes accessing tutoring sessions extra smooth! You don’t need Skype or another third-party program. It’s all here!
- italki is a convenient and more casual platform for finding teachers and language exchange partners. You will find experienced, professional teachers as well as just random French people (“informal tutors”) who are willing to rent their time, speak slowly and correct you. Under the “community” menu you can also find free language exchanges. The filtering options are similar to those of Verbling, allowing you to find a tutor who meets all of your unique needs.
- coLanguage is a site that provides access to qualified, vetted, professional teachers who give flexible one-on-one lessons. They take your needs into account but also base their courses on the CEFR framework, so this may be a good resource to consider if you’re looking for teaching that’s a little more structured and screened.
- Skype is the most popular technology for holding classes and is well-known in France.
- Google Hangouts tends to have a better image in my experience, but perhaps as a result, the sound quality can suffer.
For correcting writing in real time:
- If you write your homework assignments or practice texts in Google Docs (or paste it there after writing), you can invite your tutor to edit them and correct them together as you discuss. You can see any changes that your teacher makes instantaneously, and vice-versa.
- Word Online is also a great online word processing technology, but in my use, live changes are visible less quickly, which isn’t ideal for an online language class.
For drawing and diagramming:
- A Web Whiteboard is one of many such technologies that allow you and your teacher to instantly doodle as you would on a chalkboard.
For quick word look-ups during your class:
- Google Translate can be good way to quickly get a handle an entire French phrase
- Wordreference.com provides its own definitions and those from Collins, as well as discussion forums where almost any obscure use of French verbiage you might imagine has already been asked about.
- If possible, though, encourage your teacher to send you Google Image links of any visualizable concepts, rather than translating unfamiliar words. For example, if your teacher just translates fonctionnaire as “civil servant,” you miss out on the more memorable panoply of attitudes that are revealed if she sends you a google image search for the word.
How to Choose Your French Tutors
Yes, tutors, as in, you should work with more than one! It’s beneficial and more fun to have a variety of perspectives and speaking styles to learn from. Plus, you can repeat the same lesson with a different tutor if a subject is particularly difficult, without risking boring any one tutor to death. I usually alternate between two or three tutors at a time as I’m learning a language.
Here’s what you should look for when choosing your tutors:
Native French speakers. Of course you should get native French speakers! This is one of the main advantages of learning French online; you can immerse yourself in a French accent rather than that of an American teacher with a French major who once spent a drunk semester in Nantes. Which teacher do you think will ultimately help you more accurately reproduce those tricky pronunciations?
Good vibes. It’s extremely important to find teachers with whom you have a rapport; someone who is patient, funny and/or interesting will always be better than a boring teacher with a fistful of degrees. If you enjoy talking to your teachers, you’ll be more motivated to prepare for your lessons and continue with them over the long-term. You’re also more likely to remember the content.
Inexperienced vs. experienced. Should you get inexperienced or experienced teachers? Surprisingly, as Judith Meyer points out on David Mansaray’s fabulous podcast (and do give the linked episode a listen for more online tutoring tips), it’s sometimes better to have inexperienced tutors. They are less likely to have firmly held and antiquated ideas about language learning, and they are more likely to be flexible about letting you plan your own lesson (as per the next section) and adapting to your learning style.
That said, teachers who are truly experienced in teaching to non-native speakers can be life-savers when you’re stuck on French grammar rules, as they will have given the same explanations hundreds of times before, and honed their craft. I personally prefer to use a mix of both experienced and inexperienced teachers in my learning; I check in with the experienced (and often more expensive) teacher once or twice a month for help with my more vexing grammar conundrums.
Target accent. Consider your target accent. Don’t study with a Québecois teacher if you’re planning a trip to Paris! The accent is substantially different, and you’ll wind up learning some words and expressions that won’t be understood in the hexagon. Any version of the language is a fine thing to learn, but to avoid some frustrating confusion it’s probably best to pick just one target accent to start with and make sure that all of your teachers are from that region.
Learning style. Everyone has a different learning style, and as the excellent How Languages Are Learned points out, the best style for each learner tends to be the one that he believes is best. Find a teacher who matches your style.
Finally, don’t be afraid to stop scheduling lessons with tutors who insist on speaking English to you every time you don’t understand something, instead of finding a creative, simpler way to express their idea in French. There’s also no reason you should keep working with teachers who consistently speak too fast, have bad connections or whom you just don’t enjoy talking to.
If you’re using several tutors, you’ll always have others to fall back on.
How to Plan Your Own Private Online French Lessons
If there’s one key to this post, it’s the idea that you should plan your own French lessons, rather than passively showing up to see what your teacher has prepared.
Lessons that you plan yourself are going to be the most perfectly suited to your interests, language level and particular grammar issues. A good language lesson for me might focus on an interesting news podcast or business French, because those are things I enjoy and need, respectively.
On the other hand, I’ve never had an advanced-level conversation about sports in any language, so a lesson focused on French soccer terms would be a bit of a waste in my case. Lessons that you plan yourself are also more memorable, both because they’re interesting and because you have to spend time preparing for them and reviewing them.
Based on grammar books
You can plan by working lesson by lesson through a traditional self-teaching grammar book. As you complete a lesson, think about ways that you would use new constructions or vocabulary in your own life, and then write a short text or dialogue in Google Docs that you can correct with your teacher during your class.
Once you’ve corrected your text, see if you can explain the grammar rules to your teacher (in French, if possible!) and then practice acting out more short dialogues with some of the same words, but in new situations. Be sure to note down difficult phrases or constructions that you want to study later.
Complex grammar issues
When you need to prepare a lesson on a complex grammar issue, particularly one that’s causing trouble, jot down the questions and perhaps even email them to your teacher ahead of time so that he or she has time to prepare. This is a good time to call in your most experienced teacher, but if you’re a good learner you can help even an inexperienced native speaker explain his or her language.
For example, if the French subjunctive is causing you horrors, try coming up with a variety of complete sentences with your teacher involving either il soit or il est (“he is” in the subjunctive and indicative, respectively). What patterns do you start to see for the subjunctive use? Can you use those patterns to create more sentences?
Lessons beyond grammar
Your source material for lessons shouldn’t just be from a grammar book, however. FluentU videos, for example, are sorted for any level of French learner and all kinds of interests; you can also use short stories and music. These are great ways to learn vocabulary about subjects that you enjoy.
Plan a lesson in which you describe what you’ve watched, heard or seen to your teacher, and then play out situations in which you would use the same vocabulary and constructions in your own life.
One of the most important things to keep in mind for your lessons is to keep them focused on very limited and manageable sets of vocabulary.
This can be hard for voracious Francophiles to do, but focusing on a variety of ways to use a single expression is going to be more memorable than learning 20 new words. The same holds true for grammar; don’t let a lesson about the future tense wander off into the past imperfect.
The following sections provide suggestions for applying these ideas to beginning and advanced-level French lessons.
Ideas for Beginner Private French Lessons
Even your very first private French lesson can be online, and entirely in French!
You’ve heard the word bonjour before you ever started studying the language, right? Do a Google image search for people greeting each other and use the different pictures to role play with your teacher.
What do friends say? Business associates? Lovers? How does bonjour change if it’s later in the day? At night? What other basic pleasantries can be exchanged?
Another basic lesson can be simply talking about tastes. You can start with j’aime … (I like) and je déteste … (I hate) and show your teacher pictures or things in your room.
Pay attention to how your teacher asks you about your tastes, make complete sentences using any new words, and then turn the tables and ask him about his. You can also learn basic verbs; what do you like and hate doing?
Do your friends have too many pictures up on social media? Gossip about them (or celebrities, politicians, whomever) with your teacher, describing them. What basic adjectives apply? Fort (strong) or faible (weak), mignon (cute) or laid (ugly), chic or démodé (unfashionable), intelligent or bête (stupid)?
Pay attention to how the adjectives change (both in writing and pronunciation) if you’re talking about a male or a female. What patterns do you see? Which adjectives don’t change? Then see what happens if you talk about groups of men, mixed groups and groups of women.
Try to make complete sentences, and have your teacher ask you specific questions. Can you then, without looking back at the list of words you’ve learned, think of some words to describe yourself? Je suis… (I am…) If you feel a need to be modest, you can say je suis un peu… (I am a little…) plus the positive adjective. The less modest might insert très (very).
Ideas for Advanced Private French Lessons
If the difference between use of the passé composé and the imperfect is tripping you up, write a short text about your childhood that forces you to use both. What were things that you usually did when you were young (imperfect tense), and what were some one-time events (passé composé) that were perhaps exceptions to the rule?
Once you’ve finished correcting your text, both you and your teacher can put it away, and then you can try to tell a mix of tall tales and true ones about your childhood with the same vocabulary. Can your teacher spot which are true? Finally, ask your teacher about her experiences. What was she like as a girl (imperfect), and what did she do once (passé composé)?
Drowning in love problems? The great Georges Brassens is always there to shove your head further underwater. His song “Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux” (Happy Love Doesn’t Exist), taken from the poem by Louis Aragon, can teach you a lot of vocabulary for complaining about your love life, and the general failed human function that is romance.
Give it a listen here (where there is also one man’s attempt to translate the lyrics), then write your own love or anti-love poem/philosophical tract. Faut-il des regrets pour payer un frisson ? (Must one pay for one’s thrills with regrets?) Faut-il du malheur pour écrire une chanson ? (Is unhappiness necessary to write a song?)
Note on unstructured “conversation lessons”
Once your French is advanced enough that you can hold basic conversations, it can be pleasant and very tempting to hold unstructured “conversation” lessons from time to time, especially when you don’t have time to prepare something concrete. To get the most out of these, at least write down new vocabulary from your lesson in a Google Doc so that you can review it later.
After Your Private French Lesson
It’s frustrating when you log in to a French lesson only to realize you’ve completely forgotten the material you learned in the previous lesson. Avoid this situation by scheduling time soon after a lesson just for yourself to specifically go over any new vocabulary that you noted down.
Record your teacher’s pronunciation of new words and phrases over Skype as you learn them; this does wonders for retention of difficult vocabulary. You can then check your ability to correctly use the words in new contexts by writing a short text in French and submitting it for correction to lang-8.com, where native speakers correct each others’ texts.
And then, of course, it will be time to start preparing for your next lesson!
Mose Hayward blogs about language learning and his Brassensesque love-life at TipsyPilgrim.com.
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