tips for learning french

14 Wise Tips for Learning French by Doing as the Romans Do

Ok… so you’re here to learn French, right?

Then why on Earth would we be talking about the Romans?

Well, besides making tremendous strides in architecture, warfare and public welfare, the Romans also had a thriving system of education!

Today, we are all going to become students of a 1st CE Roman professor, Quintilian and apply the cornerstones of his learning techniques to daily French study habits.

Quintilian was developing a curriculum to educate the perfect orator (or public speaker) and believed there were three components essential to the mastery of the trade: writing, reading and speaking. More importantly, he didn’t prioritize any one of those components over the other two:

“I know the question is often asked, whether writing, reading, or speaking contributes most to (developing the speaker’s facility)… In fact, however, they are all so inseparably linked with one another that if one is lacking, the labor spent on the others has been wasted.” (Institutio Oratoria 10.1.1)

In Quintilian’s day, reading was always done out loud so that the speaker would also be training with an additional auditory component (you can just imagine how noisy libraries must have been!). If you think about it, you should also be applying those four fundamental building blocks of learning (writing, reading, listening and speaking) to your own French studies every day!

Below, I’ll suggest some creative ways you can incorporate all four into your daily exercises all on your own!
 


 
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Reading in French: You Don’t Have to Start with Molière…

Reading is simply indispensable while learning French (especially if you follow the tradition of our Roman friends and do it out loud!). Here are a few tips for where to get started:

  • Find books that you have already read in English and buy the French version. I have a classmate who recently picked up the Harry Potter series in French. Since she was already familiar with the plot, reading not only took place at a quicker rate, but was overall a much more enjoyable experience. After all, she already knew that she liked the book! Plus, it’s always fun to see how words get translated (FYI: “wand” in Harry Potter is called a “baguette,” bringing to mind very funny images of a bread-yielding Harry). You can also check out more French novels to fall in love with in this post!
  • Search for “introductory” books on interesting topics in French. Think of a topic that you really enjoy to research. Maybe you love architecture, philosophy or music. The reason most “introductory” books are awesome is that they have a lower level of vocabulary, because they’re presenting the bare essentials of a certain topic. For example, I love history. So, I went online and found a whole series called, La vie privee des hommes that’s specifically targeted to teenagers. Now, I’m not only reading about a topic that interests me, but I’m learning French all at the same time!
  • Like reading the news? Check out lemonde.fr. This is a news website in French and is great if you want to keep up with the times while improving your language skills! Most of us will read the news throughout the day anyway, why not do it in French?

And a quick word to the wise: Do not look up every single word. When reading, it is important to force yourself to use contextual clues to search for definitions, or simply let a word go, into the mysterious unknown.

If you’re looking up 100 words on every page, you might as well save yourself some time and just read the dictionary (which will not help). Instead, look up words that have a tendency to repeat themselves and make notes in the margin. Also, be sure to go back and read the text again on the following day. This will ensure that you retain any new vocabulary you picked up along the way.

Writing in French: Tedious, Time Consuming and Necessary!

For most of us, French writing exercises will be the most daunting area of our daily study. Usually, we are not as motivated to practice writing because unless we’re working or studying in a French-speaking country, there is less immediate need to do so… which begs the question, “Why do I need to do so?”

One of the advantages of incorporating French writing into your daily exercises is that it allows you to tackle difficult concepts and observe your strengths and weaknesses much more efficiently than oral exercises.

More simply put, writing gives you the opportunity to go back and edit at your own pace and see which structures you only “kinda sorta” know. For example, sometimes when I speak and do not know the gender of a noun, I can get by with my own made up article, “luh.” Writing is never so forgiving!

Written mistakes are a lot more noticeable and are taken a lot more seriously than spoken ones. The bottom line is that you need to incorporate writing into your French studies if you want to reach overall fluency. And here are three ways you can easily do just that:

  • Buy a notebook and keep a short, daily journal in French. This does not have to be terribly personal (in fact, if you have others correct your work, it shouldn’t be too personal). You can simply write about what you did on any given day, who you saw, or where you went! 10 minutes of writing at the end of a long day makes all the difference in the world! And FYI: if you don’t have ready access to a native French speaker to check your work, try iTalki’s “Notebook” and get some feedback from willing tutors!
  • Write short summaries about things you have listened to or read. If you are one of those people who have a tendency to binge-watch TV shows online, take some time after each episode and write what the basic plot line was for that episode. Or, if you’re really motivated, read a news article in French and rewrite the main points and what you found most interesting!
  • Find a friend and make a story! One person writes a paragraph to begin a short fictional story. Then, you send this to a partner who will correct and add a paragraph. As you have probably already guessed, the cycle continues until the plot runs dry and you start all over again (who knows, maybe you’ll even end up writing a book in French!). This is a fun way to explore new verb tenses because your fictional story can take place in the past, present or future! Also, since you are the one deciding the topic, you can focus on whatever types of vocabulary words you like!

The main thing to remember is that you do not have to be Victor Hugo to attempt writing in French! Take the pressure off yourself and have fun!

Listening in French: Get Active!

Have you ever heard the complaint, “I know you’re hearing me, but you just aren’t listening!”? Countless comedians have made use of this clever distinction, and while it is a bit cliché, it still holds very true.

The main difference between hearing and listening is that the former is passive while the latter is very active. When learning French, we need to get active! Fortunately, in the digital age this has never been easier! The Internet gives us millions of opportunities for listening to French. Here are just a few:

  • Listen to talk radio or podcasts. I know many of us equate the radio to that “weird box” my grandparents refuse to quit listening to, but take a note from your elders. Listening to talk radio is a fantastic way to test your French skills. A bit too esoteric? Join the 21st century’s version of talk radio and check out podcasts in French! Usually you can find a good transcription to accompany the voice but force yourself to really listen to the whole program at least one time before relying on the words. For more detailed information check out these 5 useful tips for learning this way.
  • Catch some catchy tunes. iTunes makes purchasing music a breeze! Go over to your iTunes store and start searching for some French music. The problem will not be a lack of options. If you don’t have the money for that (don’t worry, I’m broke too!) jump on to YouTube and explore new musicians! Once you have found an artist that you like, sit down and find your favorite songs before you search for the words. Test yourself and see if you can understand the lyrics. Then, pull up the words online and see how close you got! After a few days, you might even be catching yourself singing French songs in the shower!
  • Check out French films and television. This always includes the big question, “Should I put subtitles on or not?” Basically it comes down to this: French dialogue with English subtitles is the least beneficial (though it is way better than nothing!); French dialogue with French subtitles can be a great exercise if you have the power not to “read the movie.” And French dialogue with no subtitles will be the best way to improve your French, though also the most difficult. If you’re just starting out, try all three and see where you are! Again, with movies and television shows, you will never be at a lost for options.

Speaking: Enfin, je parle le Français… mais à qui?

At the end of the day, speaking is really what we’re all after. Romantic fantasies about the days when we are fluently conversing with Franco-phones—ideally over a fondue or raclette dinner—abound…but first you need practice.

But how?

tips for learning french

  • Research events in your community. In most cities, there are affordable opportunities for speaking French in small groups with others. At first this can be intimidating, I know, but you would be amazed how many other people there are out there just like you, who want to get together and practice speaking French. Try a Meetup in your community to get started!
  • Get active and create an event! If no small French circles exist in your town, why not start one? Go online and propose a gathering of people wanting to speak French. You can make your own website, find pre-existing message boards, or even go on Craigslist (though be sure to use any public sites with reasonable caution!). And really, you can easily do this with Meetup.com as well! Finally, if you are in a French class, you’re surrounded by several other people with the same objective as you! Why not have a small dinner or coffee group?

tips for learning french

  • Go online! There are many websites which allow you to find others learning French and chat with them over the computer. These websites are usually free and allow you to speak with people from all over the world! So why not practice French and possibly make a new friend at the same time?

The best place to make this happen is italki—it not only lets you set up free language exchanges, but it also hosts thousands of native French tutors to give you professional guidance, if needed (for a fee, of course, since they’re professionals).

  • Talk to yourself. I know, I know…it sounds crazy. But let’s say you can’t find any French speaking groups in your community, no one is responding to your message boards proposing French activities, and your internet connection is currently giving you trouble. You still have no excuse. Ask yourself a question about any topic you like and respond in French. For example, ask yourself, “Where would I like to travel and why?” Then, see how much you can say in 5 minutes and note what was slowing you down! Then ask yourself another question or try the same question after reviewing vocabulary. Doing this won’t make you crazy…it will just make you crazy good at speaking French!

The general goal of “fluency” means having a well-rounded competency in all areas of French—and to get there means writing, reading, listening, and speaking French on a daily basis!

Just a little bit of consistent work in each area will make a big difference. So when it comes to studying French, remember that you don’t have to be in Rome to do as the Romans do…

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