Paris is one of the most romantic cities in the world, the French have a definite cultural elegance and their language is certainly the language of romance so why do so many people consider it a hard language to learn?
Although French isn't the most common language in the world, it is spoken by over 200 million people on five continents so learning French will not only help you settle into Parisian life but open doors across the globe.
Is French hard to learn? Many people who choose to live in Paris do seem to have a prejudice against learning it, considering it too difficult. This simply isn't true! At Paris Attitude, we want to overcome these tired clichés about French being a difficult language and help you enjoy the challenge of learning it.
What about age? Isn't learning a new language harder for an adult than a child? Holding on to this belief can put a stumbling block in front of your learning. Children and adults approach languages differently.
For children, it is a more organic, instinctive approach and they have fewer inhibitions about diving straight in. Adults, however, learn in a more systematic way and need to lose their fear of making mistakes.
So, what is the best way to learn French? Donavan Whyte, vice-president of Enterprise and Education at Rosetta Stone suggests that "Language learning is best when broken down into manageable goals that are achievable over a few months. This is far more motivating and realistic."
According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) achieving a reasonable level of spoken French for a native English speaker should take approximately 23 - 24 weeks so within six months you should have those tricky French reflexive verbs securely within your grasp and be chatting away like a native Parisian!
First: understand your native language
Everyone grows up speaking at least one language fluently, it's second nature. But, that doesn't mean we understand it well and have a firm grasp of its building blocks. However, having some understanding of how your native language works is a big help in learning a foreign language.
Armed with that knowledge and the suggestion of breaking it down into chunks, the first thing to do is see how similar French is to English.
The alphabet: Don't underestimate the advantage of a common alphabet. We share the Roman alphabet with many countries and France is one of them. This gives you a headstart over learning languages such as Russian and Bulgarian that use the Cyrillic alphabet, Greek which has its own alphabet, and logographic languages like Chinese.
Romance language: French and English are both Romance languages which have an Indo-European origin. In fact, for a long time after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, French was the official language of the English court and aristocracy. So you should soon feel at home with it.
With the same alphabet and a history of French usage in England, the language is embedded more deeply into the British culture than you might imagine. In fact, 45% of all English words have a French origin!
To start you off, here are some examples of common vocabulary that are similar in both English and French:
- La boutique
- La cage
- La date
- Le fruit
- Le garage
- Le menu
- La nature
- La photo
- Le sandwich
- La radio
- Le train
- Le yoga
Second: Set realistic and specific goals and really understand why you want to learn French
The easiest way to learn French is to be positive about it right from day one.
Start by quickly jotting down 10 reasons why you have chosen to learn this language.
For example, "I want to be able to order a meal in a restaurant, chat easily with neighbors or work colleagues and deal with banking and bureaucratic challenges". From this list, you can then set yourself some specific goals.
For example: within one month, be able to hold a 10-minute conversation with my neighbor speaking entirely in French.
Focus on what you want to learn at each stage and it will be much easier
Once you have set your goals you can focus on what you need to do at each stage of your learning journey. By breaking down your ultimate goal of becoming fluent in French, it instantly becomes much more manageable. Also, think laterally about how you learn.
Buying the latest textbooks, logging into language sites, and attending classes, either individually or in groups should all have a balanced place in learning a new language but can be a little dry and unsociable.
Ignore the myths and mix learning with pleasure
Read for pleasure: Put away the textbooks and dive into the latest novel. It might take you a while to finish, but when you do you'll have a real sense of achievement. Don't worry about understanding every word and phrase but go with the flow and soak up the context.
Along the way, you'll absorb new vocabulary and grammatical structures. Ask some of your new French friends for their suggestions on the best books to learn French from. If a whole book is a step too far, then start with newspapers and magazines.
Film: Watch films in French with French subtitles. If it is a film you are familiar with in English, this will help in the beginning. Your brain will begin to understand sentences in French and make the link between what you're reading and hearing on the screen. If they are French films, you can also soak up some culture. If a film is too long, start with some YouTube videos.
Music and radio: Listen to French music and have the radio on in the background as you go about your household chores. It is amazing how much your brain will absorb.
Talk: The biggest tip for how to become fluent in French is simply to talk. Don't wait until you have a certain amount of vocabulary or grammatical knowledge before you start. Chat with neighbors, start a conversation in a cafe, ask for directions in the street, and begin to approach transactions in French, rather than asking, "Do you speak English?" You'll find everyone is more than happy to help.
Writing: Learning a new language will always involve some formal writing exercises, but stretch this by finding fun opportunities to write. Leave funny notes for your family or housemates or chat to your new French friends on social networking sites.
French pronunciation can be tricky
Vowels: French is similar to English in that it has lots of different vowel sounds, unlike Spanish which just has five. Having coped with the English vowel sounds as a child, you should have no difficulty adapting to the French ones.
Elision: The French use 'elision' a lot - running words together when they're speaking. We do it with our contractions. For example, Qu'est-ce qu'il fait? where the 'qu'il' is pronounced as 'kee'.
Accents: Many French words carry accents and these can appear daunting if your native language doesn't use them. Some accents are just for show and don't affect pronunciation, the trick with others is to simply learn the correct pronunciation as you learn the word.
Tackling French grammar
Getting to grips with the grammar of French is unavoidable. You need to understand things like French conjugation and when to use subjunctive French to become secure in your new language. This is where searching out the best French language course you can find pays dividends. In the meantime here are a few quick tips.
French conjugation: Like all languages, French conjugates its verbs and learning these can be tricky and time-consuming. Remember there are three main groups of verb endings - '-er', '-ir' and '-oir'. The good news is, in spoken French, many of the verb endings sound the same.
Of course, there are lots of irregular verbs and there is no real shortcut for these except spending a few minutes every day learning them by rote and then using them. Start with learning common verbs that relate to your everyday life and study simple past tenses and the future tense at the same time.
This way, next time you are chatting with your neighbor or work colleague, you can tell them what you did last week or what your holiday plans are.
Gender (le and la): English is one of the few languages that doesn't give everything a gender. The simple way to approach this is by always learning a new word with its gender.
French subjunctive: Many languages have a subjunctive form and this is often a tricky point for learners. The subjunctive in French is used when a mood of uncertainty is being expressed such as emotion, doubt, desire, and possibility. Using the French subjunctive involves different verb conjugations but don't panic, there are some set phrases you can learn such as Il faut que (it's necessary that) and Jusqu'à ce que (until).
French pronouns: The good news is that the basic subject pronouns - 'I', 'you', 'he/she/it' etc. are used in a similar way in both English and French. The not so good news is that the French use of gender affects the grammatical use of pronouns. The best way to cope with this is to try and learn French in whole sentences as far as possible. This has the added advantage of giving you ready-made chunks of French for your next conversation.
French possessive adjectives: Using French possessive adjectives can be a bit counter-intuitive for the English speaker. The trick is to do the opposite to what you're used to. Focus on the object and whether that is male or female, singular or plural rather than on the subject. For example,
If we're chatting about our pet dogs we normally just refer to them as 'my dog' or 'my dogs'. The gender doesn't matter unless it is a specific point of the conversation. In French 'my dog' translates as -
"mon chien" → my male dog
"ma chienne'" → my female dog
"mes chiens" → my dogs - when all are male or a mixture of male and female
"mes chiennes" → my dogs - when all are female
Practice is the key to learning French quickly and effectively
Learn vocabulary in context
Everyone finds that no matter how good they become in their new language, there are always situations when the right word is missing. To help overcome this, learn vocabulary in context.
If you know you're going to the bank, to a party or a day out at the coast put together relevant vocabulary lists. Practice them before you go, take the list with you and revise it when you get back. A few days later, test yourself again.
A good trick is to put words on small flashcards and give yourself a tick every time you get one right. When you have five ticks, the word should be embedded in your brain and you can satisfyingly tear up the card. Carry them with you for practicing when you have a few spare moments.
Taking formal French courses in Paris - finding the best French language course
Moving to Paris as a student or as a long-term expat means that you need to have a good understanding of the French language, to navigate everyday life and administrative hurdles. To learn French without spending a fortune, you have several options depending on your level and your schedule.
Among the best solutions, the Paris City Hall offers French lessons to adults in group classes, called Cours Municipaux d'Adultes.
The courses are held either during the day or in the evening, and the location varies depending on the one you choose, but it's always educational facilities such as primary, secondary and high schools in the capital.
Prices range from EUR100 to EUR270 per semester, depending on your level and how many hours you choose (from 60 to 240 hours). All information can be found on the CMA website, where you also need to create an account before registering for a class.
Other options include universities in the capital, that usually offer free intensive courses before the start of the first semester for students taking part in an exchange program, and French as a Foreign Language classes during the academic year. For instance, the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle has free courses for the year or a semester aimed at international students attending the university.
Finally, the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, located in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, also presents all students with various activities in the Language Area, including free workshops, self-study and conversation groups, so you can choose how to learn.
Improving your French with informal conversations
If you already have a basic understanding of French, and simply want to brush up on your skills and expand your vocabulary, but don't need a lesson, you also have several opportunities in Paris. The best way to improve your language abilities is to speak with locals, and a few institutions offer informal conversations.
Among those, the Paris Polyglot Club organizes daily workshops and events and constitutes the perfect way to meet fellow students, expats, and locals. Weekly language meetings are held at DENFERT Café, 58 bd Saint-Jacques 75014 Paris. While it's free to attend, you need to buy a drink at the bar to support the association.
Another wonderful place to have exchanges in French is the library; the Louise Michel library, as well as the Françoise Sagan media library, offer free language workshops and conversations. These don't require registration and are open to all. Additionally, many libraries in Paris have language methods and online courses available to everyone.
Finally, there are dozens of websites and communities where you can meet people and take advantage of free conversations with Parisians, which is a wonderful way to be part of local life.
Let's bring it all together with our top tips for learning French
- Be enthusiastic!
- Set daily, weekly and longer goals
- Practice every day
- Combine self-study with classes
- Write vocabulary down in context lists
- Continually review what you already know
- Focus on common verbs and put them into useful sentences
- Try to avoid constantly translating in your head - something everyone does at first
- Read, watch, and listen to as much French as possible
- Speak it!
Vive la France & bonne chance!