So you want to learn French? Don’t panic. It is never too late to start and learning a language is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
I started my language learning journey in 2020, making me three years into the journey and I am happy and proud to say that I now speak French at an upper-intermediate level.
What does that mean? That means in everyday life I can speak basic French without having to translate everything in my head first, I can have relatively complicated conversations with friends but I don’t have a full French vocabulary and I sometimes speak Franglais. That’s where I’ll accidentally throw a French word into an English sentence or vice versa.
Three years sounds like a long time. And it is! But in this article, I am going to be realistic about learning a second language and share my experience and advice.
What is your native language?
If you are starting only speaking English as your first language and having little to no knowledge of any other languages, then you are starting from zero. Set your expectations. Expect to make a lot of mistakes and learn how to sound like an idiot. You will essentially begin your journey by talking like a toddler. You are reprogramming part of your brain to respond to and talk in a language that you have no experience of. Your native language is such an automatic reflex, you will have to work hard to change that.
Are you a Spanish, Italian or Portuguese speaker? Or do you already understand or have a few phrases in a Latin language? Congratulations. This journey is going to be a lot easier and faster. French is closely linked with the other Latin languages, and I have found that the more French I know, the more Spanish I understand. There is a lot of shared grammar between Latin languages too!
Are you starting from zero?
Did you study French in school? Great. To what level? If, like me you stopped after GCSE level (high school) then it’s likely that you’ve forgotten almost all of the grammar but you’ll have retained some basic phrases and a good chunk of vocabulary. Start here. Without any prompts, write down or say aloud every French phrase or word that you remember.
At this stage websites like FluentU, Duolingo or Babbel might be useful. They are a great starting point and the ease at which you will pick things up on these will be encouraging to get you started. Try using websites like this until you are comfortable enough with the basic abc’s and 123’s to take the next step in your studies.
The Honest French Timeline
When I first made the move to France and started studying, I was impatient to progress. I was embarrassed at my poor French and asked my boyfriend, who moved to France at age 14, how long would it take until I felt comfortable with my French? He was brutally honest and said I would feel like a beginner for a very long time and I would be a learner forever.
The following is the timeline he gave me from his 18-years of experience – his quotes are at the top. Keep in mind that this is with consistent study and total immersion in a French speaking country:
First Year – “You’ll feel rubbish. You’ll learn a lot.”
After one year of learning you will be able to navigate basic life in France but with some difficulty. You will understand frequently used expressions and sentences. You will be able to communicate your immediate needs in simple terms.
I found I was the most frustrated after the first year. I had studied a lot and was testing at a B1 level but was still struggling in conversations, especially with large groups of people or over the phone. You will find that at every level your comprehension will be much further advanced that your oral French.
Level A2/B1 – What does this mean?
Second Year – “You’ll still feel rubbish but you’ll understand everything.”
You will understand the main points on familiar matters that you regularly encounter. Be able to deal with most situations likely to arise whilst speaking French. And briefly describe experiences and give reasons and explanations for opinions.
At this stage, if you want to, you will be able to work in France. I highly recommend it if you can find a job that works at your language level. You will have a level of spontaneity in French without too much difficulty.
This is where I finally started to feel comfortable in my French and proud of what I had accomplished. Despite understanding almost everything being said, I couldn’t reply with the speed or efficiency I wanted to and you can be stuck in this stage for a long time. Don’t be discouraged!
Third Year – “You’ll finally start to feel comfortable.”
This is the stage I am at currently. I definitely don’t feel like a native and I am still learning every day, but I would say the following definitely applies to me:
I can understand the main ideas in a complex text. Interactions with native speakers now happen with a degree of spontaneity and a level of fluency. I can do business in person and over the phone in most situations like going to the bank, getting a quote for insurance, talking with hotels and restaurants I work with in my job.
I can express my ideas and use French for social, academic and professional situations without too much searching. Though it still happens.
Fourth Year – “After four years you’ll be alright.”
It wasn’t until after living in France for four years that my boyfriend said he finally felt fluent. And this was with him being fully immersed – going to school, working at his parents fish and chip shop and only having French speaking friends.
At this point you will understand and recognise the meaning of long texts. You will be able to pick up a French newspaper and read it while understanding the context and tone.
Expressions will come to you spontaneously and fluently. You will now be able to use the language flexibly and effectively for all purposes. Understanding almost everything and rarely asking for a translation.
Where Do I Start?
Ideally, in France. If you cannot make the permanent move to France then I recommend having it as your holiday destination for the foreseeable future. There are language immersion courses you can sign up for in France which are massively helpful. Or if you are a student why not study in France?
If you absolutely cannot come to France, then look for local language exchange groups like BlaBla Language Exchange and start speaking with native French speakers on a weekly basis.
The only way to learn is to actually speak French. Talk about everything and anything you can. Bother people and ask if you can talk to them in French.
I used to deliberately think up situations so I would have to speak to people. I would go bra shopping and ask for my measurements. Then I would go to the supermarket and pretend I didn’t know where something was. Buy international stamps in the post office and send someone a postcard in French. I found a weekly pub quiz while I lived in Dinan which was a great learning environment.
Language Learning Sites
Duolingo, FluentU and language level testing sites were my starting point on my French journey. As I mentioned before, these are a gateway into learning French and can nicely accompany study and speaking with French natives. They are essentially language learning games and will expand your basic vocabulary. Plus the daily insentives will keep you motivated.
I listen to a lot of Podcasts and audiobooks were my favourite way of learning. Replace your workout or commute podcast with one of my favourite language learning audiobooks.
These are my recommendations for ALL levels. Not just beginners! There are so many that repeat the same beginner lessons over and over but these are three that really worked for me.
The Michael Thomas Method – I listened to the Foundation French course which is essentially you listening in on a private French lesson. Taught by Michael himself to two students. His principal is that you shouldn’t have to memorise or do homework in order to learn a language. The course is 8 hours but can be paused or repeated where needed. This really was a great foundation for me. They also offer an intermediate course if you love this learning style.
French Today – I stumbled across Camille and her ‘A Moi Paris‘ method while I was struggling to find an audio book for an intermediate learner. I was really impressed with the detail and clear explanation of the French grammar. I bought the upper intermediate audiobook, and it was worth every penny. You can also find immersive French homestays on her website.
Français Authentique – When you are ready to learn exclusively in French or just want to dive straight in then I recommend Français Authentique. Not only does Johan have 3 levels of audiobooks to purchase but you can also join his académie and learn online by speaking with other learners and tutors. He also posts regular Instagram reels and hosts a podcast for learning French.
Personally, I didn’t find classroom learning was for me. I learnt more in real life situations than in a classroom full of students who spoke French at the same level as me. However, if it the only way for you to start speaking French with others, or if you need evidence of your French level then go for it.
There was only one book that I used while learning French because it provided everything I needed. Easy French Step-By-Step: Master High-Frequency Grammar for French Proficiency–Fast. By Myrna Bell Rochester.
This is a serious book and it requires work. It took me almost a year to get through all of it and I made sure that I did every exercise in there. Grammar is the most important thing to study out of a textbook. You really have to understand the grammar in order to spontaneously speak the language.
Netflix in French
Pick a French film or series and watch it. In French. With French subtitles. You might not understand everything at first but you will be forced to read and listen to French and there is some great French media. Other people recommended watching my favourite series in English and switching the language but I found myself lip reading in order to understand. Full immersion only!
Instagram / Tiktok
There are so many language learning accounts out there. And a lot of good ones. Or just follow accounts that happen to be French. I follow French artists, chefs and comedians. The more French content you consume the better you’ll learn.
Paul Taylor is a bilingual comedian. An Englishman who lives in Paris and speaks both languages fluently. Watch his special on Youtube here – he speaks in both languages throughout and jokes about language. It is very funny. He also hosted a popuar series called “What the F**k France?”
Good luck with your language learning journey and I hope my experience and the tips I have shared are helpful!
*Haven’t heard of the official CEFR language levels?
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) created these internationally recognised language levels that can be used to identify your fluency in a language. If you take a French language course be sure that you receive a valid CEFR certificate upon completion.
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A travel and lifestyle blog. By me, Lydia. I'm based in Brittany, France and I am here to share an honest and informative account of my life here.