We asked our readers for their top tips on learning French. Most of them live in France and communicate in French every day, to varying degrees of expertise – and all of them have a personal story about their experience of learning French.
Here are some of pieces of advice on how to speak French like a native from our resident experts.
curtis: ‘Do not be satisfied with ‘I can get by’. Get French TV set up first, not Sky. Immerse yourself in French language TV and radio. TV will have subtitles in French which although doesn’t always show exactly what has been said will help you to follow. Ask/insist that French people correct you. Let them know you will not be offended. If you are a couple make sure you are both making the same effort. Don’t take the easy way out by asking, “Do you know an English…”
If you’re looking up information on the web and the site has an English option, don’t choose it!
Learning the language isn’t easy, especially if you have never had any prior training, like at school. But it is so easy to take the English option and unless you stretch yourself you will remain with a large part of the world going over your head
Learn the alphabet. It will help with your understanding of pronunciation.’
Ecully: ‘Most expats who move to France are retirees. Unless you are gifted at language learning those who don’t already speak/have a grasp of the language will unlikely in most cases be able to learn French to any reasonable level. Top tip: get over it now! As soon as you do, it will take the pressure off. So save your money and just learn survival French. Learn what people actually do/say on a day-to-day basis. You can get by with only a handful of key phrases. You will also blend in and look French. Trouble is, these phrases don’t tend to be taught in books.
Also, move to a nice city. Nobody cares if you can or cannot speak French as a lot of people can and love to speak English. In rural France, most people don’t really care about speaking English. And why should they? Also, you don’t have to worry about learning how to ‘complain in French’ as in cities there is nothing to complain about!
I joined the local pool/snooker (as in billard not swimming) team and travelled and played matches across my department of France with kids as young as 16 to people over 60 every week. It is easier to learn a language when you are doing something you enjoy.’
loup-garou: ‘Documentaries are good to watch on TV – you already have the context and the narrative is rarely hurried.
Have the radio on while you work. On some stations, like Inter, they talk more slowly than others. I now listen to local music stations – these are very repetitive and it is like having something drummed into you e.g. weather, publicity, events, etc. You might even find out that fuel is on offer at the local supermarket at the weekend!
Don’t panic, you don’t have to understand every word that is said to you. However, every sentence has key words and a subject, so concentrate on getting that for the point the speaker is making. Other words will then make more sense and things like their facial expressions or gestures will help to fully grasp their point.
One thing I have found is that you need to be disciplined in looking words up in a dictionary. Do not read the dictionary or graze the page, as I used to, stick to understanding the specific work that you looked up. Otherwise you will quickly overload the grey cells and not understand that word the next time you come across it.’
happy1: ‘Watch French TV and listen to French radio, it develops the ear to understand natural speaking speed and to identify words better, as well as learning everyday slang. I keep a large dictionary next to me and look up the odd word that occurs frequently.
Involve yourself in French social life, even if you cannot speak much. It’s surprising how you learn. Try to avoid being with English speakers too much because it encourages you to become lazy.
The older ones of us do find it more difficult to learn and retain what we have learned. I found French lessons pretty useless and never found one that was good so gave up. Do cover the basics of grammar though, être and avoir because that helps a lot.’
CelticRambler: ‘Standard French language courses (even the reputable ones) are very limited in their usefulness, either because they never include the vocab that you’re going to use day-in, day-out (DIY terms, cuts of meat/types of fish/weird vegetables, local place names !!!) or because the people you’re mixing with speak with a strong accent and/or poor elocution.
Find a local club or other organisation that does something that interests you and dive in. Learn what you need to take part, then use/abuse the language as much as you can. And read – everything you can lay your eyeballs on.
Mixing with children aswell as adults is a good strategy – it forces you to deal with the tu/vous obstacle course, which has the knock on effect of making you practise your conjugations. And les gamins have a different vocabulary too.’
tomdenne: ‘Think like a thesaurus. Find a ‘sophisticated’ alternative English word and it will usually be a French word or a word of French origin. Imitate a French accent and speak with conviction. Often works a treat!’
vic evans: ‘I don’t think anyone has mentioned that most four syllable English words are pretty much the same in French. Speak ’em with a French accent & you’ve cracked it!’
maricopa: ‘Join a volunteer type association – something like the Restos de Coeur will bring on your language in leaps and bounds. And apart from basic grammar, remember vocab, vocab and thrice vocab.