Is French Hard to Learn?
Is French hard to learn?
You could say that. Most people who try to learn French will give up. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When I was in middle school, we studied French in the least efficient way possible. We had to memorize long lists of (often irrelevant) vocabulary, the teacher’s grammar explanations were complicated, the homework was nothing but boring workbook exercises, and we learned verb conjugations through sheer brute force and determination.
Put bluntly, learning French was hard.
It wasn’t fun, and I soon lost the motivation. I gave up on learning French after one semester and didn’t give it another try until 13 years later when I discovered there’s a better way to learn languages.
My methods have changed a lot since 7th grade, and not only did learning French become much easier, but I had a blast doing it.
With that said, learning any language will still take a considerable amount of time, so don’t believe the clickbait videos that claim you can be fluent in a week or a month. You’re going to have to work for this. But if you follow a few basic principles, acquiring the French language will be way easier than when you were following the old methods taught in school.
Focus on vocabulary first
When you’re first starting, your goal should be to learn lots of words as quickly as possible.
If you master all the grammar first, but don’t know much vocabulary, you still won’t be able to say anything. But if you learn enough words, you will be able to communicate your basic point, even if your grammar isn’t perfect. And when you read a text, you’ll be able to connect the dots to fill in the parts you don’t understand.
Before a new vocabulary word really sinks in, you might forget it and relearn it dozens of times. Don’t be alarmed. That’s how we learn. You can expedite that process by strategically exposing yourself to the most relevant words first and expanding from there. Flashcards and SRS systems are an okay way of doing that, but I find it hard to muster up the motivation to use those every day. A more effective method might be to see those words in action.
For you, that could be reading a short story multiple times. Seeing a word in the context of a full sentence is more powerful than seeing it alone on a flashcard. Otherwise, you could ask your conversation partner to discuss a specific topic with you, and emphasize that you want to focus on certain vocabulary.
Not all vocabulary is equal though. If your app is teaching you how to say ‘My hovercraft is full of eels,’ there may be a more effective use of your time. First learn the words that are most relevant to you, your job, and your hobbies since those are the words that you know will come up in conversation, and expand to learning less common words as you improve.
Comprehensible and compelling input
‘Input’ just means reading and listening, as opposed to speaking and writing, which are ‘output’. Research shows that receiving lots of input could be the single most important action you can take in order to learn French. That’s great news, because this method of language acquisition is WAY more enjoyable than the method most of us learned in school. But that doesn’t mean you should jump right into reading Les Miserables. Input is most effective when it is comprehensible and compelling.
Comprehensible means you should be able to understand most of it. If you understand everything, you’re not exposing yourself to new words, but if you understand less than 90%, it will become tedious work. Don’t forget that input should be compelling too. That means the content of whatever you’re reading should hold your interest enough that you would keep reading, even if it was in your native language.
The French mini stories on LingQ are a good place to start because they’re quite comprehensible and give you lots of repetitions of the most common words. Use them to work your way up to more interesting texts like Short Stories In French by Olly Richards and Richard Simcott. One of my favorite French books is Le Petit Prince. The French in that short novel is simple enough to be read by a child, but it’s a charming story, and holds my attention even as an adult reading it for the fourth or fifth time.
At some point, you have to start speaking. This is a daunting prospect for some of us because we are hyperaware of our mistakes. It can be uncomfortable, but it is absolutely necessary if you ever plan to hold a conversation in French.
My seventh grade teacher led me to believe that every French interaction begins with, “Bonjour, ça va ? Ça va, et vous ?” But that’s what I call ‘robot French’. Real people don’t talk like textbooks. In reality, learning to speak is messy. Before you can have a flawless French conversation, be prepared to make tons of mistakes. I’ve spent a lot of time flubbing around in French and making a fool of myself when I don’t know how to say something. But every time I do that, I get better. Let go of the notion that you are going to speak correctly right away, and learn to enjoy the process of getting better little by little.
In my opinion, it is never too early to have a basic conversation with a French speaker, although it is possible to wait too long to start speaking. If you want to wait until you know a few hundred French words, that’s fine, but don’t put it off much longer than that. A conversation on a topic that interests you is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to learn French. Don’t let your pride or fear of mistakes keep you from using this valuable tool.
If you don’t have anyone to speak to, find a conversation partner on apps like Tandem or Hellotalk, or on the French subreddit. Many French speakers will be happy to speak to you in French if you help them practice English in return. Otherwise you can hire a conversation partner for a small fee on iTalki or LingQ.
Put down the grammar book
I know this is counterintuitive because you’ve been studying grammar rules out of textbooks since your very first class, and there is some limited value in that. The problem is, our brains are not designed to learn that way.
For example, let’s say you want to become a pilot. I don’t care how many aviation books you’ve read. I’m not getting into a plane with you until you’ve booked thousands of flight hours. Reading can give you a lot of good information, but it won’t help you develop the essential muscle memory and experience that you will get in the copilot seat.
In the same way, don’t expect a textbook to give you the skills you need to speak French. In order to acquire a language, you have to go out into the real world and practice using it.
Some of those grammar explanations may come in handy along the way. They might help you notice certain patterns you would have otherwise missed, but the utility of this sort of study is very limited. If you must use a grammar book, treat it like a side dish on your language learning table, not the main course. The LingQ grammar guide keeps it simple. If you start to fall into the trap of spending more time with grammar lessons than with the other methods l outlined earlier, put the book down.
So again I’ll ask, is learning French hard?
That depends how you go about it. But if you put these four principles into practice, you might be surprised how much easier learning becomes.
Aaron Fingtam is a YouTuber and linguist interested in second language acquisition. He speaks Spanish, French, and Esperanto, and makes videos about the best ways to learn languages.