Learning another language is an opportunity to broaden your horizons, meet new people and see the world from a different perspective. For some people, it’s a challenge worth trying. Others view learning a new language as an impossible task. And few dedicate their entire lives to it.
Regardless of where you fall, you’re here because you want to learn French on your own, which means that you’re already invested. Maybe you want to learn French to increase your chances of finding a date in Paris. Or perhaps you want to figure out a way to work abroad. It’s also possible you want to learn French just because it’s one of the top five languages spoken in Europe. The point is that you’re here to learn and we’re here to help you. Let’s get started.
In France we have a saying, 'Joie de vivre,' which actually doesn't exist in the English language. It means looking at your life as something that is to be taken with great pleasure and enjoy it. -Mireille Guiliano
Why learn French on your own?
This question is the first place to start. Why would anyone want to learn French on their own? The reasons are endless. Some people don’t like the feel of face-to-face language classes, which can be expensive and unhelpful if you don’t have the right teacher. But other people like the challenge of learning a new language, and being able to say, “I taught myself how to speak French.”
There certainly is a level of pleasure that comes from doing something on your own, and learning a language is no different. One of the biggest reasons to learn French on your own is that you’re able to go at your own pace, create your own customized curriculum and not feel pressure from arbitrary tests and exercises.
What does it mean to learn French on your own?
Learning French on your own means that you are the master of your destiny, which can be both exhilarating and terrifying. I know, we were just hyping you up in the previous section with visions of creating your own learning habit, but going down this road means you’ll have to work harder than you would if you had a formal course or teacher.
Learning French on your own means that you are going to have to motivate yourself to do the work, and that you’re going to have to hold yourself accountable when you don’t. This is because you’re not learning French for some high school class or because someone is forcing you to, it’s because you have specific motivations, which we’ll discuss later on.
In another vein, it’s important to define, literally, what learning French means to you. For example, does learning French mean that you can speak with any random Frenchman or woman you stumble across in Paris?
Does it mean that you can watch the news in French without consulting a dictionary? Or maybe it means that you’re fluent in French culture and people even think you were born there.
Regardless of how you define it, it’s important to think about it and figure this out before beginning your journey.
History of the French Language
As with other Romance languages, like Spanish or Italian, French comes from the Indo-European language family. It came from the Roman Empire and was later influenced by Celtic and Frankish languages, due to various invasions. Before the world was fully mapped out, it was a much more “conquer or be conquered” way of life.
So when the French began their own conquests, into Africa and the Caribbean, they took their language with this. This is why a place like Haiti speaks French Creole, and African countries, like Algeria, Mauritius and Ivory Coast. Today, over 220 million people speak French, and it’s the official language of 29 different countries.
It’s the third most-spoken language in the European Union, and in 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek said that behind English and Mandarin, French is the most useful language for business. So know that when you’re speaking French, you’re not just an individual stumbling his/her way through the language of love, but a larger part of history!
The genius of the French language, descended from its single Latin stock, has triumphed most in the contrary direction - in simplicity, in unity, in clarity, and in restraint. - Lytton Strachey
How to learn French on your own faster
Before jumping into the step-by-step guide of how to learn French on your own, it’s important to discuss a few pieces of advice from language professionals, a.k.a. poly and hyperpolyglots.
A polyglot is someone who has mastered the ability to speak a handful of languages, and a hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks dozens of languages. Yes, dozens of languages. Fortunately, many of these poly and hyperpolyglots enjoy helping others learn languages, so below are a few strong pieces of advice:
Become a chameleon
According to Tim Keeley, a modern polyglot, learning a language has nothing to do with your intellectual capacity. Instead, it’s about how comfortable someone is with taking on a new identity, which means not becoming too attached to who they are and how they currently see themselves.
This is much in line with the growth mindset, which is the belief that we can learn, improve and become better at things versus remaining the same, or “fixed.”
“Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything.” ― Steve Martin
Fake it until you make it
For many people, the issue with learning a new language is that they get too caught up in the intricacies of a language e.g. spelling, grammar, etc. Michael Levi, another modern polyglot, says that people should look to imitate native speakers in terms of how they speak, which words they stress, facial expressions and any “strange” noises they make.
Levi says if people do this, they’ll often overcompensate in the beginning by going a little too over the top with their imitations, but that that is necessary and you can always dial it back.
When learning a new language, people often psych themselves out because they think that if they don’t sound like a native-speaker within a week, they’re doing something wrong. They set almost impossible standards for themselves which only leads to less confidence and motivation. Instead, it’s important to practice as often as possible, while setting goals that feel comfortable and realistic to you.
There are endless classes, workshops, meetups and online programs for people to use nowadays, which only helps to make the thought of learning a new language a bit less daunting and mysterious.
How to learn French on your own
Just because you want to learn French on your own, it doesn’t mean you’re going to sit quietly in a room with your eyes closed until you can magically speak it. In order to learn French, you need to put in the necessary time, sweat and dedication. Below is a step-by-step guide to get you there:
1. Understand your motivation
Before you begin your journey, it’s important to answer the question of, “Why do I want to learn French?” We mentioned a few reasons in the beginning, but none of those may apply to you. So take a few minutes and have a discussion with yourself about this. The stronger your reasons, the more likely you’ll be to stay on task, tough it out and achieve your goals.
Try coming up with two or three, and be sure to write them down. Whenever you feel like you’re struggling, read your reasons and keep going. You’ll get there.
2. Set a daily learning cadence
Everyone learns differently, but no matter how you learn, you need to set a schedule to actually do it. In order to learn any language, you’ll need to take it one day at a time, so it’s best to only plan out a few hours of language learning per day, broken into intervals. 1.5-hour blocks are suggested since we typically begin to zone out after that. Maybe you’re a morning person. If so, create two learning blocks right after breakfast. If you’re more productive in the afternoon, do it then. Or if the night’s your time to shine, set your schedule for the evening.
Once you have the time set, map out what your plan or curriculum is. It could be to read for 30 minutes, watch a 1.5-hour movie, speak with a pen pal, write for 15 minutes, etc. Again, you’re the master of your destiny here. The point is to create a schedule and stick to it.
I just love France, I love French people, I love the French language, I love French food. I love their mentality. I just feel like it's me. I'm very French. - Olga Kurylenko
3. Identify necessary resources
Remember what we said above about not sitting in a room alone until you can magically speak French? It’s true. So in order to learn French on your own, you’ll need a set of tools. The type of tools can vary, but we’ve included a handful, with direct examples, to help:
- Easy French Step-by-Step
- French Conversation (Quick Study Academic)
- Ultimate French Beginner-Intermediate
You can also, of course, use YouTube videos, audio recordings, picture books or a multitude of other things to help you get up to speed.
4. Practice, practice, practice
Ever hear the expression, “If you don’t use it, you lose it?” Well, it applies to language learning. If you don’t frequently practice your French, especially since you’re learning it on your own, it won’t stick. If a language doesn’t stick, and you take a few weeks or months off from it, it’ll be harder to remember anything when you go try learning it again.
Below are a few ways of practicing:
Keep a journal that you only use for writing in French. Write for five minutes every night. As time goes on, write for 10, 15, 20, then 30. It’s recommended to write about your day just as you’d write it in your native language. If you want to use a word that you don’t know, look it up in a dictionary, write it down and keep going. The act of writing (with a pen or pencil), will help embed French in your memory more.
Use one of the apps we listed above a few times a week. Many of them employ what’s called “gamification,” which means that using the apps will make you feel like you’re playing a game. This makes it more fun for everyone.
If you’re just starting out with French, find a few children’s books, in addition to the ones we listed above, and work your way through them. It may seem silly to read about talking animals or anything else that’s usually in children’s books, but the simplicity will allow you to lay a strong foundation for more complex works.
Pick a few movies in French and stick with them. Make sure you actually enjoy them, and watch them at least once a week. You can start off with subtitles, but you’ll eventually need to turn them off. Struggling to understand what an actor is saying is normal. As time goes on, you’ll be able to understand more. Not only that, but you’ll tune your ear to different accents, which will help you speak more like a native.
The same advantages of watching a movie apply to music. Except with music, it’s even more portable, rhythmic and may help you learn more, quicker.
e. Immerse yourself in French culture
This is in line with the tip about becoming a “chameleon” above. Immersing yourself in French culture, while leaving your own behind, will allow you to feel French. Like a method actor, this will help you get into the role of a French speaker more, which will undoubtedly accelerate your learning. The best way to do this is by eating French food, reading the French newspaper, finding a French pen pal to speak with, and even adopting French manners and behavior.
f. Take a proficiency test
We know, we know. Tests weren’t supposed to be a part of the formula for learning French on your own. But if you want to formally gauge how much you know, it’s not a bad idea. Aside from your own feeling of progress (French pen pals not having to translate, completing a few books in French, journaling every night without a dictionary, etc.) having some sort of certificate saying that you’ve achieved a beginner, intermediate or expert level is a nice way to know that your self-learning is working. Below are a few to choose from:
- Official ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI)
- ECL - European Consortium for the Certificate of Attainment in Modern Languages
- TELC - The European Language Certificates
There you have it, a healthy amount of information, advice, tips and tricks to help you get started learning French on your own. It won’t be easy, but being able to carry a conversation within a few months, watch movies without translating and even feeling French will be worth it.
Whenever you get stuck, refer to one of the steps above, reread some of the advice from the poly and hyperpolyglots and remember why you’re learning French in the first place. And, most importantly, have fun! As long as you take it day by day, you’ll get there.
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