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How to learn French in one year, starting from nothing
How I would learn French today as a total beginner
You may or may not be a beginner. No matter what your level of knowledge is, you will find this article helpful.
When we accomplish something difficult, like learning a language or starting a business, it's easier with hindsight to know what we would have done differently. We often realize that we would be more efficient and could reach the same goals in less time.
I taught myself a number of languages: English, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese. (Today, I consider that I only speak four languages, because my Portuguese and Spanish are so rusty that I put them in a “dormant” category..).
I learned a lot in that process.
Teaching French for the past four years on Italki also taught me a great deal about the most effective language learning strategies.
So today, I want to give you a summary of what I recommend to total beginners to learn French in only one year. This advice will also apply to you if you feel stuck at a certain level and feel you can't progress.
Don’t talk about learning French, just do it
It’s strange, but whenever I get introduced to a student who doesn’t speak French but tells me they're “super motivated to learn,” I don’t believe them anymore. Or I’m skeptical.
That’s because 80% of the time, these students give up within a month or two.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if someone takes a private lesson but hasn’t learned any French at all, it probably means that they’re not going to learn. Why? Because if they were truly motivated, they would have started already.
It sounds illogical, but it’s true. If you really want to do something, you start with anything. At the very least, you would download an app and start learning a little on your own. You’d watch some YouTube videos about learning French. Maybe you’d take a private lesson, but that’s generally not the first thing you’d do. You’d start with whatever you could find first.
I have made the same observation about people who move to Quebec and after a few months or years, now claim that they are finally going to learn French. Again, if they were truly motivated to learn, they would have started in a smaller capacity before that. Inevitably, these are akin to New Year’s resolutions. A lot of good intentions, but no real motivation.
So don’t say you'll learn French. Do it already!
Get clear about your motivation and find your inspiration
Whenever I decided to learn a language, I had a very clear image of my future self that motivated me to learn. For Italian, I imagined having conversations with Italians in Little Italy. For German, I wanted to understand German movies. For Spanish, I imagined traveling to Mexico or Spain and talking to people in Spanish.
These were very simple goals, but they motivated me to learn. For me, the goals were never to learn a language for a job, or because it is required. I got inspired by the feeling of freedom and accomplishment speaking a new language gave me.
A language takes so much time and energy to learn that if you do it for purely practical reasons, you’re not likely to stick to your resolution.
For example, someone living in Montreal and working in English might feel every day a small inconvenience for not speaking French. They might feel excluded from certain situations. But if overall, their job doesn’t require French and most of their friends are anglophones, they are not likely to find the motivation to learn if they simply think, “it would be nice to speak French.”
Have some imagination and ambition for God’s sake! Why not imagine making new francophone friends? Why not think about everything you’re missing out on by not speaking French, such as not being able to go to the theater, not understanding French TV, and not being able to travel outside of Montreal without feeling that you’re entering a foreign land?
If you don’t have strong motivation, you won't stick with a learning routine. You have to be driven by a strong desire to speak that language. Use your imagination! Maybe you’ll travel to French Polynesia. Maybe you’ll spend a month in the South of France. Or if you’re single, perhaps you’ll find a French-speaking romantic partner!
Find the time
Next, we need to find the time. I advise starting small, and increasing your input over time. Without putting the necessary time into this pursuit, you won’t make dramatic progress.
To learn French from scratch, an anglophone needs 700 hours, according to the FSI (Foreign Service Institute). But because we’ll be so efficient in our learning, we can cut it down a bit.
I suggest the following:
For the first three months, study for 30 minutes each day.
In months 3-6, study for 45 minutes each day.
By month 7, increase it to 60 minutes.
At month 9, go all-in, and put in as much time as possible.
This isn’t as difficult as it seems. Anyone can fit 30 minutes into a day. One hour may sound too much, but you can find ways to “steal time,” for example listening to an audio method while driving, or instead of wasting time on your smartphone, study some French instead. Waiting in line at the bank? Perfect for studying with flashcards. You’ll find scraps of time throughout the day that are normally wasted, so use them to get to your goal.
Also, at this point, it’s best to forget about levels, like A1 or B1. Just focus instead on putting in the time!
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Focus on high-yield activities
You want to focus on doing the few things that will yield the best results and ignore activities that are not that useful.
You should avoid anything that turns language learning into a game, like Duolingo and all other similar apps.
You should also avoid anything that’s too passive, like simply watching movies or YouTube videos, or listening to podcasts, hoping that the language will magically transfer to you by osmosis.
Instead, think about active learning, which means any activity where you’re actively trying to understand what you’re reading or listening to.
Here’s what I endorse:
Reading anything you want to read (comic books, beginner’s books, children’s books, easy newspaper articles, etc.) and looking up new vocabulary.
Studying vocabulary with flashcards.
Going through learning methods, like Pimsleur or Assimil.
Watching YouTube videos on learning French, but looking up new words.
Studying verbs in a book like French Verb Drills.
Studying some grammar in a book like Complete French Grammar.
Practicing conversation with a teacher.
Before continuing, did you check out the French-only edition of this newsletter? The best way for you to learn is to read challenging texts, seeking to understand new vocabulary and expressions. Try to read my long-form article in French, along with vocabulary and content recommendations!
Use the “mix and match” method
I call it the “mix-and-match” method because it is composed of a set of tools or ways of studying a language. You mix and match by first understanding what the different tools are and then choosing a few, or all of them!
For the method to work, you need to mix and match. You can't pick one tool and stick with it. You have to use a few tools at the same time. Magic happens when you combine different learning methods at the same time.
For example, Pimsleur is an audio-only method. It’s very helpful, but it wouldn't work as your primary learning tool. But if you use Pimsleur in addition to taking private lessons and reading in French and learning verbs and vocabulary, you will make noticeable progress.
Bonus tip: Get a book, a magazine, a newspaper or a comic book in physical format. Start reading it, highlighting newwords, and making flashcards to learn them. You will probably highlight most words on the page. After you have done a page or two, set the book or magazine aside, and keep it as a reminder of the challenge offered by the language you are studying. Every three months, try again. You will find that every time you try, you’ll highlight fewer and fewer words on each page. This will motivate you to keep on learning!
You need strong motivation.
Start with 30 minutes a day, focus on consistency, and increase it as the year progresses.
Banish useless activities such as games and passive learning.
Focus on high-yield activities, such as active learning and reading. Combine them all using the “mix and match method.”
Don't go too fast. Study every day. Don’t miss a day! If you only have ten minutes, it’s better than nothing.
Do you feel you’re making progress with your French? What’s holding you back? Leave a comment below!