How to learn a foreign language… and more specifically French

At first glance, the title of this article seems to be a little odd. You most likely learned a foreign language at school, and as for other school subjects, you know how to learn, right? You open a grammar book, read and practice, you learn vocabulary, and listen to dialogs. You watch videos on YouTube to be sure to pronounce correctly, and follow a few YouTubers to discover idioms and slang. Sometimes you add a nice and funny app to revise vocabulary.

So, why would such an article be of some interest to you? Well, because learning a new language is not only about the knowledge you acquire. This is actually a small part of the whole process. More important is to know WHY you learn and HOW to learn. Let’s dig in!


Set yourself measurable goals / Stay simple / Start talking right away / Practice daily / Learn words in context / Don’t translate from your mother tongue / Create yourself a new environment


I imagine you are no longer a pupil, nor a student. Last time you learned a foreign language was a few years (should I say decades?) ago. Methods have changed. Books have changed. The Internet offers millions of free content. And if you are back to it - back to a language you learned in the past, or back to the “learning a foreign language” thing - you are probably overwhelmed by the possibilities, and where to start from. Some of you will contact a teacher or a language school, others will prefer to do it on their own. In both cases, there are a few steps you definitely don’t want to skip, and a few tips that could help you get better results in a very short term. Here are 7 important points to check when you are on your way to learn a new foreign language or back to one you learned a long time ago.



Setting a goal when starting to to learn a foreign language
Setting goals - Estée Janssens on Unsplash

1. Set yourself measurable goals


As you read it, you probably said to yourself: “Oh, that’s obvious!” But how many times did you skip this part? When we start learning a language, we usually think that “being able to understand native speakers”, or “getting along in a foreign country” are valid goals. But they most probably won’t keep you motivated for a long time. And you may feel at some point that understanding all native speakers is not achievable.


The best thing is to give yourself concrete, measurable objectives. Are you familiar with the SMART acronym? S for Specific, M for Measurable, A for Achievable, R for Relevant and T for Time-Bound. Well, these are exactly the kind of goals you should define for your learning, even if you started already. It’s never too late. Such objectives will not only clarify your approach but also help you set a timeline, define exactly what you need to learn and celebrate your success!

Let’s see some examples of SMART goals:

  • Communicate with clients from another country

  • Converse with family members who have a different mother tongue than yours

  • Organize an immersive travel to a foreign country (being able to communicate with the locals and understanding the surroundings)

Some of my former students had set themselves interesting goals. One of them wanted to surprise his wife on their upcoming trip to Paris for their anniversary - he decided to start learning French in secret. Another one wanted to be able to give a professional speech in French within a year. At last, one simply set a challenge (as part of a list of challenges in a turning point in her life) to talk one minute in French in a video at the end of the year.

As you see, everything is possible. Just give yourself a reason to learn and a deadline. This way you will be able to understand what to learn (don’t even think about learning the “passé simple” in French if your goal is to communicate with native speakers verbally, as this tense is used only in written literature), to keep track of your progress and to look forward.



2. Stay simple


This tip is particularly important if you are a complete beginner, or if you are refreshing a foreign language after a few decades of neglect. But at any other level, not being simple may be the reason why you feel stuck when you’re trying to speak.

What does “stay simple” mean? Well, as we are all intelligent human beings, we want to express ourselves in a smart, interesting and precise way. All is good when you are talking in your mother tongue, or in a foreign language you master, but when you begin a new language, building complicated sentences will most probably prevent you from talking at all. From experience, I know it may be very frustrating to express yourself in a very simplified way, but this is my best advice to boost your oral skills. When I ask my beginner students what they drink in the morning, I expect them to answer (in French) : “Je bois du café au lait” (I drink coffee with milk) or “Je préfère le thé vert” (I prefer green tea). Those who try to tell the complete truth (“J’aimerais boire un cappuccino le matin mais je digère mal le lait de vache, et un cappuccino avec du lait de soja ou d’amandes, ce n’est vraiment pas la même chose donc au final je bois juste du café, sans lait” - I would like to drink a cappuccino in the morning but I do not digest cow’s milk, and a cappuccino with soy or almond milk is really not the same so in the end I just drink coffee, without milk.) will get stuck in the middle, or will make so many mistakes in this long sentence that they will feel disappointed.

So, just say the minimum, the basics, at least at the beginning. Over time, when you master simple sentences, you will be able to add more nuances.


3. Start talking right away


This tip is linked to the previous one. When starting a new language, you should always start talking from the first day on. Even if you’re only repeating “Bonjour, comment ça va ?” (Hi, how are you? in French) for a few days. You will make mistakes - grammar mistakes, gender mistakes (is it a masculine or a feminine word?), you will forget the articles, mix the prepositions, forget a word you wanted to say. That's all good! It really doesn’t matter. Getting confident while speaking means TO SPEAK. If you wait for the perfect sentence (the one without any error), you will never speak. Don’t wait to get to the next level to start talking because you will say exactly the same excuse at the next level. And you will be even more frustrated because at an intermediate level, you are supposed to express yourself easily about simple matters.

How to do it? Well, for example, if you forget a word or don’t know it, just add it in English in the middle of the sentence. For example : “Je ne suis pas allée à la fête parce que j’avais mal à MY BACK.” (I didn’t go to the party because MY BACK hurt). You can also “show” the word (here, your back) or mimic it. Or you can change the sentence a little : … j’étais malade. (I was sick). It doesn’t mean exactly the same, but the idea is there.

If you are studying alone, you probably think there is no way you can talk in the language. But that is not true. You can always talk to yourself, out loud: describe what you’re doing and seeing, talking about your plans, your previous day etc. And don’t forget to listen a lot, and repeat what you’re hearing.



4. Practice daily


I am pretty sure you’ve read this advice a million times. But still, I have to write it here too. Because that’s one of the best tips and the easiest one. Yes, the easiest one! You may not agree with me, and if this is the case, the reason is probably that you define “practice” by doing grammar exercises, reading a text, listening to a dialog or watching a video and answering questions about it. Those are practices which require time, a pen, a piece of paper or your computer. So you need to prepare yourself. And then we all know… procrastination. I don’t need to add anything, right?

But my vision of practicing a foreign language is completely different. The worst thing for your learning process would be you attending a weekly class, doing the homework the night before the next class, and that’s it. The best thing for your learning process would be to integrate the language in your daily life: listen to a song (even better, watch the video clip of a song with lyrics), watch a 2 minutes video, play on an app for 5 minutes, comment what you are doing or what you will be doing today, out loud, in the target language, write a message to a friend or a classmate… Practicing daily can be very simple, far away from the grammar and workbooks. So just enjoy!



5. Learn words in context


Learning new words and memorizing them is an essential part of acquiring a foreign language. But making lists of words, checking the translation in your own language and learning them like a parrot were maybe the normality a few decades ago but no more today. In most languages - and French is one of them, nouns have a gender, which has an influence on the adjective, the pronouns etc. Each language has its own idioms, words combined together to create a specific meaning. That’s the reason why learning isolated words is not really useful. In order to build sentences more easily, it is best to learn them in context.

But what does that mean? In French, for example, the minimum would be to learn a noun with an article, and ideally the one mostly used. Let’s say you just learned some food vocabulary, and got to the word “riz” (rice). Depending on the sentence, you will see the article “le” (the), “du” (part of, some) or “de” (after a quantity, like a bowl of rice, a lot of rice). So I would recommend you to learn “du riz”, because you will mostly use this word in sentences like “Je voudrais du riz” (I’d like some rice), “Vous avez du riz ?” (Do you have rice?) or “Achète du riz !” (Buy some rice!). Learning “du riz” instead of simply “riz” isn’t more difficult, and it will simplify the process of building a sentence since a) you don’t have to think about the article needed before the noun b) you know by the article “du” that “riz” is masculine, then you can add the correct form of the adjective if needed.

Another example of learning “combined words” is “douche” (shower). Learn “prendre une douche” (take a shower), so that you minimize the possibility of making mistakes like “je fais une douche” (I do a shower) or “j’ai une douche” (I’m having a shower) because this is maybe the way you say it in your language, and you are translating directly.

You can also add many words together like “fermer la porte de la voiture”. If you remember “la porte” (the door) and “la voiture” (the car), it will be easier to guess “fermer” is either “to close” or “to open”.

You got it: learning words in context helps you guess a word whose meaning you forgot, and creates sentences easily and quickly.



Don't translate every word when learning a new language
Dictionary - Sandy Miller on Unsplash

6. Don’t translate from your mother tongue


I know, this one is tough. Especially when you are just starting to learn. But you probably know that translating is a bad idea, as every language is different, has its own syntax (the order of the words in a sentence), opposite genders etc. Sometimes you won’t see the problem, as the sentence in your own language is literally the same in the foreign one. But mostly it will differ. By translating, you are most likely to make grammar and vocabulary mistakes.

So, in practice, how do you do it? Well, first, learning words in context will help you since you have patterns and combined words. Secondly, I strongly recommend you to see the big picture before stopping as soon as you encounter a word you don’t know and look for it in the dictionary. If you are reading a text, there is a big chance you will understand it with the context and the end of the sentence. For example, if you read the following sentence in French: “Au petit-déjeuner, je bois un café au lait et je mange du pain avec du beurre et de la confiture.” (For breakfast, I drink coffee with milk and I eat bread with butter and jam). If you don’t know what “petit-déjeuner” means, you can probably guess it by the kind of food and drink the person talks about afterwards.

When you watch a video, you can often guess the words you don’t know with the images.

Another point - that may be difficult for some of you - is to accept the fact that you don’t have understand EVERY single word. If you get the main idea of a conversation or a text, that’s REALLY ok. Overtime you will be able to get more and more information.



7. Create yourself a new environment


That’s the fun part of learning a language. We all know that the best way to learn is to move for a few months or a few years to a country where they speak the language. But for most of us, it is not an option. Then what? Well, try to recreate around you an environment as if you were in a foreign country. Listen to music, watch movies and series, read books, use materials in the target language for your hobbies (like yoga lessons and DIY tutorials on YouTube), find friends or a community of people speaking this language. You will find some great ideas on how to do it in my article “how to combine French learning and joy”, even if French is not your target language.




I guess some of those tips are not new to you. Well, I haven't tried to reinvent the wheel. But I think it is still a good idea to read and take them in again. If you discovered only ONE new tip in this article, you won (and I’m happy). You got a new idea of how to maximize your learning process. If more than one (all of them??) tip was new to you, then I am really glad you found this article, and you should too. Among all those tips, the most difficult one to implement is probably the speaking part. Because you need a partner. You need someone who will listen to you, converse with you. If you are learning French and you don’t have anyone to speak to, consider joining my conversation classes! Check here for more details.

Those ideas may seem too simple to be really effective, but believe me - and I have some experience in learning foreign languages since I am a French teacher and I’ve already learned English, German, Hebrew and Spanish - they make all the difference!




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