Learn french in one year without the fluff.
One year for going from zero to francophone on one page - in three parts because when learning french it’s best to know from the beginning that there are many ways to create an exception.
This is how you begin
The first few months is your time to really grasp all the fundamentals of the language and stay accountable to absorbing yourself in it. This is your easiest time because it’s going to fly as you learn hundreds of new things your brain is quickly integrating. But it will also feel painful every time you stumble (and you will stumble over and over again) trying to recall how to say the most basic things and encouraging your brain to remember word orders and conjugations. Your teacher will take you through the necessary structures. Teacher not in the budget? Pick up an A1 - A2 grammar book with activities and make your way through to understand some fundamentals.
You might feel overwhelmed. Take a breather and rest but do not give up. Remember that toddlers have a couple of years of exposure to thousands of conversations and stories in different accents and voices before they start stringing sentences together. You’re compressing all of that experience so chill out; your brain is absolutely ready for this and you’re not having some kind of breakdown or malfunctioning.
Learning a new language as an adult is fucking hard work so you need to hold yourself accountable until it's a habit. This is particularly important while you’re not speaking in your new tongue because it’s incredibly easy to fall back to the comfort of our own languages and habits. The easiest way to handle this is to give yourself a system. I’m a fairly relaxed person and not into much non-work structure but you need a structure for this. It makes it achievable to get through your year.
I created a Notion database to track my learning time across each activity. Download my template to do the same for yourself. If you prefer hanging stuff on the wall or fridge, I’ve made a PDF for this so download that instead. Or use these as examples and create one in your tool of choice. This is going to ensure you’ve spread your time in the most effective ways and keep you accountable for the first 3 to 6 months. Frankly it’s not sustainable to do this beyond six months and you won’t need it.
You’re going to do this hardcore because it’s the only way to quickly shift your brain when you’re still speaking or reading languages you are fluent in for work or in your personal life. I know it's frustrating but it really helps and nudges your mind constantly.
If you have time and money you could also join an immersion school experience where you can only speak french the minute you walk through the door which is truly quite ideal. But I’m guessing if you’re reading this, that is not going to be you so you’re going on a private immersion whether you’re in a french speaking country or not.
Surround yourself with the language and soak your brain in it. We’re adults, so we don’t have this as easy as children do with people pointing things out and saying things loudly and slowly while speaking all around us (you’ll wish people did, so feel free to stick post-it notes on everything instead). Kids are estimated to have 15,000 hours of exposure before starting school and we rarely consider them fluent. Relax, you need nowhere near this time with a developed brain but just remember this. It's normal - and actually very quick - that you're embarking on a one year journey to read, comprehend and speak.
More TO IT than pastries
Switch all your devices to french right now (you’ll hate it for a little while but you already have context and you’ll immediately learn words). Set your default opening page to a french website (i.e. this news site).
Some people will tell you 800 to 1,000 words is all you need. I call bullshit. You’re going to need about 3,000 to grasp the context of conversations once you understand sentence structure. Toddlers can work with 1,000. You're an adult with some more thoughts.
You’re going to learn these with the recall method. Download this great list somebody kindly prepared earlier and upload it onto an Anki app (I use the Reword App). What is it? Recall and spaced repetition. It works. Sort out your app and list now.
Spend one hour a day on these until the app tells you you’ve mastered the list through recall. Keep the app beyond this for adding all the new (useful) words you discover throughout the year so you can do occasional sessions to remember new words as the year continues. Great activity for public transport or couch hours.
Got a bit of cash?
Hire a teacher
A teacher will ensure you understand all the necessary fundamentals and immediately pick up your issues to resolve. They will keep you accountable, encouraged, tailor lessons and progress you through as quickly as possible. A teacher will correctly explain concepts, advise you on tone and when to use what, and answer complex questions. One on one is of course best so I recommend Sylvie who is a master at making this enjoyable, ensures you can actually comprehend and speak. She'll get you to the level you want to be at whether you want to work in french, chat with friends, write academic reports or poetry. For lower budget options use iTalki. I also trialed a summer school for 3 weeks and had a wonderful prof. This is a great starter or supplement if it's a small group and you have a good teacher (and a good way to meet people). If it’s in your budget, a teacher will be infinitely helpful during your first year.
Start this course
Storylearning is a genuinely awesome course. Most courses won’t do much for you but with this one, the method really works. You learn through a story. It’s going to sound like nonsense at first but listen carefully and follow the instructions. If you’re the kind of person who like activities, do them after each lesson (I rarely did). I looked up words I didn’t know though even though they say don’t worry about it because I know vocabulary building helps me. I think doing this in conjunction with learning your tenses and grammar is incredibly effective. It’s available in Quebec French too. Fun fact: In the French Alps I randomly met the guy who helps run this team while I was doing the course and he is one of the most genuine humans I've ever met and now a true friend. I think the sales page looks like internet-hell so very much ignore this. The course and material is really fantastic. It’s one of the few online courses I would ever recommend (I'm not an affiliate, it just helped me a lot).
Don’t bother with Duolingo (sorry you big friendly green owl). Use Memrise and start your streaks here instead if you're into apps. You’ll be learning words in tiny sentences and hearing the phrases and words from native language speakers in a variety of accents with great recall activities. You only need the first two levels. Delete it after that unless it keeps you accountable. The other fantastic app is Frantastique. It wasn’t in my budget but I trialed it and loved it - it’s very different to every other app. Give it a whirl but just pick one app.
Follow these accounts
These accounts are perfect for beginners starting to learn new words, structures and phrases. There’s also a small smattering of comedy from two well known English speakers who provide everything in French and English. Many featured here also give group and one-on-one lessons tailored to a variety of budgets. Tip educative creators if you can. It's a crazy boulot. Follow for a daily hit of ten minutes of learning and read the descriptions.
It's also really important to find accounts that interest you but aren't at the most complicated level of french to get you started. Here are some cooking, birds, culture and cute comic accounts. It's totally normal to not understand these for many months. Just find accounts you enjoy and try to focus for a few minutes each day.
Learn like a kid
Head to Storyplayr and create an account if you're able to. This costs a few dollars a month and gives you access to hundreds of children's books that you can read along to while a french native reads them aloud. It’s brilliant. Start with the 2 - 3 year old age group and read whatever. Listen to the story then read it aloud to yourself. Practice your pronunciation. Keep it for 6 months and then stop the subscription. Because the youngest of kids read about routines a lot it's also awesome to start with this as in french a lot of these verbs are reflexive. A total pain in the ass in other words.
If you don’t have the cash at the moment, fret not. Find free books online or head to your local library. Join Buy Nothing / Buy Zero and community Facebook groups and see if anyone is selling or donating french kids books. Find your french expat community and ask them directly if these options don’t work.
You want to be paying attention during some of these sessions but not all of them. Having french music or podcasts in the background helps your brain to understand tone, rhythm, words and conjugaisons. It might feel very frustrating or you might tune it out but make sure you’re putting them on. If podcasts are your thing, it can really help master your first few levels too. Coffee Break can be much more useful than an app. If you like songs or games, the Lyrics Game is a good one. It’s horrible; you’ll hate love it.
Master your conjugaisons
This is the thing you’re going to really need to understand like any language and there's a lot of them in french. I found writing my own tables incredibly helpful before reviewing them. Essentially you’ll learn the conjugation rules for verbs ending in er (penser), ir (finir), and then all the exceptions (avoir, etre, vouloir, pouvoir etc). You'll find some patterns in the irregular group for certain end types. I enjoyed using the website Conjugeumos which cleanly drills you on them. You need l'indicatif, l'imparfait, le passé composé right now. Then move onto le futur simple, le futur proche, l'imperatif and the le conditionnel in either this stage or the next. That’s it; nail those (I found the plus-que parfait comes naturally as you advance). You’ll get it - even french kids have to drill themselves on these. If books are your thing you can pick a conjugations tables book but honestly - pen to paper or fingers to typepad will help your brain much more.
PREP THE DE + À
Notice when you hear a de or à after verbs and linking words. Quelque chose de fou (something + adjective). Quelque chose à faire (something + verb). Penser à quelqu'un (think of somebody). J’ai besoin de quelque chose (I need + something). Ça dépend de quelque chose. Je me prépare à sortir.
Noun agreement is awful until you’re used to it. Il est chanteur. Elle est chanteuse. La maison est belle (the house is beautiful). Elles sont belles (they are beautiful). L’appartement est beau mais c’est un bel appartement (due to the vowel). Ce sont de beaux appartements (plural). Learn them in context.
OLD SCHOOL GENDER
As you learn word genders you’ll learn to use à la (f), au (m), aux (pl), de la (f), du (m) or des (pl). Start internalizing which words go with which as you’ll need gender for everything else too. You’re going aux magasins (to the shops) and au debut (at the start) of a series à la television (on the television).
The final letter of a word is usually not pronounced. There are a few rules you’ll learn for when they are and some exceptions (but for example is like boot) but generally roll with this. French letter combinations produce consistent sounds and there are rules for when a g is hard or soft for example so once you know the sounds letters make together, you’ll generally know how to pronounce a word by looking at it.
EN / Y
Verbs with the preposition à use y to replace any reference except a person or animal. So je pense à ce truc is j’y pense. It is also used for places. Je suis allé(e) à la plage is j’y suis allé(e).
Verbs with de use en. Je m’occupe de ce problème becomes je m’en occupe. En is also for quantities. It’s taken me a year and I’m still wading my way through using these extensively.
There are three ways to ask questions. Most commonly you’ll either hear them with est-ce que (yes/no) or qu’est-ce que (open) at the start, or in the format of tu veux manger? with intonation. You’ll see the flip of this, veux-tu manger, more often in writing. Add interrogatives such as pourquoi t’es parti? Elle travaille pour qui? Quand est-ce que tu veux manger? Quel est ton boulot? If it seems weird, it becomes easy in practice.
DR MRS VANDERTRAMP AND THE HOUSE OF ÊTRE
When using être as an auxillory the verb needs to accord the gender. Il est venu. Elle est venue. Ils sont venus. Elles sont venues. Gender accordance does not happen with the verb avoir (except for when avoir comes before the direct object but that is advanced and useless to you now). It is however necessary with être. Which verbs use être as their auxillary? Use the House of Être or the acronym to remember them. Devenir, Revenir, Monter, Rester, Sortir, Venir, Aller, Naitre, Descendre, Entrer, Rentrer, Tomber, Retourner, Arriver, Mourir, Partir. Essentially relating to birth, death and general movement uses être. This means you say je suis arrivé(e) whereas most other verbs use avoir (as in j’ai mangé). All reflexive verbs also use être. Je me suis brossé(e) les dents (I brushed my teeth).
Snack sized learning
A whole bunch of words mean something else when you add que to them. Internalize these!
tandis que → while
alors que → whereas
tant que → as long as
ainsi que → as well as
bien que → although
aussitôt que → as soon as
sitôt que → as soon as
dès que → as soon as
parce que → because
vu que → given that
étant donné que → given that
en tant que → as a
pendant que → while
pour que → so that
autant que → as much as
afin que → in order to / for
histoire que → in order for
de sorte que → so that
telle que → such as
de même que → as well as
make a video
After a month or two record yourself speaking au pif. Film yourself for as long as you can about anything at all. If you’re like me you won’t string more than a few words together and you’ll cry after ten seconds of realizing a toddler would do this much better (it was either that or the stressful job at the time; consider that your warning). Keep it.
You’re going to feel frustrated or demotivated as you progress. Use this to look back on in one year. You can reflect on how magic our brains are and how much remarkable work and effort you made to make this happen. You are doing this. You can do this.
Even if you’re already more than a few months in, record yourself today and then carry on.
How's it feeling now?
Adults feel all different things learning a language. For me it was exciting. Frustrating. Happy. Horrible. Funny. Decidedly unfunny. It’s bizarre learning a language and not knowing anything. Basic things like how are you, what do you do for enjoyment, what did you eat today and it’s beautiful weather are difficult to express until you know their structure and your tongue gets used to twirling another way. Small talk feels wildly weird for a long time while longer conversation improves drastically over the year.
At this stage I loved learning new stuff, I felt like I was secretly peeking into an incredibly rich world due to the number of french speakers, and I was also thinking, am I ever going to be express myself? Will I ever make french friends? Will I ever be able to contribute or understand a conversation? Why do the french say c’est chouette meaning “it’s owl” to say it's cool? Why can I not comprehend any words in any show? Is my brain malfunctioning? All normal. Please persevere. And jump to the next level.
IS THIS YOUR SECOND LANGUAGE?
If you speak one language things are going to be a bit harder for you because you probably don’t know how your language is constructed. Do you know what an adverbial pronoun is or why you use a certain tense in a specific situation? Don’t worry about it too much - you’ll learn a bunch of new words for grammatical structures and you’ll even improve your native language.
That said, it surprises me that monolingual people tend to try and replace word for word their sentences which often doesn’t work. Or that tenses or words can't be used the exact same way, with the same meaning in each scenario. I've seen people actually get angry that you don't say je suis faim but j'ai faim. Or that it's j'avais 12 ans rather than j'etais. Language changes for amazing reasons. Mais bon, sometimes sentences are exactly the same and mostly sentence structures or words change a little bit. Sometimes entirely. Ask lots of questions. Je peux dire ça? (Can I say that?) Comment on dit ....? (How does one / we say...?). It's ok to be annoying; people need to chill out with language learners.
Think about what it is you’re trying to communicate and simplify it. You might say I wouldn’t mind having a drink in English. What does that actually mean? That you would like a drink. In French therefore you could say j’aimerais bien de prendre un verre (I'd love to have a drink) or tu veux boire un coup ? (do you want to have a drink?) or more coyly, ça te dit de prendre un verre ? (would you perhaps like to grab a drink?).
Tidbit: English speakers use the word get a lot. This doesn’t translate into many other languages so think about the root verb. I got it (I received it). Yup, I got it (yes, I understood). Could you get that (can you answer?). I’ll get dinner (I will buy / find / bring dinner). He got himself home (he arrived / went / came home). They normally get the train (they take the train). I got really mad (I became mad). He gets a vacation this year (he can take / will have a vacation). Can you get him to do it (can you persuade / convince him to). You can get around it though (you can go / move / pass by it). He got over it fast (he recovered / healed / moved onto new things). I’m getting into the plane (I’m entering / boarding the plane). I got used to it (I habituated myself to it). I got the hang of it (I succeeded / I grasped how to do it). There are many more and a lot of expressions too. Watch out for this.