Secret to Learning French: Six Great Tips

Have you been pondering learning a second language, such as French, for example, because you are planning a trip to Paris, and you don’t want to come off as a typical American tourist who can’t speak a lick of the local lingo? Are you frustrated as to how to proceed? For whatever reason, is that Duo Lingo™ app or those Berlitz™ DVDs not quite in tune with your particular learning style? If this is you, I have encountered many who share your frustration, which has inspired me to share six tips on how to learn a second language. For the purpose of simplicity, we shall imagine that you wish to learn French; however, needless to say, these six tips below are equally applicable to any language that you may wish to learn.

#1. Don’t stress over it!

According to one of the world’s leading authorities on second language (L2) acquisition, Dr. Stephen Krashen, L2 learning is best achieved in a low-stress environment. Children learning their first language (L1) are never under stress: There are no parental deadlines to be met, and no embarrassing, awkward moments over making mistakes. Children simply learn L1 effortlessly and at their own pace, stress-free with no time deadlines. Acquiring L2, like a child does, in a stress-free setting, is one of the key components of “the natural approach,” a teaching method developed by renowned linguists Tracy Terrell and Stephen Krashen.

The natural approach in a nutshell: Don’t force your language learning; don’t cram a lengthy list of new vocabulary words in a squeezed time frame, as if you were in a timed contest, vying for a prize. Acquire your L2 in “bite-sized chunks,” at your own pace, but be consistent. Learning a little every day, gradually augmenting what you’ve already learned, is far more efficacious than a “once-a-week-gotta-get-it-done” cram session. Moreover, learn as much as possible in natural settings, involving specific content you’re excited to learn about. Above all, to keep it stress free, don’t worry about making mistakes!

#2. Avoid a strict grammar approach.

According to Dr. Krashen, language acquisition is largely a subconscious process that does not require an extensive use of conscious grammatical rules or tedious drill. Language is best learned by “osmosis.” After all, this is how we learned our native language. As small children, we hardly worried about grammatical rules, nor were we given a list of new words to memorize by rote. We learned by simply being immersed in our language and out of necessity. We learned by associating words with contextual cues; e.g., mother points to a cat and says “look at the cute kitty.” The child picks this up and learns what a “kitty” is. “Contextual learning,” learning from every day experiences – (the way children learn their L1), is far more effective than learning by rote.

Obviously, this is easier to accomplish when one is surrounded by native speakers. Fortunately, one does not have to be in the country where the L2 is spoken to experience some exposure. For example, one can go to the local French restaurant and order in French, or join a French speaking club, consisting of fluent speakers and French expats.

Although it is usually very difficult for an adult to learn a foreign language without learning some grammar and memorizing new words by rote, this should not be the only method used. Case in point: I knew an intelligent, retired lady who wanted to learn to communicate in French for an extended vacation in provincial France. She hit the grammar books hard – that was her sole approach – and she answered all of the practice drills correctly; moreover, her ability to read French was impressive. Unfortunately, despite her dedicated, but “bookish” approach to French, she ended up being able to speak virtually no French and could understand very little, even when it was spoken very slowly to her. In short, the “old school” textbook-grammar-only approach will almost invariably result in reading and writing proficiency only while doing little or nothing to enhance verbal communication.

#3. Immerse yourself in the L2

This is far easier done now from the convenience of one’s own home than it was 30 years ago. Watch movies in French with English subtitles, listen to French news stations, such as France 24, check out any manner of French YouTube clips, get a French pen-pal from sites such as MyLanguageExchange.com, or hire a competent French tutor.

Many French learners complain that they reach a point where they can read French okay, but when it is spoken, the words are seemingly merged into one indistinguishable blur. This is where watching movies in French, with English subtitles enabled, is a great help: The subtitles are a great aid to separating the words out, and thereby significantly increasing comprehension. (Bear in mind that not all translations are exact, but most are at least very close representations of actual dialogue.)

Additionally, there are many articles and stories one can read in French. For beginning French, there is a plethora of entry-level material on the web, such as children’s stories, etc.

Finally, find French everywhere you can. For example, in the U.S. most sets of instructions and warnings that accompany products are in English as well as some combination of French or Spanish. Compare the English instructions to the French. This is a fantastic way to build vocabulary. Should you become proficient enough, follow the instructions in French!

#4. Talk to yourself in French.

Strange as it may sound, the more you talk to yourself in French, the faster you will learn. (After all, you certainly won’t always have a native French speaker to converse with at your fingertips.) Talking to yourself or trying to think in French is a great way to pick up new vocabulary. By mulling over your day at the office in French, you will constantly find yourself confronted with new words and idiomatic expressions. For example, in lieu of thinking in English: Gee, I’ve got to get that spreadsheet completed by tomorrow. Think it through in French, and you’ll find yourself looking up the French word for spreadsheet, and voilà: a new vocabulary word will be added to your ever-expanding repertoire. Remember: if you keep thinking and talking to yourself in French, when you become proficient enough – typically when you least expect it – joy of joys, you are very likely to experience your first dream in French!

#5. Dedication.

Consistency and dedication are crucial. Frankly, you are wasting your time endeavoring to learn any second language without it. Practice and expose yourself to your target language every day! Adult learners who habitually keep telling themselves that they really didn’t have time to learn any French this week because of work, school, or family constraints, etc. are simply not dedicated enough and will most likely sink into stagnation. Moreover, is one really that busy? Too busy with work? Why not listen to French music, or pop in a French learning DVD during your daily commute to work?

#6. Have fun with it

Lastly, have fun. Learning in general is optimal when one is enjoying the learning process; contra wise, the capacity to learn declines when learning becomes a chore. Here are just a few suggestions: play Trivia Crack ™, using the French language option, learn a simple joke in French, or watch a goofy comedy in French, such as Le Diner de Cons. Seeing yourself becoming progressively more versed in your chosen L2 is an immensely gratifying experience! Yes, you will reach plateaus along the way – those frustrating, but temporary hiatuses in the learning curve, but don’t let that discourage you, as, with persistence, you will eventually rise above those momentary plateaus to potentially achieve the glorious heights of native fluency! Bonne chance!