METHOD FOR FRENCH

Here’s a step-by-step blueprint to learn French by ear:

  1. French pronunciation 101
  2. French fundamentals through audio & repetition
  3. Sing your way to fluency
  4. Speak up
  5. Watch content
  6. Read – at last!
  7. Maintain your French

 


 

If you want to know the why and the philosophy behind this approach, read this not-so-condensed article.

Here I’ll just get straight to the point and give you the resources you need to learn French.

 


 

1. French pronunciation 101

  • Not a phonetic language: You don’t speak as you read. There are a lot of silent letters! Be careful. And pay attention to contractions and liaisons:
  • Contractions: Spoken French tend to compress words and to eliminate syllables. Example: je mange (I eat) is very often pronounced j’mange. Je is usually contracted in just the sound j (without saying the letter e) when you speak.
  • Liaisons: New sounds appear when some words are followed by some other words. It’s nebulous, I know. Let me give you an example: Un is French for a with masculine nouns. It has a unique sound (it’s a nasal vowel) that you can hear most of the time, such as in un trou (= a hole). But, when followed by a vowel, the sound n appears. Such as in un avion (= a plane), which can be read as un navion. It’s impossible to create an exhaustive list of all the liaison rules. And it would be super boring to learn them as a list. Instead, use songs, videos, dialogues, and pay attention. French is a very NON-phonetic language.
  • Nasal vowels. When air needs to come out of your mouth AND your nose.
  • Guttural r. This greasy French r, coming from the throat. If you’re having trouble with this sound, learn how to spit. It has to come from your throat. As if you wanted to get something nasty out! And exaggerate the whole process. Practice with simple words like trop (read tro), or très (read trè). Really really force it at the beginning.
  • The combination gn, which can be seen as a n followed by the sound (as in you). Practice by saying something like n-you.
  • The combination li, which can be seen as a l followed by the sound (as in you). Practice by saying something like l-you.
  • Intonation: French can seem pretty monotonous compared to English. There’s no simple stress pattern. One thing I noticed with English speakers learning French is that sometimes they are too intense, like they put too much emphasis on some syllables. So here’s an actionable tip: Keep your voice steady. With a fall in pitch on the last syllable of a sentence. It may make no sense at all for you right now. But, again, pay attention when you start listening to songs, videos, or dialogues, and that’s something you will absorb naturally. The too-much-emphasis-on-a-syllable can actually be very cute, and it’s not a problem for communication.
  • There are some accents in several parts of Metropolitan France. But it’s only minor, and shouldn’t cause any communication problem.
  • Different accents (and even dialects) in Canada, Africa, and the islands.

Practice the sounds that don’t exist in your native language. Record yourself, compare with the recordings on wikipedia, and adjust. If you’re willing to spend some time to tune your ear and your pronunciation, I recommend the Mimic Method. They have a premium French course to help you master the unique sounds of the French language.

 


 

2. French fundamentals through audio & repetition

Start with Language Transfer. They have a free audio course Introduction to French. It’s incomplete though, so you might want to go further with one of the following solutions:

If you have money, power through Pimsleur. It’s an audio program that’ll give you the foundation of the language. And you’ll start developing your ear and your pronunciation. It’s boring and expensive, but it’s efficient!

If you don’t have money, go to YouTube and search for French audio program (if you’re learning German, of course). You’ll find videos that last 3 to 5 hours with simple sentences in your target language. For example, start with this playlist of phrases. It’s not as efficient and well structured as something like Language Transfer or Pimsleur. But it’s good enough for a free resource. Remember, at this stage of the process, ear only! So, even though the videos have visual support, don’t watch it! Just listen to the audio and repeat what you hear. It’s very important: Don’t read anything! Just audio for now.

There’s no definite time for this step. As I said earlier, it depends on many variables. What I like to do is starting with 1 (IPA), reading the pages, playing with the sounds. Then step 2, while going back to step 1 when necessary. Then I start step 3 (songs) & 4 (speaking) before I’m done with step 2, so that I’m having more fun with my target language. Instead of just listening and repeating boring sentences. You can also power through step 2, and put in 5, 8, or 10 hours a day for several days in a row. And then you move on. It’s up to you.

 


 

3. Sing your way to fluency

The best way to build your ear while enjoying the process is to use music.

Careful here though. You’ll be tempted to read the lyrics, since you won’t understand a thing at first. But that’s a no-go! We’re learning by ear. Eyes are not welcome yet.

Enjoy the music. Don’t focus too much on the lyrics. Listen to the song and see if you can recognize a few words. But just enjoy it!

Here’s a short list of French singers: Indila, Stromae, OrelSan, Louane, Edith Piaf, Big Flo & Oli.

I’m not a pro at French music. You can start with these and then your streaming platform will give you other recommendations.

 


 

4. Speak up

There’s a website called italki, with thousands of language lovers. I’m all about free content and how to practice without spending a dime. And italki is perfect for that. You can find language partners to practice speaking French for free. There’s a big community, and you’ll meet many language enthusiasts. You can look for people who are learning your native language and then have conversations where you spend half the time speaking French and half the time speaking your native language. Once you have a language partner, you can both decide when you are going to talk via Skype for example. Will it be once a week, once every two weeks? There’s no perfect solution. It depends on your schedule but also on your needs: Are you traveling in two months? If so, speaking everyday won’t be too much. If you need to speak a lot, you may want to find several language partners. Now, what’s the best way to structure your conversations? I tried different formats and I found that the best way to enjoy it and not feel overwhelmed is to divide the conversation in four parts. Let’s say you spend 1 hour talking. People often do 30 minutes 30 minutes. But I prefer to do 15-15-15-15. Start by speaking French or your native language for 15 minutes. Then switch to the other language for 15 minutes. And go back to the first language for 15 more minutes. And end with 15 minutes in the other language. 30 minutes in French can be exhausting when you’re just starting. You can also have 40-minute sessions and in this case divide them in 10-10-10-10.

If you have more money than time though, you can find native speakers to speak only in French. You can pay for either certified teachers or personal tutors. In my experience, I prefer to go with personal tutors. They don’t have any diploma, so you’ll just have a normal conversation with them and they’ll give you feedback or help you if needed. It feels more natural whereas certified teachers are too academic sometimes.

 


 

5. Watch content

The best way to absorb French is to get continuous exposure. No problem when you’re traveling. But easier said than done at home. Where do you go to get into full immersion mode?

You just create an immersion environment. One of my favorite online places to get immediate immersion is YouTube. Hours and hours of quality free content in the language of your choice. Plus, this kind of content wasn’t made for language learners. We’re talking about content made by natives FOR natives. No unnatural robotic slow voice. No weird sentences no one ever uses!

You want to become a sponge. While listening to music and watching videos, pay attention. Soak it in! Notice the contractions? Notice the liaisons? Notice people’s hand gestures? Everything matters. Details can go a long way.

I put together a short list of French YouTubers and some recommendations on Netflix to get you started.

If you’re early in the process, you can start with channels made by natives (or more advanced language learners) for people like you learning their native language. For example: Français Authentique. For more, type learn French in YouTube.

 


 

6. Read – at last!

This is the only step where I want you to wait. Steps 1 to 5: you do them in their numerical order, but you don’t have to wait too long before starting the next one. You can do steps 3 & 4 at the same time for example. Go back to step 1 from time to time to check your pronunciation and tweak it. Then reinforce steps 5 & 2 if needed. Or back to 4. And so on.

But, for step 6, reading, I want you to wait. Take time to develop your ear and speak. Don’t rush it.

It’s up to you to decide when you start reading. I can’t give you a specific benchmark to reach. But, please, trust the process. And take your time before reading. Focus on your ear. That’s your priority number one!

Then, when you’re ready, it won’t be that hard. You’ll already be feeling the language inside of you. You’ll be able to hear it and speak it.

Start by reading lyrics of your favorite songs. Read as you hear. Listen to the song while reading. You can also watch videos in French with subtitles in French as well. That’s another way to read while you hear.

 


 

7. Maintain your French

Language learning is a sport. And like any sport, if you stop playing for too long, you’ll lose your professional status, and end up as an amateur.

Yet you don’t always want to play like a professional, at an intense level. Sometimes you just want to take it slow for a while. Sometimes all you need is a break. But how to take a break when you don’t want to lose your language skills? How to approach it without wasting all the time you already put in absorbing French?

Simple: You get into maintenance mode.

I consider two levels of maintenance: Low maintenance, and high maintenance. Low maintenance is like a couch potato. You don’t want to lose your language completely, but you’re not willing to put in much effort either. And high maintenance is when you keep learning, but not that much.

You can also decide to let it go completely. Because you won’t travel again for a while. Because you can’t take it anymore. Because your spouse left you (that Belgian rap was getting on his nerves somehow!). And that’s fine. Your life, your choices. If you ever decide to start learning again, you won’t start from zero. You will forget a lot, but you’ll be able to pick it up fast.

I’m not here to convince you to maintain your language ’til the end of time. This section is here to show you how to maintain your French, should you choose to accept it. Learning a foreign language can be exhausting. It can be frustrating. It can be harmful to your spouse’s ears. But maintaining a foreign language doesn’t take much. 5-10 minutes a day per language is all you need.

The couch potato, or low maintenance

Find a daily (or weekly) activity that doesn’t take too much time, or involve too much brain power. A few ideas:

  • watching a 5-minute video everyday,
  • watching a movie once a week,
  • listening to a 10-minute podcast everyday,
  • having a 15-minute conversation once a week.

The principle here is still audio and repetition.

Low-key learning, or high maintenance

The idea is to keep discovering new words without doing too much. You’re not in warrior mode anymore. When you start learning French with songs and videos, you find yourself in a lot of uncomfortable situations where you don’t understand anything. Sometimes it even feels like you’re going nowhere. But high maintenance is not this kind of experience. Think chill and relax. The high-maintenance mode is absorbing and chelax.

High-maintenance activities:

  • having a 15-minute conversation everyday,
  • singing a few songs you already know everyday,
  • watching a movie every other day (or binge-watching videos on YouTube).

You learn French to open new horizons, not to be stressed out by the activity itself or your results. You learn French to meet new people, not to feel self-conscious about judgemental people and haters. If you ever feel overwhelmed, go into maintenance mode for a few days. Keep it simple. Relax, and absorb.

 


 

Here’s a quick recap:

  1. French pronunciation 101
  2. French fundamentals through audio & repetition
  3. Sing your way to fluency
  4. Speak up
  5. Watch content
  6. Read – at last!
  7. Maintain your French

 

You can also read a general version of the method.