French for Beginners
Welcome to French, the language of love, literature and all of those fascinating, beautiful sounds. If your French knowledge is limited to "voulez vous coucher avec moi" and you've decided to learn French, then we've got the perfect beginner's guide for you.
In this article, we'll take a look at some French and language learning basics to provide you with the strong foundation you need to start learning French.
If you've decided to learn French or are thinking about learning French, here's the helpful information you need to get started as a beginner.
The first question that many language learners ask is why they should learn French. After all, learning a new language requires a lot of dedication, and a little extra motivation goes a long way.
Here are some of the many reasons why you should learn French:
- It's one of the world's 15 most spoken languages. It's estimated that there are over 220 million French speakers worldwide. This makes French one of the top 10 most spoken languages in the world.
- It's spoken on 5 continents. From the streets of Paris to the shores of Africa, the islands of the Caribbean and everywhere in between, French speakers can be found in North America, South America and the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and even in formerly French-occupied parts of Asia. This makes it an extremely useful language for travelling the world.
- It's your entrance into Europe and international relations. French is the second-most widely spoken language in Europe and the second most widely learned language after English. It's also both a working and official language of the United Nations, the European Union, UNESCO, NATO, the International Red Cross, international courts and the International Olympic Committee.
- You'll be one of many fellow French language learners. French is also the second most widely taught language other than English throughout the world. It's taught on nearly every continent. This means that there are many, many French learning resources out there and you'll have a wide network of other French language learners for support.
- It's a great career asset. French is very useful in the business world since many multinational companies in a wide range of sectors use French as their working language. France is also the world's fifth biggest economy. French is essential for anyone interested in a career with an international organization like the ones we mentioned above.
- It opens the door to a history and culture. Learning French is your gateway into the fascinating French-speaking world. You'll be able to access the great works of French writers in their original versions, enjoy wonderful French movies, and understand beautiful French songs. This is true for any of the many places throughout the world where French is spoken.
- It expands your online world. French is one of the top 10 most used languages on the internet. This means that knowing French can help you find an alternative view of the world through communicating with the millions of French speakers online.
- It can help you learn other languages. French is an excellent foundation for learning other similar, Latin-based languages. These include Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and even some English, since about one-third of modern English comes from French. Believe it or not, learning French will help you improve your English vocabulary!
- It's easier to learn than you think. You may have heard that French is a difficult language for English speakers to learn, but that's not really the case. French is actually considered one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. This is a big benefit if you're hoping to learn French fast!
- Learning a new language is really good for you. Learning a new language like French has some incredible benefits for you mind and body. It can help your brain to grow, become sharper, multitask better and even delay the onset of dementia. Check out all of the benefits of learning a language for even more reasons why it's so great.
Now that you know why you should learn French, let's take a look at some of the things you need to know before getting started.
The Language Learning Basics
Before learning French, it's important to know a little bit about the language learning basics.
No, we're not talking about knowing how to say "hello," "thank you," and "one beer, please" (although this is helpful, of course). We're talking about knowing a little bit about how languages work and the basic parts of a language.
One of the first steps in learning a language is to learn a little bit about what makes up a language and the unique aspects of the language you want to learn (in this case, French).
Let's take a look at some of the things you need to know before getting started:
The four language learning skills
Next, it's time to take a look at what it really means to learn a language. So what does learning French involve?
Basically, learning French involves learning four related skills:
- Reading French
- Listening in French
- Speaking French
- Writing in French
French pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are keys to these skills.
The difficulty of each skill depends on the person. For many, reading in French is easier than writing or speaking, but for some, speaking is the easiest. You'll discover what your strong points are as you start to learn the language.
As you can imagine, learning any one of these skills also helps you to learn the others. They're all very important if you want to become fluent in French.
Give it a try!
If you're a French beginner and are new to the language learning scene, we recommend giving our free Rocket French trial a try.
This is a great way to see what it's like to learn French online, how the lessons and activities work, and figure out how learning French can fit into your life. You can even try it out as a guest with no email, credit card or obligation required. And did we mention it's free?
What do you think? It's kind of fun, isn't it?
If you're hooked on French like we are, it's time to dig and start to learn it!
But where should you even begin?
How to Learn French
Here at Rocket Languages, we'd like to help you on your French learning journey by giving you a step-by-step guide on how to learn this beautiful language the best and easiest way possible.
Step 1: Make a Game Plan
No great achievement ever happens overnight, and learning French is no different. The first step to learn French is to make some smart, realistic goals to help yourself organize your time and plan your studies.
Here are a few tips:
Make SMART Goals
Your New Year's Resolution may be to "learn French," but what does that actually mean? Vague final goals like this are both frustrating and unproductive. After all, how will you know when--and if--this goal is ever achieved? Instead, try making some SMART goals.
SMART goals, as advocated in world of management, are Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. In order to best apply this concept to your French studies, it's recommended that you become a little familiar with the European Common Framework that defines the different language levels.
Here's a quick breakdown of the Framework and levels:
Breakthrough or Beginner
Way Stage or Elementary
Threshold or Intermediate
Vantage or Upper Intermediate
Effective Operational Proficiency
Mastery or Proficiency
On average, many speakers are considered "fluent" in a language by the time they've reached a B2 level or higher, a level which allows them to comfortably interact in almost all social situations.
Aiming for a B2 level of a language is therefore a more specific and results-focused goal, and, thanks to the criteria provided by the Common European Framework of Reference, it's also measureable. It's much more attainable than aiming for the vague notion of "fluency" (which, seems to elude even fluent speakers!). It can easily be made time-bound by keeping in mind the criteria needed for each level and making yourself a schedule with your goals in mind.
Make a study plan
Now that you have some realistic goals in mind, it's time to make a study plan. A study plan will help you to organize and maximize your time, keep motivated, set goals, and make sure your brain gets the repetition and structure it needs.
Consider it your very own, personalized plan d'attaque.
Before you can make a great plan, however, there are four things you need to keep in mind:
- How much time you can dedicate to learning French. You should ideally set aside a little bit of time to study French every day, although this time may vary. Even just 10 minutes a day can be helpful, but keep in mind that the more time you can dedicate, the better.
- You French learning goals. Would you like to dedicate an equal amount of time to all language learning skills? Or are you more interested in speaking and listening than reading and writing? If you plan to prioritize some skills over others, make sure to incorporate this into your plan.
- Your deadlines. This also plays a major role in determining how much time you should dedicate to learning. If you need to learn French as fast as possible for an upcoming trip or move, then you will need to dedicate as much time as possible to learning the language.
- Your resources. What resources do you have available? Fortunately, we have more French learning resources at our fingertips than ever before. Take advantage of as many resources as possible when making your study plan. The more interactive and fun, the better!
With this in mind, you're ready to make your personalized study plan. Here's what it should include:
- A detailed description of each activity.
- Start and stop times for each activity.
- A description of the skill(s) you are practicing.
- As many fun, varied and motivating activities as possible.
Try and make sure your learning time is free of distractions and your workspace is organized. Schedule short breaks to keep yourself motivated when you're in the middle of long study sessions. Most importantly, have fun with it!
Step 2: Start with Sounds
Once you have a realistic, smart plan for approaching language study, it's time to dig in and start to get your hands dirty.
But where should you even start?
The answer is simple: sounds. Learning how to hear, pronounce and spell French sounds is a great place to get started even before you begin memorizing words and their meanings.
As in English, the consistency between written and spoken French is rather weak, which means that learning how to write and read in French doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to master the spoken language. That’s why it’s a good idea to get familiar with French sounds before moving forward to the second stage and studying writing.
Standard French contains 13 oral vowels and up to 4 nasal vowels, but it only has 5 different letters for all these sounds. Crazy right? But don’t freak out, it’s just a matter of studying a little bit, listening to a ton of French, and repeating the sounds until your tongue hurts.
Spend some time just focusing on French sounds and spelling so that they are longer foreign to you.
Study the French alphabet, work on identifying the letters and pronouncing all of the sounds that differ from English sounds.
Get started with these!
See the whole French alphabet here. You can also listen to pronunciation guides on YouTube, watch movies or series with subtitles in French and read along to learn to recognize and repeat sounds.
Step 3: Learn Some Basic Vocabulary
The next step is to start recognizing and memorizing vocabulary words. There are several great tips for making the best of your vocabulary learning:
Keep it Practical
Learning French requires learning a lot of new words. There's no way around it.
Many people use their "bad memory" as an excuse for not learning a new language, but we have some comforting news for these people (and even those with great memories): you don't need to know all--or even the majority--of the French words to be able to speak it well. In fact, you don't even need to know half!
Do you need to know them all?
Of course not! Don’t waste your time learning words and phrases that you'll never use.
Many experts believe that 300 words may be enough to carry on an everyday conversation in French, which means that very little memorizing will do the work.
That's right, only 300 words!!
So what does that mean for you as a French learner?
By learning the 300 most common French words first, you can cut your work in less than half. You'll be able to communicate faster and with significantly less effort.
However, it’s highly recommended that you gradually expand your vocabulary at least to the 1,000 most commonly used words in French. With just 1,000 words, you'll be able to understand about 80% of written texts.
Here are some of the most common French words to get you started...
Your Friends Cognates
Almost all European languages share countless cognates with English thanks to their shared roots, history, and evolution. Take the English words "identification," "attention," and "direction," for example. The very same words exist in French with the very same ending and just a slightly different pronunciation.
These cognates are your friends and can make your language learning much easier and faster.
Here's a handy list of French words that you already know thanks to cognates. And, you can get started with these:
Step 3: Dive into Grammar
Now that you've got the French sounds down as well as some basic vocabulary, it's time to start tackling grammar.
Don't worry! We'll help make it as fun as possible.
Here are a few things that can help:
Keep it Practical and Live in the Present
Just like with vocabulary, it's important to make sure you learn the most practical French verbs first. These are the verbs that you use the most in your everyday life. Instead of plunging into all of the different and complicated conjugations, make your life easier by learning the present tense first.
Start by learning the present tense of the four most practical French verbs:
- je suis
- tu es
- il/elle est
- nous sommes
- vous êtes
- ils/elles sont
- je vais
- tu vas
- il/elle va
- nous allons
- vous allez
- ils/elles vont
- je fais
- tu fais
- il/elle fait
- nous faisons
- vous faites
- ils/elles font
- tu as
- il/elle a
- nous avons
- vous avez
- ils/elles ont
Then, start to learn verbs that end in -ER, which is one of the easiest endings to conjugate. Some of these verbs include:
to ask for
Break Down the Grammar
Grammar provides the rules for the game in a language. It helps us tell a story. While French grammar may seem complex, it can actually be broken down into three basic operations:
- Adding words (You are learning French > Are you learning French?)
- Changing existing words (I learn French > I learned French)
- Changing the order of words (French is fun> Is French fun?)
That's it. That's not too bad, right?
Keeping this in mind, we can use the grammar explanations we learn to help us break down the rules into easily memorized chunks.
When studying verb tenses, for example, practice saying the same sentence using every different pronoun in the same tense. Then, practice changing the sentence into a negative sentence and into a question. Later, you can then practice saying the same sentence in different tenses with the same pronoun, in the negative form, in the question form, etc. You can even make your own flash cards to help you with this.
This is a great way to break down rules and make them easier to memorize.
Step 4: Practice, Practice, Practice
Finally, the cliché saying that "practice makes perfect" has never been more true than in the language learning world. Learning French involves a lot of practice, but there are a few great tips to practice without even needing a passport.
Read, Watch, Listen
Movies, music, television series, books, newspapers, magazines and anything you can read, watch, or listen to are unbelievably useful for learning.
Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to French, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you're learning without feeling like you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using French words and constructions that you didn't even study thanks to your brain's ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book or watching a series.
One word of warning, though: if you really want to get useful grammar and vocabulary, make sure that what you're reading, watching or listening to is modern and in a dialect that you would like to learn.
Interact...Without Needing to Travel
Try to interact in French on a daily basis. This can involve:
- Speaking with a French-speaking friend, family member or neighbor in person
- Writing a letter to a friend, family member, or coworker in French
- Writing a letter in French to yourself or keeping a journal in French
- Visiting a local store or neighborhood where French is spoken and interacting with the locals
- Joining a weekly or monthly French conversation group or starting your own group
- Speaking French online with a friend, family member, coworker, or fellow language learner
- Writing an email in French
- Contributing to a blog or forum in French (Rocket Language has some great forums for this!)
- Singing along with French music
- Watching a French movie or series and repeating the character's lines (you can use French subtitles to help)
- Reading a passage from a French book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
- Talking to yourself in French (this really works!)
Unlike other academic subjects, learning French is a continuous, never-ending adventure that requires constant practice. Don't live in fear of making mistakes.
In the language learning world, mistakes are a sign of progress. Mistakes help you to learn faster. Don't worry about upsetting native French speakers for being too "bold" and trying to speak with them in their native language. Don't worry if you say something that sounds a little strange. Just go for it!
Odds are, they'll love it and want to help you. Don't let fear get in your way. Interact in French as much as possible, and you'll be amazed by the results. You can also find some great French learning hacks here to help you out along the way.
No matter what, make sure to keep your studies fresh and fun. You'll stay motivated and learning French will be faster, easier and more fun!
Reinforce your learning from this lesson with the Rocket Reinforcement tools! Improve your knowledge and retention of the French you learn!