Where to start with learning French

Posted by Josh on 25th Aug 2022 in the blog in the learning french category

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So you want to learn French. You’ve got the books, found some useful online resources, and are eager to start your learning journey.
But where do you begin?

Learning a language doesn’t happen overnight — and French is no different from any other language in this regard. It’s a long, and often difficult, process. It can be both enjoyable and stressful, simple and confusing, repetitive and enriching…in short, there are so many different aspects to learning a language that many students do not know where to take the first step.

There is no one ‘correct’ place to begin with French. Different educators, online tutors and exam boards will suggest different starting points. But there are certainly wrong places to start your journey, and beginning in one of these can be disorienting and off-putting. It may mean that you don’t have the necessary background knowledge to understand what it is you’re learning, or that you prioritise something of little importance over something essential.

If you want to save yourself a lot of time and get your French off to a flying start, check out these tips on choosing how and where to begin. (For guidance on which methods to use, don't forget to read our article on the best ways to learn French.)

Understand your goals

If you’re wondering where to start with French, then you already know that you want to learn the language. But do you know why you want to learn?

The question might seem irrelevant. Surely all outcomes are the same: fluency in French?

But understanding what you want to gain from your learning journey will help you prioritise your objectives and orient your learning around what’s important to you. For instance, if you want to learn French in order to live in a Francophone country, you will want to focus on speaking and listening so that you can feel comfortable having conversations in French on a daily basis. On the other hand, if your primary ambition is, by way of an example, to read your favourite writers in French, then you’ll want to focus on reading comprehension and vocabulary.

That isn’t to say you should neglect aspects of French that aren’t directly related to your learning objective. All parts of the language are interrelated, and will factor into all your learning in one way or another. But keeping your goal in your sights will help keep you on the right track and get you there much faster.

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Prioritise the most important words

While no words are useless, it's a lot more practical to pay attention to the most common words in French, especially when you're just starting out. Being able to say 'j'ai le cafard' is sure to impress French speakers, but not being able to respond when they ask why you're down in the dumps is likely to have the opposite effect!

So how do you decide which words are the most important?

Well, once again it depends on your priorities. If you're purely looking to learn conversational French, your first stop ought to be the different words for greetings, or things that are likely to come up in conversation, such as the weather, directions, food and drink. You can't go wrong with sorting vocabulary into different groups of related words. As part of the Learn French with Alexa Complete French Course, for example, we have an expansive list of words sorted by different categories, from cuisine and transport to cinema and sports. Each of these categories will introduce you to the most common words in that area, providing you with a strong basis to talk about a range of subjects.

It's also a good idea to think about common words in English, and look up their French equivalents. And be sure to make a note of words that you keep seeing or hearing in French, because you're likely to hear and see them again!

There are over 130,000 words in French, making vocabulary one of the most daunting parts of learning the language. But the good news is that you only need to learn around 5,000 to be fluent. So starting with the most common words will save you the bother of reading an enormous dictionary front to back!

Learn the most popular phrases — and stop there

Bon appétit! De rien...au contraire...raison d'etre... You’re probably already familiar with these French phrases; you may even use them in your day to day conversations. Others you may have heard of, but are not sure exactly what they mean. Phrases and expressions form a huge part of any normal French conversation, so while it’s tempting to stick to learning individual words by themselves, you can’t afford to neglect such basic phrases as 'il y a' (there is) or 'en fait' (in fact).

But be careful! It can be tempting for beginners to try to understand the logic behind every expression they encounter. While it can certainly be interesting to find out why we use certain expressions, it can also impede progress and lead you to more confusion by introducing you to complex grammar constructions and vocabulary you might not have encountered yet.

For instance, one of the first expressions you are likely to encounter is ‘s’il vous plaît’, which is how you say ‘please’ in French. But did you know that the expression literally translates to 'if it pleases you'? And that the reason it takes the form it does is because 'si' and 'il' are elided, owing to the fact that the first word ends in a vowel while the second word begins with one; that 'vous' is the polite form of 'you'; and that 'plaît' is the third person singular present conjugation of the verb 'to please'?

It's a lot to take on board for someone just starting out learning French. And that's not to mention other phrases — known as idioms — that don't make any sense at all! Take 'avoir un poil dans la main' as an example: a useful phrase that means 'to be lazy', but which literally translates as 'to have a hair on the hand'.

Knowing why these phrases mean what they mean is far less important than knowing what they mean. In fact, you can be perfectly fluent in French without understanding why we say 'faire les 400 coups' ('to run wild') or 'ne plus avoir un radis' ('to be broke'). Just think of phrases in English such as 'it's raining cats and dogs' or 'feeling under the weather', which simply don't make sense at first glimpse. But to a native speaker they are intuitive and indispensable forms of expression — even if we don't know exactly why they mean what they do.

So learning expressions is super important. Learning how they came to be expressions — not so much.

Stick to the present tense for now

Learning all the tenses is one of the most daunting parts of learning French. There are fourteen tenses, not to mention the six moods, with the result that your average verb can be conjugated in around a hundred different ways. Scary stuff!

Understandably, this can be quite overwhelming for anyone new to the language. A common mistake beginners make is to pull up a list of all the different conjugations and set to memorising them. But by doing so, they will often exhaust themselves, and lose motivation in the face of so many conjugations. In trying to remember everything, they end up remembering nothing.

Instead, it’s a good idea to start with just learning the present tense. Around 60% of conversations take place in the présent tense alone, which means if you know the six conjugations for verbs in this tense, you’ll be equipped to understand more than half of the verbs you come across. Once you’ve mastered this, then it’s time to move onto the passé — and knowing the verb patterns used in the présent conjugations will make other tenses significantly easier. The passé composé also uses the present tense of 'Être' or 'Avoir' as what is called an auxiliary verb. But don’t worry about that just yet - this is all just a roundabout way of saying the present tense is super important!

However, if your goal is to read French, you may want to prioritise the passé simple, as most fiction is written in that tense. Of course, some books are written in the présent, and even those set in the past are likely to include dialogue written in the présent.

Follow a guide

Even if you don’t intend to follow the course line by line and would rather forge your own path, having a structured course path to follow will illuminate what you need to know to reach fluency and help you keep moving. Think of it like a path leading through a forest. You can go off and explore whenever you want to, but being able to return to the path at any point will keep you heading in the right direction and prevent you from getting lost.

Learn French With Alexa’s lesson overview shows you one such path, starting with the basics, such as French numbers and the days of the week, and leading you up to more complex parts of the language such as the Futur Antérieur and the Conditionnel Passé. Following a course structure in this way allows you to follow a path that has been meticulously crafted by an expert. It also means you’re less likely to miss out on any crucial aspects of the French language, with the advantage of being able to look back on what you’ve already learnt.

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Master the Pronunciation

There aren’t too many differences between English and French when it comes to pronunciation, but it’s still easy to slip up, especially as there are sounds in French that don’t exist in English. Think of the soft 'r' in words such as 'rien' or 'retourner', for instance, or the 'oir' sounds in 'voir' and 'loir'.

It’s important to learn the pronunciation early in your studies, as it will be very difficult to understand other French speakers if you’re listening out for the wrong sounds. It’ll also save you a lot of embarrassment when it comes to speaking French yourself!

Learn the accents

Some of the first things that every student of French should know are the different accents.

We don’t mean the difference between a Parisian accent and a Marseillaise one. The accents we’re talking about are the symbols that appear above and below certain letters in the French alphabet at certain times, and which indicate that the letter ought to be pronounced a different way from how it is usually. For example, an 'e' at the end of the word is always silent, but if it has an acute accent ('é'), then it is pronounced.

Accents are very common in French, and if English is your first language this might take a bit longer to get used to. The good news is that there aren’t too many, so learning the different pronunciations for each one won’t take you long.

A tip for those using a Windows keyboard: It’s a good idea to learn the keyboard shortcuts. For Mac users, it’s a little easier. Simply hold down the key for the letter you want to accent, and a pop-up should appear on the screen with a selection of different accents to choose from.

Stick to a routine

When it comes to studying French, discipline is key. Without a consistent routine, it can be all too easy to fall into a rut and lose your motivation.

French courses will often run on a weekly or sometimes daily schedule, meaning students will get a few hours of lesson time every week. If you’re learning French by yourself, however, or with the help of online resources such as Alexa’s courses, you can configure your routine in a way that works for you.

If you’re just learning French as a hobby, then doing an hour or two a week might be enough. If you’re studying French to pass an exam, however, or because you want to become fluent in the language sooner rather than later, you might want to spend an hour after school or work each day, or even more. Whichever routine you choose, working to a schedule that remains consistent each week will help you stay on track and avoid long lapses between sessions, which in turn will help you to remember what you learn.

Since you’re just starting out, there’s no need to commit to a hard and fast schedule just yet. Try studying on different days, for different lengths of time. Try studying with breaks and without breaks. Remember, as a beginner it’s a good idea to take baby steps, and the most important thing is that you figure out what works for you.

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