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How to learn French? - The 6 golden rules

How to learn French

How to learn French efficiently? Which method brings the best results? What kind of learner are you?

Discover the 6 golden rules to achieve fluency in French.

Table of content

1. Set a realistic time frame

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Polyglots are not superhumans!

They will never tell you that they're gifted or that they can learn a language fast.

Quite the contrary, when they plan to learn a new language, they expect to spend several months studying before being able to speak with ease.

Yes... learning a foreign language is definitely a long process.

But it is not necessarily bad news.

Indeed, taking your time will enable you to get familiar with all the facets of the language and open up to a new culture.

And anyway, it doesn’t mean that you can’t start travelling and using the language in the first few weeks.

Later in this post, I’ll share some ideas on how to have decent conversations at a very early stage, and stay motivated on the long run.

2. Deductive or inductive approach?

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The different ways to learn French

When you start learning French online, you often have too many options.

And you sometimes choose an online course, which was designed by a good web marketer, rather than a good language teacher, or a polyglot.

However, if you step back, you will realize that all French courses fall into two major categories: deductive and inductive methods.

The deductive approach may be seen as the 'old' way to learn a language. First, you learn the rules. Then you observe some examples. Last you apply what you’ve learned to real-life situations.

The deductive method relies on grammar lessons and lists of vocabulary.

On the other hand, in the inductive method, you start using the language, and then try to conceptualize it. In other words, you rely on examples (texts, audio or videos...) to deduce the general rules.

Many modern schools have presented the inductive approach as a revolution that will help you achieve fluency in French, or any other language, fast and effortlessly.

Some of them even pretend they can teach you a language during your sleep!

Which method suits you best?

Of course, the best way to learn French depends on your current level and your personality.

Having said that, it is important that you mix the two approaches described above (deductive and inductive).

First, alternating between the two methods will make your learning routine less boring, and will help you stay motivated on the long run.

Then, from an efficiency point of view, you can not expect to achieve fluency in French if you use one method 100% of the time.

When I learn a foreign language, I personally use the deductive approach 30% of the time, and the inductive approach 70% of the time.

But the proportions may be different for you. Therefore, to help you prepare the perfect mix, here are the pros and cons of each method:

Deductive Method - Pros & Cons

+ Straightforward: you can focus on a specific topic

+ Less time-consuming: you can learn in very small chunks.

'Teacher-centered': The learner is less involved in the learning process, and relies on a teacher or a course (which have to be carefully chosen).

Sometimes boring.

Inductive Method - Pros & Cons

+ Less intensive: you learn in a more 'easy-going' way.

+ Easier to stay motivated: you learn through examples and real life situations.

+ 'Learner-centered': Study with almost any content: songs, books, blogs, newspapers…

Requires more time.

You are more likely to get distracted (especially if you learn online).

3. Learn in small chunks, everyday

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Like most important things in life, fluency in a foreign language will come from a repetition of small actions.

And all the polyglots I know study everyday.

Why everyday?

Cognitive psychology shows that we make faster progress when we study everyday, instead of learning the equivalent of 7 lessons every Sunday, for example.

In particular, American psychologist Georges A. Miller, suggested that everyone possesses a limited capacity of working memory (an analogy is easily made with computers).

Therefore, as further studies showed (for example, the Segmenting Principle by Richard E. Mayer), it is important to learn bite-size chunks at regular intervals, rather than learning continuously.

Achieving fluency in a foreign language is no exception, and learning in small chunks is certainly the best option. It works for me, and it worked for thousands of polyglots, in the past.

Stay motivated!

Furthermore, short French lessons (20 minutes to one hour) easily fit in a busy time schedule, and you are less likely to procrastinate.

As a result, you will learn on a regular basis, and you will notice the progress you've made. This is a vituous circle towards fluency.

Straight to the point

Last and not least, when you learn French in short chunks, you will have to prioritize and focus on the essential rules and phrases. This is the object of the next paragraph...

4. Only learn what you are likely to use

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How to learn French with lists of words?

When you start learning a foreign language, it’s tempting to learn lists of words because it’s easy and it gives you the feeling of progressing fast.

This is deductive learning, by the way.

However, this approach will only work if you focus on the words you will actually use on a regular basis.

Therefore, you should think about the next time you will use the language. Maybe you will go to an hotel. Or you’ll speak to a customer on the phone…

Whatever the situation, try to determine which phrases and words you are likely to say or hear, and learn them.

Learn phrases instead of words

Also, instead of learning individual words, start with essential “ready-to-use blocks”.

Examples of ready-to-use blocks are politeness phrases or basic questions, such as s'il-vous-plaît (please) or je vais être en retard (I will be late).

Learning these blocks early on, and focusing on the pronunciation, will enable you to start speaking in French before you know it.

This approach is more inductive because you will start using patterns or grammar rules you did not necessarily learned before.

Then, little by little, you will add new layers of complexity to your sentences, and you will be able to have decent conversations in your target language.

5. Don’t forget what you’ve learned!

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How to learn French without forgetting past lessons?

During your daily routine, you should spend some time reviewing previously learned material.

There are many ways to do this efficiently:

Spiral learning

Spiral learning is another way not to forget what you’ve learned earlier. It is a way to create your own learning path, in a structured (and yet creative) way.

This approach is mainly used in sciences, to tackle a complex subject. But it definitely applies to languages too!

Here’s how it works:

  1. First, learn a topic on a basic level.
  2. Then, add extra layers of complexity, in order to acquire a more detailed knowledge of the topic.
  3. Last, use what you've learned in different contexts.
Many studies (like this one) show that spiral learning leads to better results.

So how to learn French with spiral learning? Here is an example:
  1. je suis à la maison (I’m at home).

  2. aujourd'hui, je suis à la maison (today, I’m at home).

  3. aujourd'hui, je ne suis pas à la maison (today, I’m not at home).

  4. demain, je serai à la maison (tomorrow, I will be at home).

  5. aujourd'hui, elle est à la maison (today, she is at home).

  6. je suis à la maison parce que je suis en vacances (I’m at home because I'm on holiday).

  7. Pourquoi tu es à la maison? (why are you at home?)
And so on...

6. Start using the language... Right now!

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Too many learners wait too long before speaking, writing, or reading in French, only to realize that this is the only way to make progress and build confidence.

So, don't wait for the perfect occasion or for your level to be higher. Here are the most common ways to start using French. Right now!

Find a native speaker next to you

You don’t need to live in a foreign country to practice. On Internet, you can find many students willing to teach you their mother tongue. It could be a face-to-face conversation (mostly in big cities), or via Skype.

Here, the idea is not to find a language expert.

Ideally, you will find someone who wants to learn your mother tongue, and you will speak half of the time in French, half of the time in your own language.

Such meetings will help you discover your weaknesses, and will give you the motivation to progress before the next meeting.

Not Only Fools Talk To Themselves!

Talking to yourself in a foreign language is another good way to practice, as you can do it everyday and everywhere.

Some people call it 'shower learning' because you can apply this method even in the bathroom.

It may feel akward at first, but it is definitely worth trying.

For example, you may take a few minutes in the evening to talk about your day. Here again, it is a good exerice to detect your blockages and weaknesses. Besides, it will make you use 'real-life' vocabulary.

Start on the right foot...

The sooner you get exposed to French, the faster you will learn.

Here are some free ressources you can access to learn French.

French short stories

You may want to read short stories designed for children or beginners. It helps if they are translated in a language you are already fluent in.

Check out the section dedicated to reading in French. It contains simple French texts with audio.

French songs

Also visit the page French songs with lyrics, and work on your listening skills through music!


This may also be of some interest...

To find inspiration and learn French efficiently, visit the French blog!


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