If you speak French, you can communicate with people from around the world. It’s an official language in 29 countries in Europe, Africa, North America and the Caribbean. That’s the second highest number for any language, just behind English.
Speaking French can unlock opportunities to communicate with people from around the globe.
Agnès Peysson-Zeiss, the coordinator of the intensive French language track at Bryn Mawr College, agrees. “We all see the world in different ways, so it’s great to see the world from a multiplicity of perspectives,” Peysson-Zeiss says. “We can, of course, communicate better. It’s very frustrating when you go to a country and you don’t speak the language, or you can’t try to exchange.”
For globetrotters, knowing French is an essential travel skill. France is the most visited country by international tourists, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. And according to a survey from MasterCard, Paris is the second most visited city in the world. Outside of entertainment, French has long been considered a crucial language in the world of diplomacy, and France is becoming a hub for start-up and tech innovation.
Why Learn French?
The French are well-known tastemakers in a variety of artistic fields, from fashion to painting to food and wine. Paris is home to much of this creative output, housing some of the world’s most revered museums, like the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou. These are just some of the landmarks that bring tourists to France, along with architectural marvels such as the Arc de Triomphe and the iconic Eiffel Tower.
France has so much to offer beyond Paris, which is proven by events like the Berck-sur-Mer kite festival and the Menton Lemon Festival. In the world of commerce, many large publicly held companies are French, including AXA Group, Total and Peugeot.
French thinkers have greatly influenced Western culture. Take enlightenment-era figures like Benjamin Franklin, who brought ideas from the French Revolution back to the U.S. Reading French philosophers’ and writers’ work in the language in which it was conceived can provide new insight. Some of the greats include René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Albert Camus, Marcel Proust and Victor Hugo.
Is French Hard to Learn?
French is not a hard language to learn, especially if you already speak another romance language. It’s closely related to Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. French is ranked a Category I language by the Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, meaning the difficulty level is on par with other romance languages. French is easier to learn than most Eastern European and Asian languages.
The FSI suggests a duration of 23 to 24 weeks with 575 to 600 hours of instruction, although the time frame varies for each person. Finding someone to practice speaking French with should be relatively easy since it is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world, with approximately 300 million speakers worldwide. Pronunciation remains one of the hardest challenges, as there are some unfamiliar sounds for native English speakers. Also, French regularly uses audible connections, called liaisons, between words.
Best Way to Learn French
Total immersion is the fastest and best way to learn French. However, if spending time abroad isn’t possible, there are many other accessible options for learning French.
Memorize French vocabulary.
Pay special attention to the gender and tense structures of words. Develop a strong base in grammar, particularly verb conjugations, prepositions and spelling. If you’re learning alone, refer to textbooks for help. Another method is labeling items at home with the French words so you are always practicing French vocabulary, even when not explicitly studying.
Speaking is key.
Written and spoken French can seem like two different languages, so it’s crucial to study with audio. Peysson-Zeiss asks her students to record themselves speaking and then make their own edits. “They have to be able to identify what the mistakes are and where their weaknesses are,” she says.
While 30% of words in English come from French, take caution with cognates (words that are the same between two languages) since the pronunciation is usually different and the words often don’t have the same meaning. For example, it’s useful to learn French idioms because they can throw you off completely, says Alexa Polidoro, the co-founder and creative director of Learn French with Alexa, a French learning subscription service.
“If you hear in English, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs,’ in a conversation as a non-English speaker, you’re going to wonder why you’re talking about cats and dogs,” Polidoro says.
Practice with native speakers.
Speak French with friends, tutors, teachers and partners when possible. Look for native speakers who you can correspond with via email, text and on the phone to help you improve your written and spoken French. Intermediate speakers can use ShareAmi for virtual exchanges with elderly French people. There are also online language learning forums like UniLang, Linguaholic or Omniglot for resources and chatrooms.
Of course, don’t be afraid to mess up. To get over the hump, mistakes are not only common, but also a necessity. French speakers will correct you, and you will learn in the process.
Enjoy and personalize your language study.
The more fun you can make language learning, the easier and faster it will come. Watch French movies or TV shows with English subtitles. Intermediate learners can watch with French subtitles (1:1 word association) while advanced learners might opt for French audio only. Also consider improving comprehension by reading French websites, books, newspapers and magazines.
Peysson-Zeiss uses a learning tool called global simulation to engage students. Through this exercise, students build personas that live in Paris, and they grow their characters as they develop their French. This sense of creative agency with language learning can extend outside of the classroom.
“The problem, often, with teaching a language is that students are very passive,” Peysson-Zeiss says. “In my case, they are not; of course they are passive when I teach a concept, but then they take that concept and create something with it.”
French Learning Resources
French Media Resources
- Netflix and other paid streaming services allow for changing the language audio on many French movies, such as “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Hulu), “Mignonnes” (“Cuties,” Netflix) and “J’ai perdu mon corps” (“I Lost My Body,” Netflix).
- Euronews, France 24, TV5Monde (free) provides French TV on many devices.
- French TV apps allow users to watch most shows and movies after they have aired and sometimes live. Examples: “Dix pour cent” (“Call My Agent,” Netflix), “Au service de la France” (“A Very Secret Service,” Netflix) or “Family Business” (Netflix).
- Beginners can watch children’s shows.
- TuneIn Radio offers a variety of French radio stations and podcasts, from news to sports and music to talk radio.
French YouTube Channels
There is an abundance of free podcasts that cover learning French and regular podcasts in French that cover a variety of topics.
Students should choose French books according to their proficiency level. For example, children’s books for beginners, themed (e.g., sports or home) magazines for intermediate learners and more complicated literature for advanced students.
- Beginner to intermediate: “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ($7.75), “L’Étranger” (“The Stranger”) by Albert Camus ($19.95) and “L’Amant” (“The Lover”) by Marguerite Duras ($20.26).
- Advanced: “Au Bonheur des Dames” (“The Ladies’ Paradise”) by Émile Zola ($9.99) and “Stupeur et tremblements” (“Fear and Trembling”) by Amélie Nothomb ($8.95).
French Learning Apps
- Babbel: $9.95 per month for three months or $6.95 per month for a year.
- Duolingo: free, or plus plan from $6.99 per month.
- Memrise: first lesson is free, then $8.99 per month or $139.99 for lifetime access.
- Mondly: free, or premium plan for $9.99 per month.
- Rosetta Stone: $9.99 per month for one year or $199 for lifetime access.
Can I Take Online Classes to Learn French?
There is a range of online classes to both learn French digitally and complement other curriculum and study. While the standards for language levels vary, here are some basic criteria:
- Beginners have none or next to no experience with the French language.
- Intermediate speakers can understand most spoken and written French and hold conversations with minimal errors.
- Those in the advanced category have a strong grasp of complex topics in writing and nuances in oral French. They can write and speak fluidly and with few mistakes.
How Long Does It Take to Learn French?
Learning French requires discipline, and how fast you learn it often depends on your interest, motivation and approach. If you want to learn French fast, the best way is to live in a French-speaking country and immerse yourself in the language and culture.
Polidoro, who also teaches French, says it’s important to have a specific goal: Do you want to be fluent, study at a French university, or just be able to communicate and converse? Your ambitions impact the way you study. For example, if you’re a literature student pursuing an advanced degree in French philosophy and you intend to mostly read in French, then de-emphasizing conversational skills is probably OK.
“We get emails such as, ‘Alexa, make me fluent,’” Polidoro says. “Well how long is a piece of string? You’ve got to be motivated to start with and you’ve got to want it.”