How do I learn French - all over again?
August 7, 2010 4:30 AM   Subscribe

How does a once confident French speaker re-learn the language after six years of not using it?

In September I'm going back to university to train to be a primary school teacher (ages 5-11). I've chosen languages as my specialist area, and as part of the course In February I'm required to spend five weeks in France teaching the French primary curriculum in French.

I love languages and think I'm quite good at learning them. I studied French from the age of 11 to 18, and got great results at GCSE and A Level. By the time I finished my A Levels I would say my level of French was very good - I had an extensive vocabulary and was a confident speaker.

However this was six years ago, and as my degree was in English and my job since then unrelated to languages, I have barely used my French since then. I have lost so much of the vocabulary I once knew - I find myself being unable to recall really simple words and phrases, and my confidence in speaking and listening to the language has diminished considerably. My profeciency has decreased to the point that at the moment I don't think I'd be able to conduct more than the most basic conversation in French.

Now that I know I'll be teaching in France in five months' time I really need to brush up on my French, and hopefully reach the same level (or better) as I had before.

I still have a few books that I studied for A Levels, and I'm going to look into the possibility of doing some conversation practice with French students at my university, but I'm wondering if anyone has any speciifc advice for relearning the language. As I'll be teaching myself this time I don't really know where to start, and I don't really know what areas need improving so I feel like I need a plan of action. If you have any tips on assessing what level I'm at now, how to relearn a language that you were once quite good in but have lost much of, and how do do this most effeciently in five months, I'd be really grateful. I'm also looking for recommendations of books, websites and resources, although obviously I don't expect these to be targetted to my specific situation.

Bonus points for any advice relating to my upcoming placement in a French school, because the thought of having to teach children, with my currently very limited French, is making me slightly anxious! Super bonus points for any resources relating to teaching in French.

I've searched through the archives and found a few posts on how to learn French, but none that seemed to address my needs. Merci in advance.
posted by schmoo to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I've used digital flash cards to keep my Spanish and French up to snuff while living in Poland - it's called spaced repetition and I have to say that combined with reading, I'm still really quite good after years of not using my English everyday. This site talks about how the strategy really helped the author learn - and practice - English and gives details on how to do it. It's work, but not ten-hours-a-day work.

I use the program Anki (it's free!) to make cards, and the program makes it easy to add images, sounds, etc. You can add a lot of information to each card, make clozes, etc.

Also, how's you're reading in French? I'd switch to French newspapers online and using a French-French dictionary to look up words you don't recall. Watch TV5 Monde shows online to keep your listening up. Change your OS to French.

Essentially, you need to crank up your French input again.
posted by mdonley at 4:51 AM on August 7, 2010

after years of not using my English everyday

Um, clearly, that should be French and Spanish.

posted by mdonley at 4:52 AM on August 7, 2010

Ha! Having done A-Levels in French, then not touched it for four years, I find myself going off to La Sorbonne in September for a language course, so also wanting to brush up.

Here's some stuff that I've been using:
- RFI News in easy French
- TF1 will let you watch the news for free (you can also download it off iTunes as a video podcast)
- Read Le Monde

Those will help you with getting some vocab back, although there's not much better than Mot a Mot (which you probably remember from A Level) for giving you chunks of vocab.

Also, it turns out that Reprise, which I used in school, is pretty much identical to Ultimate French Review and Practice.

I also worked in Tignes for a few months over the winter, which helped me get a bit more confidence with speaking.

What helped me?
- Really getting my grammar down, and working away at learning verb conjugation (Bescherelle is the daddy here). It really is a case of just learning and churning with this, or at least learning the rules and being able to spot which verb takes what rule. This was the number one thing, really.

- Forcing people to speak to me in French. When you're in France (especially in places frequented by Anglophones - Paris, ski resorts, etc.) you may find that shop proprietors etc. have almost flawless English, and want to use it. You should always be trying to speak French.

- I met up with someone off Craigslist for language exchange (half an hour in English for them, half an hour in French for me). I didn't get a huge amount out of it because their English was impeccable, and they just wanted tweaking over stuff like idiom, whereas my French was shockingly limited. It stilts everything. If you do end up with a conversation partner, make it like a lesson. Have a topic to talk about that you've arranged in advance, and then you can learn some related vocab and expressions. That way rather than searching for a way of expressing something with your limited vocab and grammar ("what the hell's the word for a traffic jam? Uh, les voitures sont...arrettez? Dans la rue...uh..."), you're working on your pronunciation, constructing good sentences etc. Otherwise, if you just want a chat, you'll soon find that you don't have the vocab.
posted by djgh at 4:55 AM on August 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

I recommend Assimil "French Without Toil" (the old edition) or "French With Ease" (the newer one). You should be able to get the old edition for next to nothing (check AbeBooks, Biblio, etc.), and it is awesome. I used it personally, and it worked for me. It's good for beginners and false beginners. You should be through it in about six months if you follow the instructions correctly.

If you get the new version, get the audios if you can afford them. I believe the audios for the old version are available scattered on the internet if you search around.

Once you're done with that course, you should be at a point where you can make solid progress via conversation practice (it's supposed to take one to the B2 level of the CEFR). I found that for me conversation was not very productive before I had that solid foundation.

If you're already at that B2 level, Assimil "Using French" is the more advanced/intermediate course that is supposed to take you to the C1 level.

P.S. I don't work for Assimil ;) I just think it's a great value and it worked for me.
posted by Theloupgarou at 5:14 AM on August 7, 2010

here in region 1 virtually *all* dvds come with a french language dub track (for the canadians). I'm betting that over there in region 2, the same is true (but even better, since it will probably be european french). watching brand new movies in dubbed french will give you real-time/speed, up-to-date jargon and slang - french as it is spoken now in france.

my french has done went all to hell since high school, but I use dvds and books on tape to work on my spanish, and it works. there are lots of set phrases and idioms that I've learned from watching, say, Almodovar or Alfonso Cuaron movies.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:12 AM on August 7, 2010

As someone who "lost" a lot of her French during 2 years spent in Finland (with French people... who all spoke English!), I put the "lost" in quotes because it will come back, no worries. The best thing for it was talking, talking, talking. For as long as you studied it, I think listening, grammar and vocab issues will be secondary (though still important, and others have given great recommendations for brushing up on those). Focus on practicing with native French speakers. It's really uncomfortable at first, especially when you can still remember having been fluent in the past! You'll wonder where the heck your vocabulary went to for a while, but if you're anything like me, you'll be pleased to discover, eventually, that it's still all there, it's just in a dusty back cupboard and will come back bit by bit, often surprisingly.

Don't stress the teaching primary school French kids. All the French kids that age who I've known, have been utterly delighted to meet someone from a whole 'nother country, and they'll get a kick out of any accent or vocabulary hiccups you run into. They're sweethearts, like kids everywhere. As for adults you'll be working with, most will be good too; there are the occasional closed-minded "France is superior" snooty ones, but that sort exists for every nationality. Don't sweat them, they're just scared by anything and anyone different (usually they've never been to a foreign country). If you insist on speaking French from the start, most people will support you in that and enjoy asking you questions.

I've been here for 11 years now and still make the rare major flub when speaking. When people know you're a foreigner and have seen you speaking their language, they'll chuckle and help you out — only arseholes will point that out to make you feel uncomfortable, and in my experience, they're very rare, mainly because they know that if they do that in public, they'll be broadcasting their arseholishness.

Speak, speak, speak! :) It's the fastest (though sometimes the most uncomfortable) way back to fluency. And enjoy yourself. France is awesome.
posted by fraula at 7:23 AM on August 7, 2010

I've been dicking around with Livemocha --- it's ver, very beginner-y, but they have live review of your beginner stuff with native speakers --- quite helpful. It might help you quickly ease back into a level where you can plunge into French media. It requires you to participate a lot, but if you don't mind that it's not bad.

I also like Daily French Pod for the train --- Louis enunciates like a motherfucker, and since he's usually talking about stuff in the news I think it can be easier to absorb the vocab.
posted by Diablevert at 8:18 AM on August 7, 2010

See if you can find DVDs of French movies that also have French subtitles (rumor has it that such things are also available certain places on the internet...). I studied French for years and years before moving here, but I found that being able to watch French films with subtitles in French did wonders for me. Even if you can't get the correct region DVD, you could rip the film yourself and then get the French subtitles from a site like
posted by tractorfeed at 11:16 AM on August 7, 2010

Dear Schmoo,
language is all about immersion, that's what everyody upthread tells you and they are right.
Your in England and France is right around the corner.
All you need to do is get your daily news from french newspaper websites. In another window you can have a French-English dictonary handy.
Forget about all the formal stuff like grammar and a perfect vocabulary, you have to get connected with the language again. It is not like you are a new speaker/learner, you know his stuff, it's just buried. So star getting into the language and then you can look up the formal stuff when it starts to interest you.
After you got into reading again via French news websites you can go ahead an have a look an french literature and books written for the age range you'll be teaching. Theres French Amazon and your in Europe, so you won't have to pay any duty, even if the shipping might be a little more expensive.
After getting the feel for the written language again, you can start listening to French radio and podcasts via the internet. You probably have hobbies, so go ahead an search information about those hobbies on french web sites.
Now , learning to speak and not only to listen can be a littel bit more dicey. But maybe you can talk via skype to some of the people you got introduced to via the hobbiest websites?
I always wanted to buff up my French a little, but I am a great procrastinator. With a deadline and a trip to look forward to, this should not be a problem for you.
And most important: REALX. Even for primary school students you do not have to be perfect in your grammar and vocabulary. Kids will love to correct you and they will love to help you.
So go ahaed, stop reading now and go to (wherever that is :-) ) Live the French internet live large!
(Thank you for reading this long drunken ramble, that essentially reapeated everything that was said before. Je suis tres desole, mai je ne parle pas francais. A droit, a gauche, le concombre, les harricot vert)
posted by mmkhd at 1:49 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Listen to this whenever you're doing other stuff on the computer. Your brain will repickup the French easily.
posted by fantasticninety at 3:45 PM on August 7, 2010

Agree with everyone above that the best thing to do is to start eating, sleeping and breathing French anyway you can. Movies is great, watching shows you know well in French is a good idea too. If you feel confident you could try the France Culture and France Inter podcasts but they're pretty damn tough, even for native speakers. Finding a conversation partner is also a great idea, maybe even a craigslist, gumtree or vivastreet ad.

One specific suggestion I had was to listen to French music. Try something with developed lyrics but that's easy listen. Think Patrick Bruel, Mylene Farmer, Dalida, Serge Gainsbourg, Charles Trenet. If you'd like some more suggestions, memail me :)
posted by litleozy at 5:53 AM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

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