Help me teach myself French
January 9, 2014 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I have some very basic French language skills, and I would like to develop them to the level of working proficiency over the next few months (I am prepared to study hard). I am enrolled in a class and have a tutor. What are some other resources (preferably free ones) that I can work with my own time in order to accelerate my learning as much as possible?

I am a graduate student who does fieldwork in Francophone Africa. In May, I will be travelling to Cameroon and Gabon for a three-month field season. I would like to work very hard over the next few months to develop my French language skills to the point where I am basically proficient in the language – able to carry out a conversation, understand what people are telling me, present information, read and write simple documents, etc. I have one semester of college-level French under my belt and spent three months working in Gabon last summer, but my skills are still quite rudimentary.

This semester, I will be participating in a French course being taught online in conjunction with a field training seminar that I will be helping to run. I have also contacted the teacher and arranged for an hour of one-on-one tutoring each week. However, I would like to have additional resources for self-study so that I can make the absolute most out of my time and really get my French skills up to par. What are some (ideally free, though I am willing to pay if it's really worth it) strategies and resources that I can use to really supercharge my learning? I'm willing to put at least a few hours a day into this, every day.

Conversational French (rather than written) is the most important, and people in Francophone Africa speak what is basically Standard French – not too much slang, and the accents are easy. They do, of course, speak rather fast. A lot of what we talk about is scientific of course, but that actually makes it easier since scientific terms are generally the same across languages – and if I need a specific word, I know how to ask someone for it. I will have bilingual people around me most of the time that I am in the field, but not all of the time; I really want to be able to operate more independently than I did last summer, which means I need to dramatically improve my language skills.

I'm looking more for comprehensive programs of study than for little tips and tricks. I've tried Rosetta Stone but didn't care for it; I feel the same way about Memrise. I have a few French-language podcasts to listen to, a library of subtitled French movies, and some plugins for Chrome that allow me to switch back and forth between French and English on the page. However, I want something more intensive, more in-depth, and more comprehensive. I also want to be able to study mostly on my own – I realize that conversation takes two people, but I don't really have access to a French-speaking language partner and I'm not into the idea of finding a stranger to talk French with. I learn better "from the page" anyway, and am good at working out the correct pronunciation of a word – yes, even in French. And of course I'll be taking a class with some other students and working with a tutor one-on-one as well, so I'll have some opportunity to speak French.

What are some options that I might avail myself of? I'm especially interested in things that people have actually tried personally and had success with. I look forward to your advice; thank you as always for your time.
posted by Scientist to Education (30 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
This previous thread has some suggestions that might work for you.
posted by mbrubeck at 6:51 PM on January 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Spend some time each evening visiting the French version of Youtube, listening to videos in French.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:54 PM on January 9, 2014

I've used Michel Thomas' CDs for German, not French, but I found them to be as good as their reputation. Perhaps you can incorporate them into your study? It's a very painless method. I don't know how far advanced they go, though I do believe they come in multiple levels.
posted by Blitz at 7:02 PM on January 9, 2014

For pronunciation examples, try You won't always find what you're looking for, but there's a surprising amount.

Frankly, though, I think the #1 priority should be to find a conversation partner in New Orleans. If you could find a grad student from Francophone Africa, that would be the best. I learned basic French grammar, syntax, and usage from books and hours in the language lab and listening to longwave broadcasts from France to England (before the WWW), but my proficiency came from actual conversations with French speakers--patient French speakers who could correct my major errors and let the minor ones slide.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:05 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

P.S. I know you said you're not "into" finding a French conversation partner, but based on my experience, there is no substitute--short of total immersion, which you're not going to get during a semester in the US.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:07 PM on January 9, 2014

I don't know if this will help you, but I used to listen to Africa Numero Un daily in Gabon.

It is now on the web and has improved in speed and stability vs a few years ago.

I used to listen it to it to improve my verbal comprehension while in country. You can select just the African news on that page if you don't want to listen to music all day long (see bottom right).
posted by Wolfster at 7:09 PM on January 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to say that most likely your library has the Michel Thomas Cds so they would be free.
posted by Blitz at 7:10 PM on January 9, 2014

You might like some of the more advanced lessons on Coffee Break French - the conversations.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:16 PM on January 9, 2014

The Coffee Break French podcast has a lot of simple lessons on basic travel type things like ordering in a restaurant, asking for directions, the airport, the supermarket, the taxi, getting a haircut, etc.

I'm sure these cover a lot of the same ground your college French course did, and will overlap with the French course you're taking now. But their lessons are about specific situational conversation skills as opposed to "here's how to conjugate a verb" or "here are some vocabulary words that may or may not be useful".

Listening is also key. For Spanish learners there's a podcast called News In Slow Spanish. I'm not sure if this exists in French, but you should try to find something like that. It's entirely in French as spoken by native speakers, but spoken very slowly and clearly. I found that listening to major global news in my target language helped my listening comprehension because I was able to use context clues in a way that isn't always possible if you're listening to regular French talk radio. That said, yeah, regular French talk radio and any podcasts in French.

Any video in French that is not subtitled would also be great. I tried to use French films as help in studying French in college, but I found that I didn't really get anything of value out of it. I think subtitled films can be nice if you don't have a lot of experience hearing the language in question, but for a language like French, anything unsubbed would be more useful.
posted by Sara C. at 7:17 PM on January 9, 2014

News in Slow French.
posted by bquarters at 7:47 PM on January 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Duolingo app, it has been amazing for Spanish
posted by ladoo at 7:49 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm also addicted to Duolingo but it might be too easy and non-conversational for your needs. On preview, someone else just mentioned it too.
posted by bquarters at 7:50 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

French talk radio, in the background, all the time. Go put it on now. You don't even have to listen to it for it to help — you need to get the rhythm of the language. This was one of the best pieces of advice I got in university from my French teachers. My alarm clock was set to Radio Canada (Québecois) and I knew it was working when I awoke to the weather report and thought "fuck, snow" without realising my half-asleep brain understood the méteo.
posted by heatherann at 7:52 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, you definitely need to read boulet's archive to bone up on modern french slang and usage.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:53 PM on January 9, 2014

nthing Duolingo. It's great for vocabulary and declensions and irregular nouns/verbs.
posted by colin_l at 7:57 PM on January 9, 2014

Watch movies you love that have been dubbed in French, and have French subtitles.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:01 PM on January 9, 2014

I also came here to recommend Duolingo (though I've only used the Spanish version) - make sure to have it set so it speaks out loud to you, that's the most important part, at leeast for me.

Also, nothing compares to conversational practice. I know you don't want to practice with a stranger - and I'd also hate doing that - but having conversations in a language is the best way to learn to be better at having conversations in that language.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:20 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Michel Thomas - my wife and I have used them for French, and were both pretty amazed at how quickly we picked up the basics. They are basic, but the emphasis on listening and speaking should be pretty helpful.
posted by taltalim at 8:28 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Firstly, you need vocab. Anki is excellent for this. Make (don't download - you learn so much more making them yourself) flashcards with a picture on one side and the word on the other (use google images to check). Numbers, colours, food, and any other verbs/nouns you can think you'll need. Find a 'most used words' list and start working your way through it.

For speaking/listening practise, I like Pimsleur. It's expensive, but your library might have it. You can try the first lesson online. If you're mostly a visual learner, you might find it difficult (I do, I generally do every lesson twice), but in a way, that makes focussing on audio practice even more important. It's not stand alone, but will mean that you'll know some important phrases really, really well.

Use your teacher to help you create correct phrases that you expect to say all the time. Then put them into Anki. And talk (a lot) with the expectation that every sentence will be a bit wrong, and that she will correct you.

If you've only done a semester of French at college, you are very definitely still a beginner. Some of the suggestions, such as listening to radio programs, will probably just be discouraging initially. Save them for later in the semester. When I was learning a language as a beginner, I liked to watch TV shows I liked with the sound set to the foreign language with English subtitles. it got me used to the cadence of the language, and I learnt some short phrases. When I was more intermediate, I would put both the sound and subtitles on the foreign language and made Anki flash cards out of phrases I wanted to remember.

Also, do consider finding a language partner later in the semester. I understand that you don't like talking to strangers, but you'll be doing a lot of that in field, so you may as well get some practise before you go. Better to make a complete fool of yourself in front of a stranger who has no bearing on your future career.
posted by kjs4 at 8:48 PM on January 9, 2014

I also want to be able to study mostly on my own – I realize that conversation takes two people, but I don't really have access to a French-speaking language partner and I'm not into the idea of finding a stranger to talk French with.

You might try a weekly French language meet-up at a local coffee shop if there is one around.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:05 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I made some good progress on learning a new language as a beginner using Livemocha. I found their lessons kind of silly (bit reminiscent of Rosetta Stone) but I benefited a lot from the assignments where you record yourself speaking or you write a short composition and a native speaker of the language gives you feedback. In return it periodically asks you to correct assignments done by people learning languages you speak. This is not a terrible compromise between sitting holed up in a book and making a new language buddy in your town. I mean, it doesn't compare to having actual conversational practice, but at least you're getting feedback on your speaking and writing skills. And I found the turnaround times to be very very quick, for a language much less popular than French.
posted by ootandaboot at 9:07 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're going to take self-study seriously and have good motivation to do it, I would recommend GLOSS: Global Language Online Support System, and despite it sounding very bureaucratic, you can look up lessons to enhance your Socio-Cultural, Lexical, Sturctural, and Discursive competencies... and they offer many others such as Swahili, Hausa, and Somali. Depending on what part of the world you're going to, perhaps a few lessons in one of those languages could put you at a better advantage than only French.
posted by linear_arborescent_thought at 9:58 PM on January 9, 2014

I've really loved Skype lessons via italki for reviving my intermediate/advanced Spanish. My goal is to speak to people, so the focus on conversation has worked out well. The hour-long lessons are relatively cheap, especially compared to in-person tutoring. You can sign up for a bunch of trial lessons and find a teacher that works for you. I've found it less awkward than language exchanges can be, and some teachers really make the effort to design lesson material around your interests.

I'm just starting French (also for future scientific fieldwork in Africa) using Duolingo so far, but I want to add online lessons once I get a bit farther along in Duolingo's grammar/vocab skill tree. Bonne chance!
posted by bergeycm at 10:06 PM on January 9, 2014

The Foreign Service Institute French courses are now online for free, including many, many lesson-hours of audio material. I think they'd fit the bill for you.

They are old school, based in oral repetition and drill along with linguistic explanation. Lot's of conversational building blocks are there too. It's generally agreed that getting the phonology right from the get go is crucial for acquiring French, and the FSI Intro to French Phonology ought to address that.

The FSI courses were originally devised to train US diplomats; whose needs would be somewhat similar to yours, I'd think, going soon in country.
posted by bertran at 10:47 PM on January 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Have a listen to FIP radio ( I made an FPP about it). They will play some great French language songs - track the down and learn to sing them. Songs can be a great learning tool generally.

Coffeebreak French - as mentioned above. The latest module (season 4) covers rather more advanced and idiomatic material than the others and might be particularly useful.

For Duolingo I'd recommend looking at PC based version as well as that for mobile devices: the latter supports discussions about language points - as well as "immersion" material that asks you to translate documents.

As mentioned Youtube has some great material. You could try short films like Convivium - or watch programs like Avez Vous Deja Vous.

Many popular TV reality shows have French language equivalents. Danse Avec Les Stars or Top Chef for example. If you already know the format from an English equivalent then that gives you a useful guide. Beyond that there is lots of everyday conversation in evidence.'s French module contains just about the best information about grammatical points I have come across.

Google Tanslate
may be a "cheat" but it can also help with your learning - for example by reading out passages using text to speech or by having you fine tune a machine translation.

If you have a mobile device then get a good dictionary app for it. Ultralingua for example - this is much more comprehensive than any physical book you might carry around - and it includes conjugations. also includes a good online dictionary.

If you can get a chance to go and learn something on a course that is taught in French alongside a bunch of other French people - then do so: cooking, art, sailing, dancing, etc. If you already know how to do something - then go and get re-taught to do it in French.
posted by rongorongo at 4:14 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My two solo conversational practices:
- If talking to strangers doesn't do it for you, consider talking to yourself. Stop having your in-your-head conversations, and start having them in French as much as you can. Talk out loud to yourself as people do to babies, describing what you are doing and what is going through your head. You won't have anyone to correct you (most people won't in conversation exchanges, anyway), but you'll get used to producing the language.
- I am a strong advocate of learning by karaoke. Find yourself French music you like, get the lyrics, and start singing along. For me it is useful especially in learning to emote, and learning the ways to pronounce and to modify pronunciation. You also get vocabulary and cultural stuff. Take the grammar with some skepticism. I don't know Cameroon and Gabon but some other parts of Francophone West Africa have some pretty awesome French language music. You'll get conversation starters out of this, too!
posted by whatzit at 6:34 AM on January 10, 2014

I enjoy duolingo but it has a surprising number of errors. (E.g., they keep pronouncing the "est" in "est-il" like "est" the compass direction, with an audible "s".) Don't take it as gospel, at least.
posted by bfields at 6:39 AM on January 10, 2014

Bonjour from Francophone West Africa!

In addition to French podcasts, start listening to West African music. Lingala (Congolese music) is often at least partially in French. Zouglou, which is what's popular here in Cote d'Ivoire, is also at least partially in French. I really started to pick up on local slang and colloquialisms. You may also be able to stream local radio on the internet. I think Radio Cote d'Ivoire streams online through the ONUCI mission website.

Try and find a West African restaurant closeish to you. In Columbus, there weren't any Ivorian restaurants, but I became a regular at a Senegalese place and chatted with the staff and owner in French. It's not exactly the same, but it's closer than the Parisian French accent my professor spoke. I would hope that NOLA offers more options than Ohio :-)

I wouldn't worry much about trying to learn any languages more local than French until you get there (and even then, if you can say hello and thank you, you're well set!). It is highly unlikely that you'll be able to find online resources on the most useful language for you (for example, the language spoken around my field site is spoken by only about 6,000 people, and there isn't even an Oubi-language Bible translation).
posted by ChuraChura at 6:48 AM on January 10, 2014

French music, all the way. Preparing to spend a year in France (back before Spotify and other ways of streaming), I had one professor burn a mix of French pop and hip-hop songs, and I wore. it. out. If you enjoy singing along to music in the car, learning the words of a French song (bonus if it resonates with you emotionally. For me, this song was "Quelqu'un m'a dit" by Carla Bruni) may catapult your informal vocabulary, phrasing, and pronunciation skills in a big way.

Also nthing talking to yourself in French. If I'm walking somewhere or waiting for a bus, a good exercise is to ask yourself "Qu'est-ce que je fait?" and go from there. What ARE you faire-ing?
posted by magdalemon at 9:00 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

ChuraChura's comment about slang reminded me of the absolutely FANTASTIC comic books Aya de Yopougon. Given the push in Louisiana for schools offering French immersion, there's at least a possibility that a library in your area would have them. I haven't read the sixth and final, but the five I have read are super fun, and will give you an idea of local idioms and cultural mores.

I also more generally agree with ChuraChura's idea of listening to local music. In fact, I think you'd serve yourself well by investing in a small battery powered short wave radio - you should be able to pick up RFI's simple French broadcasts, and hopefully some local African stations depending on the atmosphere. And you'll be glad for it when you're in the field.

Finally, for grinding through grammar and vocabulary exercises, I (being like you better at paper-based learning, though everyone here is right that you've got to have real speaking practice with other people as well) found The Ultimate French Review and Practice to be extremely helpful.
posted by solotoro at 10:54 AM on January 10, 2014

« Older How can I keep bananas fresh?   |   Movie / Music Posters in New York City? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.