La vie en rose
May 13, 2016 12:37 PM   Subscribe

How can I become fluent in french as quickly as possible? I have studied French on and off for several years but still feel that I am no closer to fluency, and I hope to visit France and possibly even work there for an extended period within the next few years.

Studied French for several years in high school but still feel that I only have a very elementary knowledge and don't have a firm grasp of the language. In past I have studied dictionaries of most common words and verbs and their conjugations, but I feel like the progress I make using these methods is too slow. My father has pushed me to use duolingo, but he been studying spanish for several years using this and rosetta stone, and is still not fluent.

I know several people who are Pakistani immigrants who learned English relatively quickly by taking a course. I would rather teach myself. I have one semester of college left, so I could potentially take a french class without breaking the bank. However, the language courses at my school are fairly intensive (4 credits instead of 3) and I might want to avoid the heavy course load, especially if it entailed a lot of busy work, projects, etc that would not actually help me learn any better than rote memorization.

To anyone who has mastered a foreign language, what is the fastest/most efficient way to become fluent? How much did you have to study a day/ how many words did you have to commit to memory a day, what books did you read, would taking a course actually be worth it, etc. Thanks!
posted by Wildflowers to Education (23 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
The best way to get fluent in a language is to use it, and, ideally, really need to use it-that's why the Pakistani immigrants got fluent quickly. It's not just the course, it's the course plus living in an English speaking county.

So, moving to France would be the best method to get fluent. Assuming you can't do that, if the course is immersive (all in French, several times a week, with lots of talking going on) and you supplement it with going to conversation groups, and consuming French media on the side, that will help you much more than self study that does not involve actually talking to people in French.
posted by damayanti at 12:46 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

This book + French pop music catapulted me into fluency just before I embarked on a year abroad. I still listen to French pop music to keep up my skills, because of the use of really common and simple phrases, rhyming, and casual language (as opposed to some of the more formal stuff you may encounter in written guides).

Carla Bruni is easy and fun to sing along with (if you can sing, it'll help your pronounciation too!), some older Celine Dion is in french, Renaud, Noir Desir, and Diam's were some of my go-tos.
posted by witchen at 12:50 PM on May 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you were an Anglo Ottawan kid of a certain age you had the AV equipment hauled into the room to watch Sol. I gotta say the guy was very good at what he did, and though it's more or less for kids, there's enough slightly surreal content and interesting acting to make it palatable to adults. There are loads of episodes on YouTube, many with comments about it being useful. (I homeschool, use it with my kid.) I think I learned more French from Sol than I did from certain teachers...

I also found a French cartoon called "T'Choupi et Doudou" charming enough to sit through; YMMV.

But I'll 2nd that this is very hard without regular immersion. Can you force yourself to quit watching English TV, read the news in French? Put a Bescherelle by the toilet and renounce all other bathroom reading material save for that most dull of all texts (in school, referred to as the "beschersmell," yuk yuk)?
posted by kmennie at 12:50 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another great piece of advice I got when I was becoming fluent: Talk to yourself in French. At various points throughout the day, ask yourself "Qu'est-ce que je fais?" Then answer yourself: "Je vais la vaiselle," "Je suis en train de me maquiller," "On discute ce film," etc.
posted by witchen at 12:55 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Duolingo is the easiest way. As people say, the best way to do anything is the way you'll actually do it. Duolingo, because it's on your phone and easy to use, makes it far more likely that you'll actually use it. It's not perfect, but if you set your mind to it, you can make quick progress. I made it through the German course in about four months.

The biggest drawback to Duolingo, especially on phones, is that it doesn't really explain the underlying rules of grammar and usage. I've found the Essential ____ Grammar series from Dover helpful. I've never used the French one because I remember my French grammar well from school, but I have the German and Dutch editions, and they're very useful.

My other best suggestion is to simulate immersion by reading and watching French media. Read the newspaper (I like reading US news so I have some baseline familiarity and can concentrate on the language), or watch movies in French (again, ones you've already seen in English are good).

There are blogs on the topic - Fluent Forever, Fluent in Three Months - that promise quick fluency, although I've never used them.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:12 PM on May 13, 2016

I'm doing pretty well learning Spanish with Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. It outlines how to learn any language, not just French or Spanish. You learn by building your own flashcard decks for vocab (later, sentences) in Anki. It takes about 1/2 hour a day to do the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) deck (optional), vocab deck (10 new cards a day, which you'll fly through if you have a passing familiarity), and sounds deck.

- Evidence based re: learning (his system follows the way children learn language)
- Evidence based re: memory (his system uses spaced repetition software to learn vocabulary)
- He provides a list of the 625 most common words and audio files for flash cards
- Students learn pronunciation first
- Students learn the "how" of language learning, not just useless phrases

- Labor intensive (you make your own flash cards - helps if you're tech savvy)
- May seem like it's taking more time because you don't just jump right in to speaking & learning grammar
- His system is new, so there may be a few technical issues with a word here or there
- His system won't spoon feed you. This is how you build memory - by struggling to remember, you make those neural connections stronger. IMHO, this is a "Pro" but others may disagree.

Once you get the hang of building the decks, you fly through it. I'm fairly technical so I'm enjoying it, but I can see that it's not for everyone. To give an idea, right now I'm working on my first 625 words (so, 625 cards). It takes 10-20 seconds to build one card once you get the hang of it. I made 200 last weekend, over a couple of hours, and I got too fancy with sentences. Later I went back and deleted my sentences, because I got ahead of myself - words first, then sentences. The key is to recall the words based on the picture you see. Now that I'm just doing a picture with the sound of the word, I can do dozens of cards in a half hour or less.

It's like when you do a presentation - great presenters are good because they know the material inside and out. His system, in a fun way, forces you to understand the material. And the spaced repetition challenges you to recall the material at key times when you're likely to start forgetting, which increases the likelihood that you WILL remember, next time.... and you do this enough times, and that word becomes a permanent part of your memory.

I love his system. I took Spanish for years in school, and was unsuccessful for a number of reasons. But, because I'm doing the work in the right order to learn the language in a natural, easy way... it's fun and not a chore, which means I remember more.
posted by onecircleaday at 1:14 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

The best way to get fluent in a language is to use it
Another great piece of advice I got when I was becoming fluent: Talk to yourself in French.

This. This, this, this, this. I went to Paris for the first time in December, and I was just like you - I'd studied, but thought "no way in hell am I fluent" and thought that I was going to be this big bumbling idiot, but then I got there and started talking to people and the knowledge was just sort of, like, there, like in The Matrix when Neo learned kung fu just by having it downloaded into his brain. Two days into my trip I posted the estactic status update on Facebook that "PEOPLE I AM ACTUALLY HAVING FUNCTIONAL CONVERSATIONS IN FRENCH HOW DID THIS HAPPEN".

I mean, the longer a conversation went on, the more likely it was I'd eventually have to stop and say my vocabulary had run out and we'd have to switch to English, but I did carry on about 20% of my conversations entirely in French, and was even good enough to get through a date on New Year's Eve. And using it in real-life situations has made me way more confident, and kind of got it into my head way more. (I'm still in occasional contact with the guy I had a date with over email, and a lot of my "talking to myself in French" is actually rehearsing things I'll be saying to him; and one of my co-workers is from Paris and I try French out on her sometimes and she says that while my French isn't perfect, it's good enough that she's able to understand what I am attempting to say.)

Stressing that because literally, I did exactly what you are doing, and then I just took a deep breath and dived in and discovered that there was more knowledge there than I thought.

Take a leap and do a test run, and use French. You may find you know it more so than you think.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:18 PM on May 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

The only real way to take your language skills from high school or college French to being fluent in French is to do some kind of immersion, ideally along with continued formal study.

You could go and spend an extended amount of time in France or another Francophone place (Montreal, maybe?), or you could go to one of those Immersion Experience courses where you spend all day studying French and also are forbidden from speaking English at any time, even after hours. There's a famous one at Middlebury College in Vermont, not sure if there are others in different parts of the US or abroad.

I took years of Spanish in school, then spent a month in Peru. My language skills grew by leaps and bounds, though I also would have liked to take a course or otherwise intensively work on my Spanish as well while I was there. While my listening skills improved, I found that I tended to take shortcuts and do whatever it took to be understood, rather than sticking to formal grammar, expanding my vocab, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 1:19 PM on May 13, 2016

You just have to use it more often, with other people... you'll find out you know more than you realize. You're best off finding actual Francophones to converse with, and not just other Anglophone also trying to learn French.

I've taken elementary, highschool, and university classes, but the best learning experience for me was that I had colleagues at work who were Quebecois francophones, who preferred to talk with me in French rather than suffer speaking in English (they were working on it but by necessity not desire). Dating francophones has also been quite an interesting experience in expanding my vocabulary... and breaking up with them. Not just talking about swear words.
posted by lizbunny at 1:25 PM on May 13, 2016

I'm taking classes at a local chapter of Alliance Francaise. Their classes aim to prepare the student for DELF-level French.

I have class sessions twice a week at night. Some AF chapters have more frequent sessions during the day, which may help with faster learning, if your schedule and budget allow.

Along with this, we have a weekly hour-long session with a neighbor who is French and gives us exercises from Francais Facile, which are free. She also teaches French to local children and has a lot of elementary school-level books she lends out, like the Je suis en CE1 series. It sounds silly, but reading out loud and slowly on my own has helped me a lot with pronunciation.

Listening to native French speakers is half the battle with holding a conversation. They usually speak fast and loquaciously. I occasionally watch Le Journal on TV5MONDE on cable, and we sometimes listen to News In Slow French online.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:31 PM on May 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Is it possible for you to enroll in an intensive summer language program? Middlebury College has one that is quite famous and highly regarded. My sister studied there. When she was in the program, she was only allowed outside calls for emergencies, so she was really immersed in the language. Googling, I found quite a few others as well.
posted by FencingGal at 1:34 PM on May 13, 2016

(Are the classes worth it? Yes, but for me they are a serious commitment of time and money. I don't say that to discourage you, but if you dive in it can be very rewarding, and those commitments have forced me to do that "dive-in".)
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:34 PM on May 13, 2016

It has been a long long time, but I studied French in junior high and high school, and was fortunate enough to go on a few immersive trips to Francophone countries -- a couple of short trips to Montreal and Quebec City, Canada, two weeks in French-speaking parts of Switzerland, and two weeks in France. My recollection is that being thrown into the thick of things really does make a big difference. If you can swing a trip to Quebec (old Quebec city proper is touristy but lovely, the closest thing in North America to an old European city,) I'd definitely recommend even a short trip to try it out.

I remember the phenomenon EmpressCallipygos describes, where you suddenly realize that the knowledge is sort of 'just there,' at least enough for baseline communication in most situations, and it gets better the longer you're immersed. I also like witchen's suggestion to talk to yourself in French; by the end of two weeks in France I realized that I was thinking in a fluid blend of French and English. Listening to French language news or watching French language films without subtitles is good too.
posted by usonian at 1:35 PM on May 13, 2016

If you have a Hulu subscription, there are French films available through the Criterion Collection subsection — a lot of New Wave stuff, but some more modern selections, too.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:41 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

The single fastest way to acquire fluency in a foreign language is a native love interest who doesn't speak your language.
posted by Dragonness at 1:58 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yep, immersion. My pathetic high school French improved a good deal when I spent five weeks living with a francophone family who didn't speak a word of English in a town where English is not spoken. My French then became became dramatically better when I was in desperate need of a job and the last question in the interview was "you are bilingual, aren't you?" Mais oui! And then I figured it out as I went along with many, many humourous screw ups along the way. It was that or eat ramen. Don't be shy, get yourself somewhere where French is spoken, bust out your knowledge and plow through the errors.
posted by Cuke at 2:22 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

My parents have attended week-long language learning camps and had a good experience. That kind of exposure is difficult to maintain on your own after though.
posted by bq at 4:42 PM on May 13, 2016

The book witchen linked to is given out to many a Peace Corps volunteer and is a really fantastic book. That being said, I didn't crack it open all that often. Your motivation may vary.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:14 PM on May 13, 2016

Hire a private tutor for conversation lessons. They can be found on in many places. It's much more time-efficient than a class, since, ideally, you are talking the language most of the time. Actually talking a language is the main way to fluency.

Also see a recent mefi comment of mine for some very effective free audio French grammar and pronunciation resources. A lot of the feel for a language has to do more with musical than strictly cognitive features. Doing imitative audio exercises like those I link to is a good way to get that feel.
posted by bertran at 1:41 AM on May 14, 2016

Total immersion.
Nthing tutor — or hire a native speaker online.
All the audio you can muster. Radio, tv shows, read and listen to books on tape.
Grammar comes naturally, focus on pronunciation and adding vocab.
Use full sentences when you write and talk to yourself.
Practice every day.
Spaced repetition.

Learn from Kató Lomb: "Ten Commandments of Language Learning" or her masterwork, "Polyglot: How I Learn Languages."
posted by fritillary at 4:21 AM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice from everyone here. I will only add something assuming that you have succeeded in getting over to France: try your best to have relationships that only use French.

I spend a lot of time living in India and am fluent in Hindi, but for the most part cities are bilingual with English (or other languages, etc.), and I find that I have certain friendships that basically operate only in Hindi, and others that most use English. The difference comes in the beginning--if I make an effort to start the relationship in Hindi then it stays that way; I think we develop our own, personal language, and that has a certain "sticky" quality to it that is hard to explain.

So once you're over there, make an effort to use French from the beginning for as much of your day-to-day as you can stand, and also make an effort to do make friends with whom you mostly speak French--even if their English is better. This is probably especially useful if you find yourself living in a big city like Paris, where English is more available, and (I'm assuming) there is a large expat community to hang out with. It's all about tricking your brain into thinking it has no other option than using the second language to make it flow.
posted by Stilling Still Dreaming at 7:35 AM on May 14, 2016

If you cant do total immersion, which is of course the best way to amp up your fluency very quickly, two easy ways to increase your exposure and vocabulary right away is to read french novels and watch movies/TV shows as a lungful of dragon recommended. If you have access to college campuses, they tend to have foreign language groups with conversation meetups etc. (I googled 'french princeton' and discovered an Alliance Francaise group for example.)
posted by Illusory contour at 7:41 AM on May 14, 2016

I was in the same boat as you and the quickest way to learn French for me was using Lingvist. They basically break down the language into its 5000 most used words & then use a spaced repetition flashcard program to put the words in context. The trouble with DuoLingo is that it's geared towards translation & that's not the way the brain learns a language. The vocabulary gain is incredibly fast. They also have reading & listening exercises & almost no English anywhere on the site which leads to a fairly immersive experience.
posted by Lucubrator at 8:42 AM on May 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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