How can I best learn the French language, grammar, and pronunciation?
May 26, 2008 10:42 PM   Subscribe

How can I best learn the French language, grammar, and pronunciation?

I am hoping over the summer to learn French with my wife. I am looking less to be able to communicate verbosely and more to comprehend complex French texts (both written and spoken) that are currently without English translation.

With that in mind, I am hoping to stay away from the "learn French in 30 Days!!!" sort of stuff and stick more with learning through grammar, written instruction, pronunciation keys, etc.

What's available?
posted by christopherbdnk to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The best way for something like this, IMO, would be to get a couple first-year French texts and some children's books, and start hacking it out. The pronunciation rules aren't very hard, and I found it much easier to pronounce the words to myself than to actually say them out loud. The problem with French writing is that a lot of it tends to be very ornate. Reading something like L'Etranger would probably be possible with a dictionary after a decently intense summer of study, but I'm pretty continually surprised at how twisted the language in some literature (and a lot of academic writing) is.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:24 PM on May 26, 2008

If there is a university with a humanities graduate program near you (and the classes are open to you, I don't know how that goes), there might be a "french for reading" type of class, they do these type of courses for grad students who need to be able to do research in a second or third language but don't need to speak it.

Personally I used to listen to Radio France especially France Info and France Culture quite a lot and slowly words I didn't know would become part of my vocabulary.. but I knew the basics already when I did that. France Info news bulletins repeat often so that is handy because you can pick up more and more. It depends how you learn though - I always learn by hearing and not reading, I'd be a disaster at "for reading" courses.

If you are anywhere in the DC metro area the USDA (yes, the USDA) has a graduate school that is the government's language trainer, basically, and they offer a lot of classes and it is not expensive. Summertime there are intensive French courses. Many major cities will have an Alliance française where you can study as well.

bonne chance !
posted by citron at 11:51 PM on May 26, 2008

I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but learning any foreign language (even if you're limiting it to understanding input and not producing output) in one summer is a very tall order. Most of the people I know who have learned a language to near-fluency (which I think is what you're describing when you say you want to "understand complex French texts") have done so with a combination of several years of formal study plus at least a year of living in a country where that language is spoken. Have you learned any foreign languages previously? Do you have any background in lingusitics? Either of those will help it along.

Anyway, if you just want a list of pointers to language tools, I hear good things about RosettaStone.
posted by molybdenum at 11:58 PM on May 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

You are going to have to be a monster linguist to comprehend complex spoken texts with your one summer of French studies. Going to France and doing a course is the quickest way.

/French teacher
posted by Wolof at 12:35 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can listen to world news in French at and read along with the script (for the first broadcast of the day only). This will give you simple French sentences (with the bonus of a complete vocabulary related to disasters and bad news), the sounds of French, and a taste of news from places the US media rarely cover.

There are also some simple French books and stories online at Project Gutenberg. The Comtesse de Segur wrote for children (in fact, was the first writer to do so). I was told that her Fortunes de Gaspard is still the first chapter book that French children read on their own. Her writing is clear, not contorted, and charming.

Netflix lists a lot of great French films. It would be useful to listen in French and read subtitles in French at the same time, though we've never managed to do that. For fun, we started listening to Richard Pryor with French subtitles once, but when are we ever going to use that vocabulary?

Can you find some French news magazines to practice on? Does your library have any books in French you're familiar with in English?

Since you and your wife are working on this together, start speaking French to each other, using words you've heard pronounced correctly.

When it comes to literary French, I'm in over my head. Can't help you there.
posted by sevenstars at 5:14 AM on May 27, 2008

molybdenum is right. You can learn French through immersion, sure, but you will not be able to understand complex texts. There are five levels of fluency in any language - most of us operate at about level 3, with forays into level 4. Level 5 is for diplomatic use, meaning you understand tertiary meanings of words and use them accordingly. If you're realistic, you might get to level 2-3. Complex texts are simply going to take you a while (and a lot of study) to achieve.

Literary French - you'll need a formal course. There's more to literature than just the words on the page (allusion, context, style, idiom) come to mind as examples of where some guidance would benefit you.

Spoken French - choose your region well (some regional accents are "better" than others) and just go. Full immersion works best when you are fully immersed, meaning no contact with another person who speaks your mother tongue. You go with your wife, you will speak in English to eachother, which dilutes the immersion effect. Even so, you'll need some kind of understanding about French grammar to be able to really benefit from this. You'll need at least three-four months of this before you will finally break through a wall of sorts and find yourself speaking that level 2-3 French in a confident sort of way.
posted by Grrlscout at 5:47 AM on May 27, 2008

I guess I should echo the other posters who caution against the possibility of reaching that level in just a summer. But heck, why not have a very ambitious goal and go from there. That said I'd also point out that French language writers do a lot with.. ambiguous or double meanings of words, the forms of words, generally playing around with language itself (I think more than we do in English) and it's going to take a lot a lot a lot of work to pick up those nuances. It's also hard to pick up on irony, understatement, and humor. So by the time you get into complex texts I think also read some criticism so you don't ignore these things. I recall reading some texts as mostly overwraught, sad, angst-ridden because, at my level of comprehension at the time, I completely missed undercurrents of dry humor and taking joy in language games.

Also whenever you do reach an advanced level and can read literary texts, get an etymological dictionary.
posted by citron at 6:13 AM on May 27, 2008

I found this kuro5hin article useful when I took on Spanish.
posted by caek at 6:17 AM on May 27, 2008

Take a look at French in Action -- recommended here on Cool Tools. It consists of 52 half-hour video lessons. You just watch them repeatedly and -- voila!
posted by nancoix at 7:22 AM on May 27, 2008

No disrespect meant to your or your language skills, but how good are translations of texts that have never been translated before going to be when you've got one summer (or one year) worth of language under your hat, most likely outside of an immersive environment? Again I don't mean to challenge your skills or good intentions but I can imagine your perceived contribution as having a negative effect when simple misunderstandings in comprehension could corrupt the meaning of entire passages unless you have everything checked by someone else, at which point it might have been easier to outsource the translation to begin with.

I think it would be fair to say that in order to be sufficiently qualified in translating texts a minimum benchmark to aim for would be passing a high school level French language comprehension test for mother tongue French speakers. A similar equivalent test would be the TCF DAP, a comprehension test for French as a second language students that wish to attend a French language university. With this in mind you might have a better chance at finding the appropriate training.

Maybe you could move to Quebec or Montreal for a year. You can take language courses at one of the many French or English universities in Montreal, Canada (six universities in one city, imagine that). In fact Quebec offers French as a second language courses free of charge to emigrants.

Bonne chance!
posted by furtive at 8:17 AM on May 27, 2008

I also recommend French in Action, it was used extensively by my high school and even some in colllege; it's somewhat conversational but isn't overly so (doesn't cover colloquialisms much IIRC). They apparently have free streaming video of it here, so you can check it out to see if it meets your needs.
posted by Challahtronix at 10:35 AM on May 27, 2008

Forgot to mention- in addition to the 30 minute video segments there are workbooks with exercises- conjugation, grammar use, fill-in-the-blank, essay questions, etc... that you're supposed to complete once you've watched and learned the lesson from that video segment. For casual use you can probably just watch the videos and pick up useful words and phrases, but to get the more in-depth knowledge you're looking for you'll probably want to invest in the books (fairly inexpensive- ~$60 new).
posted by Challahtronix at 10:42 AM on May 27, 2008

Buy the becherelle junior book. Its explanation of basic grammar and pronunciation is second to none (it's in French though).

Get a list of the top 50 verbs used in any language and then write the conjugations out 50 times per verb. Do it so that you can associate by sight any conjugation of that verb with its infinitive meaning.

Go to or and just write out by hand, or by typing, the newspaper articles for a couple of days. Nothing will get you familiar faster with how the language is constructed than by simply writing it out at long lengths of time for at least a couple of days until you start noticing patterns. Once you start noticing the patterns, start underlining the verbs, the nouns, the articles etc.

If you rely solely on grammar books then you won't know which rules are archaic and almost never used and which are super important.

I could go on, but that right there is a solid summer's worth of intense French that won't cost you a penny (except for the Becherelle book) and will do a world of good.
posted by fantasticninety at 12:49 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Becherelle is the gold standard of conjugation in French.
posted by furtive at 1:10 PM on May 27, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the fantastic advice!

Unfortunately, I think I have misrepresented my goals, I'm hoping to begin this summer but don't expect to have made nearly enough progress to be reading many of the texts.

To narrow in on what I'm looking for (or maybe what I'm not), I feel as if a lot of language programs are designed to give the appearance of understanding a language, or the ability to not feel hopelessly lost and alienated when visiting a country.

I don't care to learn French quickly or have useful words, though that might happen. I am much more interested in a 'complete understanding,' one based in grammar, history, and flexibility. Put simply: avoiding Rosetta Stone-like programs and sticking with texts and academic tools.
posted by christopherbdnk at 2:15 PM on May 27, 2008

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