How to learn French fast

So, you want to learn French fast? Follow the advice in this post and you can get yourself ready to use your French in the sorts of basic everyday contexts that we all need or in highly specialised contexts that are personal to you.

This post is addressed to you if you’re a beginner, a false beginner or rusty.

That said, much of what you’ll read will also help intermediate learners who are ready to move swiftly to the next level.

Rapid French: a reality check

First, a reality check!

There’s no hiding it, getting really good at French is a big undertaking that takes a lot of time. You’ll need maybe 300 hours study for a basic, functional “working knowledge” at the “lower intermediate” level (sometimes called “B1”). 

Learning French also takes a shedload of commitment.

But here’s the thing! If you’re motivated, you can achieve specific goals a lot more quickly

It’s a question of knowing what you need your French for and consistent application of effective methods that will take you there. Then, once you get airborne, anything is possible!

Another home truth before we start!

To learn French more quickly, you need to take responsibility for your own progress.

No teacher can beam the language into your head.

“School style” group French classes very inefficient if you rely on them on their own, though group language classes can give your learning a clear framework, a welcome social dimension and help with motivation.

Much more efficient are one-to-one classes with a paid teacher. If you can’t afford that, you could do language exchanges (where half the session is in French to help you and half in English to help your French-speaking, English learning exchange partner).

If you’re an adult learner, make effective self-study and lots of practice your two French rapid progress boosters.  

Let’s also be clear from the get go on one other thing: nobody ever got fluent in French just by using an app. Some apps are better than others, many are “gamified” to, erm, keep you on the app. What are they good for? As a supplement or for some extra down-time engagement (if you don’t feel like doing something more effective instead).

Beginning to learn French? Experience the power of StoryLearning with "French Uncovered": click here for info.
Learn French Fast

1. Learn with your specific French goals in mind

You might want to be able to connect with in-laws or grandchildren or use the language to get things done and make wonderful memories when you’re travelling. You could already be into aspects of French culture and want to experience it from within.  Maybe yoy want to forge new business contacts by giving a presentation in the language or bond less formally with potential customers afterwards.  

You’re sure you’re clear on what you want your French for?

You’re sure you REALLY want it?

And you want it, like, yesterday?  

Ok, let’s look further at what you need to do to learn French fast.  

2. Master pronunciation fundamentals

Time may be short, but don’t be tempted to neglect the key elements of the French soundscape. If you haven’t tuned your ear in properly, your listening skills will suffer even if you know the words or grammar “on paper”. 

You’ll sound dire, too.  

Focus on sounds that are different from English. Understand that getting the rhythm and intonation of phrases right can be even more important than the pronunciation of individual sounds and words. 

You don’t need to polish so much that you could pass for a native. but if you pay attention to the right things and you can “sound” better than you are. 

That matters because you need to win the confidence of the fluent French speaker you want to talk to. 

If you fail at key aspects of accent, talking with you can be a real strain for them.

There’s a risk they’ll just switch to English…or avoid you altogether. 

3. Get the main sentence patterns 

If you want to learn French fast, don’t get distracted by abstract French grammar for its own sake.

Don’t get bogged down in tables showing French verb and case endings. 

Instead, think of grammar as the most important repeatable French sentence patterns. Focus relentlessly on these patterns. 

Grasp rules of thumb that explain what’s going on and that you can apply on the wing (like the ones for the French case endings). Learn the highest frequency exceptions. 

Later, when you’ve developed more of a feel for what sounds right, you can work some more on “grammar” to help you fill in the gaps, refine your expression and explain surprises. 

Beginning to learn French? Experience the power of StoryLearning with "French Uncovered": click here for info.

4. Learn the most frequent French vocab

Raw word power matters but did you know that just 250 words or so make up about 50% of everyday French? 

Build up to six or seven hundred “essential words” and you’re very much in business. 

Reach 1000 words, you can understand 80% of an everyday French text and say a lot of what you want, even if you have to explain things in a roundabout way.  

Your “first thousand” should include the 650 most common words (the top 50 French verbs are of course, important among them). And then?

5. Add three types of fluency booster vocabulary 

Add to those 650 or so most common words another three classes of words and phrases (think of them as special fluency weapons in your drive to learn French quickly): 

Filler and conversational connector words such as “alors” (well), “Quoi?” (What?), “hien” (uh?), “en fait” (in fact). They pepper natural speech and can really help move a conversation forward. 

“Tool kit phrases” that help you keep up and learn as you go, without switching to English. For example: “Common dit-on en français: ….” (How do you say …. in French?), “Parlais plus lentement, si’l vous plaît” (Please speak more slowly), “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?” (What does that mean) and so on. 

Your own personal “islands of fluency”, that’s to say, bespoke words and phrases that may not be so common but which relate to your personal need for French: talking about your profession, hobbies, goals and so on. 

6. Learn how to get French into your memory (and out again)

Ok, Dr P, but how do I actually remember the key grammar patterns and essential vocab well enough to use them in real life? 

Not by accident! Not in your sleep! Not with one magic method! 

First, you need to get words into your memory (“encoding”). 

Be on look out for the great many words that are the same as in English (pronunciation aside). Understand common French prefixes and suffixes that are added to the beginning or end of words to create other, often related ones. For example: dire – to say, to tell; contradire – to contradict (the prefix “contra-” means “not” or “the opposite of”.

Use memory association techniques to remember individual words that aren’t like the English. 

Learn “chunks”, that’s short phrases for every situation that native speakers of any language deploy without thinking.  

Second, you need to make sure you don’t forget what you’ve just learned. 

It’s been shown that reviewing material as soon as the day after you first tried to learn it and then at increasing intervals is the way to make it stick. The method is called the spacing effect.      

Paper flashcards or a flashcard app with the English on one side and the French on the other are great for this.

Flashcards aren’t your thing? Then you can double down on lots of reading and listening practice with your course materials and other sources that interest you.   

Beginning to learn French? Experience the power of StoryLearning with "French Uncovered": click here for info.

7. Make your learning more effortful for maximum efficiency

Work creatively with your new vocab, chunks and grammar patterns you want to focus on. 

Make up your own short dialogues with your words and phrases and practice with a conversation partner. Do the questions and other exercises that come with your course make your own. Dictation and translation back and forth can be powerful activities. They’ll get you working intensively with new examples of French that you’ve just come across. 

Test yourself to turn vocab and grammar review from just repetition into more effective recall.

Working with flashcards or translation from English into French makes for more effortful interaction, great for consolidating memories! 

Go back to your dictation, translation and or other exercises at intervals.  

In short, don’t be passive, be interactive with your French texts and audio.

Make your learning effortful

If you’re tired after focused study, that’s a good sign. No pain, less gain!

Yes! Deliberate practice like this is hard.

You may well finish a session feeling more frustrated than when you began or even that you’re going backwards. 

Get what I call the “fluency mindset“, stick at it and trust the process.  

8. Get a good beginner’s French course

With new sounds, grammar patterns and vocab to master, you could easily waste a lot of time gathering scattered materials for yourself. You can end up overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. 

If you want to learn French fast, do yourself a favour and begin with a well designed course that introduces the high-frequency French that ALL beginners need in a step-by-step way. 

Working through the course unit by unit, week by week is a great way to pace your learning

You can also refer back to your course materials if you hit questions when you’re out using your language “in the wild”. 

Make sure the course is dialogue based, has audio with transcript and parallel translations into English

Go for courses that have some explicit grammar explanation but made accessible and with a light touch. If you like exercises, make sure your course also supplies self-correct answers

You’re looking for a course that doesn’t just teach the key pronunciation, grammar and vocab that we saw are so important but one that you can use for the effortful practice that we’ve just been looking at. 

9. Get lots of enjoyable reading and listening practice

Focussed study with the aid of a good course will accelerate your progress in French remarkably, but it’s not enough on its own.  

If you want to learn French fast, you also need a lot of exposure to the language: listen, read.  

Once you’ve got some basics through your course – or earlier if you feel the urge – get started with more relaxed “extensive” listening and reading

Here the aim is to get enough to follow main thread of conversation or a story

Extensive listening and reading are great helping you remember what you’ve already seen. 

Plus: if the material isn’t too difficult for you, you’ll be able to “acquire” more French as well in a natural context, sub- or semi-consciously, without deliberate effort.  

So, find books to read aimed at learners at your level.

Try podcasts for learners in the language, ideally with transcripts

Some successful learners love diving into authentic content (i.e. made for natives) asap too.

To make reading native-level material easier, choose short articles on factual topics, read stories that you already know in English or use a parallel text with French on the right and an English translation on the left

As for listening, you may find it easier to watch the French (original or dubbed) films or series that you already know in their English versions.

As you start watching authentic French films, TV shows and YouTube vides, don’t be shy of switching on the subtitles to help (but, beyond the very earliest stages, use the French ones). 

The golden rule for “extensive” reading and listening practice is this: find things you find interesting and would want to listen to or watch in English anyway.  That way, it’s going to be so much easier to clock up hours and hours of enjoyable practice.  

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10. How soon should start speaking French? 

Whether you should speak from the very beginning depends on your personality. 

If you’re the gregarious type who loves talking, learn the absolute basics and then throw yourself into using the language. Otherwise, there’s a risk your motivation will flag and you’ll give up. 

If you’re not so social, it’s also not a problem.  For you, conscious vocabulary and pattern building, reading or listening will be more efficient activities in the early stages.  When you start to speak, you’ll then have a larger vocab and more experience of what sounds right and better listening skills. All these will help you activate your speaking more rapidly than somebody who focusses on speaking from the very beginning.

Most of us want to speak as well, though, and you can’t get good at speaking without speaking a lot

Don’t put off speaking too long, just because you don’t “feel ready”. You don’t want to pass up on opportunities to make new friends in your language.

More than that, if you want to learn French quickly, don’t be a perfectionist

Don’t fixate on mistakes. Nobody cares. Instead, focus on your message and on the other person.

Prepare and practice short, relevant “scripts” on conversation topics that you’re going to need. 

Guess intelligently, pick up non-verbal clues to meaning. Use those filler and conversational connector words to sound more authentic and win some time. Ask questions for the same reason and to check you’ve understood.  

If you already know French speakers with whom you can practise, great.

That said, will they always have time to help you as you strive to move forward at pace? Will they have the knowledge of the language to explain why things are said a certain way?  Do they know how to give feedback constructively?

Don’t pay for a teacher to explain things you can get much more cost and time effectively from a good course.

No, where a teacher can really help is to explain things you’re stuck on and to ensure that you get consistent deliberate practice speaking. A good teacher will be able to give you reasoned feedback on your speaking and writing.  

Try out different teachers over Skype or Zoom on a platform like italki.com. When you’ve “clicked” with one or two, book a series of sessions in advance to make sure they really do happen.

The platform I use for this is italki.com. I’m such a fan, I’ve had over six hundred lessons (for several languages).

Want to learn French fast? Let’s recap   

  • Get real! It takes hundreds of hours to get really fluent, but if you’re clear on what you need your French for and you use smart methods, you can make rapid progress.
  • Don’t skimp on sound. Get key aspects of pronunciation right and you’ll win friends and influence people (well, they won’t run away or switch to English, at least 😉
  • You don’t need all the grammar, just the main sentence patterns.
  • You must learn the highest frequency vocab. The first 650 words, plus “toolkit phrases”, conversational fillers and connectors and the bespoke vocab that matters for your, personal needs.
  • Apply “brain savvy” methods to remember patterns and vocab. Effortful intensive, deliberate practice will speed things up.
  • Use a course to present you with just what you need, to avoid wasting time, confusion and overwhelm.
  • Read and listen for pleasure as much as you can. You don’t have to “speak from day one” but to get good at speaking, you need to start and practise, practise, practise. One-to-ones with a teacher or exchange partner are great for this.

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How to learn French fast