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Monday, April 26, 2010

Feeling Stuck? 5 Tips to Improve Your French

I started new French lessons this week, and a few days before I stepped in the classroom, I had one of those "Aha moments" when I realized that the language has finally started to "click" for me.  I've had conversations with language learners in the past, and we could all pinpoint the moment when we moved from struggling, apprehensive, please-don't-let-the-teacher-call-on-me students to decent (albeit still fumbling) conversationalists. 

Fellow students in Rome recounted chance conversations with baristas or local waiters in which espresso & carbonara orders turned into cultural exchanges ranging from the failings of Italian politics to current Hollywood gossip.  For us foreigners, this was heady stuff, and there's nothing like language learning to challenge your learning (and stamina) abilities.   Since I just experienced my French breakthrough moment (which was actually being to participate in a recent dinner-party conversation), I thought I would share some strategies I've found which helped to improve my French.

1. Buy Good Basic Grammar Books  
This tip may seem obvious, but I find the hardest thing for me to overcome is lack of motivation when it comes to studying a language. I really need the learning process to be fun & as uncomplicated as possible. Grammar, while normally anything but fun, becomes quite unbearable when books are poorly designed, full of complicated explanations, or just too long.  I made a habit of spending lots of quality time at Barnes & Noble, and used the same grammar book series for both my Italian & French studies: 

-For absolute beginner French, I like French in 10 Minutes a Day (author: Kershul).  This is an interactive series with stickers to label things around the house, a CD-Rom with supplemental exercises, & lots of bright, colorful pages with basic grammar and vocabulary.  This book really got me excited at the start of my studies & helped me focus on small achievements.

-Moving to the next level, I've found the Practice Makes Perfect: Complete French Grammar (author: Heminway) book very helpful.  It's quite a "no frills" grammar series, but the layout is easy to follow, the explanations are clear, and the exercises are manageable. There is also a French Verb Tenses book & one on French Vocabulary in the series.

2.  Try a Podcast
I've become a real fan of using podcasts for both beginning and advancing language study.  Again, they add an element of fun (several of the "casters" are quite entertaining), you have the opportunity to a hear the language from a native speaker, and you can take them anywhere (I'm currently taking Louis from Daily French Pod with me on my summer shape-up walks).

-I've also enjoyed Learn French with Alexa.  You can download the first 15 lessons for free on iTunes, & then there are subscription options on her website:

-I'm currently following two podcasts from Louis at Daily French Pod.  He has several podcasts (also available on iTunes) which help increase vocabulary by listening to everyday French conversations followed by detailed explanations by Louis.  There are some quite amusing dialogs and insights into French culture as well. Louis also has subscription options at:

3.  Buy a Magazine in French
Even if you don't understand every expression or vocabulary word, getting your hands on a French magazine can be a great way to have some fun with the language & see its practical uses.  I like to read through an article to get the gist, highlight words I don't know, and then note their definitions in my (forever growing) vocabulary list.  Skimming through Marie Claire or reading up on the latest food trends doesn't feel like studying, and you can pick up some good cultural insights in the process.

4. Watch Movies in French
This tip is quite universal for language study, but I think it remains a tried & true method for getting some exposure to French and increasing your listening comprehension.  Going through a series of films like Blue, White, & Red, (the Three Colors Trilogy) or spending some time with quirky Amélie can help train your ear to differentiate all those lovely, rolling vowel sounds.  Turning on the French language captions helps me to see where the verbs end and the nouns begin. 

5. Take a Break
It might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but spending a short amount of time away from language studies can allow you to digest all that you've learned and reflect on what you need to do to improve. I had one teacher call this the "marinating process"; letting what you've learned marinate (food references always work well in France) for a bit until you're ready to get out there & put your savoir-faire into action.

 [photo: MS design gallery live]

Additional French Resources:

Sites with Podcasts:
General Guides:


  1. Tuula, these are great resources. I just signed up for the BCC Language: French Steps in 12 weeks. We'll see how that works. My reward if I learn some French: visit Tuula. :)

  2. Thanks for the suggestions! I'm going to try the Daily French Pod. I'm always trying new things...but yes, the motivation is hard to maintain when you're in the States. Am coming over in September again, so need to brush up, for sure!

  3. I listen to Louis, too (but not enough) and read cookbooks and culinary magazines -- reading what you're already interested in makes it seem a lot less like homework.

  4. Thanks for the ideas. I've never hear of the Louis podcast so plan on checking it out.
    Listening to the radio really helps me as well.

  5. Thank you for some great ideas! I have been struggling for about 5 years, taking one step forward and 2 steps back. I am really committed right now to learning for real, so your tips are quite useful. Merci!

  6. Merci for the comments!
    Libby & Brook, I know, I have a hard time getting motivated too, & I'm even immersed in the's always a work in progress, but then again, it's quite fun!
    Cowgirl & Loulou, I've really enjoyed the podcasts from Louis, mainly because he's just funny, cracks me up each time.