Most students in the U.S. are encouraged or required to take a foreign language class at some point in grade school. I (Sharon) was one of those students. I took French for a total of four years in grade school — two in middle schools and two in high school — three of which were to fulfill an academic requirement. When I signed up for my first French class, I didn’t really think about when I would ever be able to use the French I would learn. And it wasn’t until many years later, while pursuing my Master’s degree, that I would travel to France for the first time where I learned that I had forgotten almost everything I learned from my grade school French classes! It’s difficult to keep up with a language if you don’t have a chance to practice.
As we are planning on vacationing in France for a week at the end of this month (my 3rd trip to France), I have decided to brush up on my French language skills. I started trying to re-learn my French before our previous trip to France in May 2014 and I have been trying to keep up with my French on and off for the past two years.
Resources to re-learn French
Here are some of the resources I have used to re-learn and improve my French in the order I have tried them. I will discuss each of them in more detail below. I will talk about my experience with the resource, what I think are the pros and cons of each resource, whether the resource is for beginners or more advanced learners, and which language skills (listening, reading, writing, speaking) I thought the resource was useful for.
- Cambridge Adult Education Center French courses
- Le Petit Nicolas books
- Harry Potter books in French
- Pimsleur: Learn to Speak and Understand French
- Journal en français facile
- French Cultural Center Private Lessons
- Udemy course: Practice and Perfect your French – Intermediate Level (HD)
- Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It
Cambridge Adult Education Center (Beginner-Intermediate, All skills)
The Cambridge Adult Education Center offers French courses every quarter in a few different beginner to intermediate levels. Classes are usually once a week for 1.5 hours each.
When I first decided to re-learn French, it was January 2014, about five months before our trip. I signed up for a French Beginner Level III course at the Cambridge Adult Education Center. Initially I had to do a little self-study to catch up, but I was able to do this quickly. I feel these courses are reasonably priced averaging about $20 per weekly class, and the class sizes are small. Usually the class is full at the beginning of the session, but the class size shrinks over time since some students aren’t able to make it some weeks. Also, 1.5 hours a week is not a huge time commitment. The French Beginner Level III course covered a bit of each of the four language skills — listening, reading, speaking, and writing — but with a strong focus on learning new vocabulary and grammar. Taking this course was a good way to motivate me to continue re-learning French. I probably could have self-studied most of the material covered, but it’s always more fun to learn in a class setting and you don’t have to struggle with a concept on your own. Also, self-study requires self-discipline and it’s easy for one to make excuses and put off studying. Having a regularly scheduled class, ensured that I was working on French at least during class time.
Because I felt that speaking would be the most important skill needed for our trip to France, after completing the French Beginner Level III course, I signed up for the Intermediate Conversation course the following quarter. In this course, we were given a printed copy of an article at the beginning of the class. We would then go around the room with each study reading a paragraph of the article out loud. Then the instructor would read through the entire article out loud. Afterwards, the instructor would ask some questions to start a conversation or debate among the students of the class. Sometimes, if you were very quiet in the class like I was, the instructor might call on you and ask your opinion. I enjoyed listening to other students speak French. At this level, quite a few of the students in my class could speak fluently (at least to my ears!). However, this was a bit intimidating for me. I worried that my French speaking skills were not up to par and rarely spoke in the class, so I’m not sure this course helped me improve my speaking skills.
Le Petit Nicolas (Advanced Beginner, Reading Skills)
We read a chapter from Le Petit Nicolas in the Beginner course at the Adult Education Center and it reminded me of the two Le Petit Nicolas books I had bought but never read about a decade ago when I was taking French classes. Le Petit Nicolas is a series for children, but is a good way for the advanced beginner to practice reading. And according to the theme of this blog, you are never to old to pursue something. Thus, you’re never too old to read children’s books! The Le Petit Nicolas series is great because each chapter is a short story, so if you’re crunched for time, you can just read one story and not have to worry about forgetting what happened the next time you pick up the book again. Re-learning French and reading some of the Le Petit Nicolas books has allowed me to relive the fun and creativity of the adventures that occur in children’s books. If you like Le Petit Nicolas, you can watch some episodes “avec ou sans sous-titres” (with or without subtitles) on YouTube to further practice your French.
Harry Potter books in French (Intermediate, Reading Skills)
After I made my way through several books in the Le Petit Nicolas series, I decided to read the Harry Potter Books in French to challenge myself more. Having grown up with the Harry Potter books, I have read each book of the English version a few times, so I was familiar with the story. This familiarity helped me use context clues to guess the meaning of words I didn’t know. If you aren’t a Harry Potter fan, or haven’t read the books, this method could be applied to any other book that you read in English that you can read in French. If you do want to get started reading Harry Potter in French, here’s the first book: Harry Potter A L’Ecole des Sorciers.
Pimsleur (Beginner to Intermediate, Listening and Speaking skills)
This was one of the resources recommended by my instructor of the Beginner course at the adult education center to improve our speaking skills. And after trying the program, I highly recommend it too! The Pimsleur: Learn to Speak and Understand French course is an audio course that drills repetition and recall of phrases. The course consists of 30 minutes lessons and are designed for the lessons to be done daily. In each lesson, when new phrases are introduced, you are asked to repeat them after you hear them. For phrases that were previously introduced, you will practice recalling those phrases. The speaker will say a phrase in English, you will have some time to say the phrase in French, and then you will hear the answer in French. Something that is very interesting about the Pimsleur approach is that they teach the initial words/phrases by starting with the last syllable, then adding on the syllable, and so on until the whole word/phrase is complete. Often times, when learning new words and phrases, we focus on the beginning and have the most difficulty recalling the end, so this method of learning is very useful. It’s helpful to learn other phrases in this manner, not just the ones in the Pimsleur course.
The Pimsleur French program has 5 levels. Before our 2014 trip, I was able to work through Levels 1 and 2, which are more relevant for those who will vacation in France. I have since worked through Levels 3 and 4 and am currently working my way through Level 5. But simply working through Levels 1 and 2 made me more confident in speaking French. I had a few useful phrases such as “Where is the bathroom?” that could just roll off my tongue effortlessly. It was the first time I could say anything smoothly in French, despite all my years of French class in middle school and high school. I feel the true test of the Pimsleur program was when we got off our plane in Paris and I marched right up to an information desk and asked in French where the TGV train station was (“Où est la gare TGV?”). The employee responded to me in French and I was able to understand her!
I’ve been praising Pimsleur quite a bit, but there are also downsides to the program. One is that you don’t learn that many phrases given the number of hours you spend listening to the CDs. However, I feel that the phrases you do learn are more ingrained in your memory than if you can just tried to memorize a phrase book and I feel it’s better to be able to say a smaller number of phrases effortlessly than to be able to say a large number of phrases incomprehensibly. I was able to listen to the CDs during my commute to and from work. Another downside you might have noticed if you followed one of the above links to Amazon is that the courses are quite expensive. You might be able to find some of the Pimsleur courses at your local library, especially Levels 1 and 2.
Journal en français facile (Intermediate, Listening Skills)
This resource is definitely not for beginners and more for intermediate learners who want to improve their French listening skills. I started listening to Journal en français facile to improve my own listening skills. This is a daily 10 minutes podcast of international news in easy French. You can access these via the RFI website or subscribe to the podcast. The website includes the transcript and the best part is that this resource is free!
Don’t give up if you can’t understand any of the podcast initially. Learning a language takes time and perseverance. When I first started listening to these podcasts in 2014, I had a very difficult time understanding any of it except maybe a few words. If you are struggling to understand a lot of what is being said, this method that I used initially might help:
- Copy and paste the whole transcript into Google Translate. Read through the French version and reference the translation for words that you don’t know.
- Play the audio and read along.
- Play the audio without the text in front of you and try to make out the words that are being spoken.
After my ears become more attuned to the French sounds and my vocabulary increased, I would first play the audio and read along, then look up any words I didn’t know and finally, play the audio without the text.
And finally, as I’ve progressed further, I now play the audio without the text, try to recall what I’ve heard, and then verify by reading the transcript.
French Cultural Center Private Lessons (All levels, Speaking skills)
After our 2014 trip to France, aside for the occasional listening of Journal en français facile, I let my studies slide as I couldn’t foresee an opportunity to use my French in the near future. However, a year and a half later, I suddenly had the urge to study French again.
As speaking has always been the skill I’ve struggled with the most, and I had previously discovered that group classes don’t work well for someone timid like me, I decided to try some private lessons at the Boston French Cultural Center to maximize my time speaking. I took a total of 10 lessons and speak French I did! Majority of the lesson time consisted of speaking. Sometimes we also watched a short video or audio clip and I was asked some comprehension questions afterwards. Having a scheduled However, private lessons can be quite expensive and another downside is that you only interact with one native speaker – your instructor. italki is a cheaper alternative and I talk about it below.
Duolingo (Beginner – Intermediate, Some of all skills but only short sentences)
Duolingo is a free language learning application available online and via a phone app. I used the phone app almost exclusively. I think the web application offers some more resources such a list of all the vocabulary covered and discussion forums. I believe Duolingo covers all the verb tenses that most intermediate level students will have learned. Duolingo starts out with very basic vocabulary, but you can test out of some skills if you already know them. Working your way through Duolingo, you will type translations for sentences, match French to English words, select the correct word to fill in blanks in a sentence, type a sentence you hear an audio clip for, and record yourself saying short sentences. I feel Duolingo is a great way to review your French. But I feel it’s time consuming and definitely not a way to cram for your visit to France. It took me about five months putting in 30-60 minutes most days to get through all skills, while trying to keep the strength bars for each skill full. Also, the downside is that you only practice with short sentences and you don’t receive corrections on your pronunciation. The benefit of this is portability – you can work on Duolingo anywhere. I was able to work on this while commuting and even on business trips. Since Duolingo is a self-study it’s easy to make excuses (“I’m too busy” or “I’m too tired”) and skip some days of studying. The app does remind you daily to work on Duolingo, but despite these reminders, I still missed some days.
Udemy course (Advanced beginner to intermediate, Grammar-focused but some listening and reading skills)
After speaking, I think grammar is the thing I struggle with the most. Unlike with English, I lack ability to hear a sentence and just know “something is grammatically incorrect”. However, grammar is important as it affects your ability in all four of the language skills. You would have difficulty saying a French sentence if you don’t know enough grammar to conjugate the words or put the words in the correct order, right? Last November there was a Black Friday promotion on Udemy where many classes were only $12. I had never taken an Udemy course so I decided to sign up for a French course. This one caught my eye. The course explains the imperfect, the passé-composé and the plus-que-parfait. I liked how this course consists of many short videos all in French, interspersed with short quizzes. At the end of each section, there is also one listening comprehension and one reading comprehension exercise. This course was a good review for those who struggle with the three past tenses, but this only covers a very narrow subset of French grammar.
italki (All levels, Speaking skills)
As aforementioned, speaking is the skill I need the most help with. So I decided to try italki as I had heard it is a cheaper way to practice speaking than private lessons. You essentially have a private lesson over Skype/Google Hangout instead of in-person. It took me about 5 months from when I signed up for an italki account to work up the confidence to give italki a try. I was a bit apprehensive about meeting a stranger online. However, our impending travel gave me the boost I needed to step out of my comfort zone and try italki. I had two lessons with Anne-Olivia who is somewhat new to italki to brush up on some French that will be more useful for our upcoming travel to France. Even though I felt I had been able to get around France without too much trouble last time, my lessons made me realize that there’s always more to learn when learning a language. Many textbooks used in language courses only cover generic terms. For example, we talked about ordering food in French as well as French dishes. I thought I knew quite a few French food words, but I didn’t know how to say I wanted my eggs scrambled or sunny-side up; I only knew how to say ‘eggs’. As for French dishes, different regions of France have different specialties and there were so many dishes I hadn’t heard of! One of the dishes I learned about was choucroute, an Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and sausages. My lessons also made me realize how new words are added to languages as fads change and inventions are made. I learned that un Vélib’ was a bike from the bike share system in France, equivalent to Hubway here in Boston. When I was learning French in grade school, bike share was definitely not in our vocabulary. In fact, neither were mobile phones, although some of those did exist. In addition to the benefit of a lower price, one benefit of italki is you also don’t have to travel to your lessons. One downside is that you may face technical difficulties. We had some trouble connecting via Skype during my second lesson, but we managed to overcome the problems by using Google Hangout instead. Overall, I enjoyed my italki lessons and would definitely recommend it to others. Although I used italki to improve my speaking, you can also use the italki tutors for anything you might use a private tutor for, such as correcting your writing or test preparation.
Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget it
As I’ve been working on re-learning French, I’ve become more intrigued about language-learning and how our brains learn a language, so I decided to read this book. Although the book Fluent Forever is not focused on teaching you French, it mentions some research studies that shed light on how humans learn languages and talks about techniques and resources that you can use to learn any language. italki is one of the resources recommended by this book. If you want to be a polyglot, you might find this book useful. It talks a lot about how to make good flashcards to help you learn vocabulary and grammar concepts for any language, which you will then study using the spaced repetition system. For example, it emphasizes adding images to your flashcards since it has been shown that associating images with words ingrains the words more deeply in our memories. The book also suggests that you focus first on learning the 625 most common English words in the language you are learning so that you have a base vocabulary to build on. Many of these words are nouns such as parts of the body, animals, food, etc. that are easy to visualize. It’s been a point of debate as to how many words does one actually need to learn to be able to be fluent in language. I think this really depends on the language and whether fluency means fluent in reading newspapers or fluent conversing, but being able to quickly learn those 625 most common words may give you a boost of encouragement and motivation to continue learning a language as you see or hear words you recognize. I’ve always felt a twinge of pride when I can say “I know that word!” when I encounter a French word I know.
Regardless which resource(s) you choose to use or perhaps, you know of other resources (please share!), I hope you have fun as you embark or re-embark on your language learning journey.