Learn to Speak French: Essentials for Mastery
Do you want to learn to speak French? Check out these essentials for mastery.
How long does it take?
French is what we call a Category I language- fairly close to English. People who go through the Foreign Service Institute (training for U.S. diplomats) can generally learn to speak French to a B2 level (ACTFL Intermediate High) of French with 750 to 1000 hours of study. CEFR B2 and ACTFL Intermediate High might not mean anything to you, but suffice to say, it’s a pretty high level of language. You can speak and communicate with people, but in no way is it as easy as in your own language. You’re still going to be pretty rough with your grammar, still have some mispronunciations,still be grasping for vocabulary at times, but you can communicate with people. A native speaker speaks much more fluently and accurately than that level.
While I talked about that general amount of time that Foreign Service Officers preparing for their assignments abroad can invest to attain that level of fluency that allows them to learn to speak French well enough for life in a French-speaking country, to hit that really high native level, takes two or three times as long, in my opinion. It’s relatively easy to move through the Novice and Intermediate. It tends to take a bit longer to move from that High Intermediate through Advanced, and up into that native-level language.
Learning and acquisition.
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a great teacher of second language acquisition. Learning a language is more like all of those rote things that you do. Flashcards and apps, exercises, going to a traditional language class, studying verbs, or going to a language lab. Those are all traditional, rote activities. They work by helping you get new patterns and words into your long-term memory to eventually all work together to the point where you can create your own language and sentences.
Acquisition is something that’s slightly different. Acquisition is the way that you learned your first language. You were spoken to, you watched TV, you were read to, you went to school, or you listened to music. You were completely immersed in that language. Instead of learning separate words, phrases, verb tenses and patterns in the rote way that we talked about with learning, in the very deliberate, very mechanical way that we talked about with learning, you absorbed all that stuff naturally.
People who learn multiple languages, or learn languages to very high levels, understand how these two things work together. You want to be deliberate in your studies: journaling, making flashcards, making regular chunks of time to study, studying grammar, etc. But you also want to spend a lot of time in acquisition, not being perfect. Speaking to native speakers, traveling, reading, watching movies, listening to music- those immersive activities that taught you your own language. Your progress will skyrocket and accelerate when you learn how to combine these two important concepts. This is vital in your journey to learn to speak French.
Input versus output.
We learn languages from messages (Krashen). This is great news, because it means we can spend a lot of time getting interesting input that we enjoy.
Output is also critical. It gives you a way to process all of that input you got. It helps you problem solve, work on your fluency, improve your pronunciation, fill in any gaps of knowledge you might have and (last but not least), communicate in your target language.
I value both input and output. My formula is non-scientific in their use. We have two ears and one mouth. Aim for twice as much input. Input can also be done wherever. Turn your downtime into language learning time.
Know how to measure your progress.
One of the greatest things about learning a new language is that the assessment is sort of naturally built in. Going right back to that input versus output (or what I learn from the things that we hear and that we see) and then the test is whether or not we can respond. The test is whether or not we can say or write things. That’s language assessment at its most basic level. But to really get up into those very high levels, you need to learn about some of the assessment techniques that are out there.
You’re going to find a link to the self-assessment workbook. It’s going to give you lots of options on how to measure your progress as you learn to speak French. There are some self-assessment methods as well as some official ways that you can get your language assessed. The more you learn how to assess your language skills, the more quickly you can move forward. It makes it a very targeted, deliberate, fast progression of your skills.
Learn to speak French in five-week chunks.
Someone said to me recently, “How do you feed an elephant in bites?” I love the expression and imagery because I think it speaks so well to anything that’s a big project. Do it in bites- step by step by step. Nowadays, fitting language learning into your life doesn’t have to be an all-or- nothing thing. We don’t now have to just get on a plane and go abroad, or go to a language class. While those are fantastic options, the internet and mobile technology have transformed language teaching and learning. You essentially could learn an entire language using nothing but your phone.
People from all over the world are sharing their language and culture in a way unprecedented in mankind. This allows you access to any language you want to learn from wherever you are. Learning does not have to be a class that you go to three nights a week, that doesn’t fit into your life. Learning can happen while you take walks. Learning can happen on your commute. Use your iPad and your speaker and do your language studies every day when you’re cleaning your house or doing your errands. Combine learning with your exercise routine and start working out in French. This will allow learn t learn to speak French while you achieve another goal.
I love to do this in five-week chunks. I think five weeks is enough time to make progress but it also gives you enough time to check back in and assess yourself again and keep working at it. Remember when we talked about that 750 to 1000 hours to attain what most of us consider to be fluency? And that how it takes probably twice as long to really get from that fluency level up to to that native speaker level? Think about what you’ll go over the next five weeks that fits into your life. Do you have 10 hours a week where you’re commuting? Why don’t you listen to a great book from Audible on your phone? Got a bit more time? Do you want to get in shape, do you want to walk? You can listen to those same audiobooks while you walk an hour a day.
Some five-week periods you might have more time than others. As a teacher, I have much more free time in the summer. Some of my five-week language studies are intense. Maybe your life is the same. Maybe for five weeks you can get in two or three hundred hours of language study because you don’t have any other commitments. Perhaps your only language study for five weeks is going to be the 5 or 10 hours that you spend commuting. Just know that all of that time is going to rack up and it’s going to bring you closer and closer to fluency.
I cannot stress this enough. One thing that disheartens me a little bit as a language teacher is seeing people give up. But I can’t blame them. I think a lot of times people focus on certain systems or certain apps. While they’re all great, and I certainly don’t want to knock any of them, you are going to go nuts doing the same thing over and over again. You’ll give up and won’t ever make much progress.
There are so many effective ways to learn to speak French that are varied, fun, and interesting. Some ideas:
Look at cooking tutorials on YouTube.
Research, read, and make recipes following the directions in French.
Do a tutorial.
Learn how to paint.
Listen to history lectures.
Listen to the news.
Watch films-there’s many available on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and YouTube.
Watch reality shows.
Watch news- that’s a fantastic way to learn French.
Read the newspaper.
Do crossword puzzles.
Remember, It doesn’t have to be academic to work. You’re still going to get that input you need to build your skills in French.
Whether or not you choose to master French (or if you even need to) I hope these seven essentials help you on your journey.