How I’ve Been Studying French

I started learning French in January 2019. Taking into account of the 3-month hiatus I took later that year, as of today, 13 September 2020, I’ve been studying French for about 1 year and 6 months.

This post outlines the major milestones of my journey so far, as well as the resources I’ve been using. I’m documenting all this mostly for my own sake – so I have something to look back to one day – but also to provide some ideas for other aspiring francophones out there.

Starting from Zero

I spent a lot of time looking for free materials online, in the beginning. I’d learned Korean up to an upper intermediate level without spending a single cent – no textbooks, no courses, just relying solely on the free materials I could find online. I wanted to see if I could do that with French before buying any books or committing to any paid courses.

The search turned out to be, for the most part, fruitless. While there were a lot of free materials online, most of them lacked structure. I needed something that is organised in a more linear way, with clear levels and logical progression, like the free lessons on How to Study Korean.

I couldn’t find anything like that, so I started looking into paid courses. But they were all pretty expensive. Failing to find one that I could actually afford, I decided to go with textbooks.

Basic French by McGraw Hill

Basic French by McGraw Hill

It was my first time ever studying with a textbook, so I didn’t know what to expect. But it turned out to be really helpful. Concepts are introduced by chapters, with exercises to help reinforce each of them.

It wasn’t too in-depth, but as a textbook for beginners, it helped lay a solid base of grammar knowledge for the things I would eventually move on to. I breezed through the book in 3 months.

I can see why some people found it too underwhelming (I looked up some reviews afterwards – I actually stumbled across this book while browsing the local bookstore, and bought it because I liked what I saw). As someone who loves getting into the technicalities of grammar, I too found it a bit too oversimplified, but as a starter, I think it was very well written.

Learn French with Alexa

I found Alexa’s channel after scouring youtube for French learning content, and I fell in love with her videos for beginners. I love her fun yet concise explanations on grammar, the pace of her videos, and her pronunciation. The sounds of the language were difficult for me at first, but the way she broke each word down was really helpful, which, surprisingly, was not something I was able to find in the other teachers on youtube at that time. I liked her content so much that I actually considered joining her course – I would have, if I could afford it.

Getting to Know the Sounds of French

I’m not gonna lie – I really, really struggled with pronouncing things in the beginning. It’s not so much the sounds themselves that were the problem, but not being able to tell which sound is each alphabet supposed to correspond to gave me so much anxiety. Like, how are you supposed to look at ‘grenouille’ and know that it sounds like ‘gr-euuh-noo-yweeeey’? I’d just come from Korean, which is a highly phonetic language (in comparison to the other languages I speak), so not being able to know how to pronounce a word just by looking at it drove me insane (ironic, considering my native language is Mandarin Chinese).

So I dedicated a lot of time to figuring out the links between the alphabets and the sounds they correspond to. Strangely, I wasn’t able to find any videos on that topic at that time. I ended up using this book that I found in a local bookstore. It wasn’t a very useful book at all, but it had this, which was what I was looking for:

The Sounds in French.

I wouldn’t say it’s an accurate representation of the sounds in French, but it was a good start. Armed with this list and a lot of attentive listening, I began to see the patterns in the sounds of the language, and after a month, I was able to work out the pronunciation of 80-90% of the words I came across. Turns out the French sounds are actually pretty consistent, barring the occasional irregularities, which is more than what I can say for English. Even the silent letters are predictable for the most part.

Obsession with Pronunciation

I quickly became obsessed with pronouncing things correctly. I’m not sure why, but I think it was partially because I felt like I actually had a chance at perfecting my pronunciation. I found most of the sounds pretty easy to reproduce – the u, the nasal sounds, etc. There was just one thing standing in my way – the infamous ‘r’, and it really drove me crazy, because it’s such a common letter, there’s literally no way to avoid it.

I got so caught up with perfecting my ‘r’s that I actually considered dropping French altogether if I failed to learn it. I would force myself to practice it over and over again, to the point that my throat was sore. There were times where I actually felt faint after practicing for hours on end. It definitely wasn’t healthy, and I think my mental health also played a role in this.

I still remember this incident I had with the word ‘concierge’. I had somewhat grasped the basics of producing the ‘r’ sound by then – I could pronounce it when it was at the beginning of a word, but not when it was in the middle. Not being able to take my mind off of the word, I actually sneaked out of the office and went to sit under one of the trees outside the front entrance of our building, where I practiced saying the word for 15 minutes.

I was so fixated on it that I didn’t care about the fact that I was being grossly irresponsible (I was working!), or just how ridiculous the whole thing might have looked to other people. And then, after not being able to achieve the pronunciation that I wanted after 15 minutes of frantic trying, I broke down crying.

I’m writing this down because it was definitely a problem that I had and I don’t want to forget it in case it ever happens again with another language. It’s also an instance that shows how mental health can affect your learning performance, and that sometimes it can interact with your studies in dangerous ways that actually affect your capacity to function in other areas of your life (such as work) and hurt your overall well-being. It’s something I haven’t seen brought up a lot.

My obsession with pronunciation did finally go away after about 6 months of excruciating struggle. It still flares up every now and then, but for the most part, I think I have it under control.

Moving On to Harder Stuff

Complete French Grammar by McGraw Hill

Complete French Grammar by McGraw Hill.

There was a pretty huge jump in terms of difficulty, moving from the previous textbook to this one. I spent six months working through the book and memorising the vocabulary featured in it, using a Memrise deck that I’d created for myself.

I found the grammar explanations sufficient for the most bit, and filled in the blanks by doing my own research online, which was I found Lawless French (my free grammar bible for now). I also enjoyed the vocabulary selection. One of my key criteria for a good textbook/grammar course is always the vocabulary – whether or not it is introduced in a way that feels natural, and whether or not it is diverse or applicable to the learners in their everyday life. A good way to measure this is to look at how much you understand outside of the classroom/textbook. Do you find yourself gradually understanding more and more of the content you consume in your target language?

Writing in French

I started writing random journal entries and uploading them to italki for corrections. It worked as a supplementary exercise to what I was getting out of the textbook – a way for me to put what I was learning to use. Slowly but surely, I got to know each of the tenses, and became more and more familiar with them.

Shadowing Youtubers

Around this time, I found the channel of Norman Thavaud, a French youtuber well known for making comedy skits. Most of his older videos were subbed in both French and English, which made them great for studying. I printed out the transcripts and studied the videos at 0.5 speed, then 0.75, then finally full speed. It was great for improving my listening skills, which, up until then, had been non-existent. I also did a lot of shadowing, which greatly really helped with my intonation, and gave me an idea of what sort of cadence I should apply to my sentences while speaking. I’d already worked out the sounds – intonation was the glue that I needed in order to string them together.

A video by Norman Thavaud, a French youtuber.

This is one of the videos that I practiced the most with. I still remember whole lines from it.

Exploring More Content

Around the start of this year, I began to move on to a more content-driven approach. It was always my goal to do so, but I wanted to establish a solid foundation of grammar knowledge and vocabulary first. 15 days into the quarantine, I decided it was time.

I tried a bunch of different things. The fairytales on the Fable Cottage (which made for great reading practice), various Youtube channels, and a fully voiced RPG game. After a month or two of experimenting, I slowly shifted into my current routine, which looks a little something like this:

Inner French Podcast

Inner French is a podcast created by Hugo, a French teacher who currently resides in Poland. The podcast is targeted at intermediate learners, and every episode is built around a different topic. What I love the most, though, is that everything is in French. Hugo has a way of explaining relatively complex ideas and events in a manner that is simple and concise, yet just challenging enough for the average intermediate learner. I consistently learn about 28-30 new words every episode, which shows you how much thought he puts into choosing his words. He speaks only in French, too, even when he’s explaining the meanings of these new words. Instead of using English as a crutch, he breaks them down into simpler words, allowing us to work out the meaning on our own. He also speaks very clearly and relatively slowly, which makes the podcast really easy to follow.

Reading and Writing in French

I usually start my week with Hugo’s podcast. After that, I follow it up with reading and writing throughout the week, usually on the same topic. The topics he chooses for his podcast are generally quite interesting, so I don’t really mind reading up on them and writing about them afterwards.

I would google for an article or two on the same topic and study the words I don’t know. Then, I give them a day or two to sink in, before I try to write my own article, which I then upload to italki for corrections. I usually try to incorporate the words or expressions I found in the articles, as well as sentence structures that I find interesting/want to emulate, as a way of reinforcing what I’ve learned.

On days I feel like reading something random or something a bit shorter, I go to 20 minutes. I’m not at the level where I can actually work through the whole article under 20 minutes, but it’s better than the more long-form stuff that you find on other sites.

Consuming French Content

I try to consume as much French content as possible, outside of my studying hours. That includes listening to French music (my favourite singer at the moment is Pomme), watching French movies and shows on netflix with double subtitles, and watching whatever content I can find on Youtube.

My current favourites are Solange Te Parle (I aspire to speak as eloquently as her), Antastesia (or her – sometimes I can keep up, sometimes I can’t), Street French (great for bite-sized input before bed), Easy French (for street interviews with sassy Parisians) and Art Comptant Pour Rien (I hope one day I’ll be able to follow her videos with ease).

So that’s where I am with French now. I would say I’m a strong B1? I can understand most articles with the help of a dictionary, my vocabulary is growing, I’m learning to write on a wide range of topics, and I’m understanding more and more of what I hear, by the day. My current goal right now would to achieve B2 in a year – we’ll see how that goes.

Thank you for reading till the end. All the best with your studies, and happy learning!