As a language teacher, I have taught hundreds of students –like you – to learn French to help get travel ready and here’s what I’ve learned.
Most English-speakers learning French know that English is widely spoken in Paris, but less so as you leave the capital.
You are culturally sensitive and want to make an effort to at least learn some basics of the language. You understand that having a good grasp of French will lead to you having a deeper and more memorable experience.
So you add ‘Learn some French’ to your to-do list, alongside ‘buy a new suitcase’ and ‘renew my passport’…
Many reasons why language learning attempts aren’t successful are commonly shared so I want to avoid you falling in the same trap.
Here are the five main reasons I see over and over:
1/ Learners focus on the wrong things
Many students – like you perhaps – decide to learn French in anticipation of their upcoming holiday.
Once they get started, however, more often than not they get stuck or bogged down in complicated grammar rules, or figuring out the intricacies of tricky little words.
What a motivation killer!
They might end up spending hours going over old French school text books whereas what they really needed were ways to make sure they can feed themselves or deal with a sticky situation or travel emergency.
So if your goal is to order off a French menu or change a train ticket last minute, you need to focus on learning phrases, practice speaking them and train yourself to understand what people say back to you.
If you decide to take up French to get a job or study in France, you need a more rounded approach to balance your skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening. In this case, focusing on just memorising phrases will become tricky for you when it comes time for you to express yourself and create your own sentences from scratch.
2/ Learners choose the wrong learning approach
They may have purchased a book, an audio method for their car or joined a group course as a starting point for their learning and throw themselves deep into it and learn quite a bit of French. But after a few months, they hit a plateau…
If you’ve been learning with a book, you may feel like you struggle most when trying to understand it and if you’ve been learning from CDs or podcasts, you may feel like you struggle with conjugating verbs and constructing sentences.
Some people are more visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners but often we’re a mix of both, so whichever method you choose make sure you add something else to complement it.
Whatever your starting point, you can try these tricks:
So if you have a written method, try downloading a free podcast (such as Coffee Break French) to help improve your listening skills and better decipher the words (a sentence spoken by a French person can often sound like one very long word!).
If you are learning French by listening to it on your daily commute for example, I recommend you also buy a notebook and start listing some vocabulary and useful sentences you might need.
You can then look at translating those or asking a native French speaker or teacher how to build the sentence you’re after and practice saying it.
A phrase book is a good investment, especially if you are a beginner, but some prefer a pocket dictionary once they feel they can form sentences by themselves.
Your efforts will be appreciated and will go a long way towards making your trip more interesting.
If you have joined a group class, make sure it’s small enough numbers so that the teacher can correct your pronunciation when needed.
There’s no point to learning 500+ words if you’re not understood at all when you say it!
Whichever method you have invested in make sure you progress your speaking skills every single week. Try joining a conversation group like a local Meet Up group or find an online teacher to practice with.
Remember that if you don’t practice your speaking before your trip, you are very unlikely to give it a go once you get overseas.
3/ Students don’t focus on pronunciation
Too often learners head to a French-speaking destination with a head full of words and phrases to sadly return home feeling defeated that all their efforts were in vain…
I’d hate for you to read a menu and understand it but not be understood when you read out your selection. At least in restaurants, you can point at the chosen item.
Without practicing French sound pronunciation, you may be able to write what you want but if a French person can’t understand you then what’s the point?
It can be daunting to mimic French sounds especially if you are learning as an adult but it’s really essential for you to be understood.
If you are any good at telling jokes and copying a foreign accent, you will have an advantage.
But if you’re not a natural ‘accent copycat’, fear not.
You can choose a phrase book which will have some guidance on how the sentence or word should sound.
You can even get apps that will talk the sentence for you although I’ve not yet seen one I would trust in an emergency.
4/ People – naturally – don’t want to say it wrong
As most students who start something new, you’ll want to get it right.
However this will not serve you in learning a new language. It may seem counter-intuitive but:
The more mistakes you make the more you will progress.
If you wait until you construct the perfect sentence in the queue at a French bakery, you’ll probably have a few rushed French people overtake you. Then you’re more likely to lose your enthusiasm and switch back to English.
Thus wasting all that hard work you did to learn French in the first place.
It’s not something we are usually comfortable with but if you don’t ‘just go ahead and say it!’. You will never know if you could have been understood and the opportunity will have passed.
Let go of that perfectionist inside. It’s not serving you here and truly is your worst enemy when you’re learning French!
To make it a bit easier and less daunting you may want to ‘warn’ the French person by saying:
“Je vais essayer en français” (I’m gonna give it a go in French) then:
Just. Say. It.
Either they will understand (insert happy dance) or they may not, in which case you need to overcome the initial disappointment and work out what didn’t work.
- Simplify the sentence
- Say it more slowly
- Emphasise the important words
Mistakes are how you will learn the language, remember it better and ultimately improve.
There is really no other way.
5/Learners get stuck in conversation
Here’s another reason people often feel like they’ve failed at learning French.
When they are in France, they start to use a sentence or two they learned. However when the French person replies, they have no idea what they just said. Then all they remember is just standing there wide eyed and with even wider open mouths.
So when you learn, make sure you think about what you would say if someone said or asked a particular thing and work out a handful of possible answers. Even though nobody can predict what someone will say, it will help get you ready for their answer.
Also make sure you know how to ask questions and get very comfortable asking different ways.
Imagine a situation where you get to introduce yourself but only in a monologue format:
“My name is… I am… I come from… I have …. I live …. In life I do …. I like …”
You get the picture… That is not how I want your interactions to go when you’re travelling.
One question can often be asked in a variety of ways so just pick the one that you like best.
I’d advise you to go for the easiest one at the start. You can get fancy later.
So there, you have it…
These five reasons are what always trips up the most enthusiastic learner and now hopefully you understand how to avoid those traps.
Ready to step things up in your French learning journey?
Now if you want to take your language learning to the next level…
I’ve created a free workbook for you.
It’s called “The French Learning Success Workbook” and it’s designed to take you through some key questions to help set you up for language success.
Simply click the button above to get the free workbook to help set you up for success in your French learning.