What’s the fastest way to learn French? Search this online and you'll see a number of websites claiming that their specific course is the magic bullet.
I've met hundreds of language learners, and I can tell you that there is no 'best' or fastest way to learn French. What the best approach is for you will depend on factors like your goals, level, budget and time.
But there are some learning strategies that tend to work better than others.
This guide is based on my personal experience of learning French, as well as research into the methods used by polyglots - people who speak several languages.
Polyglots are often perceived to be superhuman. But they'll be the first to tell you that they don’t have any special powers. Instead, their success with languages is largely due to their learning strategies.
I will explain these strategies, as well as give you practical resources, including both free and paid options.
You’ll obtain the most value from reading this guide if you're a beginner or you have a basic level (A1/A2) in French. If you have an intermediate level, you should instead check out this guide, which gives recommendations specific to your level and goals.
I’m not going to show you how to reach a native level of French in six months. Contrary to what certain companies claim, it takes years of dedication to truly master a language.
But the good news is you can achieve conversational fluency in far less time.
Conversational fluency means the ability to converse with native speakers at a normal, conversational speed around everyday topics. It's what you need if your end goal is to be able to get to know the locals, understand their culture, or successfully integrate into a French-speaking country. Unless having a native level of fluency is crucial to your work (are you an international spy?), you should focus on achieving conversational fluency.
You can reach conversational fluency in French within 6-12 months. This guide will show you how.
How to learn French fast:
How to build your vocab intelligently
Learning French can feel like a daunting challenge. You might ask yourself, how am I going to memorise thousands of new words? Fortunately, there are techniques that can help you start having conversations quickly:
- Learn the most commonly used words. In French, like in all other languages, a minority of words make up the majority of the spoken language. I'll provide a list of these words later. You'll also come across them naturally whilst exploring the language. Write down and learn the commonly used words whilst ignoring the complex words you don’t hear so often.
- Learn words that are relevant to you. Focus on topics that are relevant and interesting to you. The vocab will be far more useful. You’ll find it easier to memorise and you'll be more likely to actually use the words in real life.
- Learn cognates. Fortunately, French has thousands of words that are the same, or almost the same in English. For instance, the word gratitude is the same in both languages. For many words, you just need to change the ending (e.g. anniversary > anniversaire). I'll give you a list of the rules later.
- Write down new words in a notebook. Yes, it's old school, but it works. Studies have shown that when you write rather than type, your ability to recall information improves considerably. Researchers believe this is because writing is slower and involves deeper mental processing.
Develop habits to maintain momentum
According to polyglot Alex Voloza, mastering a language 'boils down to consistent practice multiplied by time'.
Practicing consistently may be easy at first. It's harder to maintain over months and years. So how do you give yourself the best chance of practicing regularly over a long period?
By building habits. Habits are key to behaviour change because once you form them, you don’t need to rely on willpower or motivation.
Habits are developed through cues and rewards. The cue sets the behaviour into action. For learning French, the cue could be as simple as setting a daily reminder in your calendar to practice at the same time every day. The reward should ideally be intrinsic; learning should feel rewarding and fun. You won't find anything boring in the resources I'll suggest below.
If the intrinsic reward isn't enough for you, you could promise yourself an external reward, like a trip to a French-speaking country. Or tell your friends that you're going to practice every day. We all want to be true to our word, so telling others may help you maintain momentum.
The best activities and resources for learning French
As you go through the resources below and choose some to try, bear in mind that your choices should reflect your goals. If your goal is to be able to have conversations in French, spend most of your practice time on speaking and listening. You'll also find that speaking practice is more efficient than writing - it takes more time to write a sentence than it does to say it.
Here are some of the best resources and how to use them:
Listen to a French podcast every few days and you'll rapidly improve your ability to understand French as it's spoken by natives. If you're short on time, try listening whilst washing the dishes or commuting.
If you're a beginner, there are actually very few quality podcasts targeted at beginner French learners. Fortunately, there is Language Transfer, which will teach you the basics in a logical manner.
If you already know some French (A2 level), try Slow French with Gaelle. She'll teach you about French culture, history and other topics in clear, slowly spoken French. She also gives some lessons on common challenges faced by students of French. There are free, interactive transcripts available to read as you listen, as well as free vocab lists. Another option is Inner French. Whilst it's more challenging, Hugo, the host, told us that the first 30 or so episodes are okay for A2 level students.
To maximise your learning from podcasts, repeat what the podcast hosts are saying from time to time. This will help you memorise words and improve your pronunciation. Also, many podcast have transcripts - use them together with a dictionary like WordReference to learn the words you didn't understand.
News & Netflix
If you know a bit of French, try following international news in French instead of English. News presenters speak very clearly, and you'll already know some of the news stories, helping you understand.
TV5 has excellent international news programmes you can watch from anywhere. Or if you prefer to listen on the go, Radio France Internationale's news broadcasts can be found on any podcast app if you search "RFI".
Moving on from news, if you have Netflix, numerous French language shows are at your fingertips. Some of the best shows to watch include Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent), Lupin, Au service de la France (A Very Secret Service), Family Business, and La Mante (The Mantis). Put French subtitles on, and resist using English ones as you'll end up reading them and not paying attention to the French.
For learning to speak French, you have three main options: language exchanges, group classes & 1-on-1 classes.
If you live in a city and already know some French, language exchanges are worth considering. The events are often held in bars. Drinking alcohol will make you feel fluent, even when your sentences don't make sense. The downside is that exchanges aren't an efficient way to learn: you spend time travelling to the meet up and once you get there, you spend half your time helping others with your native language.
Another option is to go to group classes in your local area. Like exchanges, classes can be a fun social activity. They're more efficient than exchanges as the focus is solely on your learning. But you'll follow a fixed curriculum, meaning you can't focus on what you personally want to improve upon, nor concentrate on topics that interest you. If you want to learn how to speak with locals, you may be frustrated with the limited speaking practice.
The fastest way to learn to speak French is to take 1-on-1 classes tailored to your needs. The cost can be a little higher, but if you're taking the lessons online, you can find a tutor from just $15/h (approx. €12 or £10.5). A good tutor will get you speaking for at least 70% of the lesson time, whilst making you feel comfortable about making mistakes and providing detailed feedback.
A less obvious benefit of having a tutor is keeping you on track. A good tutor will support you, make you accountable and help you stay consistent. Knowing you have a scheduled class/homework, and that there is somebody who cares about your progress, can be crucial.
If you're looking to learn French fast, you can check the tutors available on LanguaTalk. Unlike other sites, we put time into finding the best tutors (mainly from France and Belgium).
Whatever option you go for, try topping up your speaking practice through self-talk. All the normal self-talk that goes on in your head during the day can be done in French. For example, instead of thinking “I should drink something” in English, think it in French instead. When you don't know how to say something, you can check on an app like Reverso Context (one of the best).
Tools for learning vocab and pronunciation:
Earlier I told you how that you only need to learn the most common French words to be able to have conversations in French. Here's a list of the 5,000 most commonly used French words in French. It's available on Memrise, an app for building vocabulary.
I also recommended you learn the rules for cognates. Here's my favourite resource for this.
Last but not least, for checking how a word is pronounced, there's Forvo, where you can search French words and instantly hear native speakers pronouncing them.
Common mistakes when learning French
You're now aware of some of the best strategies and resources for learning French fast. But to maximise your chances of succeeding, it's important you avoid the following pitfalls:
- Obsessing over grammar. Whilst it's important to learn the basics, you don't need perfect grammar to make yourself understood. If you find grammar exercises boring, consider this: when you speak, read, or listen to French, you'll pick up a lot of grammar instinctively. Think about grammar in your native language. Do you use it effortlessly because you studied all the rules? Or did you learn it instinctively, through practice?
- Avoiding speaking & making mistakes. If your goal is to be able to speak at a conversational level, you should start speaking early on. You may be nervous, but you need to get comfortable with making mistakes. More mistakes means more feedback, which will help you learn French faster.
- Spending too long on apps. When you're a beginner, language learning apps can be handy for picking up some basic vocab and grammar. But beyond this, if your goal is to be able to have conversations in French, the fastest way to become capable of this is not through answering multiple choice questions on an app. It's through speaking and listening practice with people.
- Telling yourself you don't have enough time. The reality is you only need 15 minutes a day to make progress. Consider your daily commute, for example – thanks to technology, you can spend this time revising vocab or listening to French podcasts. Do you often watch TV and films? Watch French media instead, or at least turn on French subtitles if you have Netflix or Prime.
You can learn French fast, irrespective of your budget.
In this guide, I've given you everything you need to learn French fast, even if you have a limited budget. If you're feeling motivated, start building daily learning habits today. Make a note of some of the resources I mentioned and try them. Copy the plan below or make a similar one:
Day 2: Find a French tutor and book a taster session.
Day 3: Go over 100 of the most commonly used French words.
Day 4: Learn some of the rules for cognates.
Day 5: Start a French series on Netflix (with French subtitles on).
Day 6: Go to a language exchange and practice what you've learnt!
¡Bonne chance! (Good luck!)