A few weeks ago, I started posting about activities to undertake in order to improve your French proficiency. I lack the hubris necessary to consider myself a master of French but I appreciate the following citation.
If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.—Michelangelo
In my case, the cobbled-together scaffolding upon which my French proficiency balances is rooted in the pursuit of happiness rather than expertise. I consider myself an insatiable addict who has tried to expose herself to as much French as possible without overly annoying my friends and family.
It’s in that light that I offer this mish-mash of suggestions for keeping French quickly accessible whenever your head or heart desires un peu de français.
Highly Irregular Habits
I’ve never been good at maintaining a self-imposed study routine. When it comes to language learning, I often come across advice that says to do some task for just 15 minutes per day. Frequently, when I start a new book or begin listening to a podcast series in French, I tell myself things like, “if I read 10 pages per day, I’ll be done by the end of the month” or “I just need to listen to this podcast every night while cooking dinner and I’ll be done by the end of next week.” Yet, I can honestly report that I NEVER succeed in carrying out this kind of formalized routine.
While it seems obvious, it’s taken me a while to realize that I’ll never achieve all that I’d like to achieve. In addition, the older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of spending time on activities and relationships that I care about. In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, Oliver Burkeman writes:
We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.Oliver Burkeman
So, instead of adhering to the relentless practices of “highly effective people”, I try to adopt overarching goals, attending to each whenever time and desire align.
The Four Basics of Language Learning
Like most language learners, I have 4 basic overarching goals: improve my reading comprehension, maintain or improve my writing ability, improve my listening comprehension, and advance my spoken French. I’ve learned that I can’t consistently work on all of these every day. Nor do I think that doing so would be especially fruitful. Weeks may pass without me speaking much and then, realizing that I’m getting rusty, I begin talking to myself in French and seeking out conversations.
The same holds true for the other skills I wish to exercise. I may not read a French book for a month but it’s a stormy autumn day so I decide to sit by the fire and read Victor Hugo’s Quatre-vingt-treize, available for free on Kindle. While watching a U.S. newscast I might be skeptical about a particular story so I pull up France24 on my laptop to see if they provide a different perspective. While waiting to be seen at the dentist’s office, I pull out my phone and play a few French word games.
I also make time to intentionally and carefully exercise my French skills. But, much of my study is haphazard and at will. Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to find entertaining ways to practice and improve. I don’t worry about following an acclaimed expert’s subscribed regimen. The key for me has been undertaking activities that I enjoy. Happily, it’s not difficult to find dozens of options.
The Ubiquitous Electronic Appendage
Like it or not, most of us are tethered to our smartphones. We love them for all they can do for us and hate them for the way they eat up our time and attention. There are several ways to turn these brain-cycle-snatching ebandits into high-powered language-learning tools. Below are my recommendations on how to get the most out of your smartphones when it comes to improving your French.
Change the default language on your phone to French
Changing the default language on your phone to French will help you learn the online vocabulary that has seeped into our daily conversations, such as télécharger, boîte mail, pièce jointe, and navigateur. Most if not all of the apps that are on your phone will automatically change their interfaces to use French. Thus, you’ll immediately begin seeing French translations of words and ideas that you already use on a regular basis.
In general, I don’t like my iPhone’s digital voice assistant, Siri, because even in English, it too often fails to understand my question. Oddly enough, however, I am under the impression that the French Siri is much smarter as well as a better listener. While I expect the English Siri to understand me even when I mumble, and see her as a clueless robot when she gets things wrong, I conscientiously employ my best pronunciation when speaking to the French Siri and view her as a gracious and perceptive steward when she gets things right.
Install WordReference on your phone
One of the most important tools you need when learning a language is a dictionary. There are many French-English dictionaries to choose from. The tried-and-tested classics, like The Collins-Le Robert or Larousse, are examples of hailed and hefty printed volumes that you can now pay to access online. However, I highly recommend a free online dictionary called WordReference.
For starters, the WordReference app provides a dictionary, thesaurus, translation, and verb conjugator through an intuitive and simple-to-use interface. It also offers phonetic notation and audio clips for most words so that you know how they’re pronounced. In addition to words, Wordreference is primed with thousands of expressions and every entry is linked to a built-in forum where members can weigh in on various interpretations of a given word or phrase.
Visit French websites and consider installing their related apps
There are thousands of resources for francophiles and French language learners that are hosted online, ranging from Facebook to Lawless French—a site with hundreds of French lessons and learning tools. Not all are fantastic but spending a half hour perusing the French version of a popular platform is usually fun. Buzzfeed for example has a host of entertaining quizzes, most of which have been created by French people.
One platform that I find myself returning to regularly is Reddit. Reddit hosts several forums that are dedicated to learning French. My favorites are: r/French and r/WriteStreak. These forums are moderated and frequented by an impressive crew of experts that know their subject matter and explain it well. In the /French forum, people post all sorts of questions. Here are examples of recent subject lines:
- Grammar question – “que l’on”
- Texter vs. Envoyer des textos
- what are some French meme pages on Instagram
- Is C1 worth the investment if French isn’t related to your professional career?
- Quelle est la différence entre « fait le trottoir au 18ème » et « dans le 18ème »?
I don’t recall ever asking a question here but I’ve learned a lot by reading the responses to questions that other people post.
In the case of r/WriteStreak, this site is an amazing free resource if you want to improve your French writing. The idea is to write something every day in French—ideally, a paragraph or two. You enter your text and then moderators and other Reddit members give you feedback in the comments. Corrections range from fixing spelling and grammatical errors to improving your phrasing, something that online grammar checkers simply don’t do as well as competent humans.
Create flashcards and notes to help you remember
There are a number of phone apps, like Quizlet, that allow you to make digital flashcards for French words and expressions. I’ve gone through periods of using Quizlet, and it’s a very good product but it’s just cumbersome enough to cause me to take long breaks from it.
Since WordReference maintains a history of the words you’ve looked up, I frequently page back through my recent queries and try to remember the results while covering the English half of my phone screen. It’s the lazy-woman’s Quizlet.
I also use the Notes app on iPhone for jotting down French expressions or idioms that I want to remember. This is also where I often record the titles of French movies, podcasts, books, and music, that people recommend to me.
An even better app for taking notes, however, is Evernote. Evernote lets you store notes, webpages, lists, audio, tweets, scribbles, just about anything you’d care to look up in the future. You organize these entries with tags to make them easier to find later. The basic app is free and provides plenty of functionality.
Install French Versions of Game Apps
If you like playing word games and you’ve advanced beyond a beginning level of French proficiency, you’re ready to tackle French word games. Again, there are dozens of options to choose from. Some that I’ve enjoyed are Scrabble, Words with Friends, and Tetrus. All of these apps, initially built for English, have options to select a different language. Another more challenging option is Jeu de Bac, where you have 60 seconds to come up with 5 words in a given category that begin with the same letter. And of course, there are a few versions of the wildly popular Wordle en français.
My biggest problem with these games is that they’re addicting. Also, after playing them for a few months, I realize that my vocabulary isn’t advancing as rapidly as when I started. Instead, I’ve cultivated a subset of words that I use repeatedly to attain good scores. At that point, I delete the game from my phone so that I won’t be tempted to waste more time.
A favorite, however, that has remained on my phone for years is 7 Mots. This simple game provides an entertaining way to expand and exercise your vocabulary when you have a few minutes to kill. And, since the creators only give you one free game per day, you won’t fall into the trap of spending more time playing it than you intended. The game is simple. You’re given a grid of 20 tiles, each containing between 2 and 4 letters. Above are the clues for 7 words that can be formed from the tiles. If you’re stumped, you can ask for hints to help solve the puzzle.
Read and Listen
In a previous post, I provided ideas for improving your reading and listening skills. Most of the activities I described, such as listening to podcasts or reading ebooks, can be performed on your phone. If you subscribe to a French news source, like RFI, France24, or L’Obs, you can also configure your account to receive phone notifications or email summaries of the day’s top stories.
I’m personally not a fan of phone notifications because I feel like my day is already bombarded with interruptions. But, I’m a firsthand witness to how well such daily notifications can help your French. While I’ve never enabled them on my own phone, my son put them on his one summer after his high school French teacher encouraged her students to do so. She suggested that this would be an easy way to keep their French alive over the summer months when they were out of class.
It worked and my son kept the notifications going long after the summer months ended. Surprisingly, he paid attention to a good portion of them. I didn’t know he’d added this feature to his phone and thought he was remarkably intelligent when he began initiating conversations about French politics and seemed to know vocabulary that was unusually advanced. All the while, I was crediting his genius to maternally inherited traits but nooo, it was simply notifications from Le Monde that had made him look so smart.
It’s a Wrap
This wraps up my thoughts (at least for now) on ways to improve your French language skills. Please don’t hesitate to add your own insights, tips, and experiences in the comments below. I hope I’ve given you some new avenues to pursue. Don’t forget that language learning should be fun. If a particular activity doesn’t speak to you, drop it (along with all self-scrutiny) like a hot potato and move on. There are countless other exercises to choose from. Du courage mes camarades!
Oliver Burkeman’s quote is spot on. I think the crucial stage is childhood into teenage years, which in the UK leads to a general apathy of, “Why bother? Everyone speaks English abroad!”
One of the more ignorant traits of a sect of English folks here. I think in France and Europe they benefit with American films playing across the country. But there’s just also a more concerted effort to become bilingual, something Eddie Izzard has championed.
I’d I feel should be more present in England for a unified Europe. But we’ve kind of abandoned that concept in the name of fish & chips.
Note on the above, I have become quite cynical leaving here after 13 years of disastrous Tory rule.
And yet, you Brits managed to maintain a great sense of humor. When Trump was in office, half of our country was considering fleeing to safe havens like Tehran.
The fact that English is widely spoken all over the world is an irritating deterrent from learning another language but I realize that learning a second language isn’t for everyone.
“For the sake of fish and chips” is possibly a more honest answer then here in the U S where we cling to our sense of superiority “for the sake of freedom” because you really do have great fish and chips.
Thanks! Fish, chips, and mushy peas (or gravy). Although I do much prefer French food all the way.
Another activity could be watching gameshows (especially the ones focusing on words) on French TV.
You can access them with a VPN and set your computer in France.
Games are here: https://www.france.tv/jeux-et-divertissements/
I recommend Slam; Grand Slam; Tout le monde a son mot à dire.
For more general culture, a little like Jeopardy: Questions pour un champion; Questions pour un super champion; Tout le monde veut prendre sa place.
Besides the neat word games that can only improve your vocabulary in context, you also here daily French with the host doing small talk with the contestants.
And it could be fun too to listen to French TV ads that you are at the beginning of each game.
Obviously https://www.france.tv (the website containing the 5 main French TV channels has tons of other great programs – news, movies, etc.
Those are great suggestions Emma. Thanks!
great tips! I try to keep my expectations low, remind myself that once I learn a few words, things get easier, even tho the first handful are so hard
What languages do you speak da-AL?
english, spanish, which means I understand a little of all the romance languages. my husband is from Iran, so I know a little Farsi. we just visited Kolkata, so I learned a few words of Bengali before hand…
Faire le trottoir might be misunderstood indeed… LOL. (MDR)
These are great tips. I’ve been learning German for a while now and I do a number of these. I started watching German shows and it’s helped. a lot. At first I would watch stuff made for children and as I got better I started watching things for adults. And having a dictionary to translate things helps a lot too.
Nice. What made you choose German Pooja?
I’ve always wanted to visit Germany and spend a few weeks exploring it and I thought knowing the language would make it more fun. Plus, German is not too hard since some of it is similar to English.
I have been meaning to learn French for quite some time now, but in my lazy surfing, have only come across resources with intimidating mechanics to go about doing it. This is such a refreshing break from all that, Thanks Carol! I am looking forward to making these part of my daily routine
Have fun! And remember that even a tiny bit of progress is progress.
Great post, Carol. I would also like to add that if you stream using Roku, search for the Haiti TV Network. It streams Francophone TV channels from around the world, including France24; BFM channels; France 2, 3, 4, 5; and more. All free, no VPN required. The streams do not include subtitles but viewers can develop their listening skills.
Wow! Nice tip. Thanks.