How to learn French fast - the two types of study you need
How can I learn French faster? My readers keep asking this question to me. If you google it, you will find many articles with a variation of this title: how to learn French fast, in 3 months, in two weeks or even... in one minute! With so much clickbait out there I thought it was really not my role to write yet another article on "how to learn French fast". But my readers kept asking about it and upon taking a close look at those above-mentioned articles, I understood why the question "how to learn French fast" keeps being asked: it has never actually been answered. All these articles provide good tips but none of them give an actual overview or a plan to really learn French (fast or not) and when they pretend to do so, the plan makes no sense at all, from my point of view as an expert. So, here we go. Some honest talk on how you can learn French fast. For real.
How long will it take you to learn French?
First, please don't ask me how long it takes to learn French, because I can't possibly answer this question without knowing everything about you, your schedule and your motivations, and even then I could only give you an educated guess. However I can promise you that if you consistently follow the actionable advice in this article, you will actually learn French and much faster than you would have by trying to follow any of the "miracle methods" out there.
As suggested by the title, if you want to learn French fast, you need two types of study. Namely focussed study and unfocussed study. Not either or. You need both. Those two types of study have opposite drawbacks which cancel each other if you use both consistently. This is why it's so important to use both. And, no, it doesn't take more time. It actually takes less time if you know how to do it.
So, what are those two study types and how can you use them to learn French fast?
Focussed study is what you generally think of when you think of study. You associate it to books, classrooms, teachers, or in a more modern view, computers and digital French learning methods.
Even though it is technically possible to learn French without focussed study (my wife did it), the vast majority of us won't have the required learning style and living conditions to achieve good results through unfocussed study (a.k.a immersion) alone.
Focussed study is necessary to:
- have a plan: you can't learn everything at once so it's good to rely on an existing plan, whether it's in a book or custom-made for you by the teacher.
- provide a familiar environment: this is entirely a mindset thing. For us, learning means teacher, books, focussed time, possibly computers. This is how we are used to learn. When you learn something new, you don't want to completely upset how you learn. It's hard enough on your brain to learn a new language, so it's not a good idea to also change entirely how you learn. Our brains aren't made to learn too much at once.
- have a schedule: One of the key elements of successful French learning is consistency. Do what you have to do to ensure that you will have at least one or two focussed study sessions, you can go to a French class if there's one close to your home or join an online program, or find a teacher on italki (this is my profile there) where you can book your lessons in advance, or if you study on your own, plan your study sessions in your calendar and stick to it.
- validate what you have learned: without the feedback provided by your teacher or your course, you might as well assimilate things and never realize that you did. Like my wife who only realized that she could speak French when I told some friends that they didn't have to switch to English to speak to her, because she spoke French. She had no idea. She had learned French without even noticing. If you speak French, you want to be aware of it, right?
So, first get yourself some focussed study. Find time for at least one or two focussed study sessions per week. If you are overwhelmed by all the options available out there, here is my advice to solve this problem: just pick anything that appeals to you and stick to it. Only allow yourself to switch if you have given your method an honest try and it has become clear that it doesn't work for you (or that you hate it).
If you are a beginner, every method will give you satisfactory results if you follow it diligently. You don't need to have "the best method" (by the way here is some truth talk from your favorite expert about "the best method"). If you can't or don't want to join a course or take one-on-one classes, just pick a method that appeals to you. Pick Assimil. Pick Michel Thomas. Even pick duolingo if you like (read my mixed feelings about duolingo and how to make the most of it here) Don't pick Rosetta Stone, I haven't met a single student who was happy with it.
If you are already an intermediate student, it's a little bit more difficult to just pick anything, due to the specific challenges of intermediate students (known as "the intermediate block" or intermediate plateau"). I have designed my signature program the High Road to Fluency to address those challenges systematically. This is a one on one coaching program designed to take you from where you are to where you want to be, as fast as it gets. It is the shortest way from frustrated to fluent. If you have tried everything and you are desperate to ever break through the plateau and reach fluency, I recommend you apply for High Road to Fluency. It will save your French study, and spare you some more years of frustration.
Curious to know how this program takes you from frustrated to fluent? The exact method I use is outlined in this article. You can also get started with this method for free by grabbing your Fluency Worksheet below:
Why is focussed study not the only thing you need?
Focussed study comes with a number of limitations:
- Your focussed study sessions cost a lot of energy and you can't stay focussed for a very long time. This limits the amount of exposure to the language you get (a.k.a the time spent in contact with the language, which is the only way we can learn languages)
- Focussed study sessions are also time-consuming, since you need to block time to take them. If you are human, you don't have an unlimited supply of free time.
- If you study with a teacher, focusses study sessions have a financial cost. You might be not be able to afford hundreds of hours (it is estimated that it takes about 1000 hours of study for an English speaker to become conversational in French)
- Last but not least, you might have some bad feelings about focussed study, which increases your resistance to it and limits the benefits that you can reap. You might have had a failed experience of learning French at school (if so, here's why), you also might think that focusses study is boring and/or stressful.
All these limitations are entirely valid and can be the reason why you still haven't learned French or reached a level you are happy with. Fortunately, we have a solution to learn some more French, while removing all these limits. Welcome to the fabulous world of...
Unfocussed study is sometimes referred to as "immersion" or "assimilation". It encompasses everything and anything that can teach some French to you in a more informal manner, such as watching movies, listening to French music or radio in the background, etc.
It costs nothing (or considerably less than classes), doesn't bore you or stress you out and doesn't take time out of your schedule, since you can do it while you commute, work out or generally do whatever you do, only with an added French touch to it.
Unfocussed study is how children learn languages and it works so well for them that many people are convinced that learning a language is easier for children than for adults (by the way, it's not true). Children learn languages the same way that adults do: by being in contact with them. This is known as "immersion": if you soak a child in a French speaking environment, the child will pick up the language quite fast. If you soak and adult in a French speaking environment, the adult will also pick up the language. But because we compare a child learning through immersion (=many hours of contact with the language) and an adult learning through focused study (= a measly 2 hours a week at best), we are convinced that it's easier for children. But really what happens is that there is a direct correlation between the time you spend with the language and how well you learn it.
more French in your life = more French in your brain
And you can ditch all the neurological considerations of how a younger brain is more flexible. It is certainly true but it isn't going to stop you from learning French.
I have created an ecourse to help you find all the time you need to learn French, and integrate your unfocussed study in your schedule even (and especially) if you are really busy. Please check it out if you are serious about learning French. You can also get started for free with this 30 minutes workshop.
When you know how to integrate informal study in your life, you progress much faster. As a coach I see a very clear difference between a student who just shows up for their sessions with me and doesn't do any French outside of the sessions and their homework and a student who shows up for the sessions, does their homework and also grabs every opportunity to learn some French on the side in an informal, relaxed manner. They both pay the same price, they both have the same amount of focused study. The second student has about five times better results. This is the reason why every students who enrolls in my program the High Road to Fluency also gets free access to my ecourse Time for Language Learning as a bonus. Because why would you miss the chance to quintuple your results for the same price and not much more time investment?
I get that not everyone can join this program, for one thing there are only up to 3 open spots every month and those are only for intermediate students. But in all cases you can learn how to unlock your schedule and start reaping the benefits of unfocussed study by taking this free 30 minutes training. Check it out!
Do you have experience with unfocussed study? What's your favourite activity to chill out and learn some French at the same time? Please share in the comments so others can enjoy it too.
And if you have found a focused study method that has worked well for you, please share your experience to help other students chose their way of learning French.
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