How to Improve Your French [The Complete Guide]

If you’ve come to this article you’re probably looking for some good ways to improve your French. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve taken to the time to write about all of my favorite French-learning methods that I personally use and have had a lot of success with.

If you couldn’t tell already, this site writes almost exclusively about the French language. However, the advice in this article can easily apply to any language as much as it can apply to French, so if French isn’t the language for you you will still get value from this article. 

I write about all techniques mentioned in this post in my free eBook 10 Ways to Improve Your French so check that out if you haven’t already. Let’s get started…

 

1. Translating from English to French and Vice Versa

Most of us don’t learn French in order to become a translator, we simply wish to be able to converse with others and consume French content. However, with this first technique, a little bit of translation is required. If you don’t feel that you have strong translation skills don’t worry. You won’t be relying on your translation skills here; you’ll just be running through the motions.

This first technique can be extremely beneficial, but if isn’t implemented correctly you can actually hurt your overall French progress. It’s precisely for this reason that you follow these steps as closely as possible. Now that we’ve established that let’s proceed with step one and how it all works.

 

  1. In my opinion the first step is the hardest (and honestly it’s not even that hard). Start off by finding some sort of written content that is both in English AND French. There isn’t really a specific length that this has to be, but it’s probably best that it be at least a few hundred words. The longer the content that you choose the more you have to work with. Make sure that it’s something that you trust, such as a bilingual book. If the French content is translated from English I can’t stress enough how important it is that the translations be correct.
  2. In this next step you are simply going to study a portion of each text. Just pick the first few sentences of both texts and make sure that you read over them until you are very familiar with both. Take as much time as you need with this.
  3. Start with the English text and try to translate it into the French text. It’s VERY important that you translate it verbatim. This isn’t the time for “close enough”. This is why you don’t need to rely on your translation skills for this exercise. Seeing as the French text should already be grammatically correct you can rely on it instead of your own skills.
  4. After you finish translating your chosen text take a look at it. If you weren’t 100% correct, start over and rewrite it all again. Don’t just correct whatever mistakes you may have made, rewrite the entire thing. You don’t want to internalize any mistakes so you want to get used to writing and translating French sentences that are 100% correct.
  5. Once you’ve been able to translate the English text to the French text without any issues do the same in the opposite direction. Slowly move through the text translating each sentence (or short paragraph) until you’ve gotten through the entire text. What is really important is that your translations are correct so take as much time as you need. 

 

It’s extremely important that you have your chosen text in both English and in French. This is the only way that you can be certain that your translation is right. The problem with not having the text in both languages is that you are prone to making mistakes, which unless you have someone to constantly check your translations, will go unnoticed.

Too many unnoticed mistakes internalizes them and makes them difficult to fix. Just stick with what the French already says and you will be fine.

Pretty easy isn’t it? Use this exercise whenever you come across any piece of bilingual text. It’s an easy and fun way to help improve your French writing skills and can be done by anyone. The Frenchplanations Fluency Enhancement Multi-Pack contains a variety of bilingual texts with which you can use this technique.

Alright, let’s move on to the second technique which involves using spaced repetition systems.

 

2. Using Spaced Repetition Systems

If you’ve ever tried to memorize any sort of vocabulary you’ve likely used flashcards. If you are unaware of what spaced repetition systems are they are basically the 21st century version of flashcards. Everything is done electronically so you don’t need to worry about lugging around a bunch of paper cards with you. You load your list of electronic French flashcards into the system and start studying.

The system gives you each card one by one, and you let it know how well you have memorized it. Depending on what you’ve told the system, it will show you the same flashcard at given intervals in the future.

For example, if you tell the system that you have not yet memorized a card, then it may show it to you again only a few minutes later, whereas if you mark it as memorized you may not see it again for a few days or weeks. The idea is that eventually you will have seen all of your cards as many times as it takes to have moved them into your long-term memory.

Although spaced repetition systems are great for memorizing vocabulary you can really use them for anything. Load up a number of bilingual sentences to the system and set it to show you the English translation first. Try your best to mentally translate the English sentence you’re presented with into its French equivalent. If you were right then you can tell the system that you are confident with the sentence and move onto the next one. The great thing about using this technique is that you don’t have to write anything down (although you certainly can if you’d like)

Anki Logo
Anki Logo

which allows you to get through more sentences in a shorter amount of time. Although I personally feel that the first technique I mentioned is more effective, you can certainly perform this second one more often as it really only requires a smart phone or tablet. You can easily go through and practice your sentences whenever you have a few free minutes throughout the day.

You can use these two techniques in tandem by using the first technique to practice your written translation and then uploading sentences from your chosen text into your spaced repetition system to practice on the go. There are many free spaced repetition systems to use but the most popular one (and my favorite) is Anki.

We are currently in the process of creating free Anki flashcard decks for you to use. Head on over to the free course section and you can download them there.

 

3. Language Shadowing

Alright, the next one is a favorite of mine as I’ve been using it for years with a lot of success. If you’re looking for a how to improve your French accent, this is the method for you. For many this is a foreign concept, but the overall idea is simple. Usually when you listen to language audio files there is a pause after each phrase or paragraph which is put there so that the learner can repeat what was just said. Now although this isn’t a bad way to learn, by making a simple modification you can drastically increase your progress.

Instead of waiting for the speaker to finish their sentence of paragraph, say it along with them. This may be a little difficult at first, but over time it should become much easier. The idea here is that by “shadowing” the speaker you will naturally pick up on the rhythm and intonation of the language.

Think of it like using training wheels for your French learning. Have you ever sang along to a song and noticed that you automatically try to sound like the singer? The same principle applies here and it works very well.

This technique was made popular by Dr. Alexander Arguelles. His YouTube channel has a few videos that delve deep into the subject, but his best one in my opinion can be found here. For me this is probably the single best way to improve your French speaking skills.

 

4. Reading/Listening to Content You Already are Familiar With

This next method may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how effective it can be. When people start learning French they often want to jump right in by reading and watching material that is ONLY found in French. They go out and find new sources of content such as YouTube channels, TV shows, radio stations, etc.. and start reading and listening blindly.

There’s typically nothing wrong with this, however if you have trouble understanding these materials then I recommend using this method. Take some sort of media that you’ve consumed many many times. This can be a book, TV show, movie or something else.

It’s VERY important that it be something that you already know extremely well. Find the French version of it and start reading or watching. Because you are already aware of everything that happens in your content you can expect certain words and phrases to come up and prepare to see or hear them.

Switch between your English and French content and you’ll find that each time you switch back to the French you’ll understand a little more. Those looking to enhance their French vocabulary will love this technique.

 

5. Reading out loud (and loud if possible)

The hardest (and often the most neglected part) of learning any language is speaking. Even those who feel comfortable with their oral comprehension often hesitate to speak more than a few words at a time. Most people would agree that of the four main components of language learning (reading, writing, listening, speaking) speaking is definitely the hardest.

Because of this, I recommend speaking every chance that you get. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to find a native speaker to converse with (although I’d never say this is a bad idea), but rather that you should find some text that you enjoy and read it out loud. The only reason that I mention that you should read your text loudly if possible is for two reasons.

One, it helps exercise the muscles that your face and mouth use when speaking French and two, it helps you to be more confident in speaking. Don’t get into the habit of just mumbling along with your book otherwise you’ll likely do that when speaking with someone else.

What people often fail to realize about language learning is that it’s as much a physical process as it is a mental one. You need to train the muscles in your face to speak your new language. If it helps, just think of it as a workout for your mouth and tongue.

Over time you will build up these muscles and speaking French will become as natural as tying your shoes or brushing your teeth. In my daily routine I personally shoot for 1,000 sentences spoken out loud per day. You don’t have to hit this exact number, but as long as you are practicing every day you should still make progress. If you’re looking for a way how to practice speaking French alone then this is your method.

 

6. Reading Texts with Images

This is a short one, but nevertheless if you have the ability to employ it, then I fully recommend it. Graphic novels, comic books and other texts with images can help you understand certain vocabulary and grammar that you wouldn’t normally understand.

Most of those learning French would agree that looking up every word you don’t understand in a dictionary is less than ideal, so if you are able to naturally absorb something through added context, why not take the opportunity?

Another good thing about graphic novels and comic books that they often contain dialogue and vocabulary that can be directly copied into conversation, something that traditional novels often lack.

 

7. Watching Videos with Both English and French Subtitles

In a language learning sense watching material with subtitles can be immensely helpful. For this technique, start by choosing a French video or film that has subtitles in both English AND French. Begin by watching it with English subtitles. It’s important that you try your best to follow along and don’t just let what’s being said completely wash over you.

Seeing as you probably already understand everything that is being said this shouldn’t be too difficult. Keep watching and rewatching and once you feel quite comfortable with the context of what you are watching, switch over to the French subtitles. Because subtitles often appear a second or two before the speaker actually says anything you can pick out words and phrases to listen for.

As soon as the subtitles appear on the screen pick a word or two to listen for and see if you are able to understand the speaker when they say it. Keep rewatching the video until you can understand at least half of what’s being said..

At that point turn off the subtitles and see if you can follow along with what you could understand previously. If you still have difficulty, simply turn the subtitles back on until you understand, then switch them back off.

 

8. Watching Videos at Various Speeds

The great thing about this next method is that it’s not only a good way to improve your French online, but pretty much anybody can do it right this second and will virtually never run out of material to use. Here’s how it works. Head on over to YouTube and find a French video that is around your level.

Assuming you still have some difficulty understanding, go ahead and set the video to half speed. Today’s technology allows for minimal voice distortion so you don’t have to worry about the speaker’s voice being difficult to understand or wonky sounding.

Watch and rewatch the video as many times as you need until you can follow along without a problem. Then set the video to .75 speed and once you can follow along no problem put it to full speed.

Lastly, run the video at 2x speed and see if you can still follow along. Nobody in real life speaks as fast as your video will be so if you can still understand what’s going on then you’ll be in good shape when you speak to your French friends. This technique does wonders for those whose French listening skills need help.

 

9. Listening All the Time

This next method is more important than most people realize. Remember when I said that speaking is the hardest part of learning French? (or any foreign language) Well oral comprehension is the second hardest. It’s important to keep in mind that in order to make it in a French environment your oral comprehension has to be at a higher level than your speaking ability.

This is because most native-French speakers are likely to speak better French than you so you need to be able to at least follow along. Most people are also not going to dumb themselves down every time they speak with you so you’ll need to be as close to their level as possible.

There are two types of listening; active and passive. Active listening is ideal for us in this situation, but passive listening has its place too. Active listening is for when you have time to sit down and focus on your learning. On the other hand passive listening is for when you are doing something else, but are still in a position where you can listen.

Although you won’t passively listen your way to French fluency, you can help the language to sound less foreign. When you first start learning a language it’s usually difficult to discern one word from another when listening. The language itself sounds simply like noise than a collection of words and phrases you don’t understand.

By spending time listening as often as you can, this perception of noise slowly goes away and you can start to make out one word from another, even if you don’t understand what’s being said.

When you think about it, you’ll find that your friends that are also learning French are typically easier to understand than your native-speaking friends because their accent and intonation doesn’t sound foreign to you. It’s also the same reason why foreign speakers of English are more difficult to understand than native ones.

Let’s finish this list off with another great way to improve your French, using sources NOT meant for learners of French.

 

10. Use Sources NOT Meant for Learners of French

Nobody is going to pick up a French novel or watch a French movie on their first day and make any progress whatsoever, so using material specifically designed for French learners is inevitable to some degree. The problem is that most people stick with “learning material” for too long and never moving onto anything that the French themselves would use in their day-to-day lives.

Foreign-language material often includes unnatural vocabulary and grammar that screams “French is not my first language”. Have you ever been in a situation where you were practicing your French with a friend only to have them say “Yeah, we don’t ever say that” in response to something you just learned? If you, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Using material that is for native-French speakers only can help you avoid embarrassing situations like this one.

Additionally, if you are actively taking a French class or have taken one in the past, if may be a good idea to supplement what you’ve learned with some native material as classrooms have a reputation for teaching vocabulary that many native speakers would deem unnatural.

 

Conclusion

Finally, we’ve made it to the end! There are so many tips and techniques to improve that we couldn’t possibly list them all. So it’s your turn now. Tell us about some of your favorite French learning techniques. List them below and explain how they work.

We would like to have as many techniques as possible on this site. Hopefully as time goes on we can write about even more techniques that can help people improve their French.

For now, thanks so much for reading and hope to see you on the next article!

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