Learning French

November 12, 2020

This article is a bit different from the ones I usually publish. Normally I like to write about various places, trips and adventures in Vence and all around France: villages, historical landmarks, monuments, interesting outings, hikes, bike rides, etc. However, several people have asked me about learning French and if I could offer any recommendations for learning resources. So I’m going to tell you a bit about my story, my journey into the French language and recommend four resources that I have found to be helpful along the way. For me. Maybe you’ll find it helpful, maybe not. Everyone is different and your experience with learning a foreign language may not be the same as mine.

French is Hard (for me)

Let me start by saying that it has not been easy! I consider myself a pretty intelligent person. I always did extremely well in school and was usually close to the top of my class. I’m a good “self-starter,” a good “self-learner,” a good book learner. Over the course of my life I have taught myself many, many things including web design and coding (something many people do not find easy). But, when it comes to learning French I just don’t feel as “smart” as I think I should be. I’ve always felt like I should be making faster progress. I should know more by now. I should be farther along. I get frustrated when I hear or read about people who claim to have “picked up the language very quickly” and are now running around the country chatting with the locals and fitting right in. I roll my eyes and bite my tongue when I read an advertisement that claims to teach you French in six weeks or one that claims you’ll be “fluent” in no time. For me learning French has been a long, slow process.

I’ll back up a bit. When I first started coming to France on a regular basis, back in the mid 90s, I decided I wanted to learn the language. I tried a lot of things. I bought a lot of books, I bought some tapes, I even purchased an entire audio/video program called “French In Action” that cost hundreds of dollars. I enrolled in a local “community education” course and attended once a week for a few months. I tried my best to study at home. And, yes, I did make some progress. However, I found that each time I went back to France I could speak a little, I could ask for a few things here and there, I could read some, but I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying to me. I couldn’t begin to carry on a conversation in any way, shape or form.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Learning French

Books, Books and More Books

So, I bought more books. Part of me became convinced that I just hadn’t found the right “system” yet. I just needed that one special book or course or program that would suddenly make everything snap into place that would unlock that door that was holding me back. I bought a lot of books. Truth is I now have dozens of books, most of which I have read only the first few pages. Books on French grammar. Books on French verbs. Books that compare French to English side by side. Books to practice writing French. Books to practice spelling French. Tapes to practice listening to French. A book (with a CD) to practice speaking French. Real French childrens books. Every time I would read or hear about a new book for learning French I would buy it hoping this was finally the one that would help me “crack the code.”

The truth was all the books and tapes and CDs in the world weren’t going to make much difference unless I really spent a lot of time with them. And I didn’t. I liked to tell myself I did, but I really didn’t. Each year I would come to France and I would get very inspired and tell myself, “When I get back to the U.S. I’m going to practice at least one or two hours each and every day.” And some days I did, but most days I didn’t. Back in the U.S. I lost the incentive, the need, to speak French and studying became a chore, something I put off until the the next day.

The other major obstacle I faced was the difference between “studying” French and “practicing” it. There just isn’t any substitute for being in an environment where French is spoken all around you and you are forced to “sink or swim.” I can’t imagine many people are capable of truly learning a foreign language in a place where it isn’t spoken around them. In the U.S. I joined a French conversation group that met once a week for an hour and it was helpful, but it wasn’t enough.

Right Brain vs Left Brain

I taught web design and coding at a college in Nashville for twelve years. I think I’m a good teacher. I know that people learn in different ways. Some of us are “visual” learners, we need visual aids to help us absorb new information. Some of us are “audio” learners, what we hear is the most important aspect. Some people need a teacher, some people learn best on their own. According to research some of us favor the right side of our brain (the “artistic” side) and some of us use the favor the left side of our brain (the “analytical” side). I’m definitely a “left” sider. I love math and coding. I like things to be very organized and detailed. I hone in on specifics and need to understand every little thing and have everything make sense. Sometimes I wonder if this slows down my language learning ability because I feel that learning a language might be more of a “right” brain process. I think I spend too much time trying to understand every little detail and not enough time just “going with it.”

Steve and Carole in Vence - Learning French

Fear of Failure

A few years ago I was going to some conversation classes in Vence when I was here for in the summer. I had worked very hard between my visits (December to June) to try and improve my French so I would be better able to benefit from these conversation classes. At the first one that summer I was honestly excited and optimistic. During the class everyone broke up into small groups of about six or seven participants. I was trying my best but I was having a hard time understanding what the “leader” of my group was saying. She asked me a couple of questions that I didn’t understand and she got very frustrated with me, almost angry, glaring at me and looking disgusted. I honestly wanted to crawl under a rock and cry. I had tried so hard to improve for months and now someone was yelling at me because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I was devastated.

After the class was over I apologized to her and said I was sorry I didn’t always understand what she was asking me, but that I was trying. She said she thought it would be best if I didn’t come back until I understood French better. I was hurt. I was heartbroken. These classes were supposed to be for all levels (except maybe brand new beginners) so I really felt demoralized. Now maybe she was just having a bad day and none of this was really a reflection on my or my French skills. Maybe she was taking our her own frustrations about something on me. Still, it scarred me. I think I still carry that fear that someone is going to get mad at me because I don’t speak French well enough. It’s not rational, but it’s real. And I know it’s had a negative effect on my learning process.

Catch 22

I’ve been living in France now for about a year and a half. Yes, my French has improved a lot, but I’m still nowhere near where I want to be, where I think I should be. If I’m being honest I think it has created a bit of a Catch 22. On the one hand I want to put myself in situations where I must speak French. I know that this is the fastest way to improve. But, on the other hand, I feel embarrassed that I’m not farther along than I am. I worry people are looking at me (like the person mentioned above) and thinking to themselves, “This guy’s been living here for over a year and he still can’t speak French better than this? What a loser. He must not care. He must not be trying very hard.” And that may be the toughest part for me. Because I do care and I am trying!

I want to learn French. I want to be able to carry on a conversation with someone. I love France so much and being able to speak the language better will open up so many more opportunities and avenues for me. And I am trying. I really am. So, I go around and around. I think that part of me avoids the very situations I need to improve because I’m afraid of what people with think. I’m working on trying to get better at that. Before the COVID crisis I would get together with my neighbor once a week for an hour or two and he would practice his English and I would practice my French. That was very helpful and I miss doing that, but I think it’s best to wait until the pandemic ends before starting that back up again.

So, that’s my story. I take private one-hour tutoring lessons each week with a fantastic teacher that is very patient and is helping me a lot. I watch videos and listen to audio. I read books. I still don’t practice as much as I probably should. I’m trying to put myself in more and more situations where I have to speak French, even when it makes me uncomfortable. I hold out for the day, which I hope will come, when I reach a tipping point and things start to become easier as I build on what I already know.

There are a ton of “methods” for learning French. These days most of us like to use online systems. Some of my friends swear by Duolingo. Others love Babbel. Some like Rosetta Stone. There’s also Frantastique, FluentU, Comme Une Française, Kwiziq and so many more. Throw in all the thousands of books, tapes, CDs, videos out there and you’ve got more choices than anyone could possibly get their head around. As I said earlier everyone learns differently and we all respond to different methods in various ways, which is probably one of the reasons so many different “methods” exist in the first place.

That said, here are four of my current favorite tools for learning French. I have no association whatsoever with any of these products. I don’t know the people who create and distribute them. I get no kind of “kick-back” or fee if someone I know purchases something from them. I’ve tried a lot of different methods, books, programs etc. over the years and these just happen to be the four that seem work the best for me and that I feel have been most helpful. Maybe they will for you as well.

Coffee Break French

Steve and Carole In Vence -  Coffee Break French

I can honestly say that Coffee Break French has helped me more than anything else I have tried. I discovered it a few years ago and have spent a lot of time with it. Hosted by Mark, a Scottish French teacher, it’s presented as a podcast with short lessons designed to keep you from getting overwhelmed. Each lesson lasts about 15 to 20 minutes (some are a bit longer, but not much). Mark starts at the very beginning and walks you through the ins and outs of French grammar, vocabulary and more. Part of the program is devoted to teaching you essential words and phrases to get you started, but he also spends a lot of time teaching you how the language works so you can gradually begin to compose sentences on your own.

There are currently four “seasons” of the program: beginners, intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced. Each season contains 40 lessons. One of the great things about this program is that you can download and listen to ALL the lessons for free. Throw them on your computer, phone or tablet and listen to them when and where it’s most convenient for you. If you decide you want more you can purchase one of the courses which provides you with videos, PDF lesson notes, bonus audio content and more to compliment the free audio lessons. I’ve done that for the first three seasons and it is definitely worth the price.

In the first and second seasons Mark is joined by Anna, a student who is learning French along with us. The two have great chemistry and the addition of a “learner” really makes everything seem more personal. Mark walks both Anna and us through the material at a very reasonable pace, repeating the information where appropriate, and generally making the learning process very easy. Season three consists mostly of “readings” from three characters who recite passages from their daily journals. Mark then dissects each reading and introduces new concepts, grammar and vocabulary. This really helped me start improving my listening comprehension a lot.

Bottom line, if you’re just starting out, or consider yourself a “beginner,” I think this series could really help you a lot. It certainly did me. If you’re farther along the 2nd, 3rd or 4th seasons might be exactly what you need.

French Today

Steve and Carole In Vence -  French Today

French Today is a wonderful program put together by Camille Chevalier and her husband Olivier. Born and raised in Paris, Camille has been teaching French for over 25 years, both in the U.S. and France. She and Olivier are both French and U.S. citizens and both are completely bilingual. Her system utilizes a series of “audiobooks” with stories and characters that present logically structured grammar lessons. Everything is very clearly explained in English and Camille goes out of her way to make sure that the French she is presenting is modern and relevant.

The main part of their program is À Moi Paris, an eight part audiobook that follows the story of a young English girl arriving in Paris and her adventures and experiences. The lessons are recorded at different speeds and levels of enunciation so that you can gradually work your way up to what she calls “street French,” the way actual French people really speak. She concentrates on the parts of the language that you really need to learn to be able to carry on a conversation with a native French speaker.

Additionally, she offers a variety of other audiobooks that focus on things like verb drills, numbers, adjectives and more. There are a couple of bilingual “audio novels” and even some classic French tales and poetry. All the audiobooks come complete with a study guide, full transcript, questions and answers, and translations. To top it off they have a killer app for your computer, phone or tablet, one of the best I’ve ever used. You can load the audiobooks and all of the extra materials are right there for you to use and explore. It’s really, really a great tool.

FrenchToday offers a 2 1/2 hours audio book absolutely free to get you started and give you an idea of what to expect with their program. I highly recommend downloading À Moi Paris: First Encounter and giving it a listen. All their audiobooks are compatible with Mac OS, Windows, iOS and Android systems, so basically everything. They offer a 100%, 120 day money back guarantee so you have nothing to lose.


Steve and Carole In Vence -  Yabla French

Yabla is a video based program. You watch videos via an interactive online player that is designed to make the experience educational. You can turn subtitles on and off, in both English and French, slow things down, skip to certain parts of the video, consult transcripts, look up words in a dictionary and much more. There are also games and tests that can be used in conjunction with the videos as well.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning French for me has always been “listening comprehension.” I’m at the point where I can read pretty well and I can put together sentences well enough to convey what it is I’m trying to say (most of the time). The problem with this “stage” I’m at is that people often think I’m much better than I really am and starting talking a mile an hour and I’m completely lost immediately. If people talk very slowly I can often understand a fair amount, but, most French people do not talk slowly. I find that watching these videos really helps me work on my comprehension. They use only native French speakers, speaking in real French, so it makes for great listening practice.

Yabla is a subscription based program, you pay a small amount each month to access all of the videos, of which there are hundreds. You can choose between beginner, intermediate and advanced videos and even narrow things down based on categories like food, history, news, science, sports and many, many more. There is a small selection of sample videos which you can try for free to see if the program suits your needs.

InnerFrench Podcast

Steve and Carole In Vence - InnerFrench Podcast

The InnerFrench podcast with Hugo is another excellent listening program. Based on Steven Krashen’s famous “Theory of Second Language Acquisition,” Hugo has put together a series of podcasts (there are currently 85) for intermediate learners. This is not the place for beginners! These podcasts are specifically designed to help students understand spoken French. His goal is to provide interesting material that keeps you engaged and wanting to continue. He covers a lot of different subjects from psychology to culture to languages. He speaks slightly slower than most real life conversations to help improve your comprehension and expand your vocabulary. Each episode also includes a free transcript which I find very helpful.

I’ve set up a routine where I listen to the podcast all the way through and then go back and listen again one portion at a time, consulting the transcript between listens. It’s definitely helping me with my listening comprehension and I’m picking up a lot of vocabulary as well.

You can download the MP3 files directly or you can listen via iTunes and Spotify. It’s all completely free though you do need to register on his site to access the materials. Hugo also offers a couple of paid courses including one called “Build A Strong Core,” but I haven’t jumped into any of these yet.

So, there you go. I hope these resources might make your learning process a bit easier. If you try any of these methods please let me know how you find them. I’m very interested in your experience. Bon courage !

19 thoughts on “Learning French

  1. Thanks Steve. I’m going to investigate some of these. I’ve been using Duolingo for quite awhile but have just realized that I am approaching it now as more like a puzzle. That is fine to build vocabulary but it is not helping with the ability to listen and respond. I’d be thrilled to be able to communicate at the level of a 4 year old!

    1. Yes, building vocabulary is important, but there are a lot of people who know tons of vocabulary and can’t communicate to save their life!

  2. Hi Steve!! I don’t know if you remember me but I was in the French class with you in Nashville!! I always remember you as someone who took initiative to help everyone else in the class with their French just like you’re doing now with this blog post! Thanks for these resources ! I hadn’t heard of some of them before!

    P.S. I still have the bébé koala story book you gave us which I read to my 18 month old daughter now!

    1. Hi Zara! I DO remember you. Hope you are doing well, are you still in Nashville? And, big congratulations on your daughter!

  3. I’ve been in Paris for a little over a year and I do feel that I’m making progress, but I get your pain as I studied with French in Action 20 years ago and still here I am. Ah Mireille….. I’d add Anki for vocabulary and Netflix language learning plugin for chrome. My Anki vocabulary list is in the thousands and I find that having a large arsenal of words at my disposal is a critical leg up on understanding through the fog of dialects, lazy native speakers and now masks. I find most people my age are too shy or ashamed to jump in and sound like an idiot but I just don’t allow that for myself. Frankly, I would have torn into that language teacher that shamed you and created needless anxiety for an adult language student. Good luck!

    1. Thanks, Sean! I use a program called “Studies,” I believe it is a Mac only program, it’s similar to Anki with a few more bells and whistles. I don’t know the Netflix language learning plugin for Chrome but will check that out!

  4. Comprehension does seem to be the most difficult! I like my Alliance Française classes, now on Zoom, because it includes a lot of stories and excerpts from current culture. Also I enjoy having others in class. We listen to French with Alexa alot. Also the delightful musical videos of Alain LeLait! But comprehension-wise listening to short dialogues is tops whether a app or a tv series or movie. I love to watch the latter with French subtitles on.

    1. Thanks, Cash! I don’t know “French with Alexa,” I’ll take a look at that. I’m trying to watch more TV shows and movies in French, I agree that’s very helpful.

  5. This is so wonderful, Steve – thanks so much for sharing! I’m a left-brain learner, like you, and I definitely think that we are handicapped by the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves. I’m glad you have all these resources available to you to help with listening comprehension. Back when I was learning French, all we had was Champs-Elysées CDs, which were a bit like InnerFrench, it seems.
    Bon courage, as they say, and don’t worry…the déclic will eventually happen, and it will feel magnifique! 🙂

  6. Hi Steve. Great blog on the ins and out of learning French. I thought you had written about me. We have been retired since 2017 and decided to spend a year in Nice. That year has turned into 3 and we do love the city and the many friends we’ve made. I had formal French in high school and college so I’m ahead on the verb congregations and knowing many words. I took French last year and am doing an hour a week class that focuses more on speaking. But just like you, my listening comprehension does me in and I find myself getting frustrated that Ican’t understand all the words. Perhaps I too want to try and translate everything from English to French and vice versa. I did enjoy Coffee Break French. You did an excellent review of several French learning forums so will augment my once a week French with another forum. Of course confinement is not helping but my hope is that soon, I will be able to listen, understand and reply in French to carry on a conversation. Thanks for the great article. All the best, Cicely Hand.

    1. Hi Cicely, thanks for the comment. Yes, confinement isn’t doing anything to help! Hopefully, France will be back to normal next year. Take care and good luck with your studies.

  7. Dear Steve,
    Thank you so much for your very sweet comments about French Today. As content creator, I try to not look “too much” at my competition, because it can be so frightening. French Today is a husand-and-wife company, so it can be brutal when I compare myself to the giants of the industry… But I do keep an eye out – I have to – and the 3 other sites you recommend are in my personal favorites too. Anyway, un grand merci for sharing the word about us, it’s a great help to us!
    Bon courage pour vos études de français

    1. Thank you, Camille! You and Olivier do such a wonderful job. Your materials and lessons are top-notch and very useful to so many learning French. Keep up the good work.

  8. Finding the right method and devoting time is what is finally working for me. I am nowhere near fluent — I imagine I have the speech and comprehension of an eight year old, but I am making real progress. What works for me is taking online classes at the community college. It is very intensive so I have to spend about two hours a day, every day, working on the assignments and tests. And because I have always been a good student who cares about getting good grades, I keep at it. I also got a tutor through to speak with me for an hour a week. I am finishing up my 4th community college course soon, and will have to move on to a class at the university. But I know now that I must work on it every single day.

    1. Debbi, you are 100% correct! Putting in the time and work is really the key to making progress. I’d be interested to know what online community college class you are taking. Is it available to anyone who wants to take it online?

    1. Hi Brendan,

      Thanks for the kind words and the recommendation. I will definitely look at Radio France International.

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