How to learn French (for free!)

A photo that I posted a while back made me think I should share some of my strategies for learning French. Although I haven’t been entirely diligent about studying, I have been actively engaged in learning French for over two years now, most seriously for the past 10 months. I sort of expected to learn more French while living in France, but when your friends and your partner all speak English, you never end up being “immersed.” Most of my progress came after I joined a discussion group, which wasn’t until September.

[Tip #1: Join a discussion group! It’s intimidating, but the best way I’ve found to learn. Plus, it can be highly entertaining.]

Anyway, one constant in my French language learning has always been that I need to do it cheaply. Colin and I have been living on his post-doc salary for 18 months now, which means we don’t have a lot of extra money for classes. But that’s okay! As I’ve discovered, there are tons of great resources for learning French for free. I thought I’d share what I’ve found and what has worked for me, in case it also helps you. 🙂

First some background: I took six years of Latin in middle and high school and one year of French in college, which was more than a decade ago. I briefly dusted off my French flashcards in 2010 when I spent the summer working in francophone Madagascar. All that is to say, when Colin and I decided to move to France, I was solidly a beginner, albeit not quite at Square One.

My goal now is to become fully conversational. Although I try to work on each of the four skill areas – reading, writing, listening, and speaking – I’ve been focusing much more on listening and speaking lately.

Before I dive into specific resources, here are two general tips that have helped me:

  • Try to find resources at a mix of levels, some that are comfortable (to boost your ego!), and others that are a bit of a challenge.
  • Consider keeping a running list of new vocab. I don’t add every new word I come across (that would basically be the dictionary), but I write down words that are particularly interesting or relevant to my life. Since the list is chronological, it’s fun to look back and remember what I was doing when I added certain words—for example, “la victoire,” from when France won the World Cup last year.

Without further ado, my favorite free (or cheap) French language-learning resources:

  • To work on your listening skills:
    • Podcasts, roughly in order of difficulty:
      • Coffee Break French. The first season of this podcast assumes zero knowledge of French, but by season four the dialogue is fairly advanced.
      • Daily French Pod. Each episode is only a few minutes long. The host reads a one-sentence summary of a recent news item, then explains key vocabulary by providing simpler sentences as examples. The worst thing about this podcast is the ads, which take up more time than the content—just skip ahead to about the one-minute mark to find the beginning of the content.
      • InnerFrench (also goes by the name Intermediate French Podcast). The host, Hugo, noticed that there weren’t many podcasts for intermediate French speakers, so he set out to create one. Hugo talks about a different topic in each roughly 30-minute episode (recent examples: plastic pollution, the Tour de France). The earlier episodes are simpler and slower; the later episodes get progressively more challenging.
      • News in Slow French. As its title suggests, the hosts discuss a series of news items each week, but they speak slowly enough that language learners can follow more easily.
      • One Thing in a French Day. The host, Laetitia, lives near Paris and shares a short story about her life in each episode. She speaks clearly but sometimes quickly, so I end up missing a fair amount—this podcast is still a stretch for me.
    • Videos:
      • InnerFrench. These weekly videos are just as good as Hugo’s podcast, but they are shorter (usually around 10-15 minutes) and have French subtitles.
      • 1 Jour, 1 Question. The premise of these videos (which are geared towards French children, not language learners) is that elementary/middle school-age kids write in with questions that get answered via highly entertaining, hand-drawn animations. I’ve learned a lot from these videos!
    • TV/movies—I haven’t watched many, but here are some favorites:
      • Dix Pour Cent (English title: Call My Agent)
      • Intouchables
      • Je Ne Suis Pas Un Homme Facile (English title: I Am Not an Easy Man)
  • To work on your speaking skills:
    • Discussion group. Check the Meetup app for one in your area. I loved the group I attended in Paris (Let Them Talk, which cost 15€ per lesson, if you paid in advance) because there was an instructor who would guide the discussion and correct your mistakes. The group in St. Louis is free (yay!) but doesn’t have a facilitator to offer corrections (boo)… but I still benefit from the practice.
Discussion group = instant group of friends 🙂
  • To work on your reading skills:
    • Twitter! My brain hurts when I try to read books or long news articles, but I find it surprisingly fun to get French news in 280-character snippets. Here are a few accounts I follow:
      • @Paris (official account for the City of Paris)
    • 1 Jour, 1 Actu. This is the website behind the 1 Jour, 1 Question videos. Because the website is geared towards elementary/middle school kids, the news stories are short and use simple vocabulary.
  • To work on your writing skills:
    • Keep a journal. Although I don’t do this often, I occasionally write a few sentences describing my day, and I check them using Google Translate, which is not great, but it helps catch the most glaring errors. I’m sure one day I’ll look back at these journal entries and be embarrassed at how poorly they’re written, but that’s the goal, right? To keep improving??
  • For a more structured approach:
    • Duolingo. I used this for a while until I decided to focus more heavily on speaking and listening. I also tried Rosetta Stone (not free or cheap!!… unless you get access through your university’s alumni program, which I do), and honestly, after using it for a few weeks, I’m not convinced it would be worth paying for—but Duolingo, on the other hand, is definitely worth its price (free)!
Duolingo helping to get out the vote in November 2016

One other resource that I’m curious about is iTalki, a sort of Airbnb-like platform for language tutors, where you can sign up for inexpensive (often around $15 per hour), private video-chat sessions with teachers and tutors of your choice. It keeps popping up in various language-learning recommendations, but I haven’t tried it. If you’ve used it, let me know! Is it scary? Is it awesome? I suspect, like most of language learning, it’s a little bit of both.

So anyway, there you have it! All of the best, free language-learning resources I’ve found. Profitez-en! I’ll wrap up with three final suggestions, just for fun:

  • My favorite playlist of French-language music is Spotify’s “Grand Hit,” which rotates through a selection of the most popular French songs at the moment.
  • If you want a uniquely entertaining challenge, try reading this bilingual article.
  • And for anything and everything else French-related, check out the French language-learning subreddit:

Bon courage à tous! If you have any other tips, please share!

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