5 Ways to Become Fluent in French
People often ask how I became fluent in French without French parents. The secret involves becoming obsessed with the language and finding fun ways to incorporate learning it into your free time.
- Listen to French songs on repeat
I would start out with listening to French versions of Disney songs you already know well. Since you are familiar with the song in English, you have a better chance of figuring out what the words mean in French. I love seeing how the lyricists convey a similar plot idea in another language when they have to find a way to make it rhyme and sometimes translate idioms. Since children’s songs are repetitive and have simple vocabulary, it’s easier to figure out what they are trying to say.
This is often how I keep myself entertained on long road trips: listening to the same Disney song in French and Spanish and comparing the two, since I have been working on increasing my Spanish fluency through my existing knowledge of French. If you already know Spanish or another language, you can apply this in the other direction to help ensure that you’re not “replacing” your knowledge of the previous language with French, but instead, building off what you already know in the other language.
If you are a true beginner, you may have to listen to a song a lot of times on repeat to glean the meaning. I wouldn’t just keep listening to new songs until you understand the first few, or I’m not sure how much vocabulary you would actually pick up. Regardless of your method, though, you will absorb the pronunciation and accent. When you learn by ear, you are mimicking how babies learn language and increase the chances of speaking like a true Parisian.
2. Watch French TV
French TV shows didn’t grip me at first like Americans one do. I’ve probably been conditioned to expect the Hollywood formula. I finally found one, though, in which I actually care about the characters and what to know what happens: “Call my Agent”, or “Dix Pour Cent” in French, on Netflix. It’s about agents at a talent agency in Paris as they navigate comedic interactions with egotistical actors and power-hungry investors. The show also won an International Emmy in 2021 for best comedy, just got renewed for a fifth season, and is now going to be remade in the UK. You can start watching it with English subtitles, then move to French subtitles, and then say “adieu” to subtitles completely.
You can also watch movies dubbed in French, but it can be more challenging to understand the characters when their mouth movement doesn’t match the language being spoken. Cartoons work better for this, since the mouth motion is more ambiguous. However, I find that watching live film produced in France leads to the largest and most applicable gains since it mirrors real-world French interactions the best.
3. Practice French with friends, or when you’re desperate, strangers
Since I don’t have French family, I had to make French friends or practice with strangers. Sometimes this involved traveling to France and joining a language institute (see #5), but other times, it involved simply listening around me in public spaces. When I lived in Chicago, I overheard a few young adults chatting in French on the L (the metro). I struck up a conversation with them, and they were happy to find another Francophone, likely because they missed their home. (Note: you will need to practice not being self-conscious about not being perfect at French. It often works if you make fun of yourself a little bit as you are trying to practice. And it will be much harder to get better if you don’t practice with native speakers).
These French expats were happier to practice French with me than any French person I met in France. They ended up inviting me to a little gathering hosted by French in Chicago, a Facebook group that chats in French over bread and cheese in a local café called The Boulangerie. If you’re in a major city, chances are there is a French in ______ group, so look them up and see if you can join them. The group in Chicago was mostly French expats, so it was a little intimidating as a non-native speaker, but how else are you going to grow?
Other ways I’ve practiced speaking French is chatting with Francophone Uber or Lyft drivers, going to French language MeetUps, and meeting people at work or school who have French parents or remember the language decently from high school and are looking to practice as well.
4. Read French media
When I lived in France for a summer and was studying for the DELF (the French version of the TOEFL), I started reading old novels in their original language. Though reading “Candide” by Voltaire was historically enlightening, a kindly French instructor let me know that I had begun to speak in 18th century French. I began to imagine new US arrivals breaking out “thee” and “thou” and began to understand the problem with focusing on old literature too soon. She suggested I read something less outdated and complex, like the handout at Monoprix, the local supermarket. Leafing through grocery coupon and recipe ideas may not seem as impressive and romantic as breaking open that old book with gilded pages, but your French will sound more up to date.
To be even more in the times, you can replace your daily scroll of the WSJ or NYT with Le Monde at lemonde.fr. It’s quite refreshing to read news that is not sourced from and overly focused on the US. It still feature the US prominently, but will also update you on the goings-on in the EU, as well as many African countries that speak French because of former colonialism and the ongoing refugee crisis.
5. Participate in a language immersion school
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I went to L’institute de Touraine in Tours, where the accent is pure and the people are decently friendly (think: more friendly than Paris and less friendly than Texas). There are plenty of college-aged students as well as adults from around the world looking to improve their French for work or personal reasons. It’s pretty interesting actually to hear how people from around the world struggle with different French pronunciation techniques. For example, a student from Colombia had a hard time not rolling her r’s while a couple of girls from Taiwan had a hard time connecting the words smoothly.
The classes at the Institute focused on vocabulary, grammar, and most importantly for me, phonetics. The most useful class for me involved sitting in a room with headphones on, listening to French words and repeating them until they sounded correct. Note that I of course could have done that in the US with apps like Duolingo, but I don’t think that app had that feature yet…
In terms of life outside of class, there are plenty of gilded Chateaux in the Loire Valley where you can take the tours in French. There is a cute bar called La Guingette right on the Loire River and the locals who hang out there are happy to talk to you if you break away from your crew of expats. I also lived with an elderly French lady whom the Institute connected me to. She was not the happiest to converse; she was probably sick of having to practice with every foreigner who comes and stays with her. I think it can be luck of the draw, though, because I had plenty of classmates who had great and educational host family experiences.
The hardest part about living there was breathing in cigarette smoke while running and feeling awkward trying to buy stamps at the post office when I had forgotten the word: “stamp”. Also note that these programs aren’t cheap, so try to get a grant from your school or business to sponsor you. Luckily, my university offered language immersion grants in exchange for me writing a bit about my experience. It was a great exchange, and when I got back to university, I knew enough to be in Notre Dame’s French play: “Le Malade Imaginaire” by Molière, which also taught me a great deal.
Voilà: five ways to become more fluent in French- and I’m sure you can come up with even more. With enough practice, you will finally be able to understand this adorable interview with Timothée Chalamet.