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Ah, le francais. The language of love. The language where the correct pronunciation of “croissant” can make you drool almost as much as the pastry itself. And also – the language where trying to correctly pronounce “croissant” can, well, make you drool in a not so appetizing way. (In what other language can a word ending in “e” and “ent” sound exactly the same?)
As I mentioned before, my son has been in a French immersion school for the past two years, so I have been trying my hardest to keep up – or at least to be able to learn enough to help him out with homework and such when he gets to that point. I have been surprised at how much I have enjoyed learning French so far. Part of that is that there are so many enjoyable ways to do it. It’s not like in high school when it’s all textbooks and flash cards. Learning a new language can be interactive, engaging and fun.
However, there are a lot of weeds to get through to find some of the really high-quality learning tools. I’ve been looking for two years now, and these are my ten favorites. A lot of the ideas below are not limited to French – many also offer lessons in Spanish, German, Japanese, and other languages. And – almost all of these are either free or very cheap (with one exception).
Even if you don’t have a concrete reason to learn French, it may still be worth it to give some of these a try. Learning French (or any language) can help with memory and – most importantly – help you woo lovers. And when it comes down to it, isn’t it all about wooing?
- Duolingo. Duolingo is a website and app that allows you to learn French (along with many other languages) at your own pace and using a number of different techniques. You will learn the tenses of verbs, idioms, nouns, adjectives, and all the building blocks of the language through various mediums. For instance, in one lesson you may have to listen to a phrase in French and transcribe it; transcribe an English sentence to French; or choose the correct translation of a phrase from a list of three. You can set a daily goal, which can be as little as one lesson per day (each lesson takes about five minutes). At least one study shows Duolingo to be highly successful too – with 34 hours spent on Duolingo being roughly equivalent to a semester of language instruction. And as an added bonus, it’s free. This app has the added bonus of occasionally throwing out completely ridiculous phrases to translate, as documented here.
- Lingvist. Lingvist claims that you can learn a language in 200 hours using its app. Lingvist teaches words in their order of relevance – that is, how often they are actually used in the language – getting you to the point of being conversant faster. The app is divided into three sections: “Memorize,” “Read,” and “Listen.” In the memorize section, you are asked to fill in the blanks of a sentence with the English word as a prompt. The Read and Listen sections allow you to capitalize on your vocabulary. A handy chart keeps track of how many hours along the way to 200 you are. While in Beta, the app is free. Other languages will be added soon.
- MindSnacks French. This app may not actually be aimed at grownups, but whatever, it’s a lot of fun! As you learn more vocabulary words and reach different milestones, different levels unlock. Each level is a different game. For instance, in one level, you pop corresponding balloons that match the English word to the French word before the balloons fill up the screen. In another, you fill a frog’s belly with the image that corresponds to a French word or phrase. There are over 1000 vocabulary words on the app, with a native French speaker providing audio. This app is also free and available for many other languages including Spanish and Japanese.
- Pimsleur Audio. The Pimsleur Method combines research with useful vocabulary words to get you learning French anywhere – including on your commute (which is key in this house with two separate drop-offs in different parts of town). You listen to conversations between native French speakers, learn lots of vocabulary, and are given ample opportunity to practice your pronunciation. One of the most helpful aspects is that the words you learn are put into a number of different contexts, so you are not just memorizing stock phrases without application. The downside to this method is that you do not actually see the words that you are learning, which can be difficult for visual learners. And personally I think is especially difficult in French when the spelling is not always intuitive. Also, the Pimsleur CDs are pricey – so you may want to start by seeing if they are carried at your local library (in Portland, they are). A significant discount is given for MP3 downloads. They are also carried on Audible, so if you have a stockpile of Audible credits this may be a good option. Pimsleur offers courses in many additional languages.
- Coffee Break French by Radiolingua. This weekly podcast provides the building blocks to learning French in bite-size chunks of about 20 minutes. Each season is different. The first season provides you with some basic vocabulary. The second is taught like a French class. So rather than just learning one-off words, you learn about the various past tenses, how the verb endings are spelled, and when certain tenses are used and so forth. With the building blocks of the language, the entire learning experience becomes more intuitive. (Season 2 is by far my favorite.) In the remaining seasons, you listen to conversations or journal entries by French speakers, and then the teacher analyzes aspects of each conversation. (More analysis and other materials are provided at a cost.) The basic podcast is free. Radiolingua also offers Coffee Break podcasts in other languages, including Spanish and German.
- News in Slow French. Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, this podcast gives you the news in slow French. In addition to hearing the news, you can also follow along with a transcript, which allows you to click on various words you don’t know to get the translation. For newbie French learners trying to pick out words from rapid-fire French speech, the slow pace of this podcast is a nice break. You can get snippets of the weekly podcast for free, but you need to purchase a subscription to get access to the full materials. There is also a News in Slow Spanish podcast.
- Television. If you can stand to do it, watching kids’ french tv shows is a great way to learn the language, and many are available for free on YouTube. Some great options include Peppa Pig and T’Choupie. Or you can go much, much darker and check out the excellent (but extremely disturbing) Spiral (or Engrenages) police procedural on Hulu. Helpfully, Spiral has English subtitles. Netflix and Amazon Prime both offer French movies with English subtitles, including hits like Amelie. Finally, in the “Settings” for many DVDs, you can find the French translation of the movie, and you can set the movie to show the English subtitles. This is particularly helpful to do with movies that you have already seen in English, because you already have a good sense of what is going on. Although I gotta say, Frozen in French doesn’t quite have the same je ne sais quoi as in English.
- Children’s French Books. Diving right into the untranslated works of Voltaire may be a bit much for those just starting to learn French. But checking out a children’s book gives the benefit of seeing sentence structure and pushing your language skills, while giving you lots of visual cues about what it is you are actually reading. Some books, like the McGraw Hill Easy French Storybook series, provide the English translation directly below the French (they also provide a CD with French and English audio). Many well-known English children’s books have been translated into French, so that can also be a helpful starting point – since you may already have the gist down from their English counterparts.
- English Grammar for Students of French. One never knows how little English grammar one actually understands until trying to learn a foreign language. If you can’t figure out the past imperfect from the past perfect in English let alone in French, English Grammar for Students of French is a really helpful guide. This book will guide you through the basics (What is a pronoun? What is a subject?), as well as the more advanced (What is a participle? What is the future perfect tense?). Knowing what the English equivalent is makes a big difference in understanding the grammar and sentence structure in French.
- Language Meet-Up Groups. The best way to learn any language is to practice with others. If you don’t have any French friends, or if you are too embarrassed to try out your skills with them, check out Meetup.com to see if there are any Francophiles looking to practice. Or if you have an Alliance Francaise near you, see if they have some regularly scheduled meet-ups.
If you have any favorite language-learning tools, please be sure to share them in the comments!