Our guide to the best resources today for learning French quickly and cheaply (plus what to avoid)
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We both learned French years ago. It’s a rich language, so we’re still working with tutors (using italki), and adding words to our vocabulary through word lists and watching TV shows.
But still, we’re often asked: if we were just getting started in French, what resources would we use? This is our answer to that question.
Note: you might notice a bunch of things we don’t recommend here. You won’t see mention of most apps, or websites other bloggers recommend. None of them is bad. We just feel many people (sometimes ourselves) fall into an “unproductivity trap” with apps that give an illusion of progress. So what we recommend here is what we think will teach you the most quickly, without wasting time.
How hard is French to learn for English speakers?
French is one of the easiest languages to learn if you already speak English. This is because of the large number of cognates (similar words… often identical, especially in advanced vocabulary), familiar alphabet, and not-too-difficult pronunciation.
French is far easier than, for example, Arabic or Chinese, some of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.
But this doesn’t mean its easy. The most difficult thing about learning French is the grammar.
The most difficult parts of French grammar (if you haven’t had any experience to Romance languages in particular) is:
- Conjugation of verbs: Unlike English, in which verbs only have three forms max (and often just one or two), in French verbs change for person (I eat, you eat), plural (we eat, you guys eat), tense (I ate, I will eat), and meaning in sentence (I want you to eat, I would eat). Notice how this is “eat” in every case in English, with a few supplementary words. In French they’re all different: je mange, tu mange, nous mangeons, vous mangez, j’ai mangé, je mangerai, je veux que tu manges, je mangerais. And many of them sound the same. It’s pretty hard. Wait until someone tries to explain the “subjunctive” — this word makes many people cry in fear.
- Grammatical gender: Everything in French is male or female. Table and cars are female, but a bicycle or pen is male.
- Unusual grammatical particles: French uses de to describe possession as well as a quantity of “some”. So while this camembert from France might be un camembert de France, you would also say du vin to say “some wine”. This trips people up — particularly as you have to remember gender to say the right word for “some” (a really common word).
See our full article on “How hard is French for English speakers?” for more info.
Despite this, French is still a great first language to learn. Just don’t kid yourself about the investment you’ll need, which will be months of concentrated effort or years of diluted work.
Overview — A General Guide to Learning French
If we were learning French from scratch, we’d follow this general process. The resources below will help with this.
- Learn to read French. Reading French is nearly 100% regular. In other words, if you see the letters eau together anywhere in French, be it in beau, eau, or John Favreau, it’ll be pronounced the same. Note: the same can’t be said for writing (you can make the same sound with a few different letter groups). A textbook will help with this (see below).
- Start building a vocabulary of nouns for things around the house or in your life. Things like frying pan, milk, road, car. Put these into your flashcard deck. We suggest Anki (it’s free). Learn the genders along with the nouns, by learning, for example, la table and le frigo. Look up words you want to learn in a good dictionary like Wordreference (see below).
- Learn the basics of French grammar — conjugation of verbs in the present tense and simple past tense, plus how to make basic sentences. Again, use the textbook. You need to practise the conjugation of French verbs — do exercises until you master it.
- Once you’re halfway through the textbook, start learning sentences, repeating after a native speaker. This is where Glossika comes in. They repeat sentences like “your shoes are nice!” and “it’s hot today, isn’t it?” — stuff you say every day. It’s invaluable.
- Now, get a teacher and start talking to them. We’ve had teachers on italki for many languages. This should be after about a month or two (depending on how intensively you’re going). Some people like to speak to a teacher right away — and that’s fine, and won’t hurt — but in my experience, most teachers can’t teach you grammar as easily as a book can.
- Keep learning, watching local media. TV5Monde has a good course based on television!
After that, just keep doing your own thing, adding words to your flashcard pack, and studying.
Learn basic grammar with a beginner Text + Audio: Complete French (Teach Yourself)
- Amazon Kindle Edition
- Graham, Gaelle (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 530 Pages - 01/29/2010 (Publication Date) - Teach Yourself (Publisher)
Learning the basics of French grammar is really important before you start learning sentences.
The books from the “Teach Yourself” and “Colloquial” series are the most cost-effective ways of getting started with French quickly as an adult. I used “Teach Yourself Complete French” years ago and it was invaluable to me. And right now it’s absurdly cheap on Amazon in Kindle format!
They teach all the things that you need to know to understand the core concepts of French, including
- French sentence structure
- Noun gender, and how to “guess” it
- Conjugations, ranging from the present tense to the subjunctive (which you need to know!)
- Core phrases, and guidance on how to use them
The books are simple and written in an approachable style. They’re very easy to read if you’re teaching yourself.
Like with most books of their kind, I only recommend doing the full chapters until about halfway through. You don’t need all the words in the book. But you do need all the grammar it teaches!
If you’re looking for something more — try this book on French Grammar for a great range of simple situational explanations.
- Amazon Kindle Edition
- Adamson, Robin (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 400 Pages - 10/12/2012 (Publication Date) - Teach Yourself (Publisher)
Sentence Bank: Glossika
We love sentence banks. It’s a really simple formula: listen to someone saying a sentence, and repeat it. It continues to shock me how much language I retain from this very simple method.
I used to do this many years ago with Pimsleur for a couple of languages and learned a lot of pronunciation and basic phrases. But that has become very outmoded. You don’t get to choose the content, and it gets a little creepy (“Would you like to come to my hotel at 9 for a drink?”… er, c’mon guy. It’s not 1960 any more.)
With Glossika, you do a test for your level, and choose the topics you’re interested in, and it only shows you those. It works a bit like flashcards but without the pressure to do it every single day.
Try Glossika for a Week for Free
Sign up with the link below and get a week for free before committing. Make sure you have half an hour every day to use it and really try it.
Cheap, great tutors online: italki
The italki app/website is really just a marketplace where you can browse tutors in … pretty much any language. It has the largest range of languages we’ve seen. The tutors have a large range of hourly rates, from as low as $4 an hour to as high as $50 (and I truly wonder who is using those at the most expensive rates).
The rate per hour varies a lot by language. It’s a question of both supply (how much it costs to live in a French-speaking country) and demand (how many people want to learn French). French teachers are more expensive than Egyptian Arabic teachers, for example, where our incredible teachers were all around $5-6 an hour.
Read here for our full guide on how to get the most out of italki.
Online course: Learn with TV5Monde
There are lots of French courses online. But one of the really good free courses is the one by TV5Monde. Once you’ve got the basics, you might want to broaden your situational knowledge, and this is a good way to do it.
Here’s our guide to getting started with Anki.
The general recommendations are
- Make just one deck for all your French needs
- Don’t worry too much about tags
- Put examples in every word
And away you go.
Listening: News in Slow French
This is an awesome French podcast, with the news in intelligible French. The French spoken on the news isn’t too hard, once you get past the vocabulary, but this is a great stepping stone.
The content of News in Slow French is so good that it’s a competent international news source on its own.
The best French dictionary: Wordreference
This is the absolute best online reference dictionary. It has every word, including familiar and vulgar ones (read: swearwords), and loads of examples with context on how to use them.
In the early 200s used a huge thick Collins dictionary which I loved because it gave so many example sentences.
But WordReference has even more and it’s absolutely free!
I often find the WordReference forums good too for discussion of translating a colloquial phrase or sentence. I usually find those by Googling.
What we don’t recommend for learning French (and what to use instead)
Aside from all the things we think you should use, there’s a few things I’d steer any language learner away from.
If you take offence to this for some reason (“hey, it worked for me, jerk!”) then in our defence, everyone has different objectives. We tend to focus heavily on learning to speak and communicate as quickly as possible, and this is what works for us.
Everyone has different goals and responds differently to various tools. Maybe you like learning as a cognitive game, and maybe you want to read French literature.
Finally, if you like something, do it, who the hell am I to tell you not to?
Duolingo: If your objective is to speak or read, then Duolingo is not the most effective tool. You can still have fun with it, of course, and it keeps the brain juices flowing. Plus it’s aesthetically (from what I’ve seen) the best-designed app in the language-learning universe.
Duolingo a fun game, and you can learn some words with Duolingo. I do it sometimes to check out what has improved, and I never “hate” it.
But you can quickly get stuck in a trap where you’re doing it just for points (what we call the “unproductivity trap“), or to keep your streak, or to progress to the next level in the league, even though you’re no longer learning anything useful.
I find that around 1/3 of the way in to any Duolingo course I start learning things that I really shouldn’t be learning when I still struggle to speak in basic sentences. For example, it might be piling on vocabulary, when I really know I need more verbs in day-to-day life.
FrenchPod101: I enjoy the conversational style of the 101 podcasts. They also have a ton of posts on very specific topics, like using a few phrases.
Bloggers love to promote the 101 series because of the generous incentives, and that’s why you see reviews of it everywhere.
But the 101 websites are difficult to use and slow, and the free content is all you need. I recommend using these when you have a problem like “hey, how the heck do I order food in Swahili?”, in which case you can find good answers by Googling them.
Mango Languages: Mango Languages has a nice app and really good marketing. They have easy to understand conversation. But the conversation is elementary, and I never learned much when using them, even compared to a much cheaper textbook.
Rosetta Stone: This used to be basically the only language-learning app out there, until Duolingo toppled their throne.
Again, this gets a ton of recommendations from language bloggers. It’s fun to use, but doesn’t get you very far. Duolingo is a better alternative, and you can do better than that, too
Now, both the content and format of Pimsleur are outdated, and it’s still very expensive ($300 per course, $900 for three courses that gets you to barely functional).
Most alarming is the tone of some of the early sentences used in Pimsleur. “Would you like to come to my hotel for a drink at 8? How about 9? How about 10?” How about “no means no”? This is why it feels outdated.
Glossika is a better alternative — it’s much cheaper and much, much more complete.