When I recently told a friend I had been learning French on my own at home, she asked “How do you do that – learn French on your own?” I have been asked that question several times – many people only consider learning languages in a class setting. There are several parts to learning a language – vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing, listening comprehension and speaking. And there are many ways to learn each skill. The important part is to find the methods, tools and resources that help to keep you motivated to keep improving. So I thought I would share how I and other autodidactic (self-learning) French students set things up to learn on our own, and what might work for you.
- Why Learn French On Your Own?
- What Does ‘Learning French’ Mean For You? Setting Your Goals
- Working Out What You Need To Learn
- How Will You ‘Learn French On Your Own’? How Do You Learn Best?
- Choosing Your Tools and Resources To Suit Your Goals and Learning Style
- Making a French Learning Plan – Decide On A Routine
Why Learn French On Your Own?
I have found that learning French on my own at home is a far more effective way of learning than in a class. In class I have to wait my turn to practise speaking. I have to learn what the teacher thinks I need. If others are slower learners, then my learning is slowed. If others are faster, then I get left behind.
And in any case, attending one class a week as my main language learning activity is just going to mean that it takes years to see any progress!
By choosing to take control of my learning, I find that I can use tools that interest me. Change it up when I want. Use a variety of tools to reinforce my learning different ways. Use entertainment as part of my learning. Auto-didactic learning is a much more fun and personalised style of learning French than learning in a group.
What Does ‘Learning French’ Mean For You? Setting Your Goals
The most important part of learning French on your own is to work out exactly what you mean by “learning French”. What are your ultimate goals?
Do you want to learn French to make travel easier? Do you just want to be able to ask directions and simple requests at a hotel reception, or are you hoping to mix with locals?
Are you planning to work in a career where knowing French will be necessary, or give you an edge ahead of other applicants?
Do you have a French friend or partner, or family, and want to learn to deepen your relationship?
By working out exactly WHY you want to learn French, you will be able to work out what skills of the language to focus on.
Working Out What You Need To Learn
Once you know which skills you want to develop, and how advanced you wish to become, you can be more specific with your goals.
If you are learning to be able to converse when travelling, or to make French friends at a sports club, then written French won’t be as important to you. You may learn a little as you learn vocabulary, but you probably aren’t going to be interested in learning how to write formally.
Also, if you are just using French when you travel, you probably don’t care too much about your pronunciation, as long as you are understandable.
But if you live in France, or expect to, you will probably want to focus on your pronunciation from the beginning; it helps fit into the community and become accepted in new social groups. You will also need to be able to understand ‘Fast French’ … native speed speech, which many beginners find absolutely overwhelming at first. It takes a lot of practice of your listening skills to develop this ability.
Likewise, if you are living in France, being able to read and write the language is going to be very important, and you will probably be aiming for a high standard of French in all aspects.
If you only want to learn to read French literature, then you will want to be able to recognise written vocabulary. You need to know about and learn the five French verb forms that are used in formal literature. But you won’t need to understand spoken French so much.
You also need to know HOW WELL you will need to know the language. (A handy reference that can help with this is to read the Common European Framework Reference for Language, which outlines which skills are expected at different levels of language knowledge.)
Once you get a feel for how deeply you need to know the various aspects of French, you can see how many hours it might take to get there.
Languages are not learned in ‘days’, they are learned in ‘hours’ – by which I mean, if you learn for ’60 minutes a day’, after a year you will have put in 365 hours. For many people, this is not quite enough to have achieved a basic conversational level of French. If you increase that number of minutes to 90 minutes per day, you will probably get to a conversational level by the end of a year.
Of course, it does not have to be 90 minutes per day of learning from a text book. It can be two sessions of 15 minutes each on a vocab app; 30 minutes listening to a Pimsleur track on your commute to work; and 30 minutes per day studying a Teach Yourself text. It is definitely possible to learn a considerable amount of French within a year, if you make the time.
How Will You ‘Learn French On Your Own’? How Do You Learn Best?
A really good idea is to have an appreciation for how you learn most effectively, because that will impact which tools you select.
Some of us prefer to write everything down. If you are a text-based or kinaesthetic learner, you will probably want to have a notebook, and use it to manually record the words, phrases and sentences you are learning, as well as grammar knowledge as you pick it up.
Do you learn well from auditory input? You may prefer tools that immerse you in the spoken language first.
If you are a visual learner, create flash cards (physical or digital) that link written words with images of vocabulary. Watch French YouTube videos.
Work out your strongest learning style by doing a quick self-test at https://www.learning-styles-online.com/inventory/ that can help you identify it.
Choosing Your Tools and Resources To Suit Your Goals and Learning Style
Whether you choose a number of tools to meet various needs, or just one ‘all-in-one’ package to work on all language skills, is a personal choice. If this is the first time you have attempted to learn a language on your own, you may prefer a package that leads you through each skill. It saves time searching for resources, and gently introduces you to the world of auto-didactic learning.
If, however, you do not feel the need to learn to read and write, or alternatively ONLY want to read and write, ‘all-in-one’ packages might be very frustrating for you.
There are a myriad of French language learning tools, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Making a French Learning Plan – Decide On A Routine
Finally, decide when, and how often, you are going to do your French learning activities.
One thing that must be stated up front: when you choose to start a new hobby or activity, it means you will have to STOP doing something else you already do.
What do I mean?
You already fill your 24 hours a day one way or another. Whether you spend time watching TV, catching up with friends, doing housework, studying, commuting – your days are already full.
So what are you going to STOP doing, so you can add in this new hobby?
- Give up watching YouTube videos in English, and switch to French learning videos.
- Stop watching TV half an hour before bed to fit in 30 minutes of vocabulary learning on an app, or writing in a notebook.
- On your commute, listen to French learning audios in place of the music you currently listen to.
- Or … switch to French language music (which if you have the lyrics for the songs can be a powerful way to learn!)
It is important, if you want to give yourself the best chance of success in starting this new hobby, that you acknowledge that this is going to take some time away from existing activities.
Learning a little each day is the most effective way to learn. At least read through the vocab words you are working on before you go to bed, or spend just 5 minutes revising on an app.
Or even, download a sleep meditation in your language, and fall asleep listening to it – it doesn’t matter if you don’t yet understand it.
You might also decide to ‘ease yourself in’ to this new hobby. Perhaps you decide that this week you will start listening to an audio on your commute, next week add learning vocab, and the week after begin using a language learning kit or text book.
So – what activities are you going to do? And when are you going to do them? Plan it. Write out a routine, and stick it on a wall or bathroom mirror where you will see it several times a day. Put reminders in your phone, or write yourself notes around the house.
HINT: a very powerful way of remembering to do new tasks is to pair them with existing habits. Do you go for a walk in the evening? Put your headphones with your shoes to remind you to listen to your language audio tracks. Do you drive to work? Put the language CD or USB with the language tracks on them already in your player.
Thinking about and setting your goals, considering the tools you want to use, and making a plan and routine to follow all help to set you up for a positive experience in this new hobby. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a ‘set and forget’ issue.
Discovering how to learn French on your own is fun. I find that I continually tinker with my activities as I find new things to learn and new ways to learn them.
So get yourself set up. Make a plan and routine. And try it for a month or two… maybe three. And then see how it is going. Are there some activities you find boring? Change them. Have you found it difficult to meet your targets? Then change your goals. It’s ok to do that. In fact… it is a GOOD idea to do that.
Give yourself permission to use it as a life experiment. Trying and revising is the most practical thing to do. And can help make the experience truly yours.
Have you ever tried to learn French on your own before? What worked? What didn’t? Share your thoughts and ideas with the community in the comments below!