What is the best way to learn French?

Camille Chevalier-Karfis 12.11.13 www.MyFrenchLife.org

Advice for struggling French language students.

Many people have learned some French in High school, college, or even through an adult education class.

But how can you continue to learn French once the structured grammar classes have been completed? How to learn conversational French? How to become fluent?

Recently My French Life™ posed this question to a number of professionals who teach the French language and culture to adults.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis of French Today provides her advice to our members and readers.

Camille says, “Today, I’ll tell you what I think of the different learning methods, how to pick the best one for you and how to avoid scams.”

1. Group classes

Camille Chevalier-Karfis 12/01/2012

Pros: Not too expensive.

Cons: Not enough personal attention, curriculum not adapted to your real needs.

If you are an advanced student looking for a conversation class, group classes can be a great option.

If you are “good” with languages, and know how grammar works, you can also do well in a group.

Otherwise, in my experience, group classes are a waste of time and money. Why? They won’t adapt to your needs.

From the point of view of the teacher or school, group classes are a “juicy” business. You can easily make over US $100/h… Always keep this in mind when joining a class…

Camille Chevalier-Karfis 12/01/2012

Here are some tips on what to look out for:

  • The number of students. The more students, the less individual attention. Make sure you always know the maximum number of students allowed before joining a class. Four is optimal. Six is OK. Ten is way too many.
  • Holidays. You usually pay a group class for X number of weeks. If your class day falls on a holiday, you won’t have class, but you will still have paid for it. This is particularly important if you join a group class in France, where there are so many holidays!
  • Teachers. Some unscrupulous schools will hire anyone… Do check the accent of your teacher before signing up for a class.
  • The so-called placement test. Who interprets your level? Somehow, the results of the test often end up placing you in the class the director needs to fill…
  • Group level. If you end up in a group with people at various levels, it’s going to be quite impossible to have a coherent group class. If you are between levels, pick the easiest one – it’s beneficial to review something you have already learned and it’s dangerous to skip levels and create gaps in your instruction.

If you cannot afford private instruction, look into joining a group class, but you will need to consider taking a couple of private lessons here and there to make sure you do understand everything the class has covered and to address your own weaknesses.

2. Private tutors, one on one class, phone classes


Pros: curriculum totally adapted to your needs and learning abilities

Cons: price, danger of bad tutors

I give private French classes so I can tell you about in from my experience. There are a lot of people out there that claim they can give French lessons, but cannot.

You really have to check references and see for yourself before you commit to a large number of classes. A tutor needs to be organized, punctual and reliable; have a good French accent, know grammar, know how to explain it and be good at making people talk.

Unfortunately, many tutors out there do not possess these skills. Degrees in French really cannot guarantee that this person will have the necessary personal skills. Be particularly careful about young French people offering “conversation lessons”. Often, they have no teaching experience whatsoever.

They might be able to engage you in conversations and point out your mistakes but they won’t be able to explain why it is a mistake… And this is imperative if you want to progress.

At the very least, if you decide to go with this kind of tutor, make sure the price they charge is commensurate with their teaching abilities. A good tutor should be able to tailor a program specially adapted to your strengths and weaknesses and help you make the most of your time with him/her.

You’re good with grammar? Then you can study most of it by yourself and concentrate on practice and pronunciation during the lessons. You are too shy to speak? Your tutor has to reinforce natural everyday chats. Giving you a newspaper article to comment on is not going to help much in real life…

If you cannot find a good tutor in your area, don’t overlook phone lessons. I know it sounds intimidating but phone lessons are very convenient and my students who might have been reluctant at the beginning now love them.

3. Self-teaching methods

Camille Chevalier-Karfis 12/01/2012

Pros: Cost. Convenience. Fun to use.

Cons: You will not learn French. No feedback. No grammar. No real person.

Who has not seen a box of Rosetta Stone for sale in a mall? While self-instruction methods can be a great complement to a formal instruction, I strongly believe none of them can teach you French alone. Why? No feedback. How will you know you pronounce the words correctly?

The voice graph? Talk of a scam! They pick up your voice modulation, not your pronunciation… Worse, these methods often lack any solid grammatical structure which you cannot master French without.

Other languages? Maybe. But not French. And everything is being “fed” to you: you’ll never come up with a subject of conversation: that is not how real life works!

So, again, let me reinforce my message: they make great complements of lessons; you’ll learn new vocabulary, they will reinforce things you’ve learned, they are fun to use but they are not sufficient on their own.

Of course, whatever you get, audio is a must.

4. Immersion programs

Pros: You are surrounded by the language and its culture. Many opportunities to speak.

Cons: Price. Big danger of “fake” immersion.

The big danger of so-called immersion programs is that you might not be in real immersion. You’ll be getting group lessons and then you’ll be alone. Or with other foreigners (I made great progress in Spanish as I was studying in Oxford, England. All my fellow students were Spanish… Can’t say I learned a lot of English though).

A host family might not take the time to talk to you, or you can be stuck with toddlers and working parents…

To get the benefits of immersion you need to make sure you get the opportunity to speak French. A lot of it! And it’s not because you are in the country that it is going to happen.

Of course, many of you have fond memories of your trip to France with a school. It’s fun, you do learn a lot, discover the culture, etc… Some schools are great, offer fantastic curriculums and activities to entertain their students.

Some host families do care and teach a lot to their guest. But I also know many students who had bad experiences, didn’t get to practice French much, were mostly by themselves and ended up spending a lot of money without improving their French all that much.

Thankfully there are some great immersion programs out there. As one example, check out immersion at a teacher’s house. This is the best of the best, because you are guaranteed to speak a lot of French and have someone who can explain your mistakes and correct them. I highly recommend this option. It’s the best and fastest way to learn French.

Be careful though- there are some scams out there, so always check references, ask for a signed agreement stating clearly the conditions of your stay. Also, pay a small deposit but hand over most of the money when you get there and you actually see your quarters and meet the teacher.

If you decide to go to a school check the age of their students. Being surrounded by teenagers might get a little dull for a grown-up.

Check their reviews, their curriculums, ask if they have an audio lab, what kind of outside activities they offer… And again, paying a deposit is fine, but pay most of the money once you’ve actually visited the place, met the teacher(s) and your host family (or visited the apartment etc…). When you are going to pay is the key. If you have prepaid the whole thing, you have almost no power to change anything you don’t like. 

5. What I would do?

Camille Chevalier-Karfis 12/01/2012

To sum up, you need to be smart when picking a learning method. And you need to be honest about your learning abilities. If I was a student of French, this is what I would do:

  • I would definitely start with some private lessons, to make sure the foundations are good.
  • If I could afford it, I would then go to an immersion at the teacher’s house, to learn a lot fast and enjoy the culture.
  • I would get some simple, level-adapted audio self-teaching tools for self-instruction to study on the side.
  • I would join a good group (cheaper) or continue with private lessons (faster and adapted to your own goals and needs).

Enjoy and good luck.

This article originally appeared on ‘French Today‘.

About the Contributor

Judy MacMahon

Experience FRANCE beyond the CLICHÉ with MyFrenchLife.org MyFrenchLife is for Curious Savvy Francophiles wherever you are. Meet Francophiles in France, online, and/or wherever you live. You’re very welcome to join us - Judy MacMahon - MyFrenchLife.org

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  1. Julie Chamand Jan 18, 2012 at 9:46 AM - Reply

    So many ways to learn! I would vote for class lesson + self teaching because you always have to work a lot by yourself and finally immersion. But here, I would advise students to just go there and enrol in a normal course instead of an exchange program. Because with the latter, you don’t always stay with the same people, so it’s really hard to make French friends.
    Another good piece of advise: Go and talk to the French first. They’re often too shy. And suggest nights out or whatever 🙂

  2. alice__m Jan 18, 2012 at 9:29 PM - Reply

    I would like to say that I completely disagree with Camille’s view.
    About group classes : I’ve been teaching French for over 10 years now and I can’t recommend enough this form of learning a language. I regularly experience English classes for my own professional developpement, and really *enjoy* everything about group classes : whether there are, 4, 6 or 10 people attending the class. “You must bear in mind this is a juicy business” says Camille. I would like to say : you must bear in mind that *most* teachers really ENJOY teaching their own language to an international group and it SHOWS, and it’s CONTAGIOUS. Why ? because being part of a group of 10 people all willing to learn the same language, from 10 different parts of the world is a *unique* *rich* *exceptional*experience. Some of my groups come back year after year, or every other year, or every 5 year and ask to be in the same group again to re-live the experience !! *THAT* is the main point to bear in mind ! going to the restaurant or visit a part of France together, learning from each other’s culture, laughing, humouring, enjoying the FRench sun or rain or wind together, all this makes for an *exceptional* and *unforgettable* experience.
    Voilà ce que je voulais dire, as a teacher *and* learner.

  3. alice__m Jan 18, 2012 at 9:34 PM - Reply

    I would like to add that when you enjoy the experience of learning in a class so much, you *will* learn a great amount of French, as according to me (and so many teachers), enjoyment goes hand in hand with learning, pleasure, fun and warmth.

  4. Camille Chevalier-Karfis Jan 20, 2012 at 2:35 AM - Reply

    to Alice_M. Dear Alice, This is Camille of FrenchToday.com writing, the author of the article above. I absolutely agree with you, a good group class, with people of the same level, and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable teacher is indeed a great way to learn a language. And it sounds like the classes you held are lovely. I too had group classes when I taught in Boston, and my students enjoyed them a lot. But I’m sure you will also agree with me that not all schools/teachers are as involved as we are, and that students should be well informed before choosing any learning option. That’s all I am trying to say in my article, give pointers to students to make an informed choice, and a choice that best suits their learning style and needs. Any learning style as some positive and negative sides, and there are always going to be exceptions and particular cases. Best,

  5. alice__m Jan 20, 2012 at 5:41 PM - Reply

    Well, Camille, I just wanted to point out that your “pointers” are just *yours*, and I wanted to counter balance them. “Not all school teachers are involved as we are ?” well nor are all private tutors. Same in any profession, students know that. But according to me,a group class is one of the *best* learning method that I know and have experienced.

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