French for Beginners: What You Need to Know
French was my first love when it comes to languages. There’s an expression in French: “On revient toujours à son premier amour.” It means you always go back to your first love. I love French. I love all the languages that I have learned, but I have a special affection for French.
Growing up in Montreal in the 1950s I had French every day at school – elementary school and high school – starting from grade two. After ten years, as I entered McGill University at the age of 17, I couldn’t hold a conversation in French and had great trouble understanding the language.
This was typical. In fact, I was a good student, and did better than most of my classmates in French. I passed all the grammar tests and other school French tests with high marks. Yet when it came time to speak, I could only string words together with great uncertainty, and really didn’t understand what I heard. I certainly didn’t read French newspapers, which were available in Montreal. Nor did I watch French movies. I couldn’t understand them.
This situation persists today. The ability of English Canadians to converse in French remains low and recently has even declined. Kids are not learning French at schools, despite a tremendous effort at teaching verb conjugations, reflexive verbs, verb agreement and all the other fine points of French grammar to uninterested little learners. Or is it precisely because of how it is taught?
By grade three I could recite from memory the 16 French verbs that used the auxiliary verb “être”. But by grade 11 I still couldn’t speak or understand very well. Yet I eventually became fluent in French, graduated from a leading French university and have had a love affair with the language ever since. What is to be done? What advice do I have for the beginner?
The easiest advice to give is that people should develop a passion for French. I once wrote a long blog post about why I think people should learn French. I called it Why learn French? Six Reasons. Easy advice to give, but a lot more difficult to put into practice. People develop interests and passions for internal, personal reasons. The fact that I became passionate about French is no reason others will. However to quote another French saying “l’appetit vient en mangeant”. (Appetite comes with eating). You might want to give French a start. As I said at the start of my article on reasons to learn French,
“To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy language learners resemble each other. They develop a passion for the language they are learning. Each unhappy language learner, on the other hand, finds his or her own reason to be turned off. I got turned on to French flair long ago and my passion for French has stayed with me for over 50 years.”
All languages present some difficulties for a learner and therefore, some will take longer to learn compared to others. A language is at the heart of the behaviour of another culture, and a form of expressing our thoughts and feelings that has developed in ways different from what we are used to. We need motivation to stay on course, in order to get used to the new patterns of that language.
Famous Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb once said that language learning success is a function of motivation plus time divided by inhibition. I would use the word resistance instead of inhibition. A person’s inhibition is only one form of resistance to learning a language. Frustration with teaching methods is another, and in some ways more important form of resistance.
There is too much emphasis on grammar in French instruction, and I believe this is unhelpful. We need to immerse ourselves in the language right away, by listening to and reading stories. Initially these should be short, full of repetition, like the mini-stories at LingQ. Then, as soon as possible, the immersion should consist of compelling content, audio with text.
Accessing this kind of material is made possible thanks to the Internet. Whether you enjoy listening to French YouTubers, podcasts, or reading blogs, the amount of content you can find is endless. None of this existed during Kato Lomb’s time, nor when I was learning French 50 years or more ago.
Yes, but what about the grammar and other difficulties of French? Well, here is a quick summary that can help you. Don’t try to remember anything here. Just use this, and other resources, as a reference as you set out to discover this lovely language on your own. You can also read LingQ’s free French grammar guide if you wish.
A Guide to French for Beginners
French can seem difficult to pronounce at first, and even a little difficult to understand. It isn’t like English, Swedish or the tonal languages. French tends to roll along in a fairly monotonous range of tones. In addition French has these nasal sounds which seem to all sound the same, but aren’t. When we add in the way the last syllable from the preceding word is slurred onto the first syllable of the next word, (called liaison), hearing and pronouncing French can be a challenge. But cheer up, with enough exposure the brain will get used to any language.
You should at least be aware of these things as a beginner, but you shouldn’t worry about them. Not much you can do. The language is not going to change for you. You are going to change for the language. You will gradually, and only gradually, get better at hearing the language, the words, and then much later start to be able to reproduce these sounds. You have to be aware of these things as a beginner, to notice them, and eventually you will get used to them. But don’t get frustrated if it all sounds a bit of a blur.
If it’s any consolation, the situation is just as bad for French people wanting to pronounce English well. French is a relatively monotonous language. If you can read French, which is not really difficult for English speakers, you will see in this article that the French language has only three tones, whereas English has seven, Russian nine, and some other languages more than ten! French people have to get used to the sing song nature of English, and English speakers have to tone it down. They also have give their brains enough exposure to the language so that they start to hear where one word ends and the next one begins. There are fewer tones to help you.
One thing I recommend insofar as pronunciation is concerned, is to get used to making the ‘euh’ sound. “Je”, “le” “me” etc., and the unaccented “e” at the end of words. There are lots of ‘euh’ in French. The French use “euh” the way English speakers use “aah” or “umm”, as a spacer or breather between words or phrases. You kind of have to pick up on that as soon as you can and have it flow through your pronunciation. It will help you tone down your French and sound more monotonous, more French.
Positive statements, negative statements and questions
You have to get used to what in English we call the ‘w’ words: what, where, when, why, who, how: “quoi” , “où” , “qui” , “quand” , “pourquoi” , “comment”. You should get used to those at the beginning of your studies, as they are essential for making statements and asking questions. Try Google Translate to see what the corresponding words and structures are in French to questions you have in English.
In fact, you should get in the habit of Googling whenever you have a question about French, including grammar issues. It is far more effective to search for an answer to something that you have noticed in the language, that you are curious about, rather than having a teacher push an explanation at you.
When you see question words in your reading at LingQ, save them. You should do this not only to remember these words, but because the LingQ system will give you lots of examples of these words in use. The examples usually come from lessons you have already studied. The advantage of looking at examples from lessons you have already studied is that you probably know the words. Very often, if you’re reading in a grammar book you are provided with examples, where you don’t know the words. That’s not so helpful.
Gender and number
There are languages, like Japanese, that have no gender and no number. French has both. In French, pronouns and adjectives have to agree, even verbs have to agree. For a quick explanation you can Google. In the case of verb agreement in French, you may want go to Lawless French . It tells us that
“Accord du verbe. In French, the past participles in compound tenses and moods sometimes have to agree with another part of the sentence, either the subject or the direct object. It’s a lot like adjectives: when an agreement is required, you need to add e for feminine subjects/objects and s for plural ones.”
There are abundant grammar resources on the web. Find the ones you find most useful and use them when you are curious about something. Getting used to new grammar patterns takes time. You don’t learn it the first time, not even the fifth time. But eventually it becomes second nature, believe me.
Very soon you’ll discover that whereas in English verb forms don’t change much for person, in French every form of the verb changes, depending on the person, and tense and “mood”. We call these verb changes, the different conjugation forms of verbs. It’s very difficult to remember these conjugations. You can spend all kinds of time pouring over conjugation tables. In my experience it’s a very unsatisfying thing to do because you forget them. You might remember them for tomorrow’s test and then you forget them, so you constantly have to refer to them and see them in context.
If you’re on the computer, just Google “French conjugations” or “conjugation” of any verb and you will find what you are looking for. The same is true, by the way, with pronouns, adjectives. Anything you want to look at, you just Google and it will be there.
There are even conjugating dictionaries like Le Conjugueur. This is one of dictionaries that you can use at LingQ. Don’t rely on memorization. Keep reading and listening. Look things up when you are stumped and stay focused on things of interest.
Also, here’s a short list of common French verbs to help get you started.
Conditional and subjunctive
Some people are intimidated by these verb forms or moods in French, without realizing that we have the same patterns in English. The English conditional, of course, revolves around the word “if”, as in the sentence “I would go if…” etc. The same is true in French with the word “si”. Type some “if” sentences in English into Google Translate to see how French deals with this issue.
The subjunctive is used when there is uncertainty about whether something is going to happen, as in “you have to go”, “I want you to go”, “although you went” etc. Begin by noticing the subjunctive. Don’t worry about whether you can get it right when speaking or writing. Save the subjunctive form of verbs when you think you might have come across it at LingQ. Check it out in Le Conjugueur or in another conjugating dictionary like Context Reverso. Both of these dictionaries are available at LingQ.
You will slowly get more and more used to the conditional and the subjunctive. Continue your enjoyable discovery of French, through listening and reading, and your confidence in this seemingly scary looking verb forms will gradually grow.
There are many things they do differently in French. The French are not hungry or cold, they have hunger and they have cold. They have age, and they say “ I call myself” instead of “my name is”. At first these patterns seem strange because they are different from what we are used to. Don’t be put off, and don’t try to nail these things down. Take note, observe, discover, and move on.
I have touched lightly on some of what you will find in French. Don’t put these things up front. Don’t think that the mass of grammar rules need to be mastered before you can enjoy the language. That is what they did to me in school. It was when I broke away from that, and immersed myself in content of interest, reading, listening, watching movies, and conversing with people, that I started to fall in love with French. That stimulated my motivation, reduced my frustration, and induced me to spend the time necessary to achieve fluency in this lovely language, “mon premier amour” among languages.