This past year has shifted our lives beyond recognition, and certainly during the first lockdown there was large appetite for ‘self improvement’, many turning to language learning to fill their suddenly empty weekends and evenings. Learning a language takes a lot of dedication, and can be costly. I’m sure attending a formal course is a brilliant way to develop well rounded knowledge, but for many this is out of budget or time constraints. There’s a lot you can do on your own for little to no money however, and although it can be hard to practice your conversational skills alone, there’s a lot of brilliant resources out there. This is by no means a comprehensive list, merely the things I have stumbled upon and found useful. If you have any favourites please do comment below.
Possibly the most popular language learning app, Duolingo is a brilliant place to start. Their French course is broad and they’re constantly adding new content. They’ve recently added audio lessons which are perfect for picking up the essentials when preparing for a trip abroad, something that was lacking for a long time. There are also stories which help you see the language in use in short, amusing stories, checking your comprehension as you go. The main set of modules will help build up your vocabulary and understanding of grammar, with tips to help you understand why sentences are formed the way they are. According to the app I’ve now been using it for seven years, and although do not in any way count myself as fluent, I actually understand the conventions of the French language so much better than I ever did at school. Spending just fifteen minutes a day can really broaden your vocabulary. The app is completely free to use although there is a payment option to get rid of ads, and is also available through a web browser if you don’t have a smart phone.
There are some brilliant YouTube channels that can help with improving your listening and comprehension skills. A recent happy discovery is Comme Une Française. Géraldine posts weekly videos explaining quirks of the language, offering tips on understanding fast spoken French, and recommending other great resources. Her channel will not only improve your French but will give you a better sense of the culture of France. Her videos tend to be less than ten minutes long so easy to fit one in on a lunch break.
Vogue Paris also posts short videos that have English subtitles. I mostly watch their Une Fille, Un Style series but there’s a whole range of videos from make-up tutorials to cooking tutorials. Some videos are in English with French subtitles so you can practice either way.
Podcasts are a great way to include some French listening into your day while out for a walk or
Coffee Break French offers shorter episodes in which they ask people on the streets of France questions such as ‘what’s your daily routine’, or ‘what kind of holidays do you like?’. This allows the listener to hear more colloquial French as well as different accents and ways of saying things. They play the interviews and then break down what was said before playing at full speed again so you get a chance to see how much more you understand.
Another Netflix show worth checking out is Le Bazar de la Charité. The series starts with a devastating fire in Paris in 1897 and follows the lives of three women whose worlds will never be the same again. This show should come with a warning - it’s incredibly intense and can be quite upsetting. The first episode which shows the fire was incredibly shot but also difficult to watch, so realistic was the experience. I admit I haven’t yet watched the whole series but from what I’ve seen it continues to be hard hitting. You might want something light lined up for afterward.
For those without subscription TV, Channel 4 is now streaming Torn, a drama set in Provence about an affair and its dire consequences. I’m only a few episodes in and although it doesn’t have the depth of some of the other programmes is nonetheless entertaining TV that will keep you wondering what will happen next.
In the early days of learning French I opted for children’s dual text books. The Let’s Read in French and English series offers a selection of books that go beyond very simple vocabulary and are a good way to build up your confidence. Le Petit Prince is also available in parallel text. When you’re feeling a little more confident it’s worth picking up a book solely in French that you’re already quite familiar with. For me, this is Harry Potter a l’École des Sorciers. I know the story well enough to not have to keep stopping to look up words to understand what’s happening and also downloaded the audiobook to help with pronunciation and aural comprehension. It’s been great fun seeing the translations of words invented for the novels and although it’s slow going is worth persevering.
Listening to music in French is a great way to introduce more French into your daily routine without feeling like you’re learning. A few years ago I happened upon the musical Notre Dame de Paris and was lucky enough to catch it live when it came to London shortly afterward. There’s a version of it available on YouTube for free.
In terms of more popular music, Lucien Doré is a good place to start (and he also makes an appearance in Call My Agent!), L’Impératrice is great for more dance pop vibes, and Granville are also worth checking out if you like 1960s vibes.
As mentioned earlier, the hardest thing to practice solo is conversation, and indeed often the aspect of language learning that people find most embarrassing and difficult. In many cities there are meet up groups that offer the chance to meet other French learners, sometimes with a teacher there for a small fee, sometimes as a free group for everyone to practice. These can be incredibly daunting but can really help show where your gaps in knowledge are and ultimately build your confidence for conversation.