(Also posted on Medium)
(03-05-20: This post got a decent amount of attention on Hacker News, Reddit, and Reddit again. Check out the links to see some discussions about the post and language learning in general, as well as my answers to some questions.)
From A0 to B2 in a year
A bit over a year ago, I was a completely monolingual English speaker with zero experience with the French language. Twelve months later, I very comfortably passed the internationally recognized DELF B2 exam. If you don’t know what “B2” means, check out the CEFR scale.
Furthermore, all of my progress was the result of study and practice at home. My learning was entirely self-directed, without any formal programs or immersion. This was only possible through the many amazing resources available online, many of which are free. Furthermore, I succeeded in part because I prioritized receiving quality input and producing output, particularly by spending lots of time talking with fluent French speakers.
I will say my learning pace was somewhat aggressive, in that I devoted a lot of time towards learning French over the past year, but it was nowhere near full-time study.
I wouldn’t call myself completely “fluent”, but to give you an idea of my level, here are some things I can do without much trouble:
Have fluid conversations completely in French for multiple hours
Understand multiple forms of French media (e.g. news broadcasts, YouTube videos)
Read articles intended for native French speakers
Dream in French
Of course, I am still very far from native-level proficiency. I definitely have weak points and I can’t express myself in French nearly as well as I can in English. Nevertheless, I’m pretty happy with my level of French and I think many French learners would be too.
Why I’m writing this article
I know many people want to learn a foreign language, but the task is definitely quite daunting. There are an enormous number of resources, tools, websites, methods, books, apps, classes, and programs out there, some free and others expensive, and it’s hard to figure out which ones to use and when. I definitely spent a lot of time reading about different programs and figuring out whether they would work for me.
Now that I’ve reached my goal with learning French, I’m writing this article to show other language learners how I achieved it. Much of what I did should be applicable to those learning other languages too.
Nothing I say will be revolutionary – I don’t have some “secret trick” or “foolproof method” – but I think that my experiences over the last year will be useful to someone starting to learn a language. I especially hope that this article helps those who are starting in the same place as I did: monolingual, no prior experience with their target language, no immersion, not studying full-time, and not knowing speakers of their target language.
Of course, many people advocate for many different methods to learning a language. I don’t think mine was the absolute best way, but it certainly worked well enough and I think seeing it can provide some valuable insight. Later on I’ll mention some things I’d change if I were to repeat the process, as well as other resources I’ve heard good things about.
If you just want to get an idea of what I did in this year of study, I’ll first give a timeline of my French learning journey below. Afterwards, I will discuss many topics in more detail, including what resources I used, what order I recommend using them in, and how to accomplish things as cheaply as possible. I’ll also describe in more detail what I can and cannot do, so that you can get as accurate an idea as possible of what it means to be at a solid B2 level.
The most important things, in my opinion, are in bold. Approximate milestones are italicized. Some dates are approximate.
11/18: Complete beginner (A0) excluding basics like “hello, do you speak English?”
11/18: Started going through the French Duolingo tree
12/18: Started listening to French music
1/19: Signed up for the Lingoda half-marathon (now sprint) challenge, starting at A1.2.
1/19: Started occasionally watching Peppa Pig in French (yes, really)
2/19: Changed my phone language to French
2/19: Started lessons on Italki, roughly once a week
3/19: Started (inconsistently) going through the 5000 most common French words deck on Anki
3/19: Quit Lingoda after A2.1, but kept all lesson materials from A1-C2
3/19: Reached the end of the Duolingo tree (level 1 in all skills, but most were level 3+)
5/19: Reached a solid conversational level, maybe low B1.
6/19: Started consistently covering 50 new words a day on Anki
6/19-9/19: Listened to all episodes of the InnerFrench Podcast
6/19-10/19: Went through all A1-B1 saved material from Lingoda
8/19: Finished maxing out the Duolingo tree
9/19: Finished the Anki deck, continued to review afterwards
9/19-10/19: Went through the “Build a Strong Core” program from the maker of the InnerFrench podcast
10/19: I probably reached B2 around here
10/19: Completed the Italki Challenge for October, taking 20 hours of speaking lessons in October
10/19-11/19: Started writing texts on Italki Notebooks and getting them corrected
11/19-12/19: Took 4 lessons with a professional tutor on Italki who specialized in test prep
12/19: Took the DELF B2 exam
12/19: Learned that I passed the DELF B2 with a score of 86/100!
Technically, I learned a tiny bit of French in the fall of 2018 to prep for a trip to Europe, but only a handful of words and touristy phrases. I started seriously studying French in mid-November 2018 and took the DELF a little under 13 months later, but given that I passed it quite comfortably, I think I actually hit the B2 level around 10-11 months in.
I want to expand a bit on what exactly my capabilities and limitations are in French, to give you a more realistic picture of what is achievable in a year of study.
I’ve already mentioned some things I can do pretty easily, like have long and fluid conversations and consume French media. Here are some things I can’t really do that well:
Understand strongly accented speech. For example, one of my online tutors recently sent me this video about speaking Quebecois French. I understand essentially all the “standard” French without subtitles, but very little of the Quebecois.
Understand very slang-heavy speech. I know a good chunk of argot but there are still plenty of informal vocab words and expressions I don’t know. Especially that damn verlan.
Write error free text. I can get the message across pretty well without relying on a dictionary, but I often phrase things a bit unnaturally and make minor grammatical errors. For example, here is a screenshot of a correction of part of a text I wrote while prepping for my exam:
Quickly use less common verb tenses. While I know how to construct the past conditional and future perfect, I still can’t use them very fluidly.
Recognize all the weird literary tenses. Imperfect subjunctive? Yuck.
Understand everything native speakers say when talking quickly and casually. I can definitely converse with people, but French people are notorious for blending and trimming words when they can. Some things can go over my head in rapid, informal speech.
Understand complex, technical topics. While I can’t always do this in English either, my lack of specialized French vocabulary prevents me from conversing about topics like economics, philosophy, mathematics, and science at more than a basic-to-intermediate level.
One more limitation: I struggle a bit with French in more “everyday” situations. I’ve spent very little time speaking French in person with people. If you’re fully immersed, you get to cover all the little things: tying your shoes, pointing out a stain on someone’s shirt, passing the ball to someone in a basketball game. I mean, I know all the basics and can convey my intentions in such situations, but my phrasing might be unnatural and I might not know a word here and there. On the other hand, since I spent so many hours just casually talking with people, I got pretty good at having generic conversations.
With that said, let’s discuss the B2 exam a bit. Here’s my score distribution for the B2 exam (note passing is 50/100 with 5/25 minimum in each section):
As you can see, speaking (oral production) was my strongest score with a near perfect score. This makes sense, as I devoted a large amount of time to speaking practice, spending around 100 hours in the last year talking with native speakers. During the exam, I was nervous but very fluid while speaking, being able to express my arguments very easily and understanding essentially everything they asked of me.
Writing and reading were also quite good with around 90% scores for each. I didn’t really have any problems with either; I fully understood the texts I was given.
Listening was definitely my worst section, both in score and general impression. I “understood” all the words from the recordings they played, but having to concentrate for minutes at a time while answering questions simultaneously was something I had very little experience doing. In particular, on the shorter recording (2-3 minutes) where we only got 1 listen, I had only answered 1 question out of 7 when the recording ended, not realizing that the answers to all the questions had already been said. I definitely got some lucky points from guessing on some questions and wouldn’t have been too surprised to have received a score of 10 here. However, I will say that much of the difficulty was format-based, instead of comprehension-based. With a bit more practice with the listening format, I likely would have had an easier time.
Before I get into details about my exact method for learning French and what I recommend, I want to share some general thoughts I have about my experience and language learning in general.
There is no “perfect” or “easy”, method, including mine
Different people learn better using different methods. In this article I will explain what I did and why I think it worked out for me. However, at the end of the day I’m just some random guy who learned French, one of the easier languages for an English speaker to learn, to an upper intermediate level. I’m very, very far from being an “expert polyglot savant” and all of my advice may not be ideal for you.
I spent a good chunk of time reading advice online on how to learn French, and while I’ll discuss a lot of useful resources in this article, you should do your own research on what will work for you personally. Of course, don’t spend too much time planning when you could be spending that time actually learning your target language! Contrary to popular belief, watching polyglot videos on YouTube isn’t going to make you fluent!
Learning languages in school is very inefficient
An incredible number of people have spent many years “learning” languages in school, only to emerge unable to have a basic conversation. How is it possible that I was capable of having full conversations in French within 6 months of learning it then?
I firmly believe that learning languages in school, especially in the United States, is generally extremely inefficient. If you struggled learning a language in school, don’t let that affect your confidence with learning a new language now. If you practice intelligently, you can learn much more effectively on your own. You get to avoid doing redundant work that isn’t helping you, and you can spend much more time getting 1-on-1 speaking time with teachers who put all their focus lessons on you. Instead of the language learning process being tailored to a standard government curriculum in a classroom of 20+ students, your language learning journey is completely tailored to you!
You don’t have to know that much
First, as massive of a task as learning a language seems, take solace in the fact that there are really only a certain number of things you have to learn. You only need to know a couple thousand words and a not-too-large number of grammar rules before you have everything you need to become comfortably conversational. Of course, you need to put in the time to practice what you learn, but once you start picking things up it becomes very enjoyable to see yourself progress.
For languages like French, you already have a massive advantage if you’re already fluent in English. There are an enormous number of cognates between French and English, and this means that you can already recognize thousands of French words even if you’ve never spoken a word of French in your life! Furthermore, much of French grammar is similar to English, although of course some things will feel quite weird when you encounter them.
It’s a matter of time, not ability
Sometimes the language learning process can feel overwhelming. To keep myself motivated, I told myself to believe in the process, and that if I put enough time into things, eventually I’d reach my goal. It turns out I was right!
As I said in the previous section, once you know a certain number of words and grammar rules, with some effective practice you will be able to have a solid conversation. If you consistently work on picking up new words and push yourself to address your weaknesses, whatever they may be, you will get there. It’s not a matter of ability; it’s a matter of time.
Of course, not all practice time is equal. Make sure your practice is effective practice, and that you’re not just spending all your time watching French movies and calling it a day.
Learning languages is frustrating
So much of the difficulty in language learning is getting over the endless feeling of frustration you encounter. If you’re not feeling frustrated sometimes, you probably aren’t learning much. Watching subtitled movies is fun, but you’re probably not challenging yourself and forcing yourself to learn. Struggling to express an idea in your foreign language is frustrating. Seeing yourself make a grammar mistake you’ve already made 100 times is frustrating. Frustrate yourself enough and you’ll push your boundaries enough to get to the next level.
Of course, you shouldn’t frustrate yourself for no good reason, but effective practice often is frustrating! If you truly want to learn, get used to it!
(P.S.: When I started off, I sometimes watched this video to re-motivate myself after I got frustrated. Once I reached that level (around 6 months in!), it wasn’t so hard anymore.)
The first few months of language learning are really fun because you learn extremely quickly. I remember starting to take some lessons on Duolingo and within a month I could start to understand a good chunk of YouTube comments on French music videos, which really motivated me further.
Eventually, you learn all the big stuff – past tense, pronouns, base vocab – and you don’t get to see yourself progress as quickly. In this stage, I couldn’t always tell if I was actually making progress. When this happens, remember, trust the process. The new words you learn will not be as frequent and the grammar rules you learn will be a little more obscure, but as long as you’re learning new things, you’ll gradually notice you make fewer mistakes and things that used to trip you up become second nature.
The 5 most important things to succeed (in my opinion)
Learning a language is obviously not easy. I can’t be completely certain why I succeeded, but I think some mixture of the traits below were necessary.
Tenacity: You absolutely need to be tenacious to succeed. As I said, language learning can be very frustrating! If you can overcome your frustration, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals. Accept it and move on.
Consistency: You need to practice consistently. This doesn’t necessarily mean every single day, but you can’t expect to make much progress if you don’t have some sort of consistency with your learning routine.
Honesty: You need to be honest with yourself (and your tutors and teachers) about your weaknesses. Do you best to identify what your weaknesses are, and force yourself to work on them.
Curiosity: So much of what I learned was from trying to figure out something that didn’t make sense to me. Maybe I found an expression that turned out to be an idiom, or a verb was conjugated differently than I expected. In these cases, I either searched online or asked my online tutors until I found a satisfactory answer. If you don’t address your weak points, they will always remain weak points!
Independence: If you’re self-studying your target language, you’ll need to take charge of the process. I didn’t have anyone to tell me what to do everyday, and in the end I designed my own language learning process. Do your research, and with enough tips and advice (like with this article, hopefully) you’ll find out roughly what you need to do. Then, execute!
Now I’ll go into more detail about the various resources I used and how I recommend using them.
Duolingo is a popular platform that teaches a lot of basics for various languages. Most people use the Duolingo mobile app, but there is also a desktop version. Duolingo was the primary tool I used to learn the basics of French.
Why I recommend Duolingo
While I can’t speak to the effectiveness of other popular platforms for beginners, I found Duolingo really useful for getting a firm grasp of the basics. If you are using a well-established course, Duolingo can get you a long way towards reaching a lower intermediate level, at least in reading and writing. Duolingo gets a lot of criticism as a language-learning platform, and I actually agree with much of this criticism if you use Duolingo ineffectively. As much as Duolingo likes to tell you this, 5 minutes a day of fumbling around with the mobile app isn’t going to make you fluent. If you use Duolingo as I explain below, it can serve as a very effective and useful resource.
Using Duolingo effectively
There are a few key points I want to give about using Duolingo effectively:
Use the desktop version
Turn off the word bank
Ensure the course you’re using has good reviews
Read the tips included with each lesson, if available
Read sentence discussions for tricky sentences
Use the Desktop Version of Duolingo
I started off with using the Duolingo mobile app, but quickly permanently switched to the desktop version. While Duolingo is mostly known for it’s mobile app, the desktop version of Duolingo is superior to the mobile version, for multiple reasons:
No heart system. You can do as much as you want without getting blocked by your errors. This is essential to getting sufficient practice in to make rapid progress.
Complete access to additional resources, like the forum. You can see individual sentence discussions on the app, but not the entire forum.
Better text input. I find it more convenient to enter my text input on my computer than on my phone. Plus, you get to more easily type in accents if you configure your keyboard settings (I use the US International Keyboard with dead keys.)
Better exercise formats. I personally found certain mobile exercises to be less effective than those available on the desktop version.
If you have to use the mobile app, make sure you turn off the word bank and view sentence discussions, as I explain below.
Turn off the Word Bank
I think turning off the word bank is absolutely crucial for learning effectively. By turning off the word bank, you are forced to type out the sentences exactly and really get good practice in. You are no longer practicing recognition but recall. It’s so much easier to forget and confuse words and spellings if you don’t have to type in the words yourself and actually remember them exactly. Without the word bank, your spelling will be vastly superior, you will internalize grammar better, and your vocab retention will be much greater.
The word bank is for people who want to feel like they’re learning without actually putting up with the frustration that producing your own output gives you.
Ensure the course you’re using has good reviews
From my understanding, Duolingo courses are mostly created from the efforts of volunteers, and thus tend to have significant differences in several aspects: audio quality, amount of grammar notes available, forum participation, depth of content, etc.
Certain Duolingo courses have really good reviews. From my experience with the French and Spanish for English Speakers courses, they are both pretty well executed. I’ve also heard good things about a few others, like German, Esperanto and Norwegian.
I’ve also heard that some courses are pretty low quality, like Japanese and Mandarin (although things might have changed recently.) Some courses, like Italian, are pretty short and so you can’t reach as high of a level using Duolingo. Other courses don’t have any tips or notes at all, so you’re doomed to fumbling around aimlessly! If you’re picking up a language on Duolingo, make sure you read reviews of those courses online before investing a lot of time in them.
Read the tips included with each lesson, if available
For many courses, Duolingo provides grammar tips for some or all lessons. I found the tips tremendously helpful for preparing for a lesson and being able to quickly understand why certain sentences are said in certain ways. However, be aware that the tips don’t contain everything that you need to know, and so to address that, you should:
Read sentence discussions for tricky sentences
The Duolingo forum can sometimes be a useful resource. However, the most useful parts of the forum are the individual sentence discussions, where you can find an enormous number of helpful explanations for many sentences. In particular, for the French course, I often found detailed explanations of tricky concepts and idioms found in the sentence discussions, especially by the wonderful course contributor Sitesurf.
Other suggestions for using Duolingo
Duolingo definitely has its quirks, even within the most well-developed courses, which can sometimes be annoying.
For example, sometimes you’ll submit a correct translation which isn’t accepted. This is occasionally frustrating, but ultimately it’s impossible for Duolingo to recognize all possible correct sentences, so in these cases you’ll have to adjust your answers into the “Duolingo style”. They accept more translations over time; I get occasional e-mails saying they now accept a translation I reported as correct.
Some people also complain that some sentences are nonsensical (e.g. “I found a dinosaur eating a carrot in my bathtub.”) Ultimately I don’t mind this sort of thing, because the point is to teach you vocabulary and grammar, while possibly adding a little humor in the mix. You shouldn’t focus on the individual sentences and how “plausible” they are but instead on making sure you understand the underlying foundation behind how the sentences are constructed.
Getting through the Duolingo Tree
I went through the entire French tree, taking each skill to level 5. I actually did this when the format was a bit different than it is today, so level 5 meant doing the same skill more than 5 times. However, I think that was excessive, and now I think 5 or so times per skill is a reasonable amount. You could maybe trim this down to 3 times per skill, but I’m not convinced that’s a great idea.
With the old level format this took me many months of consistent effort, around 9 months. However, I think I spent too much time on redoing lessons on Duolingo, so I probably should have finished several months earlier than that. Keep in mind that I was grinding Duolingo so you should not expect to finish in such a time frame unless you are willing to dedicate significant and consistent effort towards completing the tree. Despite Duolingo’s motivational messages, 10 minutes a day is really not very much. I very roughly estimate that getting through the current French or Spanish trees will take somewhere around 150 hours of solid effort to complete.
“Laddering” might be the wrong term here, as it also refers to using one foreign language to learn another, but we’ll stick with it here. The method I use on Duolingo, which I’ve seen recommended by others too, is not to grind out one skill at a time to the max, but to gradually go through lessons roughly one level at a time. This allows you to cover lessons over a longer time span instead of cramming them all at once. If that isn’t clear, refer to this picture for an example:
Italki is a platform that connects language learners to professional tutors and conversation partners. It is the primary tool I used to improve my conversation and speaking skills. There are also other useful functions, like Notebooks, where you can post texts for others to correct.
As far as I can tell, Italki is pretty much universally loved by the language learning community, and I completely echo this sentiment. Taking a lot of Italki lessons was largely responsible for the progress I made with my conversation skills. You absolutely NEED to spend a lot of time talking with people, particularly advanced or native speakers of your language, in order to make significant progress understanding native speakers and speaking yourself.
I started taking 1-on-1 lessons on Italki about 3 months in, once I had a solid enough beginner vocabulary and could form some basic sentences. I think this was a pretty good timeline for me, but you can certainly start earlier if you want. I think it’s inefficient to, for example, learn basic vocabulary and grammar through Italki, but you can use it as an early way to practice good pronunciation, get access to useful resources, and get advice on the language learning process.
Finding Teachers on Italki
There are hundreds on teachers on Italki for all of the major languages, so it can be difficult to figure out how to choose one. My experience is that most teachers are easy to talk to and so ultimately I think it isn’t all that important in the end. Don’t do what I did and stick with one teacher for months (even though she was great) – try different teachers and see which ones you click best with! Using multiple teachers also means you don’t get too accustomed to one person’s way of speaking. Also, teacher ratings are extremely inflated, so 5.0 stars means almost nothing.
I initially preferred native French speakers, but after taking lessons with non-native speakers, I found that I couldn’t really tell the difference between natives and non-natives. If you’re a beginner, I think this essentially doesn’t matter at all unless you really want to speak with someone who grew up completely immersed in the language and culture, because every teacher on Italki has a very high level in their language.
I also heavily filtered by price for my lessons. I don’t have any experience with more expensive casual teachers, but I found that the less expensive teachers were perfectly adequate for me. If you’re a beginner, I think finding cheaper teachers is likely perfectly fine. More expensive tutors could likely point you to more resources or are more likely to be professionals, but in my opinion all you need to do is spend a lot of time talking unless you’re an advanced student or have very specific goals in mind.
If you’re prepping for a proficiency test like the DELF, you can spend some more money on a professional teacher who specializes in test prep. I only did this for four lessons in the weeks before my DELF exam, but I was blown away by my teacher’s preparedness and the sheer amount of help she gave me in specifically prepping for my exam. If you’re studying on your own, such a teacher can really inform you about how to prepare for the test and remove any surprises you might encounter otherwise. If you’re not studying for an exam, then this probably isn’t necessary.
Using Italki effectively
This section won’t be very interesting, because I think it’s really easy to use Italki effectively: just talk, a lot! Because of my general lack of desire towards specifically working on grammar or exercises with teachers, I spent the vast majority of my time just talking about random topics with my teachers. Sometimes I felt bad that I didn’t really iron out my “weak points” like using certain verb tenses, but in the end, just talking normally for dozens of hours was entirely sufficient to get my speaking to a very solid level.
Of course, you can always ask your Italki tutors for specific help, as I did occasionally, but if you do what I did and just say you want to just talk casually for an hour, you’ll probably do just fine.
I also highly recommend using Italki Notebooks! I should have started earlier, but I only started writing texts on Italki Notebooks pretty close to the end of my learning process. Writing a small text occasionally and getting it corrected will do a lot for correcting small grammatical and structural errors that can plague your writing.
As a bonus, I started posting notebook entries and for some reason, random people started correcting them without me asking! It was awesome to receive such detailed feedback, and for some texts that weren’t corrected, I went over them with a teacher during a few Italki lessons. I hadn’t realized that I was making so many mistakes while writing, but after getting my texts corrected I was able to eliminate many of them.
If you want to see examples of notebook entries and what notebook corrections look like, you can see my notebook entries on my Italki profile.
Here is a referral link if you want to get started with Italki.
I also want to include profile links to some of my favorite teachers that helped me learn French on Italki. I took multiple lessons with all of them and they were all very friendly and easy to have conversations with.
Clara, from Paris
Lucrecia, from Argentina
Zineb, from Morocco
Pascal, from Canada
Camille, from France (for DELF)
Anki is an application that uses a technique called spaced repetition to maximize effectiveness when learning a set of words or concepts, such as vocabulary. You can think of it as an improved flash card system. Anki is extremely effective for internalizing large quantities of information, and for this reason it is popular in the language learning community and unsurprisingly among medical students as well. The interface is a little weird but you get used to it pretty quickly.
After getting a solid start through the beginner stage, I started to use Anki to boost my vocabulary. I wasn’t consistent until around 7 months in, but after a few months, I had solidified thousands of French words into my head and greatly improved both my comprehension and production skills.
Many people advocate for making your own Anki deck, but I was too lazy to do this and instead went through the 5000 most common French words deck. Similar decks are available for several other languages. The French deck is available here.
My routine was 50 new words a day, while reviewing all previous words. I almost exclusively used the French to English deck, although the English to French deck is probably also very useful. After a few months of consistent practice I was able to get through the entire deck. This was a pretty aggressive pace, as towards the end I had to go through maybe 200-300 cards a day in total, but I found it worked well enough for me.
The InnerFrench podcast is a podcast aimed at improving the listening comprehension of intermediate learners. Instead of covering grammar or “boring” topics, Hugo Cotton, the podcast host, talks about a wide range of interesting subjects like “The misfortunes of lottery winners”, “Can we trust our brains?” and “Living on Mars”. The podcast is completely in French. As of early 2020, there are roughly 75 episodes available, with episodes generally ranging from 30 to 40 minutes in length.
This podcast was very highly recommended online, so I decided to check it out once I reached a lower intermediate level, around 6 or 7 months in. I finished it within a few months, and by the end, I felt that my listening comprehension had improved immensely.
One really nice thing about this podcast is that Hugo speaks somewhat slowly and simply in the earlier episodes as he eases you into listening to French for long periods of time. In later episodes, he speaks more quickly and incorporates more advanced vocabulary and expressions in his speech. This sort of fully French but intermediate level content is exactly the kind of material that helps you bridge the gap from intermediate to advanced listening comprehension, when cartoons are too easy but news broadcasts leave you bewildered.
One thing to be aware of is that Hugo talks about a wide variety of topics, some of which are rather political or moral in content (e.g. immigration in France or veganism). I didn’t personally mind this, but Hugo definitely argues for his specific viewpoint, which could rub some people the wrong way. Of course, I hear French people tend to be rather opinionated, so you could just consider this a way of getting used to French culture.
Lingoda is a platform for taking group or private lessons with professional teachers using the Lingoda language curriculum. Each class lasts 1 hour, has an associated level (e.g. A1.1 or B1.3) and covers a certain topic, like “Mastering the future tense” or “Writing a letter”. A PDF with explanations and exercises is available and used during each class.
2 months in, I started using Lingoda by signing up for their “Half Marathon” (now “Sprint”) promotion, where you get 50% of the cost refunded if you take 45 lessons in 90 days (with some additional restrictions). I didn’t complete the challenge, but made it about halfway through.
I think Lingoda is a really good platform for learning one of their available languages. I made reasonably rapid progress with it and had no issues with the content or structure of the classes.
Despite this, I ended up stopping lessons on Lingoda and canceling my subscription. This was for several reasons:
I didn’t like having to book lessons 7 days in advance, which seemed to be required starting in the middle of my half-marathon
I don’t particularly like going to classes in general, instead preferring to study on my own or talk casually
I didn’t want to commit to taking a certain number of lessons every month
Italki seemed to be an adequate substitute
However, if you like going to class or want to improve really fast, doing a bunch of Lingoda lessons, especially if they’re private lessons, is probably one of the most effective and efficient ways out there. If you’re curious, you can sign up for a free trial and check it out.
Lingoda Class Notes
I found the Lingoda class notes pretty useful, so I downloaded all notes from A1.1-C2. I didn’t know how to do this automatically so I manually downloaded all of them, which took around an hour and a half.
Later on, after around 6 or 7 months of learning, I started going through all the class notes from A1 through B1 to fill in any gaps I had. This meant skimming a lot of things and not really doing the exercises like you would in class, and also not having a teacher to guide me through things. Still, I found this to be a pretty effective resource and reference for various grammar concepts. There were also many units on various specific topics, so I got some exposure to a diverse set of vocabulary this way too. Also note that to reach B2, I ended up not reading (or needing) the B2-C2 notes at all.
Of course, you can substitute a good grammar textbook for the Lingoda materials if you’re looking for a grammar resource, but I personally found the PDFs effective enough for my purposes.
There were also some websites I visited very regularly:
This is a wonderful resource for looking up word definitions and example sentences. If I was ever confused about a word or expression, I searched for it here to learn more.
If you use Google Chrome (and maybe other browsers too) you can set up a search engine shortcut to make looking up a word really easy. As an example, if I want to look up the meaning of “attendre”, I can just type “fren attendre” into my address bar to get to the wordreference page for “attendre”.
This is the tool I used to look up verb conjugations. Like with wordreference, you can set up a search engine shortcut to make things fast. For example, I type “rfr attendre” in my address bar to view the conjugation of “attendre”.
thoughtco.com, lawlessfrench.com, and french.kwiziq.com
I found myself on these three sites in particular when I was looking up certain concepts, especially for grammar. They have many excellent articles among them. For example, I often visited this page to review the French subjunctive mood.
Listening to music in your target language is an excellent way to get exposed to native pronunciation, learn vocabulary, and motivate yourself to come to understand the language.
I have fond memories of finding some French songs and gradually, as I learned new words and my listening comprehension improved, slowly understanding more and more of a song. Sometimes, when I couldn’t help myself, I’d look up the lyrics to a song and find out some interesting vocab, especially weird slang words.
Of course, there is a vast discography of French music artists out there, so it’s very likely you can find something you enjoy listening to. If you want some recommendations for good artists who make French music, I recommend Lomepal, Stromae, Eddy de Pretto, Angèle, Roméo Elvis, and L’Impératrice.
Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself unable to understand song lyrics very well. At my level, I still struggle with many songs, particularly those that are heavy on slang. However, when I think about it, half of the time I don’t understand what people are singing in English, so take comfort in the fact that sometimes, music is just hard to understand.
Also, if you want something fun to do once you reach an intermediate level, you can try a listening test where you listen to a song and try to write down as much of the lyrics as you can. I tried this for a couple songs and I thought it was a cool exercise! If you want to check it out, here and here are my results.
Build a Strong Core
Build a Strong Core is a 30-day program offered by Hugo Cotton, the creator of the InnerFrench podcast. It aims to help intermediate-level French speakers fix common grammatical errors and better understand native French speakers.
Considering how awesome the InnerFrench podcast was, after some deliberation I figured I’d spend the 99 euros and enroll in this course too. A new lesson was released every day, generally including a short video about some France-related topic (e.g. the greater Francophone world) and a short video on some grammar topic (e.g. how French speakers don’t say “ne” orally). There was also an active Facebook group, although I never used it.
When I did the program I was already close to a B2 level, so I didn’t get as much out of it than if I were at, say, an A2 level. For example, the speech in the videos was too slow for my taste, so I routinely sped them up to get to a more appropriate speed.
Since I got to that level without this program, I personally don’t think this program is necessary, but I still think it is well constructed and possibly worth doing if you’re at the appropriate level. In particular, it excels in getting you used to the speech of native French speakers, with all the syllable-dropping and word-blending they tend to do. While I was able to achieve that using other means, this program would have definitely accelerated that process.
I must admit that I watched some Peppa Pig in French on YouTube when I was a beginner. This was somewhat helpful, and consuming media at an appropriate level is definitely a good way of improving your listening comprehension, if you’re actively listening and not just reading subtitles.
I also occasionally watched French YouTube videos to practice listening comprehension and “immerse” myself a bit in French culture. You can find a ton of recommendations online for interesting French YouTubers. There’s also the InnerFrench channel for intermediate-level speech.
I read “Le Petit Prince” around 9 months in, which was pretty good reading practice. This is the only book I read in French, and I don’t think it was explicitly necessary, but it definitely wasn’t a waste of time. It’s not the easiest book, but I would recommend it to an intermediate learner. Familiarize yourself a bit with the passé simple beforehand.
I changed my phone language to French as well, which not only taught me some new words (e.g. stopwatch, settings, unlock) but also put my browser home page in French, which exposed me to a lot of articles in French. Reading these on occasion was good reading practice.
I signed up for the News in French e-mail newsletter and read a decent number of the e-mails. I didn’t read anywhere near all of them, but the ones I did read were definitely useful reading practice and taught me many new vocabulary words. The writing is at a relatively advanced level, so I wouldn’t worry much about this until you reach an intermediate level.
I listened to the Learn French with Jessica podcast a fair amount as a beginner as well. This podcast is in English, but will help explain some concepts that can be tricky to understand as a beginner (e.g. the weird French counting system, “c’est” vs. “il est”, etc.)
For more advanced learners, try the French Voices podcast, hosted by the same Jessica mentioned above. This podcast features full-length interviews in French with many interesting Francophones (e.g. movie directors, scientists, etc.) I didn’t listen to this podcast too much, but not for lack of quality – for an advanced student, this podcast will be excellent listening practice!
I also occasionally visited the /r/languagelearning, /r/French, and /r/learnfrench subreddits, more so when I was a beginner. Through these subreddits I discovered many of the resources I discussed above, and also learned a decent amount from some of the French-specific posts. In particular, I came back to this post a few times for inspiration. Once I reached a solid intermediate level, I sometimes visited the /r/France subreddit, which served as interesting reading and taught me some useful vocabulary.
There are a lot of other highly recommended resources out there, most of which I never used. At the end of the day, you can mix-and-match whatever resources you want as long as you hit all the major areas: learning vocab, having conversations, covering grammar bases, etc. Here are some other resources that might be worth checking out:
Coffee Break French podcast
Movies or TV shows
Books (Harry Potter seems to be a very popular choice)
A note on movies and shows: this can be a good way to learn things, but I never did this aside from a handful of cartoon episodes early on. However, you must ensure you’re actively learning and not just being lazy and convincing yourself you’re “studying”. In particular, you should try to avoid subtitles in your native language. Subtitles in your target language are better, but if you can get away with it, not using subtitles is probably the way to go if the content isn’t too much higher than your level.
Now that we have discussed the resources I recommend, this is a rough outline of what I would recommend for a language learner based on my experience. Of course, you can find 1000 other people out there with 1000 other learning methods, so feel free to pick and choose. This “study plan” is roughly what I would do if I had to relearn French this year. This is also approximately what I will do for learning Spanish in 2020.
First, particularly if you are in need of motivation, you can start looking for French media to consume to motivate you to learn the language. For me, this was music, but for others, TV shows or books could also work.
Next, I recommend going through the Duolingo tree for getting through the A1 and A2 levels. Completing the French tree should teach you all the major grammatical concepts and you’ll have a very solid basis for moving onto more advanced material. Of course, ensure you’re using Duolingo as I described earlier in this article to get maximum effectiveness.
After getting through a good portion (maybe half or so) of the Duolingo tree, start going through the 5000 most common words Anki deck. Do something like 20 new words a day, reviewing words as they come up. If you start Anki late and already know a bunch of words, then you can bump this up to something like 50 words a day, though that’s pretty intensive.
Around the same time, before finishing Duolingo, you can start taking Lingoda lessons if you wish, probably around the A2 level.
Whether you do Lingoda or not, start Italki lessons. If this is your only source of conversation practice, try to take more lessons than otherwise. Once or twice a week is a solid enough rate, but if you’re ambitious you certainly can do more. Having casual conversation is perfectly adequate, as long as you get a bit of variety in conversation topics.
Once you are near the end of the Duolingo tree, you can start looking for resources targeted at intermediate users. In French, the InnerFrench podcast and YouTube channel are really good for this. You can also start shifting your efforts towards taking more Italki or Lingoda lessons and get more practice speaking and listening, rather than reading and writing.
Whatever you do, you will almost certainly notice that you struggle with some aspects of grammar. Consult a reputable grammar resource, but don’t bother spending too much time doing grammar exercises. Instead, try to generally understand the concepts and get practice with them through speaking or writing.
I’d also recommend writing on Italki Notebooks periodically, getting your texts reviewed with Italki tutors if necessary. This should help improve your writing ability.
The intermediate phase can be tricky, but I think with enough media consumption at an appropriate level, speaking practice, vocabulary work, and patience, you should be able to push through it. Media consumption includes audio-visual media like listening to music and watching movies, but also activities like reading books and articles. If you want to write well, continue writing texts and getting them corrected. Otherwise, be curious and explore what’s out there!
Rinse and repeat the last step until B2.
Even though I’m only at a B2 level, I imagine getting to C1 (and eventually C2) is the result of continually accumulating more knowledge and resolving weaknesses. For example, you need to learn more technical vocabulary and internalize certain rare grammatical features, things which, at my level, I have not done. Continue to practice speaking and listening skills, and consume a lot of native content in order to know all the little idioms and expressions that feature prominently in true fluency. Immersion likely becomes increasingly helpful to reach these levels, although I suspect you can reach at least a solid C1 at home without too much trouble.
If your budget is tight, here are some tips to minimize your spending while learning your language.
Duolingo is free and unlimited on the desktop version
Italki offers a “Language Exchange” section where you can freely exchange lessons with a native speaker of your target language
Lingoda offers a free trial, if you want to check out their resources
Otherwise I think everything else is essentially free or not really necessary. You won’t be able to do everything as easily as someone with a big budget, but I think there are enough free resources out there to get to a relatively high level without spending any money.
If you do have a little bit of money to spend, then I highly recommend using that money to find teachers on Italki. For many languages you can find cheap tutors, in the $5-$8/hr range.
Even though French is notorious for being difficult to pronounce, I actually didn’t have too much difficulty developing good pronunciation. Starting with the first time I spoke French online about two months in, I received compliments on my accent, and even though I made some minor mistakes here and there, things were generally pretty good. I think I got a bit lucky with this part of learning French, but I’ll give some tips about this anyways.
I mentioned earlier that “curiosity” and “independence” were really important qualities to have when self-studying a language like I did. I think much of my success regarding developing good pronunciation was really taking charge of figuring out what proper pronunciation was and how to produce it.
When I started learning French on Duolingo, I often repeated what I heard out loud to get myself used to pronouncing French words. I replayed and repeated after audio over and over again until I felt comfortable with the pronunciation, to the dismay of some friends who witnessed this. Sometimes things weren’t so clear (Duolingo audio isn’t perfect, though it has gotten better) and other times words were too difficult to pronounce for me (e.g. “voiture” was really hard for a while), but for many of the easier words, I ended up doing decently enough.
I also read many articles and watched many videos online about French pronunciation, especially trying to train myself to produce some difficult French sounds, like the “u” and “r”. While I struggled with these for a while, after a month or two I could do them reasonably well. This took a lot of consistent effort trying to produce these sounds, but eventually things started falling into place. Singing French songs in particular helped me practice pronunciation, and in fact the “r” finally clicked for me while I was singing a Stromae song (say “retrouverai” enough times and you’ll figure it out.)
Even if you feel silly saying things, at some point you need to force yourself to practice pronouncing them. People who pay attention to pronunciation and force themselves to correct their errors are much more likely to improve than those that are too afraid to sound dumb. If you don’t want to sound dumb, language learning is not for you!
For French learners, here are some specific observations about pronunciation that could help you, which were pain points for me in the past:
Nasal vowels, particularly the difference between “-an” and “–in”. I practiced differentiating between “attendre”, “étendre”, “éteindre”, and “atteindre” pretty often.
On that note, the difference between “é” and “è”. It’s subtle and takes a while to get used to.
The pronunciation of “s”. Note “s” is pronounced differently as “ss”, “s” at the end of a word, and “s” not at the end of a word.
“in-” and “im-” at the beginning of words are pronounced differently depending on the next letter in the word. For example, “insensible” and “imparfait” vs. “inevitable” and “innovation”. See if you can figure out the pattern!
Liaisons. You’ll develop an ear for this over time but it’s definitely quite tricky. Read some articles online.
“-oy“ is not pronounced like in “boy” but kind of like “waee”, e.g. in “voyager” or “tutoyer”. “Voyage” sounds like “vwaee-ahj”.
How to pronounce “plus” based on the context. Honestly I still don’t know this completely.
Lastly, I find French pronunciation to be surprisingly consistent given its reputation. While it’s often impossible to know how a word is spelled just from hearing it, you can usually know how a word is pronounced after seeing it once you get the hang of the rules.
Learning French was an immensely rewarding process for me. It opened up an entire new cultural world to me and instilled in me a love for language learning. While it required a lot of time and hard work, in the end, I think learning a language (especially an “easy” one like French for English speakers) isn’t “hard” in the way that, for example, theoretical physics is “hard”. With enough dedication and effective practice, pretty much anyone can learn a foreign language to a reasonably high level.
While a year is a pretty aggressive timeline to learn a language to a high level, it’s clearly entirely feasible if you’re willing to put the time in and work efficiently. I hope my experiences help you on your language learning journey. Good luck!