Update on My Goal to Learn French

It’s been close to two months since I started my quest to become bilingual. Over two months ago, I asked the readers for advice in learning a foreign language. That brief post now has over 60 public comments, and I’ve received many private emails with advice as well.

I’m not an expert on language learning. Many of my readers are fluently multilingual, so chances are many of you have more experience than me. However, I’d like to share some of my discoveries over the last two months. I want to do this both for novice language learners and for other English speakers who are interested in leaving monolingualism behind.

1) You Aren’t Going to Be Fluent in a Week

In the beginning, I was very motivated to start learning French. I think this motivation caused me to underestimate the amount of work needed to fully comprehend and speak another language. It’s one thing to understand some basic words and expressions. It’s another thing entirely to have a complete vocabulary and speak effortlessly.

I’ve since adapted my goals to focus on smaller successes. I’m trying to set realistic goals to understand a little bit more spoken French, add a few more words to my vocabulary, and improving my verb conjugation.

Learning French has also given me tremendous respect for all the people who are learning English as a foreign language.

2) Languages are a Skill, Practice Before Study

In my brief experience, I’ve found that practicing the language is far more useful than studying it from a textbook. I completed a Teach Yourself French book earlier. While it was one of the more useful language tools I experimented with, it didn’t teach me to speak French. Actually conversing in French with French speakers is the only way I’ve made small improvements.

Some people have asked me whether I think holistic learning can be applied to language learning. Before, I refused to comment, as I didn’t know another language. Now I believe I can answer that: no, holistic learning won’t work with languages. As a skill, a language needs practice not conceptual understanding.

3) Slang is Often More Important than Correct Grammar

I suppose it depends on what your goals are. If you’re trying to learn a language so you can translate academic papers or give speeches, then slang isn’t that important. If you want to have a conversation, make friends or use the language naturally, the unofficial dictionary is often more important than the official one.

4) Access to Native Speakers is a Must

My current approach is that 90% of your studying time should be invested in conversations with native speakers. The other 10% should be studying the grammar and vocabulary. The only way this can happen is if you have access to native speakers of the language.

I’ve been lucky in this regard. My ex-girlfriend is French and lives in France, and she has provided me a victim to practice my French on. Also, I’ve been able to meet several exchange students who are just learning English, so I can be exposed to more French.

Instant messaging chat in French has been helpful. That way, if I get stuck with a word, I can use an online translator. The one downside is it doesn’t provide the pronunciation, which is a major factor in speaking a language. I consider it training wheels for eventual fluency.

Many people have warned me that the French tend to be critical of people trying to learn their language. Luckily, I haven’t found this to be the case as of yet. Or perhaps I have such a thick skin that I don’t notice it.

5) You Can’t Be Passive

Some of the advice I received was to just surround yourself with the language and, “eventually you’ll pick it up.” While there’s no doubt exposure is important, I haven’t found a passive stance to be effective in learning a language.

Be active, go out and talk with people who can’t speak your native language. Immersion and exposure definitely accelerate the process of learning, but only if you’re willing to invest the energy. Study a bit and practice a lot more. When you don’t understand something, get it translated to improve your vocabulary.

6) Accept that You’re Going to be Awful

My first approach was to spend time studying the language, and when I reached a basic level of fluency, try to speak it. Now I realize that this is backwards. You can’t improve unless you start speaking. And when you start speaking, you’re going to be awful.

I’m not good at French. I speak too slowly, use incorrect pronunciations, improper conjugations and my vocabulary is limited. Undoubtedly this will irritate a few native French speakers who would prefer I didn’t talk at all. However, if I want to improve I have to ignore them and continue hobbling through the “I suck” phase.

I know many English speakers that have little patience for people who can’t speak English properly. I can admit, sometimes I get frustrated trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand English. However, if you’re in the process of learning, you have to ignore people like me and continue practicing anyways.

Steve Kaufman, who is great for language learning tips, makes a similar suggestion in this post. He argues that a key to successful language learning is being able to handle uncertainty, and realize you won’t understand everything perfectly.

The same is true of almost any skill. If you have horrible social skills, an effort to improve them is probably going to be met with resistance. You need to push through all the assholes who criticize you for trying to improve.

  • Annaly

    What I learned when I tried to learn French as an adult is that the adult brain learns language differently and not as fast. So, give yourself a break if you don’t pick it up as fast as you’d like.

  • Ausprit

    Hi there !

    I’m reading your blog since… well maybe six months and I’d like to share a tought with you about this post.

    First, I think I can help a bit with all this bilinguism thing as I’m a native French speaker (from Quebec… you wouldn’t understand me if you learned french with French people (from France I mean). Too much difference between both dialect, even if it’s the same base language. I don’t want to discourage you either…

    Anyway, I was pushed to write today because of this bit you wrote :
    “Now I believe I can answer that: no, holistic learning won’t work with languages. As a skill, a language needs practice not conceptual understanding.”

    I completly disagree with this thought and here is why. As I learned English at school, sure at first it IS hard to learn many words that won’t be useful to you and how to conjugate verbs at tense even English speaker doesn’t bother learning… However, after some time, you will have a VERY different understanding of this second language as opposed to you mother tongue.

    As you learned it being an adult, you will see every bit of grammar that French speaker usually don’t mind.

    For exemple, some time ago, I was reading a fiction written by some amateur on the web, the whole thing in English (I read faster in English than in French, mostly because I don’t speak the sentence in my head while reading… bad habit.) Well, a lot of English speaker will make a mistake between hers and her’s, or rather your and you’re. This is because to you, those a sounding similar, thus the confusion (same thing in french between “a” and “à”, or “manger” and “mangé”). For me, that’s so obvious because all of a sudden there’s a verb disapearing from the sentence. As I learned grammar before I learned the way to speak, those mistakes are blatantly obvious.

    On the other hand, making coherent sentences in a second language is way more difficult as you’re not used to hear them, thus making them more difficult to speak and/or write.

    Anyway, I got sidetracked. The point of this whole comment is about the holistic view of a second language.

    My second language is English. I certainly do not know all the words that could be useful to me. Just in writing this comment, I used a lot of synonyms of sentence to describe what I wanted to say… But, with an understanding of how the English language works, how it’s build, I rarely open a dictionnary to check a word I don’t know. With the words I know, I can deduct rather fairly what a new word could mean.

    This is the same thing with the irregular verb.

    Irregular verb are a pain to learn for us as, at a glance, there is no set of rule describing how to make them. Well, after you know a few, you can usually deduct the other. For exemple

    Arise, arose, arisen
    Write, wrote, written

    Those to set of verbs are different. Somewhat they are also on the same kind of pattern.

    awake, awoke, awoken
    shake, shook, shaken
    stive, strove, striven

    There is no rule, but patterns you can identify and I dare say that is holistic reasonning.

    At first, everything is new. After some practice, a lot of patterns start showing and then you can link those together and further your advancement in this language.

    Anyway, I’m sure you see what I try to explain… and if you don’t, well, email-me !


    P.S. As you can see, I’m nothing like an expert in English, so be kind and know I’m sorry for any mistakes I may have made.

  • Geoffrey

    Hi Scott,

    If you look for a French native speaker to talk with, you’re welcome 🙂 (I’m reading your blog for a while now).


  • BC

    I feel related with this because im still trying to learn english. Im from Puerto Rico and Spanish is my first language, ive been exposed to english my whole life since in here english is the second language, but the way i started learning was using books and at school but from teachers that werent that good at english either.

    It wasnt until i traveled to the US that i realized that using that method wasnt very good beacuse it dont matter how much you read about it you will not know how to speak or understand it when you really need to.

    Something i know that works is when you are in preasured situations (when you dont have an online translator hehe). Last Year I was lost in New York looking for the hotel (dont trust google earth!) and i can say that i learned more english in that period of time than in the past 19 years of my life.

  • jo

    I think that vocabulary in general is more important than grammar, not only the slang. So I suggest you focus a lot on learning new words every day.
    Jo from Italy 😉

  • Thomas

    Salut Scott,

    I don’t know where you picked up that French people will be irritated when you speak their language not quite as well as they do. All the French people I know -myself included, appreciate a lot that foreigners try to learn our language. Of course, we might answer to you in English even if you ask a question in French. But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate. Anyway keep speaking and listening. I’m trying to learn Mandarin and having found a chinese girl to speak with me is what helps most. If you need info about Paris (I think you’re going to Montpellier? but you’ll probably pass by Paris), I can help.

  • Recipes for Creativity

    Love the last tip! I think that’s a tip for living life, “Accept that you’re going to be awful”, because it’s inevitable that we’ll mess up many, many times!

    So, how far along is your French and how much longer do you think you have until you’d consider yourself fluent?

  • Gert

    I think you make some great points. The best way of learning it is indeed practice.

    Bonne Chance avec les études! 😉

  • Mark Whiting

    Scott, I do not really agree about holistic learning not being appropriate for languages however my definition may be a little different from yours.

    Several years ago I lived in China and during my stay (without ever studying Chinese) I gradually came to speak Chinese on a conversational level. My strategy was to listen, slowly understand, gradually create logic maps in my mind and as you suggest, try to speak whenever possible. This method was rather effective for me and offered me a high level of fluency and rather good pronunciation, though my vocabulary in Chinese is not that large. Interestingly I noticed the speed of my learning increased quite rapidly after being able to understand a lot of what was going on around me. Also, the degree of my fluency and level of my pronunciation are in general much higher than traditional learning can provide, even after a number of years of study.

    Reading Chinese is of course another story.

    Now I am trying to do the same thing for Korean as this is my new home. I have lived here for 5 months and seen only a little progress to my speaking, though because of a very intelligently developed writing system I can already pronounce most written content.

    This method of language learning is based on the idea that after about 8 months of listening to a language one becomes much more predisposed and used to the sounds of the language. At that time vocabulary can be added quite rapidly. After about 1 year of immersion most speakers are comparable to people who have studied using formal techniques for 2 or 3 years and will often be capable of more rapid conversation with better pronunciation. As you suggest it is slow and requires a lot of trial and error but it seems to work quite well if you give it time.

  • Scott Young


    Perhaps someone can find a language learning method to incorporate holistic learning, but I haven’t. Holistic learning might help with remembering words or grammar, but I’ve found that’s only 10% of what it takes to use the language naturally in a conversation.


  • Wiebes

    Dude, GREAT blog. This whole site that you have set up is top-notch. Well done. I stumbled across it as I was looking for an article on self-improvement. I’m really looking forward to reading all of your archives. Terrific job, keep it up!

  • Steve Kaufmann

    Let me give you my take on your 6 points. ( Oh and congratulation on your blog and thanks for mentioning mine. Keep it up. The world needs more language keeners.)

    1) It takes time to learn languages..yes!. The time you can devote to it is the greatest factor for success. Learning to say “how are you” and “one beer please” is not worth much in the long run.

    2) Practice before study.. I have a different approach. I do not practice, I do not speak, at least not for the first long while. Why? I can’t say much. I have no words. So to me language learning is more about input. Listening and reading and getting words into your head. Only then can you start speaking. Only then can the grammar explanations make any sense.

    3) I am not interested in slang and strongly recommend against learning it. When you are good enough in the language it will come out naturally, in the meantime focus on the standard language. A not very fluent foreigner sounds silly using slang. That is, at least, my approach.

    4) Talking to native speakers..a nice luxury not available to most people. Listen to native speakers on your iPod. Build up your abilities so that when you come across a native speaker you are ready to attack.

    5) Passive learning..the best, the cheapest, the least stressful, the most readily available, any time any where. That is where is spend most of my time. I have learned 10 languages that way.

    6) You are not going to be awful! Focus on understanding and do not put pressure on yourself to produce the language. And when you do, just communicate. As long as you are communicating you are not awful. But you can always get better. Yeah, don’t pursue perfection, but don’t think you’re awful.

    Thanks for allowing me on your blog.

  • Scott Young


    Thanks for the points. I appreciate your advice, especially since this is my first foreign language and I’m still trying to sort through the best principles for learning.

    Just a few comments on your points:

    2. Perhaps a good strategy. I’ve found I remember words better when I try using them.

    3. Maybe “slang” isn’t the right term. Rather, the informal conversational language as opposed to the formal, written language. People don’t speak English the way they write (nor for French).

    6. My comment on accepting awfulness has more to do with being unafraid to make mistakes, rather than a pessimistic attitude.

    Great points!


  • Steve Kaufmann


    Having a girl friend is a great way to learn a language, but it is not available to everyone and may not be socially acceptable if you are learning multiple languages.

    I find that I do not need to use words to remember them. I learn and forget and eventually with enough input the words stick. On the other hand I cannot impose myself on native speakers until I have enough of the language. It usually takes from 6 months to a year of listening on my iPod and using LingQ, about one hour a day or so in all, and then I am ready to use the language.

    Since most of my learning is passive, listening and reading, I will learn whatever I choose as content. The big battle is acquiring the words. I like a variety of content, podcasts, interviews, history, politics, economics etc. Slang or casual language is not really much of a goal. When I do have the chance to interact with native speakers I will pick that up quite quickly. It also shows up in some of the learning material, podcasts etc, that I find in the LingQ library. Not a major goal of mine.

    I still feel that learning the standard form of the language should come first.

  • Iair

    Scott, at first (when I’ve read just this post title through gmail web clips) I Just entered to give you my thumbs down on the subject. The title was kind of selfish (I mean, If you want to take commitments and make them public, try Leo’s forums). But your post was completely different from what i’ve expected. You gave a piece of advice to your readers for learning foreign languages based on your experience. That’s really great.
    You also give me the opportunity to practice my english since I’m not a native English speaker.

    Thank you!


  • Scott Young


    My choice of headline reflects my goal for the article.

    Some articles I write are written for people who have never tuned into the website before. For these I pick typical copywriting headlines and focus the content around introductions that can be picked up by non-readers.

    Other articles, like this one, are written for my more regular readers. It may be somewhat selfish to include personal updates, but I want to show readers my goals and progress as an example to reinforce all the more abstract ideas I write about regularly.


  • Delphine

    ce que j’ai trouvé bénéfique lorsque j’ai appris l’anglais : la musique. Beaucoup (la majorité) des chansons à la radio sont en anglais. Je chantais sans comprendre. Avec les paroles, je peux chanter plus juste, c’est plus intéressant parce que je comprends.
    Mon conseil: écouter de la musique en français ! C’est bon pour la prononciation (si on aime chanter).
    Regarder les films (vive les DVDs) dans une langue étrangère est un bon moyen d’exercer son oreille. Et puis il y a les sous-titres…
    Depuis que j’écoute de la pop allemande, et que je regarde des films en allemand j’ai bien plus progressé que pendant mes études.

    I’m not bilingual in English, but reading a lot (too much…) weblogs helps me a lot to practice what you called “slang” and what I understand as “common use of the language”. Quite often I use an expression or a word that my (French) colleagues don’t understand, even if they are better than me in grammar.
    So my third recommendation will be: read, read, read. And use the wonderful possibilities of weblogs to do so. I’m sorry, I dont have url on your topic to give you: I prefer reading in English to practice…

    Bonne chance,

  • French Lover

    Hey Steve You have putted a nice point and I agree you that Having a girl friend is a great way to learn a language, but it is not available to everyone, but a french girlfriend can help when the learner need to interact someone in French.
    I think one of the hardest aspects of learning a foreign language is the vocabulary. After improving vocabulary we can easily become fluent, If we need to become fluent in any language we have to discover new words everyday. Thanks.

  • Scott Young


    Yes, I agree it’s not always an option for everyone. But I think for many people, you can meet native speakers of a language if you push yourself to meet people.


  • Daniel

    Hi Scott!

    Some years ago I stumbled about a great concept for learning languages. The main point is, that this approach to language-learning works the way the brain works and eliminates many of the struggles of the traditional way language-learning works at school, for example. Its not necessary to learn vocabulary or do grammar.

    I tried this method with spanish – and it works quite well.

    Perhaps you wanna take a look at it?

    Theres an english explanation at:

    I hope you have fun on your trip to Europe. 🙂

  • Catherine

    When I moved to France and got stuck into French, I thought ‘French is HARD!’

    Then I moved to Thailand, where I’m now learning a tonal language, Thai. Unlike French, Thai has pretty much nothing in common with the English language.

    And do you know what? French is not hard 😉

  • Translation People

    Point 4 is crucial, as there is only so much you can learn from reading books. You need to speak out words and get feedback on pronunciation. Youtube videos and mp3s are good too but they can’t beat one to one conversations, that are are dynamic and evolve based on what each person is saying.