Learning French: Where to Begin

First decide why you want to learn French, then proceed

One of the most frequent questions potential students of French ask is "Where do I start?" French is a vast language, and there are so many resources available that it's easy to feel lost.

So before you start studying anything about the French language, there are a couple of things you should know and some questions you need to ask yourself.

There Are Two French Languages

There are essentially two French languages: written French (or "book" French) and modern spoken French (or "street" French).

  • Book French is what you'd study in a school, where you follow typical grammar lessons and learn vocabulary. Learning Book French teaches you the structure of French, and you cannot master French without it.
  • Modern spoken French uses all these rules, but with strong pronunciation variations and sometimes softer grammatical structures.

For example, here is a typical grammatically correct French question:
- Quand Camille va-t-elle nager ?

The here is the same question in street French:
- Camille va nager, quand-ça ?

Both mean "When is Camille going swimming?" But one is grammatically correct, and the second one is not. However, it's likely even French language purists would use the street French way of saying this when they speak to their family and are not in the spotlight.

Now, you need to decide why you want to learn French. What is your primary reason. The reason will allow you to clarify your search.

You'll be able to focus and find what requirements you face in order to learn French, what information you'll need to learn French, what resources you can draw upon to help you learn French and much more. What is your reason for learning French?

Do You Want to Learn French to Pass Tests?

If this is your primary reason, the core of your studies should be in book French.

Learn the grammar, all the topics most common in tests, check exactly what you should be studying to pass your test and focus on that program. You might want to go to a school that specializes in preparing you for French-certification exams such as the Diplôme d'Etudes en Langue Française (DELF) or the Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (DALF). Both are official qualifications awarded by the French Ministry of Education to certify the competency of candidates from outside France in the French language. Anyone who passes one or both of these is awarded a certificate that's valid for life. Check with your teacher about the exact requirements for these or other exams.

Do You Want to Learn French to Read It Only?

If this is your goal, you need to concentrate on learning a lot of vocabulary. Study verb tenses, too, since books use them all right away when other methods will usually ease you into them. Also study linking words, which are the essential connective tissue in French.

Do You Want to Learn French to Communicate in French?

Then you need to learn with audio files of other audio material. Written material cannot prepare you for the modern glidings you'll hear when the French speak and you won't understand them.

And if you don't use these glidings yourself, native French speakers may not understand you. At the very least, you'll stand out as a foreigner.

This brings us to the final points. After you've decided what your goal is in learning French, you'll have to figure out what method best fits your needs  and what your options are (studying French with a tutor/ a class / in immersion or self studying).

Online courses are very effective for the independent student and not so expensive. Look at sites with good views from verified reviewers and experts, a site that explains French grammar clearly to a native English speaker and one that offers a "100% money back guarantee" or  a "free trial." And finally, make sure you get level-appropriate learning tools that don't deflate your confidence because they are too difficult for your level.

Follow up with free French learning tools that will help if you want to self-study. Or you might decide you need the expertise of a French tutor or teacher via Skype, in a physical classroom or in an immersion program. 

It's completely up to you. Decide on what's best, then establish a plan of action for learning French.