Tips for Learning French As an Adult

Group of adults happily discussing a book in library

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Learning French as an adult is not the same thing as learning it as a child. Children pick up language intuitively, without having to be taught grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. When learning their first language, they have nothing to compare it to, and they can often learn a second language the same way.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to learn a language by comparing it to their native language - learning about similarities and differences. Adults often want to know why something is said a certain way in the new language, and tend to be frustrated by the usual response "that's just the way it is." On the other hand, adults have an important advantage in that they choose to learn a language for some reason (travel, work, family) and being interested in learning something is very helpful in one's ability to actually learn it.

The bottom line is that it is not impossible for anyone to learn French, no matter what their age. I've received emails from adults of all ages who are learning French—including a woman of 85. It's never too late!

Here are some guidelines that can help you learn French as an adult.

What and How to Learn

Start Learning What You Actually Want and Need to Know
If you're planning a trip to France, learn travel French (airport vocabulary, asking for help). On the other hand, if you're learning French because you want to be able to chat with the French woman who lives down the street, learn basic vocabulary (greetings, numbers) and how to talk about yourself and others—likes and dislikes, family, etc. Once you've learned the basics for your purpose, you can start learning French related to your knowledge and experiences—your job, your interests, and from there onto other aspects of French.

Learn the Way That Works Best for You
If you find that learning grammar is useful, learn that way. If grammar just frustrates you, try a more conversational approach. If you find textbooks daunting, try a book for kids. Try making lists of vocabulary—if that helps you, great; if not, try another approach, like labeling everything in your house or making flash cards. Don't let anyone tell you that there is only one right way to learn.
Repetition is Key
Unless you have a photographic memory, you're going to need to learn and practice things a few or even many times before you know them. You can repeat exercises, answer the same questions, listen to the same sound files until you feel comfortable with them. In particular, listening and repeating many times is very good—this will help you improve your listening comprehension, speaking skills, and accent all at once.
Learn Together
Many people find that learning with others helps keep them on track. Consider taking a class; hiring a private tutor; or learning along with your child, spouse, or friend.
Daily Learning
How much can you really learn in an hour a week? Make a habit of spending at least 15-30 minutes a day learning and/or practicing.
Above and Beyond
Remember that language and culture go hand in hand. Learning French is more than just verbs and vocabulary; it's also about the French people and their art, music, etc.—not to mention the cultures of other francophone countries around the world.

Learning Dos and Don'ts

Be Realistic
I once had a student in an adult ed. class who thought he could learn French along with 6 other languages in one year. He had a terrible time during the first few classes and then dropped. The moral? He had unreasonable expectations, and when he found out that French was not going to magically flow out of his mouth, he gave up. If he had been realistic, committed himself to one language, and practiced regularly, he could have learned a lot.
Have Fun
Make your French learning interesting. Instead of just studying the language with books, try reading, watching TV/movies, listening to music—whatever interests you and keeps you motivated.
Reward Yourself
The first time you remember that difficult vocabulary word, treat yourself to a croissant and café au lait. When you remember to use the subjunctive correctly, take in a French film. When you're ready, take a trip to France and put your French to the real test.
Have a Goal
If you get discouraged, remember why you want to learn. That goal should help you concentrate and stay inspired.
Track Your Progress
Keep a journal with dates and exercises to make notes about your progress: Finally understand passé composé vs imparfait! Remembered conjugations for venir! Then you can look back over these milestones when you feel like you're not getting anywhere.
Don't Stress Over Mistakes
It's normal to make mistakes, and in the beginning, you're better off getting several sentences out in mediocre French than just two perfect words. If you ask someone to correct you all the time, you will get frustrated. Learn about how to overcome speaking anxiety.
Don't Ask "Why?"
There are lots of things about French that you're going to wonder about—why things are said a certain way, why you can't say something another way. When you first start learning is not the time to try to figure this out. As you learn French, you will start to understand some of them, and others you can ask about later.
Don't Translate Word for Word
French is not just English with different words—it is a different language with its own rules, exceptions, and idiosyncracies. You must learn to understand and translate concepts and ideas rather than just words.
Don't Overdo It
You're not going to be fluent in a week, a month, or even a year (unless maybe if you're living in France). Learning French is a journey, just like life. There is no magical point where everything is perfect—you learn some, you forget some, you learn some more. Practice makes perfect, but practicing for four hours a day might be overkill.

Learn and Practice

Practice What You've Learned
Using the French you've learned is the best way to remember it. Join the Alliance française, put up a notice at your local college or community center to find people interested in a French club, chat with French-speaking neighbors and shopkeepers, and, above all, go to France if at all possible.
Listen Passively
You can get extra practice by listening to French during your commute (in the car, on the bus or train) as well as while walking, jogging, biking, cooking, and cleaning.
Vary Your Practice Methods
You will almost certainly get bored if you just do grammar drills every day. You might try grammar drills on Monday, vocabulary work on Tuesday, listening exercises on Wednesday, etc.
Act French
Some people find it useful to use an exaggerated accent (à la Pépé le pou or Maurice Chevalier) to help them get into their studies more. Others find a glass of wine loosens their tongue and helps gets them into the French mood.
Daily French
Practicing every day is the single most important thing you can do to improve your French. There are numerous ways to practice every day.

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Team, ThoughtCo. "Tips for Learning French As an Adult." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Team, ThoughtCo. (2021, December 6). Tips for Learning French As an Adult. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "Tips for Learning French As an Adult." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).