Learning French can be incredibly useful – and fun, too! Here, we’ll introduce aspiring Francophones to the language.
Much like the United Kingdom, France is a country with a history that stretches back centuries. It’s responsible for Napoleon, croissants, Edif Piaf and the Arc de Triomphe, among many other interesting and beautiful things.
The relationship between the English and the French has been fractious over the years but nowadays they’re warmer than ever, despite the UK’s exit from the EU. Consequently, more people than ever are able to speak both French and English.
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Where is French spoken?
Like the United Kingdom, France has been through an imperialist phase, resulting in its language being spoken in countries across the world. We call these Francophone countries. There are 29 countries in which French is an official spoken language, largely because at some point they were colonies of France.
France is the only official language in the following countries:
- Burkina Faso
- The Democratic Republic of Congo
- Ivory Coast
- France (obviously)
Then there are a few others where the French language shares official status:
- Central African Republic
- Equatorial Guinea
Of course, a language doesn’t have to be spoken exclusively for it to be influential, because language is a very fluid thing. Many of the words we speak in English are derived from French. Some of these are obvious, others, less so.
You might know, for example, that soufflé, entrepreneur, and coup d’état are derived from French. But there are hundreds of other English words that we use constantly without considering their Gallic origins. Money, advice, honesty, television and music are all terms derived from French. In fact, around a third of words in English can be traced back to France.
Clearly, French is a language worth taking seriously. But what’s the point in learning a foreign language at all? Doesn’t everyone speak English nowadays, anyway?
Benefits of learning a language
Being able to speak a second, third, or fourth language confers a whole range of benefits. We’ve run through 10 of them in our blog: What language should you learn?.
Many of these apply even if you’re not entirely fluent – in fact, you’d be amazed at how useful a few choice phrases can be!
If you’re able to speak the language of a foreign country, you’ll have an easier time getting around; reading train timetables, road signs and menus; and talking to the many interesting people you’ll meet along the way.
Being able to speak a different language may advance your career. It’ll put you at a considerable advantage if you’re looking for work in a foreign country, and it’ll make available a whole world of translation opportunities. Plus, it demonstrates to would-be employers that you’re capable of sitting down and dedicating time and attention to a long-term pursuit.
When you hear two foreign-language speakers talking fluently to one another, it can sometimes sound a bit like random noise. You might pick out a few strange phonemes, or pick up on the character of the spoken language – but the depths and subtleties of meaning being conveyed might be lost to you.
Being able to understand another language provides you with a fairly distinct insight into how different people live and behave. You’ll have an easier time appreciating artworks, literature, religion and music from foreign cultures, and your empathy toward those cultures will increase.
Some studies even suggest that when you learn a new language, your brain gets rewired, and your mind opens up to new possibilities!
Being multilingual is impressive. If you want the people you meet to form a positive opinion of you, then learning another language is probably a good idea. Of course, this is a relatively trivial benefit compared to the effort involved – but let’s face it, it’s pretty cool.
Learning other languages
People who learn a second language tend to have an easier time picking up a third, and a fourth. Some languages are trickier (by which we mean, different from English), but others require just a short leap.
Learning one language will help you to pick up linguistics in general, which in turn will help you to work out the rules governing other languages. You might even be able to build your own – like Dothraki or Sindarin – if that’s the sort of thing that interests you!
Why is French a good language to learn?
If you’re thinking of picking up a second language, then you have plenty of options available, each with distinct advantages.
In most cases, your chosen lifestyle will inform your choice. If you want to live and work in Japan, for example, then it might be a good idea to learn Japanese. Generally speaking, however, there are plenty of reasons why French is the best choice for those looking to pick up a modern foreign language.
1. It’s easy
If you can speak English, then you’re already familiar with many of the building blocks of French. There are a few sounds that you might struggle to wrap your tongue around at first (like the ‘œ’ vowel, which doesn’t occur in English). But it’s based around the same alphabet used in English (in contrast with, say, Arabic or Mandarin, which require entirely different forms of writing), and there’s no tricky vowel intonation to work out.
You’ll find a primer on the French alphabet, and all of the pronunciation, in our open step on the French alphabet and pronunciation.
2. There are plenty of materials
If you want to learn French, you’ll have access to a whole wealth of learning materials that simply aren’t available for other, more obscure languages. At Futurelearn, we have more than a dozen French courses available for students of all abilities. There’s also French material available that isn’t designed for educational purposes:
If you want to learn French as it’s written, then there’s no substitute for consuming high volumes of literature. Speaking of which…
3. The literature
France has produced more than its share of poets and novelists. These works have a unique character that is only really appreciable if you can read them in the original form. Naturally, you have to be a fairly advanced French reader in order to grapple with Proust or Hugo.
However, doing so will only improve your French reading skills. After all, if you’re enjoying the experience of reading, then you’re more likely to stick with it – and you’ll be able to practice reading at the same time.
If you’re interested in picking up some French literature, then you might consider our course on Reading Poetry in French from the Manchester Grammar School. It’ll take you through everything from versification and structure to the emotions inspired by great poetry.
4. The food
If you take a look at Wikipedia’s list of English words borrowed from French, you’ll see a fairly extensive list of culinary terms. This is because the French have contributed hugely to the advancement of cookery – and if you learn the language, you’ll be better able to understand some of this terminology.
5. The culture
The French-speaking world is responsible for some incredible things – many of which are only really understood by fluent French speakers. If you’re travelling to Francophone countries, having a grasp of the language will help you to appreciate the cultural treasures you come across. If you’d like an insight into what you might discover, then why not consider our courses on Francophone Traditions and Celebrations, and People and Places.
How to learn French
So, learning French is a good idea. But what’s the best way to go about it? For most people, a combination of different methods is appropriate. You’ll want to create a balance that best matches your learning style.
Take French classes
French is the most popular modern foreign language at GCSE level, with around 125,000 students taking it in 2021. If you’ve left school, then there are still opportunities to learn available – even if you’re still at beginner level.
Learn French at home
Thanks to a wealth of remote-learning resources, it’s possible to learn the language outside of a formal classroom setting. If you’re reading this, in fact, then you’re already learning about learning French – and there’s no reason you can’t take it a step further.
If you’d like a more extensive introduction to the language, then Foundations of French for Global Communication, from King’s College London, is a great place to start. King’s College also provides a great microcredential for beginners, in the form of Learn French for Global Communication.
There are limits to what you can learn through an app. But for the parts of the language that you can learn by memorising, like vocabulary, verb tenses, and gendered nouns, an app can be invaluable. If you have a few minutes spare while you’re sitting on a train or sitting in a waiting room, or passing time in between shifts, an app can give you a leg-up.
Practise French online
Thanks to modern high-speed internet, remote learners can not only study the language as it’s written down, but hear it spoken out loud, and even hold conversations with dedicated teachers.
Live in France
If you’re living in France, and you have to speak the language in order to get by, then you’ll be under much greater pressure to learn. So, spending a few months in the country might be a good idea. Plus, this way you’ll get a stronger understanding of the language as it’s actually being spoken, including slang and regional dialects.
How long does it take to learn French?
The amount of time it takes you to pick up French will depend on several factors. These include your natural disposition, your experience with languages, and your level of focus and attention.
The most important of these, however, is the number of hours you’re willing to regularly commit to practising. If you aren’t speaking and writing French regularly, you can’t hope to improve.
As we noted in our How to Learn a Language blog, French is among the easiest languages to learn. The US Foreign Service Institute puts it in Category I, which means between 600-750 class hours are required to acquire ‘professional’ proficiency.
How to learn French fast
A good syllabus will make the process of acquiring the language that much more efficient. The sooner you’re able to put some sentences together, the sooner you can start speaking and writing. When you are able to do that, all of your early mistakes can be corrected.
If you’re being guided by expert tutors and native speakers, then you can prevent those mistakes from becoming habits, which is always a danger when you’re self-teaching. If you’d like to follow a set syllabus, then you can try one of the introductory courses we already mentioned.
Tips for learning a new language
To give yourself the best chance of picking up the language quickly, and enjoying yourself in the process, it’s worth bearing a few tips in mind. Let’s run through them.
Set out a goal
At the outset of any new project, it’s a good idea to lay down your goals. That way, you’ll be able to see how close you are to actually achieving your goals, and take stock of your progress.
Learn the vocabulary
Once you’ve built up a core vocabulary of a thousand or so words, you can get to work adapting them to suit your purposes. In English, most of us know between 15,000 and 20,000 word families (that is, words that share a common derivation).
The truth is that you can actually get by with quite a limited number of words. The Pareto principle holds true here too. The principle states: around 80% of the outcomes come from around 20% of the inputs. So, if you know 20% of all the words in French, you’ll be pretty much set. You can get there as quickly as possible through simple exercises like this one.
Find other students
If you’re able to regularly converse in French, then you’ll find it much easier to solidify all of the information that you’re picking up. But finding a native French speaker to bounce off might not be all that convenient if you need to practice regularly (which you do). So, do the next best thing, and bounce off your fellow students.
We’ve already noted how reading in French can help you to pick things up more quickly. But the same also applies to other forms of media, like film, music and television.
The more time you can spend in a French-speaking country, the better. If you’re in the UK, the easiest way to do this is to hop over the channel. Although, if you’ve always wanted to go to Senegal, then you’ll get a similar benefit there.
Learning a language is an incredibly useful and productive use of your time and energy. But it can also be great fun, too, exposing you to thoughts and ideas that you might otherwise have been denied, and providing you with a new understanding of language in general.
French is a great choice for those looking to pick up a modern foreign language for the first time. But if you’re already familiar with Italian, Spanish or German, you’ll likely find it easy to get to grips with French too!