It’s 9 pm, you just finished washing the dishes and you’re staring at your laptop screen.
You know what you should be doing. You had planned to review l'imparfait.
Instead, you just stare at your screen wondering where to start. Also, you're thinking what’s the point in wasting time on that? After all, you keep on forgetting how to use the imparfait because you almost never use it when you talk to your French neighbors.
Well I’m not there to discuss whether you should be learning the imparfait or not. I’d like to talk about why studying French sometimes feels so useless or boring.
If you’re trying to learn French at home and on your own, then this article is for you.
This time I chose a step-by-step approach to show you how to create a positive, driven routine when learning French. Feel free to jump right to the step that you seem to struggle with the most.
Step 1 : How to set tangible short-term goals and gain clarity
Let me start by asking you a question.
What would you like to do that you can't do because of your current level in French?
Here are a few examples to help you get started :Lisa fantasizes : “I'd like to ask questions and give short answers when I get invited for lunch at my in-laws, but I feel like I'm still missing some vocabulary.”
Michael admits : “I'd like to do an English master in Paris but I'd need to pass an exam like the DELF B2 (equivalent to upper-intermediate level) and for now I'm still stuck at B1”
Richard decides : “I'd like to go out for drinks with my coworkers after work, but it's still hard for me to follow the full conversation of a group as French people tend to speak at the same time.”
What about you?
Try completing the following formula : "I'd like to ... but I can't yet because ..."
Now, narrow your goal down to something you realistically can achieve within 4 weeks.
How do you know what's doable and what's not?
Well it all depends on where you stand in your French journey. It also depends on how much time per week you can invest in practice and review.
Ask yourself the following questions :
- What do I already know in grammar and vocabulary that could be useful for my end goal?
- What do I want to achieve exactly by the end of the month? (write down something measurable or clear topics you want to master)
- How much time can I spend on French every week this month?
- How will you use your weekly French study time, meaning which skill will you practice and how?
Let me give you a few examples using Lisa, Michael and Richard once again :
Find out how Lisa plans to speak to her in-laws at lunch
Lisa knows how to ask simple questions in French.
She knows how to build sentences using the present, future and past tense.
She wants to learn how to talk about food and home interior so she can compliment her hosts on their choices and ask for advice.
She thinks she could afford to spend about 30 minutes twice a week learning new expressions with the help of an app or a tutor.
So is that concrete enough for a goal? Absolutely!
Unfortunately, having only 2 review sessions per week, no matter the length of them, will probably be insufficient if she needs to learn a lot of vocabulary from scratch.
There’s a good risk she’ll forget 60% of what she tried so hard to learn, though she gets bonus points for thinking of a tutor who would help her practice using role-play.
Find out how Michael wants to learn for the DELF exam
Michael knows how to talk about himself and daily life in short sentences.
He knows a bit of the more complex grammar like the subjunctive and all kinds of pronouns.
He can read short French blog posts and understand most of it.
He'd like to prepare for the DELF B2 exam in 4 weeks.
He has about 4 hours a week that he can reserve to practice the reading, writing, listening and speaking parts of the exam.
Will he have enough time? Yes, but only if he makes bite-sizes of his main goal. By that, I mean that he should only focus on the reading part of the DELF during the first 4 weeks.
With a level B1 in French, you would need to study 20 hours a week if you want to improve enough to pass a French B2 exam.
He could start by learning more advanced idioms like phrasal verbs and linking words, then practice with more difficult texts and Multiple Choice Questions using a B2 textbook. That’ll already be plenty to do for 4 hours of self-study multiplied by 4 weeks.
Find out how Richard will prepare for coworker meetups
Richard can have a conversation with a French native if it’s just the two of them.
He knows most of the vocabulary related to the 5 favorite topics of his French colleagues.
He currently understands about 50% of what happens during a group meetup and would like to raise that amount to 70%.
He can spend about 2 hours a week on improving his listening skills using authentic audio material.
Will he make it? Actually, yes there’s a good chance he’ll be able to raise his understanding by 20% if he trains regularly and tries to challenge himself more and more as the 4 weeks pass.
If you’re still having doubts on your French goals, then why not share them in the comments below so I can give them a look?
Step 2 : How to pick the right methods and resources for French
Once you know what you’ll be working towards, you need to decide how you’ll study French at home. Preferably you’ll use resources and methods that will keep you away from boredom, frustration and ultimately waste your time.
Start with finding out which methods and tools work best for you in terms of level, needs and preferences.
I’ll keep using examples to explain what I mean. As you may have noticed I like to be specific!
Level : depending on if you have an intermediate or advanced level in French I would suggest a different method to practice your listening skills.
As an intermediate learner you'll want to work with short pieces of audio supported by visual, like a Youtube video. You'll want a script or French subtitles and your goal will be to catch the gist of the story.
On the other hand, an advanced learner will focus on audio only and avoid subtitles. He'll want to make notes of new expressions and subtle details like a regional accent or the use of irony.
Needs : depending on the skill you want to practice and improve, you'll need to have some time alone to absorb and review or you'll need the help of someone else to make sure you're going in the right direction.
Typically, active skills like speaking, listening and writing will be the kind where you need a partner and passive skills like reading or vocabulary and grammar review will be solitary tasks.
Preferences : you may have heard of learning styles before. In short, some people learn better by viewing new content, others by hearing it.
There are a few other categories which you can consult here. Unlike what we imagine, there are ways of learning vocabulary using only audio resources. Likewise, it’s possible to understand and retain some grammar structures using context and real-life situations instead of a textbook (not all rules, though). Take this test and find out which methods help you the most.
So concretely, which tools would I recommend using to learn French on your own at home (and preferably for free)?
If you feel like you could use some help with picking the right tools, I made a free course that helps you find the most relevant resources based on your goals.
Moving on to the last and most tricky step. I say it’s the most difficult part because I tend to get stuck right there. Want to know why? Read on!
Step 3 : How to track your study moments and feel true progress
Usually I have no difficulty visualizing what I want to learn and finding out the best way to learn it after doing some research or using processes I created previously for my own students.
But then comes the time to stop planning and actually get down to work, and I typically get frustrated about it because I usually never manage to follow the schedule I had created for myself! Things pop up in life and you have to let go, right?
That’s why I want to recommend a different method to approach your learning routine.
Stop trying to control exactly when you’re going to learn. Instead, decide on the spot when you feel like it’s a good time to review or practice French.
Knowing your goals and your preferred resources will help you get into that learning space at the speed of light, but you don’t need to decide weeks in advance exactly when you’ll do X or Z.
What you need to do is to throw away your idealized schedule and stop trying to guilt yourself into studying French. That doesn't work for anyone.
Remember how I started this post by saying I wanted to show you a way to learn in a positive, driven way?
Well I meant it, and Kerstin from Fluent Language helped me immensely in finding a better way to review and practice foreign languages on my own at home.
What she proposes is to track your progress by logging every single effort you’ve made at learning French, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day (though longer study sessions are encouraged). A little bit like using a bullet journal actually.
She created a Language Habit Toolkit that doesn’t use any schedule. Instead, she made a series of 5 reusable worksheets and an ebook that focuses on visualizing your goals then making them concrete enough to implement them easily.
You get to write down each small success you had with French and each month you wrap up by looking at what you've managed to learn (or not).
It was tough to evaluate myself using her method, yet so useful. I got to see exactly which tools were worth my time and which methods didn’t help me meet my goals. I noticed which days and moments I was particularly productive or excited about working on Portuguese.
When she gave me the opportunity to test her brand new Toolkit, I was delighted as I was having a hard time with the implementation of my ambitious learning schedule. What I realized was that I could give up on that and still make true progress.
In conclusion, if you want to learn French at home at your own pace, you will need to make a few decisions :
1. Set goals for yourself that you'll be able to achieve within a short amount of time so you don't get discouraged or lose sight of your progress.
2. Pick French material that fit with what you want to practice and that you won't mind using on a weekly basis.
3. Avoid scheduling everything in advance and instead try to track your actual study moments with Kerstin's toolkit or something like a bullet journal for a real look at your progress.
PS : If you buy the Language Habit Toolkit through one of the links above I will get a commission because I'm an affiliate for Kerstin's language learning kits.
I only recommend products of quality that I truly believe will help you and that I consider reasonable in price.