How I’m learning French

Or, how to learn without studying


I love learning, but I don’t like studying. Take for instance learning a foreign language. There are many ways to do this, including “studying”: studying the grammar, rote learning words and reading literature. There is nothing wrong with studying, if that works for you. It just isn’t for me.

Instead I am learning French a bit like I learned my first and languages (Dutch and English) – by a lot of natural exposure and use in my daily life, not as a separate activity. I have added a French “flavour” to many of my day to day activities


Listen to French music. Particularly with the internet, you should be able to find some music you like. I attribute my love of French music to a French musical we were shown on video in secondary school (Michael Fugain et le Big Bazar). I got the album and have played it over and over again. Little by little I’m picking out (and learning) more and more words

I often listen to music whilst I’m working. Some days I’ll hear three or more hours of French music. I’ve collected quite a few French CDs and downloads, listen to a French online radio station (e.g. Chante France) or to French musicians on Spotify or YouTube

For a while I even collected (as downloads and as a playlist) French version of songs I already knew in Dutch or English. Because I already know the lyrics, it is easier to make sense of the French lyrics

There is a great website LyricsTranslate where people submit song lyrics in the original language and others translate them. So you can find many French song lyrics with an English translation. It also has YouTube videos, so you listen to the French words and try to read along with the French or English lyrics

Also on YouTube, you can find many French songs with French and English subtitles. Listen to the French lyrics and read the subtitles


Watch movies with French audio. I love French movies. Many have a different pace, a bit slower and more thoughtful, than a Hollywood super hero blockbuster. This also makes it a bit easier to hear and understand the dialogue. My favourite French director, with lots of French dialogue, is Eric Rohmer.

When in France I look out for second hand DVDs, especially movies that I really want to watch. It shouldn’t become a chore. Ideally they should have subtitles. Some streaming services (e.g. Netflix) let you choose the subtitles and audio language for some of movies and programmes.

I  watch the following

  • French movies with English subtitles – as I read the English subtitles I try to hear how you say it in French
  • French movies with French subtitles – I find it easier to understand written French than spoken French, so this way I can more or less follow the story whilst practicing my listening skills
  • French movies without any subtitles – I still miss a lot whilst doing this, but it is good practice from time to time. And I may watch the movie a second time, with subtitles, to see what I’ve missed or misunderstood
  • English movies with French subtitles. Many of my favourite movies are in English. Ilisten to the English and see how the French say the same thing
  • For something really multinational I watch Ultimate Beastmaster on Netflix. Athletes from 6 different countries compete on an obstacle course. Each country has its own commentators. With French subtitles I get the US and UK commentators speaking in English with French subtitles, French commentators speaking in French with no subtitles, and some other languages I don’t understand but with French subtitles


Read French. I love reading – but it has to be something I’m interested in. Reading a boring French children’s book just to learn French doesn’t do it for me

Looking up words as i read doesn’t excite me either. It kills the joy of reading for me. Sometimes I get curious and look up a few words

How do you read interesting French when you just get started

  • Follow some French people or groups on Facebook, like Topito, or the Facebook page of a French town you’re visiting on holiday. If, like me, you spend too much time on Facebook, at least you’ll start picking up some French words
  • Switch your computer and/or mobile phone to French. But write down how you did it, so you can switch back later. There are many different settings you can change: your browser (so Google will return French websites), your operating system (so things like “open” and “save” will be in French), your Facebook, Twitter, etc, settings, so your “wall” becomes your “mur” (French for “wall”) etc. Or your phone, and your GPS directions may now be in French – maybe not as helpful but quite fun, in particular when the French lady starts mis-pronouncing the English road names
  • Read the French version of some of your favourite books. For instance, I’ve read The Lord of the Rings many times, and I know the story well. This helped when I started reading it in French. I don’t have to worry about losing the plot, and can just skip over words I don’t know or sentences I don’t understand
  • Try out different books. If you can’t get into a certain book, just put it aside and try another one. Again, second hand book shops and market stalls (in France) are very good for this. I’ve bought books for 1 euro. I’ve got over 50 unread books, which gives me plenty of choice
  • Or try your local library. Many libraries have a foreign literature section
  • Comic books are good too. The pictures help you to understand the story


Listen to podcasts. I’m a great fan of podcasts. I’ll listen to them whilst out running, doing the dishes and other chores, going off to sleep, doing some finger exercises on the guitar, and even whilst flossing my teeth. Here are some recommendations

  • Coffee break French. I started with this one. They have an archive with four seasons, from absolute beginners to advanced, so pick your level
  • Learn French by Podcast. Their lessons pack a lot in a short podcast. They cover many practical topics (e.g. how to talk about yourself). 195 podcasts (and still going), some of them very topical (politics, science, society)
  • Journal en Français facile. The (French) news in easy French. 10 minutes daily news


And a few more ideas

  • Visit the country
  • Immerse yourself in the culture
  • Make French friends, stay in touch on Facebook or whatever you use
  • If you play a musical instrument or sing, learn some French songs. I’ve even taken some French+guitar lessons with Cécile, a French singer/songwriter whose songs I really enjoy
  • Here in Bristol we’ve got some French singing workshops, which I’ve found very enjoyable – particularly because, as I’ve already mentioned, I love French songs
  • Find your local French Meetup groups