Category Archives: Learning a Foreign Language

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


More resources for learning French

Coffee Break French

For the last three or more years I’ve been listening to the free French podcast by Coffee Break French. They are by far the best French podcast lessons that I have found. Four seasons of 40 lessons each take you from absolute beginner to confident French speaker.

The lessons are a joy to listen to. Marc and his team do a great job of creating a great atmosphere, and the ongoing story keeps you coming back for more. For example, season four tells a story through a series of emails between the main characters. After a brief bit of banter between the two presenters, the email of the week is read out by a native French speaker. Then Marc gives a summary and Pierre-Benoît picks four phrases which he discusses in more detail. Finally you hear the email again.

I really enjoy the weekly lessons, and find that they give me about enough theory. However, if you would like to put in some serious study time then I suggest you check out their extended materials


Many universities and other institutions offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Some are self-paced (start anytime, work at your own pace) whilst many are live.

I have yet to try out a MOOC myself, but a bit of research brought up the following:

Or, if your French is already fairly good and you’d like to get more experience, how about signing up for a course which is given in French, on a topic which interests you: 20 free courses in French, of which 3 currently running, 9 starting soon (i.e. register, and then study it as a live remote course) and 2 self-paced (start anytime, work at your own pace). Not for French beginners, but perhaps an interesting way to use (and thereby practice) your French. Actually, one of them is a self-paced course on French Language and Culture (link above).There is also a Foundations of Python course.

More free courses in French at France Université Numérique.

Finally, more free language courses, see this list of free language lessons

Learn French with Frantastique

Whilst learning French I tried out Frantastique

The company behind it

I first came across Frantastique when they posted a Paris-based Python job. Unfortunately this particularly job was not suitable for remote working, so I didn’t apply.

Frantastique is offered by Gymglish, a Paris based “independent, self-financed company with the aim of offering a new approach to online self-learning: to achieve high participation rates thanks to fun, personalized and concise content, and to ensure consolidation of acquired knowledge.

Hopefully another job will come up, since this looks like a great company to work for, doing interesting and fun stuff.

How does it work?

The lessons are set around a story about two aliens exploring earth with the help of Victor Hugo. They look like chapters from a language text book, with a mixture of exercises (multiple choice and free text) and theory


You follow a lesson online, enter your answers as you go along, and then submit the whole lesson. Frantastique processes your answers and sends you an email to a link with the results. You review the results, and get another email with a link to the next lessons, etc


Try out Frantastique for seven days for free (affiliate link; if you sign up I’ll get a third of the length of your paid subscription for free). After there is a monthly fee from £14/$22/€18

My impressions

Frantastique is a great mix between fun content and serious lessons. It offers plenty of variety. According to the website, it learns from your answers, however the trial period wasn’t long enough for me to really experience this.

Compared to for instance Duolingo, the website design is quite stark. This helps to keep distractions to a minimum, but a few simple design touches would lift the website without taking away from the learning experience, and make it look more modern

It has a more depth than Duolingo, but offers less control. You get one lesson per day, which will take about 10 or 15 minutes

See also the overview on the Frantastique website


Anki – Open Source Flashcards

What is Anki?

Anki is an open source application which lets you create and view flash cards.

Unlike some of the other online education sites it does one thing, and it does it well.

How does it work?

Anki runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, and any device with a web browser. Once you’ve created an account, Anki synchronises decks and your progress across all your devices.

You can choose from a large collection of decks.  I counted 247 French decks, some highly specialised (Theological French, 236 cards, or “etre and avoir from English to French”, 16 cards).

Anki shows you the front of a card, with a question, image and/or sound. You try to answer it, before turning over the card to see the correct answer. After telling Anki how well you did the next card gets shown.

Cards which you struggled with are shown again very soon, whilst cards which you found easy only come back once in a while.

Getting Anki

You can download Anki for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone or Android from the Anki website.

If you’re using Linux Mint (or probably any other Debian or Ubuntu based Linux distro) then use the package manager (or apt-get, aptitude, etc) probably grabs an old version. When you try to connect to your online AnkiWeb account (see below) you may get an error message “Syncing failed: Please upgrade to the latest version of Anki.” To fix this, remove Anki and instead go to the Anki website, from the Linux/BSD tab, download the Ubuntu/Debian version. Double click on the downloaded file and follow the instructions.

My impressions

On the Anki website it says “Creating your own deck is the most effective way to learn a complex subject. Subjects like languages and the sciences can’t be understood simply by memorizing facts — they require explanation and context to learn effectively. Furthermore, inputting the information yourself forces you to decide what the key points are, leading to a better understanding“. A simple tool like Anki can be really good for the focussed and motivated learner, as part of your overall studies.

Anki is a powerful no-frills flash card programme, with a large number of ready-made decks. If I was back in high school, preparing for a French exam, this is just the sort of tool which would take my studies to the next level.

What’s next?

Anki is open source software, written in Python. The source code for the desktop app is on GitHub. So you can use (part of) the Anki source code, under the GNU AGPL license, to read Anki decks, and to have some fun writing your own app using the Anki card decks. Watch this space …

Also, on my Android phone I have the VidaLingua French English Dictionary. It keeps a history of the words that I’ve looked up.  I would love to be able to export the list (English and French meanings) and convert it to an Anki deck.

Duolingo – online language course

I used Duolingo regularly for a couple of months. It was good fun, so why did I stop?

What is DuoLingo?

As the Duolingo website says “Learn languages completely free, without ads or hidden charges. It’s fun, easy, and scientifically proven.”
They even have some evidence that their approach is faster than an average university course.

I used their French course, using English as the starting language.

According to, for English speakers they have Spanish (39 million learners), French (24.4 million learners), German, Italian, Portugues, Dutch (my own language, with 1.2 million learners) and 5 other languages. Another 11 languages (including Star Trek’s Klingon) are currently “hatching”.


For other source languages there are less target languages. For instance, for Dutch speakers there is only one course, in English.

How does it work?

Starting with the absolute basics, you go through a learning tree. So completing one lesson (or a set of lessons) unlocks the next lesson(s). This gives you some freedom, but stops you from getting too far ahead of yourself.

You can see your progress on each lesson/topic (e.g. food, phrases, animals, colours, present, pronouns) – whether you completed it, and whether your knowledge has started to fade. One of the key elements is the idea of repetition and memory fading. Duolingo makes sure that you keep refreshing what you already know.

You can use Duolingo online or as an iOS, Android or Windows Phone app.


Each individual lesson consists of a number of questions. Duolingo will keep asking you questions until you’ve reached a score of 10. Questions can be a translation from English to French or vice versa, putting words to pictures and transcribing French sentences

My impressions

The screens have a modern, fresh and inviting feel to them. Information (language syntax, conjugations, vocabulary) is there when you need it, but without being obtrusive

Lessons are short, giving you regular ‘hits’ as you progress through the lessons. And there is a nice balance between variety and repetition, keeping things interesting without overwhelming you.

I suspect that (some of) the sentences are automatically generated, with some funny results like “Je suis une pomme” – “I am an apple”.

For a while I progressed nicely through Duolingo, making sure to spend a bit of time each day on it. It was fun to see how much I already knew and to fill in the gaps…. until I hit a lesson with lots of new words. It became less of a game and too much like school (rote learning). There are so many different ways to learn French, and in the end Duolingo isn’t quite for me, although I may come back to it from time to time to solidify my learning

All in all I recommend that you try out Duolingo. As formal learning goes it is a pleasure to use

Language / Dictionary lists

I’m playing around with some ideas for language games. Looking for free dictionaries I found the following: – “From this page you can download hundreds of different bilingual dictionaries for any combination of world languages. (both languages have to be in the selected dictionary database). There are few freely available dictionaries on the Internet – our goal is to allow you to get virtually any bilingual dictionary that you may need free of charge

It was easy and quick to download a 1600+ line English -> French, dictionary, with typically up to three English words with the French meaning, grouped by category (prfoession, time, adjective, advert, family, society)

On other sites I found lists in more specialised data formats. On this site the lists are in text, tab-separated, so very easy to read and use