Bonjour ! So you have finally decided to learn French by yourself. However, as a complete beginner, you don’t know what’s the best way to learn French.
As a French language teacher, I have been confronted by this one particular question many times, “how can I learn French by myself fast?” .
Of course, living in a French speaking country will definitely help, but I don’t think that alone is enough to master the language. On the other hand, learning only grammar rules or conjugation patterns without any context is the best way to make you quit learning French.
As a total beginner, you may be asking yourself some typical questions such as :
- Where do I start?
- How do I build a good foundation?
- What grammar do I need to learn ?
- How can I build up my vocabulary fast?
- What comes next after the beginner stage?
- Are there any DOs and DON’Ts of learning French?
In this article, I will be answering to those common questions and guiding you through the best way to learn French. Although it may seem quite long and you might need to focus and take notes, why not bookmark it and this guide to learning a language to your favourites and come back whenever you want!
The French alphabet & pronunciation
First of all, let’s start from the beginning. The best way to learn French by yourself starts with knowing the French alphabet and pronunciation. Let me show you how it works. In France, we use the typical “western” alphabet, which would be the Latin alphabet. We only add some accents and ligatures to it.
Accents, Ligatures and Vowels
In French, accents will either change the pronunciation of a letter (mostly on the letter “e”), or the definition of a word (ou ≠ où). Accents only exist on some letters, which you may see in the grid below. Ligatures, on the other hand, are two letters stuck together.
Here is the complete list of vowels that are used in the French language:
|eeh (sharper “e”, try to smile!)
eh (deeper “e” = eh)
|ee (feel , knee, impressive)
euh (international phonetic alphabet sound “œ”)
|u (assume, perfume)|
There is only one accent on a consonant in French and you might have already encountered it, the famous cédille “ç” of “Comment ça va?” or “Français“.
Reading the French ABC
Here is an image that will help you read out loud the French alphabet (and perhaps… sing it?)
Most common syllables or letter combos in French
Before we move on, there is one last thing you need to know regarding syllables in French. Here is how you pronounce basic combinations of letters (syllables):
|ai / ei||Aimer, mais, neige||eh|
|au / eau||Beau, Audrey||oh|
|qu+vowel||Quelque, quoi, magique||The “u” is silent|
|gu+vowel||Vague, vogue||The “u” is silent|
|aï||Maïs, aïe||“Mah-ees” , “ah-ee”|
It wouldn’t be French if it were too easy, right? That’s the reason why we have a lot of silent letters, especially at the end of words. The most common silent letters at the end of words are:
|-e||Danse, mère, père||The e at the end of a French word is silent. Danss, mehr, pehr|
|Manger, chanter, danser
Mangez, chantez, dansez.
|If the final -r or -z have an e before, they are silent:
Manjeh, chanteh, danser
|-t||Jouet, constat||The letter t at the end of a word is silent:
|-s / -x||Danses, chapeaux||The final -s in a French words is silent:
A good way to master pronunciation of the French language would be to listen to as much French as possible. Internet, podcasts and videos are great ways to find the best resources!
Learning the Common Phrases in French
Now, let’s start talking. Another chapter that you should include in your French learning journey is about the common phrases.
Greetings and introductions
|Have a nice day
Have a nice evening
Have a nice afternoon
|Bonne nuit||Good night|
Common phrases and questions
Politeness and being courteous is a must. Wherever you go, any shop or place you will visit in France, always greet the people who work there when you arrive and don’t forget to bid them goodbye once you leave.
|S’il vous plaît (formal)
S’il te plaît (informal)
|De rien||You’re welcome|
|Comment allez-vous? (formal)
Comment ça va? (informal)
ça va? (informal)
|How are you doing? / How are you?|
|Je vais bien, merci. (formal)
ça va bien, merci. (informal)
ça va, merci. (informal)
|I’m doing well, thank you.|
|Comment vous appelez-vous? (formal)
Comment tu t’appelles? (informal)
|What’s your name?|
|Je m’appelle …||My name is …|
|Quel âge avez-vous? (formal)
Vous avez quel âge? (formal)Tu as quel âge? (informal)
|How old are you?|
|J’ai … ans||I am … years old|
|Et vous? (formal)
Et toi? (informal)
|And you? / How about you?|
Saying where you come from
Now that you have finally introduced yourself, you need to learn how to say where you come from. Before you go ahead and read the next grid, you should first know that in French, countries have genders: France and China are feminine and Canada is masculine.
How can you see if a country is feminine or masculine, or even plural? There is a rule, to which exceptions may apply (of course).
Feminine country = country that ends with an “e” : la France, la Chine, la Russie (aside from le Mexique, le Mozambique, le Zimbabwe and le Cambodge).
Plural country = country that ends with an “s” and archipelagos : les Philippines, les Maldives, les Etats-Unis.
Masculine country = country that ends with all all other letters : le Canada, le Sénégal, le Danemark, le Vietnam (+ le Mexique, le Mozambique, le Zimbabwe and le Cambodge).
|D’où venez-vous? (formal)
D’où viens-tu? (informal)Vous venez d’où? (formal)Tu viens d’où? (informal)
|Where do you come from?|
|Je viens du + pays masculin
Je viens de + pays féminin
Je viens d’ + pays commençant par une voyelle
Je viens des + pays au pluriel
|I come from + masculine country
I come from + feminine country
I come from + country starting with a vowel
I come from + plural country
Other themes to explore as a beginner
Here is a list of other topics to explore and learn, as a beginner in French.
- Describing your hometown : the different places in town.
- Your daily routines and activites / hobbies
- Food: what you like / don’t like, allergies…
- Films and TV series
- Your family and friends
- Your home and your neighbourhood (description)
- Francophony and the French language all around the world
Learning Grammar and Conjugation
Let me show you the best way to learn French grammar, step by step.
If you haven’t noticed it yet, you should know that French nouns have genders. A table (une table) is feminine and a book is masculine (un livre). There is a word that comes before a noun, which is similar to the English language. We call this word an article. We have definite and indefinite articles. Each article changes depending on the gender and number of the noun (if there is more than one). Here’s how I would sum it up:
Indefinite articles (articles indéfinis) are what you use to refer to something for the first time, or that is not precise. In English, this article would be the word “a” or “an”.
|Indefinite article||Example||English equivalent||English example|
|Un + masculine noun
|Un livre||A or an||A book|
|Une + feminine noun
|Une table||A or an||A table|
|Des + masculine & feminine noun
or article zero
For English speakers, the indefinite article for plural nouns “des” can be hard to get used to.
Definite articles (articles définis) are what you will use if you want to refer to something known by all parties in an exchange. In English, this article would be the word “the”.
|Definite article||Example||English equivalent||English example|
|Le + masculine noun
|Le livre||The||The book|
|La + feminine noun
|La table||The||The table|
|L’ + noun starting with a vowel
|Les + masculine & feminine noun
|The (plural)||The books
Learning how to use prepositions in French
What is a preposition? A preposition is a word that links two parts of a sentence. In French, they are placed after a verb, adjective, adverb or even a noun and before a noun (or a pronoun) :
J’habite à Paris (I live in Paris)
Je viens de France (I come from France)
Je vais en France (I’m going to France)
Here are the most important prepositions to know, as a beginner:
|à||to, in, at||To be used before a city.
J’habite à LyonTo be used if you want to talk about a (masculine) country you’re going to:
Je vais au Cameroun
If you’re going to use nouns , use :
au + maculine noun
à l’ + noun starting with vowel
aux + plural noun
|de||of, from, about||Very similar to the English prepositions : of, from, about.
Elle parle de danse.
|en||in, to, on||Use this to talk about the (feminine) country you’re going to.
Je vais en France
|chez||at||Use “chez” to talk about someone’s place or a professional’s place:
Chez le docteur.
The most important verbs in French
As a complete beginner in French, there are 4 verbs that you need to master, at the present tense. There is no mastering verbs without knowing the pronouns used, here’s an image to help you memorise the French personal pronouns:
Il / elle estNous sommes
Ils / elles sont
He / she isWe are
You are (plural)
They (masc.) / They are (fem.)
Il / elle aNous avons
Ils / elles ont
He / she hasWe have
You have (plural)
Il / elle vaNous allons
Ils / Elles vont
|I go / I’m going
You go / you’re going
He / she goes
He’s / she’s goingWe go / we’re going
You go / you’re going (pl.)
They go / they’re going
Il / elle vientNous venons
Ils / elles viennent*
He / She comesWe come
You come (plural)
Note: “Ils viennent” = the final “-ent” is silent for conjugated verbs. (Ils vienn)
In the French language, verbs are divided into 3 categories:
- Regular -er verbs (1st group) : the easiest ones to conjugate, as they follow the same pattern of conjugation. Examples: danser, chanter, chercher, bouger…
- Regular -ir verbs (2nd group) : another conjugation-friendly verbal group! Same pattern for same group of verbs.
- Irregular verbs (-re, -ir, -oir, aller…) (3rd group) : A little bit more difficult to conjugate, as these verbs are mostly irregular and have different patterns of conjugation.
How to conjugate verbs
When it comes to conjugating regular verbs, there is a simple way memorize them. If you remove the ending of each verb in its infinitive form (-er and -ir), you will have a part that is called the “radical” or the “root” of a verb. Then, just add the right ending after the root to form the conjugated verb. Here’s an example:
|Verbal group||Root||Present tense ending|
|Je + ROOT +e
Tu + ROOT +es
Il / elle + ROOT +e
Nous + ROOT +ons
Vous + ROOT +ez
Ils / elles + ROOT +ent
|Je + ROOT+is
Tu + ROOT +is
Il / elle + ROOT +it
Nous + ROOT +issons
Vous + ROOT +issez
Ils / elles + ROOT +issent
Regarding verbs of the 3rd group, you will need to memorise them little by little, as there is no particular pattern to conjugate them.
The most important tenses for beginners
Regarding conjugation, you might also need to focus on the most important tenses first. This next grid will sum it up for you in a crystal clear way!
|Tense||When should I use it?|
|Le présent de l’indicatif||Commonly called “le présent”. When you want to speak at the present simple tense, or present progressive tense.
Je vais au marché. (I’m going to the market)
|Le passé composé||“Composed past”. This tense is used to talk about finished actions in the past. The equivalent would be the past simple tense in English.
It is composed of an auxiliary (être or avoir, at the present tense), followed by the past participle of a verb.
Je suis allé au marché … (I went to the market)
|L’imparfait||1. When you want to talk about a continuous action in the past.
2. To describe past habits.
3. To describe something, in the past.
J’allais au marché… (I was going to the market)
|Le futur proche||To talk about an immediate action in the future. Mostly used in spoken French.
It is composed of the verb “aller” (présent) + the infinitive form of the action verb.Je vais aller au marché. (I am going to go to the market)
Je vais manger une pomme. (I am going to eat an apple)
|Le futur simple||To talk about plans in the future, the weather forecast… this is the most “formal” type of future tense.
J’irai au marché. (I will go to the market)
If you would like to know more about French verbs and conjugations, take a look at the LingoDeer app to find more about the best way to learn French by yourself, and start learning!
Adjectives and adverbs
An adjective is a word used to describe something. French adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun. What does this mean? Well, if the noun is masculine (singular or plural), so will be the adjective. Same case for feminine nouns and adjectives.
Un pull noir (a black sweater).
Un pull = masculine singular
Noir = masculine singular.
Des pulls noirs (black sweaters).
Des pulls = masculine plural.
Noirs = masculine plural.
Une chemise rouge (a red shirt).
Une chemise = feminine singular.
Rouge = feminine singular.
Des chemises rouges (red shirts).
Des chemises = feminine plural.
Rouges = feminine plural.
In French, the adjective is placed most of the time after the noun, as you can see in the examples above. There are some exceptions. Adjectives describing beauty, age, good / badand size (B.A.G.S, to help you remember!) will come before the noun: beau, belle, vieux, jeune, bon, mauvais, grand, petit…
An adverb, on the other hand, is an invariable word used to modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb. Most of the time, it will be placed before the element that it modifies :
Il a beaucoup mangé / He ate a lot.
Je mange souvent des légumes / I often eat vegetables.
Here is a list of the most common adverbs used in French.
|beaucoup||a lot / many|
|trop||too, too much|
Of course, this list does not include all of the adverbs! Generally speaking, most French words ending in -ment are adverbs, and it’s very similar to the english suffix -ly :
Actuellement / Actually
Doucement / Slowly
Now, isn’t that easy?
The next step: building up vocabulary
Learning with goals
Finally, setting goals and milestones is one of the best ways to learn French. Once your theme has been chosen, explore the vocabulary. Look for videos, texts, even magazines or books in French. You like cooking? Then look for French recipes online! The goals would be more specific and go deeper into the theme. For example, if you have studied the theme of travels and you know more or less the basic vocabulary, you may now dive into… grammar and / or conjugation, related to travelling.
Ask yourself these questions:
“What would I want to do ? How can I say it in French?”
In the era of technology, we have tons of resources for learning a language online. Once you have set your next goal, you may now narrow your search for dialogues or videos. Short texts can even do the trick.
I would always advise to have a conjugation tool or table (which you can find online) in case you stumble upon an unknown verb structure or tense and then study it from there. The key here is to analyse your source, don’t just read or listen to it.
DOs and DON’Ts of learning French
- Be curious about the language and the culture. Curiosity will lead you to fall in love with the language and the culture.
- Take note of your mistakes. You will be able to remember them if you take the time to analyse where you went wrong.
- Practice with any type of material. Videos, films, TV series, news articles… Internet is your friend, which will bring me to my last point…
- …use technology. There are many resources to learn a language, but an easy way to learn French would be having a guidance with premade lessons and goals that you can find in apps such as LingoDeer.
- Be too hard on yourself. Learning a language should be a fun and agreeable experience, not a torture.
- Be afraid. Especially: don’t be afraid to speak. Stay confident, you can do it!
We have finally reached the end of this article. I hope that you now have more confidence and I trust that you will accomplish your new learning goals!