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The Best Way to Study French for Speaking

by Camille Chevalier-Karfis, French Today

As a teacher for adults, I am often surprised to see that my students have forgotten how to study. So, here are some pointers for people who want to learn French to communicate, not only to pass exams.

Work with audio

If you are familiar with my site, you know how much I emphasize that written French and spoken French are like 2 different languages. So if you want to be able to speak French, you must train with audio. But not any audio: the speed is essential, and should be adapted to your level.

Play a very short passage, a short sentence, then repeat. Don't read the transcript; just repeat the sounds, trying to imitate the speaker as if you were an actor. Repeat as many times as necessary. Once you have the pronunciation down, then, and only then, you can look at the transcript.

If you are more advanced, read out loud over the voice that is reading, and study how your pronunciation differs. Pay close attention to the word grouping, the liaisons and glidings.

Train with questions/answers out loud

A great way to practice speaking is to ask short questions on a text and answer them. First of all, that will give you good training on question building, which is an essential part of conversation. Then you can answer the questions and practice your speaking ability. Use the companion workbook I developed to accompany my audio novel "Une Semaine à Paris, a traveler's guide with a novel twist".

Go from English to French

When memorizing new vocabulary, remember that it's not because you understand the French word that you could come up with it. I have seen people approach lists of vocabulary by looking at the French and seeing if they can understand the English; this is good to build your understanding, but not your speaking ability. Au contraire, you need to look at the English, and see if you can come up with the French. Flash cards are a great way to memorize a lot of vocabulary. Don't forget to always have an article to go with a noun so you learn the gender as well as the noun.

Find someone to correct your pronunciation

You can find good resources to learn French pronunciation (like my masterclass "Secrets of French Pronunciation") and it is indeed important that you memorize and understand the many rules of French pronunciation. But then, you need someone to listen to you and correct your mistakes. No software or recorded lesson can do that. It needs to be a real person. This investment in a couple of private lessons can change your French accent for the rest of your French speaking life.

Visualize the object, the situation, don't link to English

Avoid linking the French word to the English word as much as possible. When you learn the word "le chien", picture a dog in your head, and link the French word to this. Going trough another language is a waste of time and effort, and will cause trouble when the French and English don't follow the same pattern.

You cannot avoid grammar

Not in French. Sorry. French is a very structured language, and you need to understand this structure. Then you can move on to acquiring reflexes, and have the words come naturally to you. But at one point, you need to understand how it works, how you must arrange the words to build a sentence. And that is what grammar is.

Don't learn your verbs "in order"

Typically, French verbs are taught from "Je" to "Ils". The problem is that when you memorize something in order, your brain memorizes the order as well. And then you have to go through the whole list to get to the "ils" form...

Instead, write down your subject pronouns, and then pick them at random. Believe me, you'll gain a lot of speed when speaking. And don't forget to train in the negative form as well. Check out my French Verb Drills, they are the best tool to memorize French verb tenses and gain speed.

Repetition is the key

When you spend time memorizing something, your brain will store it in its short term memory. Only experience and repetition will store the info in your long term memory. So it's better to work on your French regularly, for say 20 minutes per day and do a lot of repetitions, than spend 3 hours on it once a week.

Ultimately you need to get faster

Once you are at an intermediate level, you need to make the transition from "thinking" the language to speaking it automatically. Build reflexes. That is where sentence learning can be useful, especially ones with pronouns. Make lists of common yet complex sentences "il m'a dit", "je lui ai donné" etc... and memorize them. Also, train on saying things that are relevant to you, and likely to come up in conversation: what you like to do, your job, your family situation...

If you liked my tips on the best way to study French for speaking, you may also like my tips on the best way to study French for listening and understanding.

About the writer

Photo of Camille Chevalier-Karfis Born and raised in Paris, I lived in Boston for 16 years and have been teaching French to adults around the world for 19 years. Returning to France in 2008, I created French Today which offers audiobooks and lessons in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. All my lessons come from my personal teaching experiences. I developed my method to match the needs of adults who want to learn and interact in real, modern French.

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