Learning a foreign language can be fun, exciting and stimulating; a companionable activity undertaken amidst like-minded learners.
It remains nevertheless a serious proposition that requires diligence and hard work. And time.
In spite of the wealth of French words that populate the English language, any native English speaker must accord proper time to such a momentous endeavour as studying another language.
How much time would be considered proper?
Let us investigate the aspects of learning French that would cause mastering the language of Molière to be a years-long commitment.
Differences in Grammar Between English and French
French is a romance language; English is considered Germanic.
Those respective distinctions make for deep linguistic divisions between the different languages.
For our purposes today, suffice to say that French has a rhythm and flow that makes it particularly attractive, and English, for all of its grammar rule exceptions, tends to be more practical.
In fact, French grammar may be your first stumbling block, especially their noun classification system.
Unlike all of the romance languages, the English language does not employ grammatical gender.
Articles the, a and an all take the place of either le or la; un or une to describe countable nouns.
Such grammar rules lend precision to French speech!
Let us examine this sentence: The teacher gave us each dictionary.
How can we know whether that is teacher male or female?
There would be no such question, were the same sentence to be spoken in French.
Le maître would be used if the language instructor were a man; la maitresse would be for female teachers.
Even indefinite articles are gender-specific in French! Un maître and une maitresse, for example.
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One of the most difficult aspects of learning grammar in French is agreement: any adjective, if used, must be the same gender as the article and noun, or pronoun.
It would not be correct to say la maison blanc.
As the article and noun are both feminine, the adjective must also be; making it blanche.
Whereas blanc and noir and a few other colours can be either masculine and feminine, some, such as yellow (jaune), red (rouge) and brown (marron) cannot.
Don't let exceptions to this rule shatter your confidence!
Take heart, dear French learner! Your new language has fewer grammar rule exceptions than your mother tongue does.
The final word on grammatical gender and agreement in French: most verbs have to agree, too!
Good news! Conjugating a verb in French will most likely only happen during your French classes!
To our knowledge, nobody must recite je suis, tu es... to gain any privilege or entry to any facility in France; nor is it required in order to enjoy any French podcast or film.
Of course, nobody will make you conjugate any verbs in English, either... unless you are still in primary school.
We point out verb conjugation as a potential pitfall in learning French because, as opposed to English's 12 verb tenses, the French language has 23!
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You might be relieved to find out that only six of them are routinely used.
You should still study subjunctive, indicative and conditional verb constructions, for when next you immerse yourself in the language and culture of France.
Note: as we make no distinction between mood and tense in English for this argument, we are not making one in French, either.
Are you wondering if French is a hard language to learn?
Building Your French Vocabulary
Where this facet of learning your second language is concerned, you may consider having it already cinched!
As a native speaker of English, you already know a substantial number of French words and phrases.
Words related to politics and economics; the military and, especially to science and food: our native language is nearly a third French!
It would not necessarily be a good idea to hunt for English words with French roots – or that come, wholly formed, from the French language.
Actually, that would be counterproductive to your efforts in learning the language, and it would waste quite a bit of time!
Instead, you could make flashcards while learning new words in French, especially if you are a beginner at learning a new language.
As you build your bank of vocabulary cue cards, outside of your language course, you will undoubtedly recognise words that you use every day in conversational English.
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While attending language classes, your attention should be totally focused on classroom activity!
Finding familiar word patterns in a foreign language will give you a sense of familiarity, which will boost your confidence which, in turn, will help you in learning vocabulary faster!
In economics, this is called a virtuous cycle, or a positive feedback loop.
Speaking French with Native French Speakers
As your French vocabulary expands and your confidence grows, naturally you will want to practice your language skills at every chance. The best way to do so is by having conversation with native speakers of French.
You should be at conversational French level after about nine months of study.
Around that time, your French teacher should be conducting role play activities in the classroom, and arranging for dialogue with your fellow students.
While speaking French in class is great, nothing says you cannot also find chat partners online who speak French and are willing to help you learn their language!
The average language learner, especially beginners, tends to translate into their first language what they hear in their second language, formulate a response, and then translate it into French.
Should you communicate with a French speaker on a regular basis, you would short-circuit that process. The words you have already learned will flow with a fluency you might never have expected to achieve so soon!
Adding live conversation to your learning process, making use of language exchange programmes that are so readily available online, and listening to French audio will exponentially increase how fast you learn.
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How Much Time Does it Take to Learn French?
Short answer: there is no hard and fast rule or timetable for learning French, or Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese.
One of two sure statements to be made on the topic is: how quickly you learn depends on you.
We'll reveal the other surety later!
Your ability to learn French quickly depends on several factors:
- Your reason for learning – because you have to, or because you want to?
- You will learn faster out of desire than obligation!
- Motivation: can you see the end-use of your French language lessons?
- Whether to holiday on the Riviera or for a business startup; visualising your success is critical to your learning speed.
- Dedication: for every class hour, you should commit at least double that time to independent study
- Flexibility: incorporate non-traditional learning methods into your language study habits
- You would be surprised at how much learning is deterred by the thought of sitting quietly at a desk!
One aspect of mastering French that we've not yet touched on is pronunciation.
From your very first French class, when you learn the French alphabet, you will realise that there are sounds in this language that do not exist in English.
That guttural R, for example, or the sound of the French U.
Whereas language learners tend believe the most difficult aspect of language learning must be mastering its grammar, it is actually pronouncing words correctly that is most problematic.
After all: your French friends will forgive you for gender agreement mistakes, but they can only do that if they understand what you're trying to say!
Thus we aver that working on your spoken French, its pronunciation and rhythm, will progress nicely only if you spend a substantial amount of time practising.
Now, for the other fundamental truth of language learning: it is a lifetime undertaking.
At no point has anyone ever said: I know enough French now; no need to study language anymore.
Whether you actively seek them out, or absorb them passively – by exercising your listening skills, any exposure to the language will compel you to learn new words and phrases.
By full immersion into the language – sojourning in France; speaking and hearing the language daily, your French learning speed will go into overdrive!
This is called the input-output theory, or IO.
You surely are familiar with the concept of getting out what you put in: from computing, from function tables in maths, from economics...
François Quesnay was a French economist who provided the foundation for today's commonly-used economic input-output model, that was formulated in the 1970's... some 230 years after the original Tableau Economique was established!
Interesting footnote: it is based on this economic model that Google ranks its searches.
So, the final answer to the question of how long it takes to learn French: the more effort you put into the venture, the better and faster the outcome.
As a guideline to what you can expect to master in a given time, the table below outlines forecasted milestones set up by data from French language learning institutes.
|0-1 month||Absolute Beginner||Simple greetings: bonjour and merci; basic verb tenses and vocabulary|
|1-3 months||Beginner||Able to order food in a restaurant and hold simple conversation|
|3-6 months||low-intermediate||understand and use developed grammar; gain confidence in speaking|
|6-12 months||intermediate||expanded vocabulary; able to understand and express abstract concepts|
What are you waiting for? A la volée!