How to Start Learning French Efficiently – Priorities and Organisation of Topics

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

What should you first study when you start French? What’s the best French curriculum for beginners? What’s the best sequence to learning French? Here is my list.

The other day, Oliver Gee from the Earful Tower interviewed me on “how to start French”. You can ear our conversation and the tips I gave him on his podcast here.

I figured I had even more tips to share with beginner students of French. I also wanted to give you a clear list of what French grammar and vocabulary points should be studied first, in other words, the priorities and organisations of topics to learn French.

1 – Starting to learn French: school student or self-student?

When it comes to starting to learn French, a student enrolled in a French school and self French learner are not necessarily going to have the same priorities.

If you are starting French on your own, you need to first assess your priorities. Why do you want to learn French? Is-it to travel to France and communicate with the French? To write songs or poems in French? To read French literature in French? Your approach should not be the same whether the focus is on speaking or reading or writing French.

If you are studying school in French, your teacher should provide a French curriculum. Whether it will teach you French or not, that’s what you need to study to ace the class.

2 – Traditional French curriculum for beginners

Traditional methods will pretty much all follow the same French curriculum for beginners (A1 level):

  1. French politeness and greetings
  2. French verb conjugations for regular ER, IR, RE verbs
  3. Present conjugations of être, avoir, aller, prendre, pouvoir, devoir… about 30 common irregular French verbs
  4. French articles: definite, indefinite, partitive
  5. Asking questions with est-ce que and inversion
  6. Regular and Irregular adjectives, possessive, demonstrative adjectives…
  7. Object Pronouns
  8. Introduction to Passé-composé and soon after Imparfait, futur… more French verb conjugations.

All mixed with some useful vocabulary and written dialogues introducing a lot of new words each time.

The progression is super fast. These methods assume you know or remember what a subject, a pronoun, an adjective or a direct object are. They make you memorize a ton of new info, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

There is almost no repetition: each chapter comes with its mountain of new words, expressions, grammatical rules and conjugations to memorize.

If you are studying French to communicate in French – not only to pass school grades – there is a different way: a much less painful, and really effective way to start learning French, which is both logical and gradual. Here it comes :-)

3 – Start learning French the smart way = study with audio

First thing, if you are studying French to communicate in French, you must study with audio. It’s extremely unlikely you will achieve a decent French pronunciation if you are studying French only with books since spoken and written French are so different.

The French audio you follow needs to come from a French native from France (if you want to learn French from France that is) and feature:

  • enunciated French so you can start French by learning the right sounds,
  • but also modern spoken French. I’m not talking about a slang street language here, but just the natural way the French speak French in their daily life – the pronunciation is quite different than when they enunciate.

You need to understand both enunciated French, and the more natural daily life spoken French if you are to communicate effectively with the French. Watch-out! Most methods only feature the slow enunciated French pronunciation! Then students don’t understand the French when they speak!

4 – French starter: prioritize your French studies

The next thing to do is to prioritize. You cannot learn everything at once.

With so many free tools to learn French, it’s really easy to jump for one funny video to the next and learn bits here and bits there but lack a solid path to link and hold your new French knowledge.

To start French efficiently, you need a structure.
A logical approach.
A beginner French method that will cover the basic French vocabulary and grammatical tenses, teach you daily French vocabulary and the right pronunciation.

À Moi Paris Audiobook Method

A new approach to learning both traditional and modern French logically structured for English speakers.

(836 Reviews)

More Details & Audio Samples

If you are learning French to communicate in French, and are an English speaker, here are my tips to begin French efficiently

Stay in the present tense.

French conjugations are overwhelming. Yes, they are an important part of the French language, but the tense you will use the most in everyday interactions is the present tense. You need to start somewhere. Start with the present tense and only the present tense. It’s already a lot.

Master the affirmative and the negative

You’ll use your verbs as much in the affirmative as in the negative. You may understand the logic, but you need to drill to get it fast when you speak! Repeat, repeat, repeat!

Learn daily vocabulary essential to communicate

Food. Travels. Family. Weather. Work & Hobbies.
These are among the most common topics of conversations. Health also but maybe you’re not going to discuss your health right away with a friendly waiter, hein… So, aim for the likely conversations that are relevant to your life, and learn that vocabulary.

Ask basic questions

Questions are the base of communication.
If you can’t ask/understand a question, you cannot communicate.
There are many ways of asking questions in French. Start with the simpler one, which I call “street or modern French” in my French audiobooks. It’s not really grammatically correct, but it’s the one the French use in their daily life. And it’s simple and to the point.

As a beginner in French, there are many things to study. You will feel you progress fast because each new word, each new topic opens up a world of opportunity.

But if you are not careful about how you organize the info, you won’t learn efficiently: you will soon forget things, and the logic of French won’t fall into place, and everything will crumble. You need to slow down, follow a method and study efficiently.

how to begin french - what to study firs

5 – Best Way to Start Learning French: List of Topics and Order

I’ve been teaching French to adult English speakers for over 20 years. Here is the most logical gradual approach to start learning French for a total beginner English speaking student.

This is what you’ll learn in the first audiobook of my gradual French audiobook learning method for beginners.

As stated above, the vocabulary priorities are up to you. And of course, my French learning method will teach you a lot of vocabulary as well since all the rules are illustrated by a fun, level-adapted novel.

But here are the French rules I recommend you study when you start your French journey.

1 – First French goal

First, go for the essentials: being polite, subject pronouns, tu ≠vous, the concept of “conjugating” a verb

  1. Basic greetings and politeness words – different ways to say “hi”
  2. Singular subject pronouns – je, tu, il, elle, on
  3. You in French, the difference between tu, toi, te, t’ and vous
  4. Plural subject pronouns – nous, vous, ils, elles watch out the “s” are silent!
  5. Aller in the present indicative tense
  6. Asking and answering “how are you”
  7. Thank you, you’re welcome and please – because you always need to be polite
  8. Asking “and you” is essential – never forget it.
  9. Introducing yourself, your family
  10. The many ways of saying good bye, see you soon… more or less formal French
  11. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises etc…

2 – Second French priority

Your next priority is to get the pronunciation of your ER verbs right and understand the difference between spoken and written French

  1. Present indicative tense of “to be”
  2. How to learn your French verbs: there is a write way and a wrong way
  3. Verbs in ER + consonant – Pronunciation only. That’s the most important thing!
  4. Verbs in ER + consonant – written form. But don’t let the silent letters fool you
  5. Mastering “elision” + drills
  6. Mastering “liaison” + drills
  7. Verbs in ER + vowel or h – pronunciation: liaison, elision, glidings with the pronouns
  8. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises, French verb drills etc…

3 – Third priority for French beginners

Now you’ll start forming basic sentences together with nouns, and study the use and pronunciation of Le, la, les.

  1. Le, la, l’, les – pronunciation differences and use
  2. Aimer – a verb that can be tricky (to be in love ≠ to like)
  3. The verb préférer – spelling and pronunciation
  4. Making a noun plural – the silent S in French
  5. Irregular plural – OK, but they are less common than regular ones!
  6. Moi, toi, lui… The stress pronouns and how to use them
  7. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises etc…

4 – The fourth point French beginners should master are the differences between articles

When to use le, la, les ≠ un, une, des

  1. Un, une: use and pronunciation
  2. Des = more complex than “some” + liaison in Z
  3. Introduction to Se or S’ verbs and the glided pronunciation of reflexive pronouns
  4. S’appeler + cultural explanations on the many ways of introducing yourself in French
  5. How to say French and France – introducing the French adjective
  6. Continent, countries, nationalities – Nouns ≠ adjectives in French
  7. Where do you come from? Prepositions of place
  8. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises etc…

5 – Next: describing what you have, asking for things

  1. Making a verb negative. Why can’t I hear this “ne”?
  2. What happens when 2 verbs follow each other ? The infinitive construction and lack of “to”.
  3. Unspecific quantities – du, de la, des and how to use them – why you can’t say ‘je voudrais une eau”
  4. Specific quantities – why you say “je ne veux pas d’eau”
  5. The verb avoir – affirmative, negative… A verb you need to really know by heart and why
  6. The verb pouvoir – how to extend an invitation in French
  7. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises etc…

6 – The next logical French topics are numbers and telling the time

  1. French Numbers 1-29 – pronunciation alone and with liaison
  2. Numbers 30-100 – don’t learn them as a logical deduction: learn them as one sound
  3. The many ways to tell the time – understand them all. Pick one to use yourself.
  4. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises etc…

7  – Finally, practice asking questions in French

  1. Il y a ≠ il n’y a pas and their modern spoken pronunciation (ya, yapa)
  2. Asking questions –  detailed explanation
  3. à + le & de + le = the mutant forms and how to use them
  4. PAUSE. REPEAT. Check your pronunciation, do additional exercises etc…

6 – Starting French – What to Study Next

Now that you have a solid organization and understanding of the basis of the language, you can start filling up the filing cabinet that’s your brain.

Load up words of vocabulary, verb conjugations (in the present tense only, hein! You don’t know the rules which govern the other tenses yet!) Learn idioms too, they are fun.

Watch out: your French pronunciation is still fresh… you need to know how to pronounce a word before you memorize it. So learning everything, including verbs, with audio is a must.

Check out the next level of my French learning method. “À Moi Paris level 2, Meet the Gang” features a longer story (still in the present tense), lots of vocabulary and idiom lists, verb conjugations and a Q&A sections so you can practice out-loud.

And if you are learning French to communicate, then you need to practice. There is a huge psychological fear to get over when you start speaking a language. You won’t be able to present the real you: you can’t yet be smart, you can’t yet be funny. You will make mistakes. Sometimes, people may laugh at them… These are things you want to get used to: they are part of your French journey. So, I recommend you find a tutor to practice with.

Here again, choosing a professional who can guide you, check your pronunciation, encourage you without pressuring you is the key. There are many ways to do lessons exchanges or conversations with a native, but I believe they can be more harmful than anything else for a beginner.

You need your emerging self-confidence in French cherished, not crushed by someone who will correct all your mistakes (without offering any explanations for them…) mock you or be impatient.

Go for a professional French teacher by Skype, ask for a trial lesson before committing to more to see if you like the teacher.

There is a right and a wrong way to start French. If you start French the right way, the smart way, I promise you will feel empowered and start speaking French in no time.

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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