How to Pick the Best French Learning Method – and Avoid Scams

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Many people who want to learn French turn to a class, a tutor, a self-teaching program or consider going to France for immersion. It can be a great learning experience or a total waste of time and money. Today, I’ll tell you what I think of the different learning methods, how to pick the best one for you, and how to avoid scams.

Learning French in Group classes

Pros: Not too expensive.
Cons: Not enough personal attention, curriculum not adapted to your real needs.

If you are an advanced student looking for a French conversation class, group classes can be a great option. If you are “good” with languages, and know how grammar works, you can also do well in a group.

Otherwise, in my experience, group classes are a waste of time and money. Why? they won’t adapt to your needs, and often won’t check whether you are getting your needs fulfilled or not.

From a teacher’s/school point of view, group classes are a “juicy” business. You can easily make over $100/hr… Always keep that in mind when joining a class…

Here are some tips on what to look out for in a French class:

  1. The so-called placement test.
    Who interprets your level? Somehow, the results of the test often end up placing you in the class the director needs to fill…
  2. Holidays.
    You usually pay a group class for X number of weeks. If your class day falls on a holiday, you won’t have class, but you’ll still have paid for it. This is particularly important if you join a group class in France, where there are so many holidays!!
  3. The number of students.
    The more students, the less individual attention. Make sure you always know the maximum number of students allowed before joining a class. 4 is optimal. 6 is OK. 10 is way too many.
  4. Teachers.
    Some unscrupulous schools will hire anyone… Do check the credentials but also the accent of your teacher before signing up for a class.
  5. Group level.
    If you end up in a group with various levels, it’s going to be quite impossible to have a coherent group class.
    If you are between levels, I suggest you pick the easiest one: it’s beneficial to review something you already learned, but on the other hand, it’s dangerous to skip levels and create gaps in your instruction.

If you cannot afford private instruction, then look into joining a group class, but consider taking a couple of private lessons here and there to make sure you do understand everything the class has covered, and address your own weaknesses.

Learning French with Private Tutors, one on one Classes, Skype Classes

Pros: curriculum totally adapted to your needs and learning abilities
Cons: price, danger of bad tutors

As you may know, I gave one-on-one French lessons to adults for about 25 years, so I can tell you from experience!

There are a lot of people out there that claim they can give French lessons, but cannot. You really have to check references and see for yourself before you commit to a large number of classes.

A French tutor needs to:

  • be organized, punctual, reliable,
  • have a good French accent,
  • know grammar,
  • know how to explain it,
  • master the language you speak (specially if you are a beginner or intermediate student)
  • and be good at making people talk.

Unfortunately, a lot of tutors out there are not. And degrees in French really cannot guarantee that this person will have the necessary personal skills…

Be particularly careful about young French people offering “conversation lessons”. Often, they have no teaching experience whatsoever: they might be able to engage you in conversations, and point out your mistakes, but they won’t be able to explain why it is a mistake… And that is essential if you want to progress.

At least, if you decide to go with this kind of tutor, make sure the price they charge is commensurate with their teaching abilities.

A good French tutor should be able to tailor a program specially adapted to your strengths and weaknesses, and help you make the most of your time with him/her.

  • You’re good with grammar? Then you can study most of it by yourself, and concentrate on practice and pronunciation during the lessons.
  • You are too shy to speak? Your tutor has to reinforce natural everyday chats. Giving you a newspaper article to comment on is not going to help much in real life…

If you cannot find a good tutor in your area, don’t overlook French Skype lessons. I know it sounds intimidating, but phone/Skype lessons are very convenient, and my students who might have been reluctant at the beginning now love them.

learn skype french
Camille on the phone with a student

Free French / English Exchange Lessons By Skype

Pros: Free. Convenience.
Cons: Not everybody makes a good teacher!

A lot of companies now specialize in putting language students in contact so they can exchange language instruction for free.

It certainly is a great idea, and a great solution for advanced students who just want to practice their conversation skills.

However, I don’t believe it’s an ideal solution for beginners or intermediate students. A native speaker is not the same thing as an experienced teacher.

Knowing how to speak French is one thing. Knowing when to correct the student (and what mistakes can and should be overlooked as to not crush the student’s emerging confidence in speaking), explaining mistakes clearly, offering a structured approach to learning are essential to have a healthy learning experience. So is having an engaging personality and being able to offer subjects of conversations so the conversation does flow naturally.

These are not skills that everybody has. No matter how well they speak their own language.

So again, a great idea. But you need to be lucky, and this may not work for every student.

French Audiobooks and Softwares to Self-Study French

Pros: Relatively low cost. Convenience. Fun to use.
Cons: No feedback. No real person to engage in conversation

Who has not seen a box of Rosetta Stone for sale in a mall? While self-instruction methods can be a great complement to a formal instruction, I strongly believe none of them can teach you French by itself.

Why? No feedback. How will you know you pronounce the words correctly? The voice graph? Talk of a scam! They pick up your voice modulation, not your pronunciation… Worse, these methods often lack any solid grammatical structure, and you cannot master French without it. Other languages? it’s very much possible, I don’t know. But, trust me not French. And everything is being “fed” to you: you’ll never come up with a subject of conversation: developing the confidence to speak and engage people in French is essential.

So, again, let me reinforce my message: they make great complements of instruction: I myself have written a whole method to learn French with audio books: the advantage of my method is that it does explain French grammar thoroughly, and introduces you to both traditional and street French pronunciation.

Yet, I believe that for most people, using only self learning methods will not be enough to learn to speak French fluently: you need real interactions with a real human being to be able to have real conversations.

How come Rosetta Stone gets such glowing reviews? They have what is called an “affiliate” program: if you recommend their system and a sale is registered through a link that comes from your site (they have a system that tracks it), then you get a commission – around 50 USD last time I checked. They hire people to find affiliates, and also to post good comments on forums, large sites etc… It’s a big company, and they spend a lot on marketing :-)

So, as a student of French, you need to be smart when you chose a tool. The best way is to look for actual customer reviews. Just like I have with French Today’s audiobooks. Also check the refund policy, and see if you can first listen to a sample, and if you like it.

Of course, whatever you get, audio is a must if you want to learn French to speak it and understand spoken French.

French Videos on YouTube

Pros: Free. Fun.
Cons: No structure. Easy lose your time

Many YouTubers specialize in teaching French and some are really excellent.

Here again, I strongly encourage my students to use YouTube – I even have my own French Today YouTube Channel! It’s fun, it makes a great complement of instruction.

But it’s also easy to get stuck in YouTube, watching video after video and at the end, not learning much.

My main concern is the lack of structure. You cannot learn French without a plan of action. With YouTube, it’s easy to watch a video about numbers, then study the family, then the reflexive verbs… But there is no direction, and this is a real problem when studying French.

As a French audiobook writer, I can tell you that organizing a logic study plan is half of the method. Once this is done, I just have to pour in my French language knowledge – which is not necessarily unique. However, it’s the organisation of this knowledge that makes good teaching – it’s not the only thing, but it is definitely a key ingredient.

So, a big “yes” to surfing YouTube… with moderation :-)

Ha-ha… just for fun, here is one of my videos… see if you can resist the temptation of watching it now… or continue reading this article :-P

French Immersion Programs in France

Pros: You are surrounded by the language and its culture. Many opportunities to speak.
Cons: Price. Big danger of “fake” immersion.

The big danger of so-called immersion programs is that you might not be in real immersion. You’ll be getting group lessons, and then, you’ll be alone. Or with other foreigners (I made great progress in Spanish as I was studying in Oxford, England. All my fellow students were Spanish… Can’t say I learned a lot of English though). A host family might not take the time to talk to you, or you can be stuck with toddlers and working parents…

To get the benefits of immersion, you need to make sure you get the opportunity to speak French. A lot of it. And it’s not because you are in the country that it is going to happen.

Of course, many of you have fond memories of your trip to France in a school: it’s fun, you do learn a lot, discover the culture, etc… Some schools are great, offer great curriculums and activities to entertain their students. Some host families do care and teach a lot to their guest – I know a couple of people who developed real bonds with their host families and still keep in touch now. But I also know many students who had bad experiences, didn’t get to practice French much, were mostly by themselves and ended up spending a lot of money without improving their French all that much.

Thankfully, there are some great immersion programs out there: check out immersion at a teacher’s house: this is the best of the best, because you are guaranteed to speak a lot of French, and have someone who can explain your mistakes and correct them. I highly recommend this option, it’s the best and fastest way to learn French. Be careful though: there are some scams out there, so always check references, ask for a signed agreement stating clearly the conditions of your stay, pay a deposit but most of the money when you get there and you actually see your quarters and meet the teacher.

If you decide to go to a school, check the age of their students. Being surrounded by teenagers might get a little dull for a grown-up. Check their reviews, their curriculums, ask if they have an audio lab, what kind of outside activities they offer… And again, a deposit is fine, but pay most of the money once you’ve actually visited the place, met the teacher(s) and your host family (or visited the apartment etc…)

When you are going to pay is the key. If you have prepaid the whole thing, then you have almost no power to change anything.

My Tips to Learn French

To sum up, you need to be smart when picking a French learning method. And you need to be honest about your learning abilities.

If I was a student of French, this is what I would do:

  1. I would get some well done, level-adapted French audio books for self-instruction and start learning the basics with them.
  2. I would definitely take a few hours of private lessons, to make sure the foundations are good and have my pronunciation checked.
  3. If I could afford it, I would then go to an immersion at the teacher’s house, to learn a lot fast, enjoy the culture, and get over my natural fear of speaking.
  4. I would then join a good group (cheaper) or continue with Skype French lessons (faster and adapted to your own goals and needs) to get the spoken practice I need to interact with confidence in French.
  5. I would use YouTube and other free sources to complement my instruction, but still rely on a proven and structured method to do the core of my studying.

Voilà, I hope this helps. Follow the article suggestions below for more tips to learn French.

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