Learn French from scratch: the ultimate guide to French for beginners

Are you learning French or wondering how to learn French from scratch? This article brings together all of my top advice on why and how you should learn French.

This advice is based on my own experience of learning French – things I’ve tried and tested.

I decided to write this guide to give you an overview of the French language and also to give you some tips on where to start when you’re a beginner. 

Are you ready? Let’s get started! Click on the section that interests you below.

1. Why should I learn French?

French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. You can use it to communicate with people on several different continents. In Europe – it’s spoken in France, Belgium and Switzerland, among others. French is widely spoken in many African countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa, and Senegal in West Africa. It’s also the second language of Canada.

In addition to that, French is spoken as a foreign language by millions of people. It’s one of the most commonly taught languages in many countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. Many people around the world are learning French because they recognise that French is a useful language to know.

In my experience, French is a relatively straightforward language to learn for people who already speak English (either as their native language, or as a foreign language they already know relatively well). That’s probably why French is often the foreign language of choice in many English speaking countries, and it’s often chosen as the second foreign language to learn after English.

French is also the language of business. Many French companies and organisations have offices around the world, and learning French can be an advantage if you’re interested in working for them. Many people learn French specifically so that they can travel and work abroad.

French is also the language of many great novels and films. French cinema and literature is best consumed in its original form so it’s definitely worth learning French just to do that.

2. Is French difficult or easy to learn?

It’s difficult to say any language is easy or difficult because languages only have a relative level of difficulty, which depends on things such as the learner’s native language and whether or not they already speak another foreign language.

French is probably on the easier side if you’re a native English speaker or if you speak English relatively well as a foreign language. It’s because French shares a lot of similarities with English, including a lot of common vocabulary and many similar grammatical structures.

That’s why, if you already speak English (and you’re reading this article so I assume you do!), learning French may be less challenging for you than learning a non-romance language (such as Russian or Japanese).

Watch my video on the topic of whether French is easy or difficult to learn for more details on this topic:

If you’re not fully convinced yet, I recommend that you read Benny Lewis’ book Why French is Easy. Or you can dive straight into the French Uncovered course by Olly Richards, which will take you from beginner through to intermediate.

3. French vocabulary

If you’re wondering how to learn French from scratch as a beginner, you will probably be interested in the topic of French vocabulary. Vocabulary is the foundation of any language and I strongly recommend that as a beginner, when learning French, you spend at least 60% of your time learning new French vocabulary.

The good news is that there are many similarities between French and English vocabulary. If you’re reading this article, I assume that you speak English already. This gives you an advantage in learning French because much of the vocabulary of the two languages comes from Latin.

Take a look at these examples of French adjectives:

And these French verbs:

And here are some French nouns:

I’d be surprised if you didn’t understand what they mean.

These words that look and sound similar in the two languages are called ‘cognates’. You can find numerous lists of French-English cognates online – just Google it and see for yourself!

Learning cognates will save you a lot of time when learning French from scratch as a beginner. It will give you a sense of progress because the cognates will be much easier to remember than other French words that are unrelated to their English equivalents.

There will, of course, be a lot of false friends between French and English (like in any other language) but don’t worry about this too much. As long as you’re aware that not all French-sounding words mean the same as the English words, you’ll be fine.

4. French word order in sentences

Once you’ve decided to learn French as a beginner, you’ll probably want to know how to build sentences in French. Like I said, vocabulary is the foundation of any language but to learn French, you also need to know how to put French words together to form sentences.

The order of words in French sentences is very similar to how it works in English. To make a simple affirmative sentence (such as ‘I live in France’), all you need is a subject (I), a verb (live) and an object (in France). In French, this sentence simply goes:

J’habite en France (note: the French ‘I’ – ‘je’ – blends in with ‘habite’ – ‘live’ – only because the ‘h’ is silent).

Here’s another example:

In French, this is simply:

Mon frère parle français.

‘Mon frère’ is ‘my brother’. ‘Parle’ is ‘speaks’ and ‘français’ is ‘French’.

And here’s a slightly more complex example:

Si tu veux, je peux t’aider.

Which means ‘If you want, I can help you.’

‘Si’ is ‘if’. ‘Tu veux’ is ‘you want’. ‘Je peux’ is ‘I can’. And ‘t’aider’ is ‘help you’ (the word order is slightly different in French and in English at the end but the French structure is regular and easy to learn so don’t worry!).

As you can see, affirmative sentences in French are pretty straightforward so this shouldn’t cause you any issues if you’re hoping to learn French as a beginner.

4a. French word order: negative sentences

Negative sentences in French are very easy to learn. The negative particle is made up of two separate words: ‘ne’ and ‘pas’. The first one goes in front of the verb, and the second one after.

Take a look at this:

Mon frère parle français (my brother speaks French).

Mon frère ne parle pas français (my brother doesn’t speak French).

Cet homme semble triste (this man seems sad).

Cet homme ne semble pas triste (this man doesn’t seem sad).

Easy, isn’t it?

4b. French word order: questions

When learning French as a beginner, you should know that questions in French can be constructed in two main ways. Either by inverting the order of the subject and the verb, or by using the phrase ‘est-ce que’ at the start of your question and leaving the rest of the sentence in the affirmative mode.

Let’s take a look at an example:

Tu parles allemand (you speak German).

Parles-tu allemand? (do you speak German?) Note the hyphen between the verb and the subject when using this question structure.

Or, you can make the question in the following way:

Est-ce que tu parles allemand?

As you can see, the basic word order in French sentences is pretty straightforward. As you get more advanced, you will notice some more complex structures but when you’re only just starting out, this is all you need to know for now.

5. French genders

In French, every noun has a grammatical gender. It means it’s either feminine or masculine. When learning French from scratch, you will need to memorise what gender each noun is because it’s often not easy to just work it out.

For example, the noun ‘voiture’ (car) is feminine and the noun ‘cahier’ (notebook) is masculine. Don’t ask me why!

Other nouns will be ‘obviously’ feminine or masculine. For example ‘frère’ (brother) is ‘obviously’ masculine and ‘soeur’ (sister) is ‘obviously’ feminine because a brother can only be a man, and a sister can only be a woman.

Some nouns’ genders will also be easy to guess depending on the letter combinations in them. For example, the ones ending in ‘tion’ will pretty much always be feminine, such as ‘information’ (information), ‘constitution’ (constitution), ‘nation’ (nation).

And some will pretty much always be masculine, such as the ones ending in ‘eau’, such as ‘tableau’ (picture) or ‘couteau’ (knife).

Each noun’s gender will dictate the gender of the different words that go with it. For example, the gender of the article that goes with the noun. More on articles in the section below but for now, let’s just say that each noun in French goes with an article. The feminine articles are ‘la’ and ‘une’, which can be roughly translated as ‘the’ and ‘a’. For example:

‘La voiture’ (the car)

‘Une voiture’ (a car)

Because ‘voiture’ is feminine, it goes with a feminine article.

The gender of the noun also dictates the gender of the adjective that goes with it. For example:

‘Une petite voiture’ (a small car)

The adjective ‘petite’ (small) is in its feminine version (because ‘voiture’ is a feminine noun). The masculine version of this adjective is ‘petit’. So:

‘Un petit tableau’ (a small picture)

‘Tableau’ is masculine so it takes a masculine article and a masculine adjective.

You will notice that in French, many adjectives become feminine by taking an ‘e’ at the end. For example:

You will find more information on adjectives in section 8 below.

6. French articles

Like I said above, articles in French accompany nouns. They are either definite – ‘la’, ‘le’ (the equivalent of ‘the’ in English) or indefinite – ‘une’, ‘un’ (the equivalent of ‘a’ in English).

‘La voiture’ (the car)

‘Une voiture’ (a car)

Like I said above, ‘la’ and ‘une’ are feminine articles and so they only accompany feminine nouns.

‘Le’ and ‘un’ are masculine articles and they can only accompany masculine nouns:

‘Le garçon’ (the boy)

‘Un garçon’ (a boy)

In plural, we only have two articles – ‘les’ and ‘des’, regardless of the gender of the nouns they go with:

‘Les garçons’ (the boys)

‘Des garçons’ (boys) – in English, we don’t have a literal translation of ‘des’

These French articles will sometimes blend with other words. For example:

Je parle au garçon (I’m talking to the boy). ‘Au’ is ‘à’ and ‘le’ blended together. It’s the only correct way of saying it, by the way, not just a shortcut.

Another example:

‘Le chat du garçon’ (the boy’s cat). ‘Du’ is ‘de’ and ‘le’ blended together. Again, that’s the only correct way of saying it.

‘Une’ and ‘un’ are indefinite articles and they can’t be used with uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns are ones that you can’t count (but you can sometimes measure). For example, you can’t count water (e.g. you can’t say ‘two sands’ but you can say ‘some sand’). The principle of not using indefinite articles with uncountable nouns is quite similar to English where you can’t say ‘a sand’.

This is probably all you need to know about French articles for now when you’re learning French as a beginner.

7. French verbs

You can’t make sentences without verbs. So, learning French verbs will be a crucial part of your learning process and you should do it right from the start.

French verbs are quite regular. They change their form depending on who is doing the action that the verb describes. Let’s take the verb ‘parler’ – to speak.

Je parle (I speak)

Elle parle (she speaks)

Nous parlons (we speak)

Vous parlez (you speak – plural)

Elles parlent (they speak – feminine)

As you can see, the ‘r’ from the base form (‘parler’) disappears and is replaced with different endings depending on who is speaking (I, you, she and so on). Those endings are the same (or very, very similar) for many, many French verbs. This makes it relatively easy to learn how to use them in sentences.

Like in English, there are also irregular verbs in French. And their forms are slightly different. The verb ‘avoir’ (to have) is a good example.

To say, I have, you say ‘j’ai’. To say ‘we have’, you say ‘nous avons’. So the forms are quite different, and you need to memorise them because often they’re quite irregular.

I really recommend that you get this little book, which is something that even French people use when they learn verb conjugation. It lists all French verbs and their conjugations in all tenses. It’s small but brilliant.

I recommend that when you’re learning French as a beginner, you should spend a good chunk of your time learning verb conjugations. This will help you create your own sentences in French more quickly. Start with the most common verbs and then move on to the less common ones. You can simply Google ‘most common French verbs’ and you’ll find a number of lists to get you started.

8. French adjectives

All you need to know about French adjectives is that their form depends on the gender of the noun they go with. I’ve already explained this in section 5 of this article so make sure you check it out.

Another useful thing to know is that in French, adjectives can either go in front of nouns or after nouns. This is quite different in English, where adjectives are placed in front of nouns (for example ‘a big car’ – ‘big’ is the adjective that modifies the noun ‘car’).

The majority of French adjectives go after the noun. For example:

‘Le vin rouge’ (red wine)

There are some adjectives that go in front of nouns and the best way to learn which ones they are is to memorise them. Here are some examples:

‘Un jeune homme’ (a young man)

‘Un petit gateau’ (a small cake)

Start learning French adjectives as early as possible because they will be useful for describing things! Just Google ‘the most common French adjectives’ and find some lists of useful adjectives to start with.

9. French adverbs

French adverbs are very regular. They can be easily spotted by the particle ‘ment’ at the end. The ‘ment’ is often simply added at the end of an adjective to create an adverb. For example:

You should also be aware that there are some irregular adverbs too that don’t look anything like their adjective counterparts. For example:

That’s probably all you need to know to start with when starting to learn French as a beginner. 

10. French tenses

There are many different tenses in French, just like in English. There are past, present and future tenses that are used in different situations.

There is even one past tense that’s pretty much only used in written, literary French (e.g. in Proust’s novels). You don’t have to worry about that for now.

When you’re learning French as a beginner, you should probably start with the present tense. Check out the section on verbs (section 7 of this article) where I talk a little bit more about that and recommend a book you should get.

Once you’re familiar with how the present tense works in French, move on to the past tenses. I recommend that you start with the ‘passée composée’ and the ‘impartait’, which are the most useful past tenses when you’re learning French from scratch.

Then, move on to the future tenses.

11. French pronunciation

French pronunciation is sometimes thought to be difficult but I really want to tell you that you shouldn’t be put off. Why? Because there are some very clear rules for how to pronounce different sounds in French.

YouTube is a great source of information when it comes to the question of how to pronounce different sounds in French. I’m going to give you a very, very brief overview here.

One thing to remember – when learning French as a beginner, you should start speaking as soon as possible. Even if it’s just repeating individual words after a recording – it still counts! Get used to the way French sounds and get used to pronouncing it. It will not only help you with your speaking skills but also with your listening skills!

11a. Silent letters

Some French letters are silent. This is the most important thing to remember. For example, when a word ends in a consonant, the consonant will usually be silent. Take this phrase:

Tu parles (you speak).

The ‘l’ sound is the last one you hear when you say it. The ‘s’ at the end is silent. You can’t hear the ‘e’ either.

The same goes for:

Nous avons (we have).

The ‘s’ is silent. The last sound you can hear is the nasal ‘on’ at the end.

I recommend that you listen to individual words carefully while looking at their spelling. This will help you work out patterns for when letters are pronounced and when they’re silent.

11b. Nasal sounds

There are many nasal sounds in French and they are extremely common. So make sure you practise them well. They sound a little bit like you’re saying them when you’ve got a cold and a blocked nose.

For example, the ‘on’ sound in the phrase ‘bonjour’ (good morning) is a nasal sound. And the ‘an’ sound in the word ‘gant’ (glove) is a nasal sound. You can’t really hear the ‘n’ as such. Listening practice will help you identify those sounds but make sure you practise saying them as well!

11c. French accents

Some French letters are accompanied by strokes/accents. For example, the letter ‘e’ sometimes has an accent and looks like this: ‘é’. The thing I want you to remember is that these accents are important in French because they affect pronunciation.

In this article, you can see how different words are pronounced depending on which accented letter they contain.

11d. The ‘u’ and ‘ou’ sounds in French

There are two sounds in French that non-French native speakers often struggle with. The ‘u’ sound in ‘musique’ (music) and the ‘ou’ sound in ‘courage’ (courage).

You can take a look at the difference between them by searching for it on YouTube – there are plenty of videos that explain it well.

12. Resources for learning French

I’ve put together a number of resources for learning French so make sure you check them out! 

Please note: This article contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. All resources recommended in this article are ones I would use myself and recommend to anyone learning Polish. I do not recommend resources that I don’t believe to be valuable. 

This content was originally published here.

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