How long does it take to learn French? (1/3 "it depends")
Updated: Jun 14
This has to be the most frequent question asked to French teachers, up here, with c'est quoi cette histoire de masculin et de féminin?! And how the h*ck do you pronounce mille-feuille?
Well, the answer is...not as simple as you'd like it to be. Let's explore!
**this list of variables is not to be taken as a list of why it would be impossible for you to learn French, but as a kind encouragement to not compare yourself to others, as well as to not judge yourself too harshly**
1. On your level of involvement and curiosity
Simply put: being registered into a French training program might be enough to learn, but it will not be enough to speak it. And no, we are not only talking about actually paying attention to the class and doing your homework -but really, keep doing that too!
Learning a language is not only learning a bunch of rules and new words to fill up sentences. It is about becoming a French speaker...unless you are trying to study French the same way we study Latin (but there is really no one around speaking Latin, isn't it?).
Learning a language is also not like most other trainings in which we partake as adults -for a software or a new technic: we got used to flipping through some PowerPoint pages before answering a quiz and calling it a success!
Well...this won't work with French or with any language really.
Curiosity and agency will help you to access the rest of what you need: be curious about the French language, about French activities you might be able to join, about French content on the Internet, about your French colleagues and friends, actually engage with them in French, take your learning journey in your own hands!
2. On your motivation
If you are studying only to pass a test, you are reducing your chances to actually pass it. This is almost a scientific claim.
Need to diversify your motivation ? Motivation is running low?
Degrees, yes...but not as much as you might think! Whether you are a holding a PhD, or you never finished high school, you CAN learn French.
Education is a factor in how long it will take you to become a French speaker, in the sense that you already had one experience of education, as a kid.
It is important to be aware that the way you experienced education as a kid has an impact on how you think you can learn as an adult.
The questions to be asked are:
Have you been in French classes as a kid? Were they good?
Have you learned how your own language works?
What kind of education culture were you in? A culture where kids were encouraged to express themselves even if they are making mistakes? Or a culture where kids needed to seek for almost constant precise perfection in the choice of their words and the control of their grammar ?
Hint: any education philosophy you have experienced as a kid will have benefits and downfall for the adult learner you are today.
4. On your environment
If your environment is full of stress factors (new responsibilities, too many massive changes, violence, disease, poverty, loss...or a global pandemic), it will impair your ability to focus and memorize.
Nothing really should deter you to learn French if that is really what you want...but maybe starting a French course right after giving birth to your third child, while preparing the move to your new home, and tending to the needs of your sick mom, might not be the ideal timing. You will need to accept that your learning path will slow down a bit.
It is ok: we are not going anywhere, nor the participes passés irréguliers. Staying. Right. Here.
5. On your relationship with alterity
There is something to be said about how the first step that is really required to learn another language, is to recognize that another language can actually exist.
Teaching a monolingual at a beginner level is very much a waiting game: when are they starting to accept they are learning a completely other language? Something they have no idea of and that will keep surprising them by its alterity, its weirdness.
Alterity usually creates some resistance in our unadventurous brains and, as teachers, we are ready for it.
Ready to have this exact discussion when a student is getting frustrated at a weird French concept:
Student -...but in English it's different
Teacher - well, how funny! Isn't it a different language?
Student - ...yes, I guess!
Teacher - so, wouldn't it be weird if they worked the same way?
Student - ok, you're right... I never realized that. So, how does it work in French?
⇾ teacher resumes explaining calmly this weird concept.
This interaction will happen dozens of time, until it clicks. It is ok, it is our job as teachers.
Your job, as a monolingual student of a foreign language, is to understand and accept that French is another language. The less you resist, the faster you will learn.
6. On your level of introspection
Asking all the whys and hows questions will help you to overcome your bigger obstacle during training: non non, pas lesubjonctif...you. Our bigger obstacle is usually ourselves, isn't it?
So ask yourself:
Why do you feel this way while learning?
Why do you resist the teacher's explanation?
Why do you feel this way when you are being corrected?
Why do you want to speak only if you are sure you won't make mistakes?
Why is it so uneasy for you to feel vulnerable? What can you do to reduce the discomfort?
How can you accept you won't speak perfect French for a while?
How can you not anticipate the worst out of each interaction...
Introspection will help you to progress and keep being kind to yourself :)
7. On how your brain and emotions work
ADHD, trauma, dyslexia, speech impediment, high sensitivity, memory issues...all of that needs to be accounted for in your training plan.
8. On your social background
Kids who grew up in households with care-takers who were presents, talked with them, encouraged reading time, were supportive and able to provide books, extra educational help, private school, vacation overseas or tutors will grow up to be adults with a richer vocabulary than adults who did not benefit from the same support and attention when they were kids.
This is sad, but this is how social and income disparities affect education.
9. On the languages you already speak
No surprise here: speaking Spanish is a huge boost to learn French!
But do not think that Spanish speakers have it all easy: they have to learn that every [e]is not an [é]…and that is a struggle!
10. On how well-connected to your imagination you are
To put it simply: communication is based on an exchange of images from one head to another. The currency is words.
You use words to describe to another person the images you have in your head, so the same pictures can form into someone else's head.
If you think that you don't have imagination because it is something only kids have, I'd like to invite you to reconsider: we need your imagination to avoid translation, and all your creative powers to create your first sentences, new systems and new ways.
11. On your relationship with efforts, discomfort and risk taking.
You know how they say that without discomfort, there is no growth? Well, without turning your French class into a sadistic torture sessions -we are not offering CrossFit French - there is a bit of that. In two ways:
- One: alterity being framed as weird, it will be uncomfortable to step in it. Brains do this thing called neophobia: the fear of the new. It is the same process that takes over a kid's brain when introduced to a new vegetable. Parents know that if they keep presenting the same veggie to their kids, at some point it will become familiar enough for them to try.
Your brain will do the same with French, and it will take anywhere from 5 to 7 occurrence of the same item for you to accept it. Present is your spinach, Passé-composé is your broccoli. Subjonctif, your Brussels sprouts.
- Two: learning another language will challenge the way not only you see the world, but how you talk in your first language.
And this is something you might have never questioned.
12. On the format of training you are choosing.
You can see in more detail the study case below in part 3 of the article, but don't expect to be fluent and comfortable (C) in less than two years.
Seems like a lot !?
Well, think about it: how long did it take you to master your first language? To really be able to speak and write the way you do ? ... Decades (plural!).
This list of variables is not to be taken as a list of why it would be impossible for you to learn French, but as a kind encouragement to not compare yourself to others, as well as to not judge yourself too harshly.
This is why, at Fais-le en français, we always prefer to talk to each individual student before sending them a quote. We have so much to learn from you, before know how to teach you.