Learning to Speak French in France

“So . . .  do you speak French?”  A common question I was asked last year before we departed to France,  the answer was, “Hardly a word.”

Our backstory explains how Tracy and I, through a convoluted process, came to retire in France.  Prior to our retirement we did two years of Italian language study at Truckee Meadows Community College and using Italian Rosetta Stone computer software. (Our original retirement location was Italy.)  My high school and college foreign language was German, Tracy’s was Latin.

Now approaching our first year anniversary in France there is still the question, “Do you speak French?”  Tracy describes that I have an effective set of French “coping phrases” for life at the market, cafe, train station and my accent has gotten much better, but I’m still not to a conversational level.  We haven’t found it to be true that with “total immersion you will pick up the language just like that” followed by snapping fingers.  If anything, I am disappointed in my limited progress acquiring a good command of conversational French due to a lack of sufficient effort on my part.

While recently in Montpellier we met a delightful pair of five-year old French girls on the tram who chatted in English with Tracy and me.  I decided that by the end of 2014 I wanted to speak basic conversational French as well as these five-year olds spoke English (I won’t even get in to the question, “Are you smarter than a Fifth Grader.)   This seemed like a reasonable and obtainable goal.  So I made a New Years resolution to stay on a comprehensive learning schedule for French language acquisition.

There are lots of methods for second-language acquisition.  I know that I am more of a physical/aural learner so I selected audio learning systems.  Tracy decided to stay with Rosetta Stone French because she found Rosetta Stone effective for her previously while learning Italian.  (I also liked Rosetta Stone, but I wanted a system that starts with conversations and doesn’t require performing the learning in front of a computer.)  We would have liked to attend a French language class in a traditional classroom, but there was no cost-effective classes in Carcassonne (but there are some really expensive one-on-one tutoring available.)

The programs I picked are certainly not the best and only options, but these are the learning programs I selected for my personal andragogy (adult self-learning) and learning style.  The biggest success factors I think for any adult second-language learner is their motivation and perseverance.  There is no “Magic Bullet” of the perfect learning program, no “learn French in just 10 days.” Learners must be consistent and actively involved in their self-education  like any other pursuit – golf, cooking, knitting, playing a musical instrument – there is no passive approach to mastery.

I reverted back to my pre-retirement “Type A,” overachiever personality and selected three distinctly different learning programs to learn with rather than selecting just one system.  My hope was that the different language programs would overlap subject matter, fill in holes, and reinforce the material in other programs.  I wanted audio programs for use on my iPod that could be transportable and not require that I sit at a computer to work on my language studies.  I wanted to listen and re-listen to a lesson while taking a walk, cooking, riding the bus, doing dishes, or shopping.

Pimsleur French

Pimsleur French
Pimsleur French

First, I selected Pimsleur French (http://www.pimsleur.com/Learn-French)  which is a traditional audio learning program.  The Pimsleur Method has been teaching millions of students since the 1960’s and is considered by many to be a solid, tried-and-true method that stresses active participation, not rote memorization.  Although it emphasizes formal language and is somewhat dated with its lack of computer graphics, it is still frequently rated in the top 5 or higher of language learning programs.  (http://learn-french-software-review.toptenreviews.com/pimsleur-french-unlimited-review.html)   The Pimsleur system uses four principles in its teaching method:  anticipation with “challenge and response” similar to having a conversation, graduated-interval recall to reinforce vocabulary, a core vocabulary of the most commonly used French words, and what Paul Pimsleur called organic learning, auditory learning similar to how children learn language by hearing examples and then repeating what is heard.  The lessons are in 30 minute blocks that allows total effort without fatigue.

Amazon.com offers Pimsleur French levels I, II, & III for approximately $350.00 (in January 2014).

Coffee Break French

CoffeeBreak French
CoffeeBreak French

Secondly, I picked Coffee Break French (http://radiolingua.com/shows/french/coffee-break-french/) as a second-language acquisition tool.  The audio lessons are available as a free iTunes download and from the Radio Lingua Network website (http://radiolingua.com/).  (There is also Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break German available as well as a series of brief audio lessons in 24 languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu.)   The original concept was to make language training conveniently available “during a daily coffee break.”  These well produced audio lessons use the fun learning device of the instructor, Mark Pentleton (an experienced French and Spanish teacher), working with a college-aged student.  This Socratic technique makes the lessons fun and upbeat while allowing the student to act as a proxy for me in a classroom.  Most lessons are in 20 minute blocks, with approximately 100 lessons currently available and new lessons being frequently added.  Part of the charm of Coffee Break French is that the instructor Mark Pentleton is Scottish.  Although his English instruction has a distinctive Scottish burr, his French pronunciation is properly accented.  While there is paid supplemental content available from the Radio Lingua Network,  I only needed the professional lesson guides to accompany the audio lessons. Well worth the extra cost as I the lesson guides have helped me with my reading of printed French, building my vocabulary, and to better understand the conjugation of French verbs.

Coffee Break French has emphasis on proper French grammar as part of the lessons, something the Pimsleur program does not dwell upon.  Like the Pimsleur method, the lessons revolve around conversations based on real-life daily activities.

I selected the Bronze membership, which provides a set of 40 lesson guides for £27.00 (in January 2014), although there are periodic discounts and I was able to purchase the lesson guides for just £21.60.

FrenchPod 101

FrenchPod 101
FrenchPod 101

Finally, I selected FrenchPod 101. (http://www.frenchpod101.com/) A popular audio language program with free audio lessons, but I haven’t found FrenchPod 101 as well-organized or structured as the Pimsleur or Coffee Break French.  What I do like is that the FrenchPod 101 offers lots of cultural insights, daily life in France, and casual French phrases.  The cultural insights was one thing I greatly enjoyed in our TMCC Italian class with our professor, Carlo, who described his growing up and living in Italy.  The lessons are usually less than 10 minutes with an energetic native French speaker and an American who is fluent in French.  The discussions sound like two college-aged people talking about speaking French or living in France.  The lessons include the use of casual and informal French language along with proper formal French.  The lesson guides are helpful, but frequently do not exactly match the lessons’ dialog.  There are about 300 lessons, but it is difficult to organize the lessons into a well structured schedule of study.  It seems that the parent company, LanguagePod 101, (http://www.languagepod101.com/) provides the free audio lessons as a device to market paid subscriptions its to online training platform.  I  used my initial seven-day free trial to download the audio lessons and lesson guides that I was actually interested in using.   Another learner who wants to work from their computer might like to join the “FrenchPod 101 Learning Community” and use its additional tools.

I use FrenchPod 101 as a supplement for its cultural insights and expanding my knowledge of informal French.  I wouldn’t use this for my primary learning tool.  

I do one lesson each from Pimsleur French, Coffee Break French, and FrenchPod 101 everyday, Monday through Friday.  I leave the weekend free to rest or catch up on any overdue work.




I use the free language-learning site Duolingo on my Kindle as educational entertainment.  Its graphics are very similar to Rosetta Stone learners’ interface. It is a very worthwhile learning platform that I should consider working with more often.  Amazing quality for a free service.  It’s pretty fun too.


Being a physical learner, I find creating my own flashcards has the dual purpose of physically writing words down that I can later use to quiz myself.  The audio learning programs do need supplements to assist me in learning to read French better.

Readings: French Newspapers, Menus, Grocery Items

I do my best to read the local newspaper online and physical newspapers while in cafes, as well as review menus, and read the names describing items in the store.  The newspapers and menus challenge my reading comprehension.  I find shopping reinforces my vocabulary when I see a physical object (apples, shoes) next to a sign (pommes, chaussures.)  This is part of that “total immersion” experience to learning French.


I keep a pen and notebook in the camera bag that I always carry.  I find new words while I am out in the community that I am unable to define and make a note, then check on the word once I return home.  Interesting how those words stick in my growing vocabulary.

Talk and Listen

I try to push myself to speak and to carefully listen to the local French people around me.  It makes me practice, increases my confidence, and forces me to try to “think in French” not “translate English into French.”

DELF Challenge


I wanted to set up some tangible goals to work toward with my French studies.  There is what is called the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) which is the guideline used in Europe to describe a person’s fluency in other languages.

The CEFR classifies learners into six levels:

A Basic User

A1 Breakthrough or beginner
A2 Waystage or elementary

B Independent User

B1 Threshold or intermediate
B2 Vantage or upper intermediate

C Proficient User

C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
C2 Mastery or proficiency

The French National Ministry of Education (Ministre de l’Éducation Nationale) provides testing for diplomas of achievement (Diplôme d’études en Langue Française – DELF) at each level of proficiency.  (I believe this is similar to the United States’  Test of English as a Foreign Language exams – TOEFL.)  There is a DELF exam for each of the six levels that test for four different language skills:  listening, speaking, writing, and reading.

So, if I am understanding this certification process correctly, I want to test my second-language acquisition progress with the DELF testing.  My goal is to earn at least the DELF A1 diploma in 2014.

So, with no “Magic Bullet,” I had better stay on track with my learning schedule for 2014. Someday soon I may be speaking as well as a five-year-old.

14 thoughts on “Learning to Speak French in France

  1. Excellent post with great resources! I am blanking on a fun blog right now that is written by a French woman who does YouTube videos to help you learn using real-life situations, not stuffy textbook stuff you’ll never use. As soon as I find her blog, I’ll update this comment. I find her really useful and always learn something! She’s wonderful! Also, I can totally relate to the part about how immersion doesn’t equal becoming fluent. Kids might learn from osmosis but when adults are in similar situations day after day (cafe, grocery store, pharmacy), you tend to plateau in your learning when you hear the same types of things in the the same context. Getting past that can be really difficult and it’s hard for people to understand why fluency just doesn’t magically happen.

  2. Hi Alan,
    Very well written..just wanted to add that while I enjoyed Rosetta stone for German, I find Fluenz French awesome to start conversation early…along with coffee break french, helps achieve goals faster!

    1. Thanks Latika,
      I looked at Fluenz and Rocket French too. So many great options! I liked “Tell Me More” French, but it isn’t Mac compatible.

  3. Bonne chance Alan and Tracy! French is a very difficult language with all it’s “exceptions” but it is beautiful and worth learning. Also the fact that you have a recent knowledge of Italian will make learning more difficult. But, I know you can do it!

  4. Love the post my friend. I found I absorbed a lot more Spanish as we walked along but always gravitated back to the english speaking folks (aka, you and your lovely wife) in the evenings. You’ve motivated me to get back to Rosetta and pick up one or two other forms of learning. Once I’ve mastered Spanish I’ll join you in French (which I failed at in school).


  5. Good Morning,

    As always I am glad to  hear from you and to know what you and Tracy are BUSY DOING .  I am sure that you both will learn French as you always accomplish what you set out to do.

    With My LOVE ALWAYS, Mom



  6. Wow, that is an undertaking, Alan! Good for you. Some great suggestions on learning tools there too. The flashcards sound like a fantastic idea along with talking with folks who would be patient to help you. Great job, our friend! 🙂

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