There are many ways to learn a language; some ways are more efficient than others and even if we all learn differently, there are tips that everyone can benefit from learning about.
Maybe you have heard about the 80/20 rule, or also called the Pareto principle: in short, 80% of the effects are made by 20% of the causes.
You might ask, "how does this apply to language?", well languages are very rich. They have tons of grammar and pronunciation rules, exceptions to those rules, vocabulary and so forth. But we actually only use a fraction of it in our everyday life, perhaps somewhere like 20% of the language is used (or even less when it comes to vocabulary). What I'm trying to tell you is that you don't have to learn the dictionary by heart to become fluent in the language you’re trying to learn. You have to learn the right things.
Below are five things I advise you to focus on:
1. Learn the most common words
You don't need extensive knowledge of French medical vocabulary if you're just on a vacation in France. To be efficient, you need to work to learn useful knowledge of French step by step.
The first step is learning the words you will use everyday. Greetings, for example. You must be able to rent a car, order food, shop for groceries, understand directions, or call an ambulance if something were to happen. Make a list according to your specific needs.
You have to think about what you plan to do when in France. Are you going to be a fashion designer ? If not, you probably don't need to learn words for different kinds of fabrics and patterns. Try to imagine the situation you may encounter, and what you need to say. You'll quickly realize that it only comes down to a few hundred words and verbs that you will use a lot. Think of it this way. If you like puzzles, you know you can create many patterns with only a few colored tiles, it all depends on the way you use and how you arrange them.
2. Learn complete blueprints
Muttering words won't make you fluent. You can be understood if you only say "melon, s'il vous plaît" (melon, please) at the market, but isn't it better to say "J'aimerais un melon, s'il vous plait" (I'd like a melon, please)?
There are lots of complete sentences you can learn, and you'll only need to change a few words to express exactly what you need. Par exemple, "J'ai besoin de louer..." (I need to rent...), and then you can add:
- une voiture (a car).
- un parasol (a parasol).
- un appartement (a flat / apartment).
- un caméscope (a camera).
You will save lots of time if you only have to make a puzzle with less pieces instead of having to think about all the pieces such as conjugation and grammatical agreements, and so on, every time you have to say anything.
After hearing common sentences a lot, you will get used to what a correct sentence sounds like. By extension, you will learn about grammar, conjugation, and a lot more vocabulary with time. Just like other language learners, you'll be able to create complex sentences in no time.
3. Get away from textbooks
I mean, don't get me wrong, textbooks are not bad. But textbooks don't prepare you for real, everyday life. It's cool to learn about colors and farm animals, but chances are you won't need them as much as the vocabulary mentioned in the first part of this article. Plus, the French a textbook teaches you is kind of uptight and unnatural. You won't pass as fluent if you say "veux-tu un café ?" (do you want some coffee ?) to a friend. That's totally correct to say, but we just don't talk like that in casual situations. Slang and idioms will give you some insight on the quirks and bumps of French, things you would never learn in a high-school classroom.
4. The bare minimum for grammar
I talked about blueprints, but you will have to learn a little grammar. I know, grammar is not fun, not for French and not when you’re learning it for most languages. For starters, please consider grammatical agreements. This doesn't sound like much, but for example: your girlfriend's mom "s'est assise", (sat down) and not "s'est assis".
This little additional letter changes a lot to the meaning of what was just said, as this means the subject is feminine. This is one of the most important rules in French, as every word has a gender, so not only will you have to add the "e" to verbs when talking about a female, but objects/concepts can be male or female too. For example:
- "la place est prise" (the spot is taken).
- "le siège est pris" (the seat is taken).
Next, let’s look at conjugations. You will have to learn how to use a few verbs correctly. There are three groups of verbs, and verbs in those groups follow the same rules. Therefore, you only have to learn which group the verbs are in, and you'll be good.
Learn the tenses because those can drastically change the meaning of your sentences. Also, don't say "si j'aurais" (gibberish) instead of "si j'avais" (if I had). Even some local French speakers say this and most of us don't like it. After all, this will make us spill wine everywhere on our striped shirts.
Learning without practicing is useless. But your practice has to be enjoyable. The wonderful thing when you learn a new language is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. For instance:
- Practice writing a French shopping list.
- Listen to a podcast (or read in French) while waiting for an appointment.
- When you’re walking, try to think some thoughts in French.
I hope that all of these tips can help you improve on your French as well as give you insights to learning it in an efficient way. As always, measuring your progress is a good thing to keep you motivated. Practice your speaking with an italki tutor (or even more than one) for better results, because there is no better practice ground than real life with real people.