Getting started with French

You've decided to learn French, but have no idea where to start? This page should be helpful. It's a rough guide I threw together that should help you get started. Hope it helps, and good luck!

You've decided to learn French, but have no idea where to start?  This page should be helpful.  It's a rough guide I threw together that should help you get started.  Hope it helps, and good luck!

Step 0: IPA

Get acquainted with the IPA, the "International Phonetic Alphabet".  With this system, you can accurately transcribe exactly how to pronounce any sound you can think of.  This is great to know exactly how a word is pronounced, and makes dictionaries like WordReference particularly useful (it has transcriptions for all its French entries).

Step 1: Sounds

Skim the Wikipedia page on French phonology, particularly the consonant and vowel charts (which hopefully make more sense after the IPA chart post you just read).

Use this Wikipedia page on the IPA symbols used for French, WordReference, and Forvo as references to hear the sounds as they're described.  Focus on the vowel chart - the consonants are pretty much the same as in English.  The only thing to watch out for in the consonant section is this: in English, we aspirate our voiceless stops.  Say the word "pin" with your hand in front of your mouth (or a candle or a mirror or whatever works to see/feel your breath).  Now say "bin".  Note how in "pin", there was a strong puff of air.  The same goes for "caught" and "got", or "tea" and "dee".  The voiceless consonants all have puffs of air after them.  This is not the case in French, so be aware.

Try to learn to hear the differences in sounds.  Some resources:

Don't focus on pronouncing them 100% perfectly; rather, just make sure you're pronouncing them distinctly, as that's what really matters.

Now, just pronounce any and all French words you come across, checking what you say against recordings (Forvo, WordReference).

Step 2: More sounds + first words

Find a website geared towards language learners.  My personal favorites are:

Basically, any website with short, simple texts, ideally also spoken out loud.  The idea here isn't necessarily to understand everything, but rather to get used to the sound of the language and practice pronouncing it.  Repeat after the recordings and do your best to sound French!

Start also looking up the words you see most often, and see if you can start to piece together what some of the sentences mean.

Step 3A: More words

Once you feel comfortable with the sound system and know a basic set of words (if you know the first hundred or so words in this frequency list, you're good to go), you can start learning words in earnest.  Your mission is now to look up every single word you encounter.  This gets exhausting, but results come really quickly.  Don't necessarily try to memorize the words - that just comes naturally after you've looked a word up 10 times in 10 minutes.  You'll quickly start to remember the most common words.  Make sure to say each word out loud, too, to cement the proper pronunciation in your memory.  WordReference is my favorite tool for this, and Wiktionary often has good entries as well.

Step 3B: Grammar

When you've learned the sounds and know some common words, it's time to start learning grammar.

Some resources I recommend:

French grammar is relatively straightforward.  The main challenge is the ridiculous amount of verb conjugations and irregular verbs.  Get used to the phrase "[verb] conjugation", because you're gonna type permutations of it into Google many, many times to come.  Basically, if you're confused about something, google it or check a textbook.  Plenty of resources out there.  There's a subreddit, r/French, and you can use tools to get native speaker feedback like Lang-8 or HiNative.


Hopefully, this has given you some ideas on where to start with French.  It's always a bit daunting at the beginning, but once you find your favorite tools, things get going pretty quickly.  Just try to consistently spend some time on this every day, and results will come.

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