6 reasons why you suck at French - and how to fix it
I have had this conversation often: upon learning that I am French, or that I'm a French learning coach and/or a polyglot, a person tells me they have had French at school for years but they couldn't learn anything. They suck at languages, they don't have the 'language gene' and they'll certainly never be able to learn French. If you are that person, STOP ! You need to read those six reasons why you didn't learn French at school (hint: it's not your genes). The bad news is that these typical shortcomings are also present in many adult-learning courses or self-study methods. So, if you have tried and failed to learn French as an adult, read on. The good news is: after reading this post, you will know how you can learn French now, by avoiding these deadly school environment mistakes.
Ready? Let's jump in.
1) Lack of a good reason to learn French
As I explain very often (for example in this video), the one thing that makes a difference between language learners who succeed and those who fail is how good your reason to learn is.
"I learn French because it's on the program, or because my parents chose it for me." is about as bad as it gets, for a "reason" to learn.
If you really want to learn French, you will need to find a much better reason. Or several. If you need inspiration, you'll find 27 reasons to learn French right here.
2) Not enough time to speak
Too many students, not enough lesson time.
When I was eleven, we used to have four hours a week of English study, and there were about 30 of us in the classroom. This amounts to a whooping eight minutes (!) per week per student. This assumes that the teacher would never speak and that no time would be dedicated to other activities. As we know, most of the time wasn't dedicated to speaking anyway. That would leave us with maybe two minutes per week speaking the language. With two minutes of weekly practice, you should be happy that you learned anything at all.
3) Over-focusing on grammar
You might recall having spent a considerable amount of time doing grammar exercises and trying to cram all the French verbs into your head. And then having to regurgitate it in the exam. In school, grammar has a very important place. This stems from an outdated mindset which used to view a language as a set of rules and exception - rather than as the way humans communicate.
The truth is: grammar isn't everything. Grammar is much less important than we tend to think. If you speak without respecting any grammar rule, you won't be able to pass an exam, but you will still be understood by natives most of the time, assuming that your pronunciation and vocabulary are decent.
Now the question is, what do you want? Do you want to ass your school exam or to be understood when you speak a language? If you aim for the latter, focusing so much on learning the grammar is basically a waste of time and effort.
4) Punishing mistakes instead of encouraging them.
Another way that school destroys your language learning capacities - and your self confidence - is by making you believe that mistakes are bad.
If you believe that mistakes are bad and you fear being punished for making mistakes, you will do everything you can to avoid making mistakes. Concretely, this means that you will use only language patterns which you know very well and not "risk" using new patterns which you aren't sure of. This is the best way to avoid making any progress.
Whenever one of my students makes a mistake, I take this as an opportunity to explain a new rule or reexplain a pattern that we have studied before. A mistake is a sign that you haven't internalised a pattern yet. You will internalise it soon, if you embrace the mistake as an opportunity to improve. There is one kind of mistakes that I particularly love: those that I have never seen before. They shed the light on a particular way the brain of a student works (due to their background or existing language knowledge) which was unknown to me. It's a great way for *me* as a coach to learn and grow.
Mistakes should be seen as an opportunity to learn and be encouraged. Not punished.
5) Group. Worse: group of teenagers.
So, you have very little time to speak and if you make mistakes, you will be punished. Can it get any worse? Yes it can: you have to do it in front of a group of your peers, who happen to be teenagers like you.
How secure and confident were you as a teenager? Were you willing to speak up and possibly say something stupid in front of everyone? How did you feel about them maybe judging you, or even making fun of you?
You will agree that this is about as bad a setting as it gets, if the goal is to make progress.
You can only learn a language if your environment is safe and forgiving. Anything else will trigger your brain's protection reflex, which sacrifices your potential for progress to increase your chances of survival. If you want to learn French, do yourself a favour and get a compassionate French learning coach.
6) No connection with real life French
For a long time, students have been "studying" languages in school without any connection to the language as it is actually spoken. This is getting better. If you are lucky, you can get a one-week trip to a French speaking country, or a language assistant - a young native sent directly to your school.
I was a French assistant in Gmunden, Austria, when I was 25. In my first week, I was made to meet all the classes I would work with and introduce myself. That was a full week of being stared at by hundreds of the biggest eyes I've ever seen. Those eyes were saying "Really? From France? A real French guy? Like, he really speak this weird language that we are trying to learn? How is this possible?"
If after years of "studying" a language, you find yourself looking at a native like they are some alien coming from a world you barely knew existed, your school is doing something wrong.
Taking a language out of its environment and studying a purified version of it in a classroom is the weirdest thing ever. No wonder it doesn't work. If you want to learn a *living* language, don't do this to yourself.
I hope I have convinced you that your failure at learning French in school is definitely not your fault. Your genes are ok, and you are as able to learn a language as I am.
So how can you learn French now?
1) Stay motivated
I speak a lot about motivation (check this article for motivation tips) and this is because motivation is the most important part of learning a language. No language learning method can make up for a lack of motivation. Figure out what motivates you and make sure to not loose sight of your reasons to learn French. Find a way to remind yourself daily of all the awesome benefit you get from learning French, and I can guarantee you will make progress. An easy way to do this is to write all the reasons why you are learning French on a beautiful piece of paper and pin it where you can see it often.
2) Focus on speaking
If your goal is to be able to speak French, then speaking should be your priority. Any other learning activities you engage in should have the goal to increase your capacity to speak. Only learn vocabulary because you will need to use those words when you speak. Only learn grammar or do grammar exercise if you stop and wonder about these particular rules when you speak, and it prevents you from speaking fluently. Do a lot of listening because it trains you to understand what you hear and to eventually use similar sentences when you speak.
3) Embrace mistakes
Mistakes are great. Every mistake which your coach or language partner points out to you is an opportunity for you to learn and become better at French. Yes, even if it's "always" the same mistake and you have done this mistake ten times already. As Tony Robbins says "repetition is the mother of skill", you need to make a mistake a number of times before you stop making it. This is part of the process.
I know it is easier said than done, and years of perceiving mistakes as a bad things won't go away because I told you to change your mind. It takes time, but if you start looking at mistakes as opportunities rather than problems, two things will happen. 1) you will make a lot more mistakes, and 2) you will make a lot more progress.
4) Learn in small groups, or even better in a 1-1 setting
As we've seen, big groups create two problems: they drastically lower your speaking time, and they increase your fear of making a fool out of yourself. In order to avoid these two problems, I strongly recommend you look for the smallest group of students you can find, or even better, learn in a one-on-one setting, such as individual coaching. As a language coach, it is my top priority to make my student feel safe and comfortable to make all the mistakes that they have to make to achieve massive progress, and to maximize the student's speaking time.
There you have it. The 6 reasons why you ended up thinking you suck at French - and 4 ways to regain your confidence and finally make actual progress. Did you manage to learn French in school? If so, kudos to you! If not, now you know why.
I would love to hear about your French learning journey (or French non-learning journey). Would you like to share it in the comments?
About the author
Angel Pretot is a French learning coach. He helps English speakers from all over the world learn French fast and become fluent. You can work with him one-on-one (online via skype or a similar software) or join a global community of French learners in his group program the French Fluency Accelerator.