9 powerful ways to boost your natural French learning abilities
Learning French is a natural process.
Our human brain comes with a built-in capacity to adapt to its surroundings. Often, we believe that this is true for young children, but not for adults.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? Well, I’m not a dog expert. However, helping human adults to ‘learn new tricks’ is sort of my speciality (I’m a French learning coach).
By the way, when was the last time you learned something new? As an adult, did you ever get a new job? Or even change careers? Or become a parent? All of these major life changes require intense adaptation of your brain’s functioning, not unlike learning a new language.
Toddlers learn the language(s) around them naturally, and we retain most of this aptitude in adulthood. What changes, is our environment.
Learning French as an adult, you are never as thoroughly surrounded by the French language as French toddlers are (they soak in it 24/7!). It follows that learning French as an adult will require a little more intentionality than that of a toddler. Good news: you have it! As an adult, you can consciously set out to learn French, and that is a powerful asset.
And here is some more good news: in this article, I will share with you eight ways that you can boost your brain’s natural French learning abilities. They are all easy and very powerful. Implement a few of these tweaks into your life and watch your French skyrocket.
Daily “French bathing”
This method is also referred to as “immersion”. Here is the good news: you do not need to move to a French speaking area to learn French in immersion. All you need is to find ways to keep the French language around you and interact with it daily.
Note: This will be easier if you already live in a French speaking area, but be careful: many people manage to live in a foreign countries for years without learning the language. Just being located in a French speaking country does not guarantee your success, you also need to use the language daily.
We are so lucky to live in a time when the internet can deliver to us a continuous stream of French content, and put us in touch with French speakers to practice the language, no matter where we are located in the world.
I help my students get their daily dose of French by giving a personalised list of French resources that includes youtube channels, podcasts, books etc. as part of their Roadmap to Fluency. You can start adding more French to your life for free today simply by watching YouTube, check out this article for a long list of French YouTube channels that you may like.
“Repetition is the mother of skill” - you might have heard this before, as it is a key self-development concept shared by many self-development experts, such as Tony Robbins.
This is due to the mere exposure effect, a cognitive bias that causes us to believe that something is important just because we see/hear it often. Because what we see often feel important to us, we also tend to remember it.
You can harness this brain feature by selecting important words and phrases and looking at them regularly.
Spaced repetition is the art of reviewing a word or a concept right before your brain forgets about it, with the goal of imprinting it in the long term memory with as little effort as possible. Spaced repetition is being used in many language learning tools, mostly apps that have the ‘forgetting curve’ integrated into their code.
But you really don’t need to get that fancy. Here is what I recommend to my coaching clients:
Write the most important words and phrases in a dedicated notebook
Review this notebook once or twice a day (see also point 8 in this article)
Just try it. This habit alone can make you progress really fast.
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3. Images and text in your environment
Would you like an even simpler way to harness the mere exposure effect?
A way that involves no effort at all, not even reviewing a notebook? You got it!
Peripheral perception is a handy way to trick your brain into learning French.
If there is something you just can’t remember (like say, difficult words or verb conjugations), write it on a paper and stick it to a place where you can see it often. Favourites include your bathroom mirror, your fridge door, next to your workplace or next to your bed.
And then, that’s it.
It’s a complete ‘set it and forget it’ solution. Well, you don’t really forget it of course, but no additional effort is required. You put it there once and you just wait until your brain works its magic.
Once you notice that you can remember your word or phrase easily without looking at the paper, you can remove it and put a new one instead.
One caveat: There is a limit to how much you can learn at a time with this technique. You don’t want to saturate your environment with French words, as this can overwhelm your brain and cause it to ignore the information. It is also better to write in big letters which you can see from as far as possible. This technique works because your brain picks up on what’s written without you noticing it consciously - but you still need to be physically able to read the notes as often as possible for it to work. So make it easy on your brain, give it some big, easy to read letters. I recommend you start this technique with only one or two words, or the conjugation of one verb for example.
4. Enjoyable experiences
Our brain is hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So, if your goal is to learn French, you better associate it with pleasure - it will make it so much easier.
This is your official permission to indulge in everything French-related that you might enjoy: food, movies, traveling to great locations, attractive French speakers, you pick. It has to be enjoyable for you.
Youtube is a great way to be in touch with French content that you enjoy, and to learn while having a good time. Check this article for French Youtube channels you might just fall in love with.
Whenever I want to learn something, if I get to choose between a lovely woman or a regular man teaching it, you bet I’ll pick the woman. Not because I’m a sexist, but because I know how my brain works. I know that if the teacher is attractive (to me) and has a pleasing personality, I will return to her time and again, and learn more and more.
5. Friends and loved ones
Your friends and loved ones who speak or learn French can share the enjoyable experiences with you (see point 4 above). They also bring another key element: social norms (and possibly accountability).
If you are in an environment where speaking French is the norm, even just some of the time, it’s very likely that you will learn French too. Complying with social norms is hard-wired in our brain.
French toddlers learn French because everyone speaks French around them (by the way, that’s how I learned French, as a native.)
Similarly, adult language learners with the best success rate are immigrants who really need to learn the language to get integrated into their new country.
Now, how can you use this feature, if you’re not a toddler or an immigrant?
The kicker is that it won’t work as well if you can always fall back onto your native language. For example, English speaking expats who live here in Berlin, Germany tend to never learn German, since they don’t really need it.
If you have French speaking friends or relatives, I suggest you create a “French only” day/half-day/hour when you won’t be allowed to speak English. Try to do it at least once a week, schedule it in advance and have you friend or relative hold you accountable. You’ll be amazed at what you can say in French when you are committed and have a supportive conversation partner. Feel free to also have a delicious French meal at the same time, to leverage the enjoyable experience (see point 4)
6. Keep your brain fresh and working at its best.
If you are mentally exhausted, sleep deprived or your diet doesn’t nourish you appropriately, you just won’t be able to get the best results in your French study.
So, make sure you sleep enough, stay hydrated, eat well etc.
I have written about this a lot in this article, so I won’t elaborate further here.
7. Take advantage of your most productive time
I am writing this first thing in the morning. I just know that once I’ve fallen into my email inbox or social media, it will be too late. I probably won’t be able to write productively later in the day.
You could be an early bird like me (most productive in the morning) or a night owl (most productive at night). It’s important for you to know when your most productive time is, so you can schedule your French study and/or reviews at that moment. Especially if learning French is still challenging for you. It will be even more challenging if you try to study at a time when you are exhausted or foggy. Don’t do that to yourself, schedule your study when you know you will have energy for it.
8. Create habits
This is another favourite of self-development aficionados (like me)
Habits can be challenging to put in place but once you have them, it’s like being able to do something on autopilot: no willpower and very little attention needed.
Remember my vocabulary notebook advice from point 2?
I also recommend to my clients that they review their notebook at the same time everyday and tie it to another habit they already have. One of my students review her notebooks every morning while her coffee is dripping. Another one reviews his vocabulary at the gym in the one-minute breaks between his sets of reps. When can *you* find a couple of minutes to review your vocab daily?
9. Get a coach
If you like this down-to-earth approach to French learning (I guess you do, since you read until here), and you’d like to get personalised input from me regularly, I would love to coach you. You can apply for a coaching spot right here: frenchfluency.net/apply and we’ll take it from there!
This article is part of the blogpost roundup, “(almost) natural language learning” organised by the blog le français illustré.