Can I learn French on my own?

1. The short answer

Yes you can.

I know so because I did it myself. In fact, I learned German alone, which is a category 2 language in terms of difficulty. (French and English are Category 1)

In this article, I will explain what I did and what I was up against in terms of adversity. I will also explain how this website was built following the method that worked for me in German.

The miracle took place in 2011 at university. I was well into my 30s, studying for a Masters in Linguistics after a 15-year break from school. I had to clue, no method, no training, no experience, no support, nothing in my favour.

But by sheer force of will and hard work, I battled through the year and passed all my exams except for German which I had left for last and of which I understood yet not a word.

It was now June and I had to pass two German exams at the end of August in order to get through to my second year of Bachelors.

(The document on the left shows that I scored ZERO for German at the first round of exams. Two months later I scored 16/20 for the same exam and passed the year with Distinction. Sixteen out of twenty would be considered an A or thereabouts.)

I was drained and exhausted, having just taught myself to succeed at in college/ uni but the fight was far from over. I had 2 months to teach myself German or my time at university was over. No ifs or buts. Over.

I had to do it without any help or assistance from anyone. Without using the internet and without a teacher. (no internet because I was flat broke)

The deal was clear: If I didn’t pass German within 2 months, I was out of university. The end.

If that wasn’t hard enough I was also suffering from the trauma of the atmosphere in class. We had a very disdainful, elitist and old-fashioned lady at the head of German Literature by the name of Mrs Tabah. She’d been king of the castle for years and all of a sudden she was told that they’d opened German to anyone who’d never studied it before. It didn’t please her in the slightest to see such uneducated plebs as I. Besides, she’d never actually taught German to anyone and was put in a situation where she had to improvise a way to teach beginners. Not her cup of tea!

And as a second trauma, the few beginners were meant to feel like a hindrance who were slowing down the class for the native speakers of German who resided in Luxembourg and the German-speaking parts of Belgium. (The teacher Tabah actually told my friend Pierre that she never gave A grades to non native speakers of German which was as good as saying that they set an unrealistic bar for the rest of us)

It was just dreadful. Psychologically and academically. It just made you want to cry and give up.

I wasn’t just fighting German, I was fighting the shame of being made to feel useless.

2. How did I do it?

You have to understand that in June 2011 I didn’t know ANYTHING about German. Because of the pressure of having to pass all the other exams, I had decided to drop the hardest topic of all and focus on what I could do. It was a strategy that could easily have backfired.

The honest true story of how I did it was as follows: I went to see my German teacher at the ULB university Mrs Barbara Obst who plainly refused to help me. Actually she told me to buy “German for Dummies”. (I was so stressed out, I didn’t understand what she was hinting at!) Her attitude was “Too late, can’t help you. Goodbye.” She also told me to stay in Germany for a few weeks – as if that would help! Thanks for nothing.

Quite desperate, I then followed my footsteps to the administration of my Faculty and asked a lady “Listen, I worked my arse off. I’m about to fail German. I have one shot in life at obtaining a degree. Is there anything you can do for me?” The kind lady in question was a German-speaking lady who was not a teacher but told me these magical words which I will never forget: “L’Allemand s’étudie dans une grammaire” (German is studied in a grammar book) And she handed me a beat up old book from a shelf – it was so old it even had that Gothic font we so often associate with German!

(Picture: Very close impression of the type of book I studied German in)

The name of my saviour was Eveline Haberfeld and she is a “real ” person who still has a profile on Linkedin today. One of the kindest and life-changing people I have ever met. I will always remember her for giving me that spark of hope when there was none.

As a second step, I sent an email to 2 students and said “Listen, you two seem like nice people and we said hello once or twice. Is there any way you can share your course notes with me? I’m about to fail German.” (I probably put it in nicer words in the email but that was the gist of it.)

Their names are Pierre Van Cutsem and Sandy Cirroux, whom I believe are now researchers at university.They both kindly took a bus to the campus, handed me their notes and told me “This is what you have to know.” They then became good friends for the rest of my studies. Sadly, we have since lost contact.

3. My method explained

I came home with the grammar book and the notes and asked myself: “Right, what is this thing they call German?”

The key word I will emphasize for all you who want to learn a language on your own is MAKING SENSE. I had to make sense of German. I couldn’t see it as just a collection of words. I had to separate verbs from pronouns, adjectives from adverbs, etc.

(This is why podcasts or films will not help you to learn a language alone. They are just a flow of words. What you need to do is understand how these words match up.)

(Photo: Even this text from the high-brow Monde Diplomatique newspaper fits into basic principles of the French language. It is by understanding the “simple parts” or the governing principles that you will be able to understand such a text.)

Before I could know German, I had to understand the important parts and find out what REGULATED the language. I had to understand the MECHANICS of German.

Do you know why? Because whatever you say in a language, it is always the MECHANICS that rule the way your sentence is built.

It is the SMALL PARTS that control the BIG PARTS. Don’t go straight to the big parts (podcasts), rather ask yourself what the small parts are in French. Try to see patterns, try to make groups within the way the language behaves, find the principles that are echoed throughout the French language.

For example, in German I looked at Modal Verbs. I asked myself how many there were, how they behaved, how their use was different from English or French etc. That is a big principle of German that will get you much further ahead than learning random vocabulary words such as “Bonjour je voudrais un café” or “Enchanté de vous connaitre.” These ready-made sentences are a pure waste of time.

And please, please, please: If you want to learn French effectively STOP paying attention to these “TOP 10 French things to say” on Youtube. They are not PRINCIPLES, they are just clutter from unqualified French teachers. I would not have passed my German by listening to the advice of Youtubers, Tiktokers or Instagram tutors.

4. Psychological factors play a role too

Another important principle when learning French is the psychological game it represents. You need to be aware of it because in a sense it is “You VS You”. It’s that inner voice that tells you to give up, it’s the opinions of other people who tell you it can’t be done, it’s your memories of French in school, it’s your educated guess on how long it will take: 2 years or 5? It’s all that and more.

The very first thing my family told me when I shared my project of studying German was “Oh wow that’s a hard language ! It has declensions. It’s worse than Latin!”

Useful advice? I think not. But people will often fill our head with their own limitations.

So not only did I have to develop a very structured understanding of German, but I also needed psychological assets to made my learning possible.

In language learning and in life in general, there is a huge influence of the subconscious factors such as self-image, frame of mind, etc. I have written several blogs on this topic, but to summarize you have to self-examine these things:

– What is your level of motivation?
– How much do you believe in your project?
– Is there any way that learning French can conflict with your self-image?
– Are you already looking for excuses? (Yes but this, yes but that…)
– Are you listening to people who always say that French is “hard”? Why?
– Are you a Reactive learner (language apps) or Proactive student? (grammar books)
– How strong is your will?
– Do you have limiting ideas such as “I’m not very clever”?
– How much has school influenced your self-confidence as a learner?
– Do you just want to learn “a bit of French” to just “get by”? (it won’t work btw)
– Are you already looking for the easiest approach?
– Do you know that by learning the Key Principles of French you will learn it fast?
– Are you aware that your opinion on language learning might be full up with myths?

When I was learning German, my conscious and subconscious behaviour were in the right place. I had the determination and the focus to learn and I knew that NOTHING would get in my way. I WAS going to know German, come what may.

I might have been the worst student ever but I had promised myself that my university would NOT prevent me from knowing German. I projected myself into the future as a speaker of German. Never mind the difficulty, the ridicule or the disdain from my teachers. (Did I mention the part when one of them actually told me that I had “no talent for languages”? True story.)

5. What I did next (this part is also important)

After studying for 2 months straight and not having a Summer break, I passed my German exam with very good marks.

I remember that the dreaded Mrs Obst asked me question after question in front of the whole class as we were doing a grammar exercise. I think she was trying to check if I had cheated and if I was able to reproduce my German skill with “nothing in my pockets”. It was strange to say the least.

“How the bloody hell did he do it?” she must have asked herself. Of course, it reflected very badly on her since she hadn’t been capable of doing for me what I managed to do in two months alone. And she was the one who was supposed to be qualified!

For my German exam, I had managed to narrow down the essential parts of German to a few hand-written pages. I had about 4 or 5 sheets of paper, hand-written, that contained THE CORE OF THE LANGUAGE. (this is very important)

I may not have been able to say everything I wanted in German, but I sure was capable of understanding how it worked. I could take any German sentence on any level of difficulty and see the formulas that had made the sentences possible. (Example of the French newspaper above)

On the day of the exam I was capable of explaining to anyone within one hour the contents of 9 months of lectures. I had it so well narrowed-down that could have achieved it what the teacher couldn’t. (Or rather wouldn’t)

6. But it’s not for everyone

On this very website you are on right now there is a complete French course that you can use to learn French alone. It has all the exercises and PDFs with videos to teach you the ESSENTIAL SKILLS and explain to you HOW FRENCH WORKS.

This course was specifically designed for people who want to learn alone and who want to learn well. The whole psychology of this course was based on my experience as a German learner. (I also passed my Masters in German by the way!)

(Photo: I ended up with a Masters in German.)

All YOU need to do is sit down, look at the PDF, understand, complete the exercise. Bang. Just like that, you have learned a new skill. Repeat. Know French.

But or it to work, you have to be proactive. You CAN NOT AFFORD to be reactive. And this is why I say it is not for everyone.

Being reactive means using an app that has an exercise that pops up at random. You then go “Oh, a new exercise! I will try that!” FORGET IT ! It will NOT work. Do you even know who built your language app? Some kid in his parent’s house?

Instead, you have to place yourself in the CENTER OF THE LEARNING. You have to say: “What do I want?”

(Picture: Being a proactive learner is both a frame of mind and a series of practical habits. Be the French! Don’t wait for the French!)

Just as I did with German, you have to make the language YOURS. It’s all about YOU sitting down at your workspace and learning the important parts of French. Don’t do it on your phone at a bus stop, it won’t work. Besides, you need to open PDFs and write things down – so you couldn’t even if you wanted to : )

The OuiCommunicate course isn’t free but it’s a safe bet all the same. My German wasn’t free either = I was paying for college tuition. Invest a bit of money and know French. Or don’t invest a bit of money, continue looking for free apps, Youtube videos and years later you’ll likely find yourself in the same spot.

Ah yes, plus with OuiCommunicate you also have online assistance for questions. So you’re never really alone.

7. Does learning alone work?

I often hear “but I have no one to speak to” as an excuse to not learn a language alone. This may well be the case, but it is a different skill altogether. I didn’t have anyone to speak to either when I passed my German oral exam at university. But guess what? I knew how to speak French and English. All I had to do was replace those sounds with the words that belonged to German.

You don’t need a person to speak to. Those are myths that clutter up your educated guess about how language learning works. Speaking is just the most visible part of a language but it also REGULATED by the SAME PRINCIPLES that you’re going to have to learn anyway.

What you do need is a structured understanding of the MECHANICS of you target language. After that you can do what you want with it. And as an added bonus you will make less mistakes because you will know where to look for answers and will sense when something doesn’t “feel right” in French.

As I said above, it isn’t for everyone. I have met students who don’t “get it” and who refuse to “see the formulas” of French. I will tell them:

This verb is an INFINITIVE – It is not yet used in a specific tense. Learn once how to use it in the Present or the Past and reproduce this for 1000 other verbs…” But next week, they will be back to making the same error again. Why? Because they have not RATIONALIZED FRENCH.

They are still hoping that somehow by magic the skill of knowing French will just grow on them.

In terms of success stories there is myself of course. I passed all my German exams and now have a Masters in the subject. I can genuinely say that I did it all alone with no help from anyone. Proof being that I didn’t attend a “German school”, I went to a university to study German Literature and Linguistics. It is not their job to teach anyone how the language works.

And as a second proof, we have our star pupil who got so good at French that we actually started to do a podcast in French together. She is an American lady who started French with me after the age of 45, trusted the method, used my worksheets and got damn good at French.

Language Apps and other urban myths would made her chuckle because she too knows that only by working on UNDERSTANDING the LOGIC of French can she learn it to a high level. You can hear her speak on Youtube by looking for the OuiCommunicate page.

8. Last words of encouragement

You can absolutely learn a language alone because I did it myself. The time it will take will be dependent on how fast you can separate the clutter from the essentials. By going straight to the core of the language, you will learn faster and better.

Your frame of mind needs to be one of self-belief. If you do not see yourself achieving French within a few months or have a wishy-washy type of conviction, it likely won’t work because your subconscious will start to make up excuses on why it can’t work.

As a third piece of advice, don’t be reactive. Don’t react to the language by using an app or going to a tutor with your mouth open and saying “feed me”. By the time you contact a tutor you should have already started to at least try to learn a little French. Just as you don’t go to a fitness coach saying “I’ve done f’ all to try to be fit. Make me fit anyway,” No. You should have already started to do sit ups and home and push ups before you even look for a coach. Why? because No one is going to make you do stuff. YOU make YOU do stuff. Proactive, remember?

If you have any questions about our French course, I will gladly have a chat on Whatsapp or other and explain to you why it is guaranteed to work.

I really hope this was useful!

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