11 hacks to make learning French more fun

Paris-based YouTuber Nathaniel Drew joins the podcast to discuss one of his favourite hobbies: learning languages (and especially learning French).

In this sprawling conversation about all things language, the popular YouTuber who has mastered four-and-a-half languages even shares some tips for how to make learning French more fun.

You’ll find the podcast below, and scroll down to read some French-learning hacks. The first four tips are from Nathaniel during today’s episode, the rest are my own experiences learning French in Paris since 2015.

Earful Tower Podcast episode

Note: You can also find this podcast episode on Spotify, iTunes, Android… and everywhere else you find podcasts. Find Nathaniel’s website here, his Instagram here, or you can join his 1.6 million YouTube subscribers here.

1. Find a way to make France interest you

This is Nathaniel’s key to choosing any new language. He says he’s not able to learn just any language out of the blue: “Just throwing myself into a new language just because it’s a new language is actually not enough. And so I can understand why certain people don’t learn certain languages. It might be because they just are not interested enough in connecting with the deeper culture. And fair enough.”

In other words, if it’s French you’re hoping to improve, zoom in on some kind of cultural or lifestyle aspect of Paris or France to help you along.

2. Make mistakes

Gaining the confidence to actually speak French can seem daunting, but daring to do it is one of the easiest ways to learn. Nathaniel says: “Language learning is about humility, and it’s about just taking a massive serving of humble pie, because you are going to sound like a toddler.” You can always learn from the mistakes and what’s more, the most embarrassing ones tend to make a great story.

3. Write it all down

If you want to retain new knowledge, Nathaniel recommends writing it down. “You’re not going to memorize that thing you just heard by repeating it to yourself, like two, three times. You will lose that word or expression, especially if you’re learning a lot.”

Nathaniel recommends writing lists and repeatedly testing yourself. He says once he can confidently remember the translation of an English word five times in a row, he can cross it off and move on.

4. Use archaic French now and then

French humour is tough to pick up for anyone learning a language, but there are access points. Nathaniel recommends learning some archaic French expressions, especially if they’ve gone out of fashion. He says in the podcast that he will sometimes start a story with “Il y a belle lurette“, an old-fashioned was to say “once upon a time”.

“If you learn archaic French and use it in the right setting, like if you properly learn the use of the word and then plop it in a setting where there’s a degree of shock factor, you will get big laughs.”

Nathaniel shares a lot more tips in this video. The rest of the tips on this page are from me!

5. Ask one extra question at the bakery

This is one of my own golden tricks. When you buy a baguette, you typically have the exact same conversation every time. One baguette please, here’s the money, thanks very much, have a good day. I challenge you to ask some kind of extra question when you’re in that bakery. Ask about the picture on the wall. Ask what that unusual pastry is in the display. Why not buy something different too, while you’re at it?

6. Listen to Charles Aznavour

I love Charles Aznavour and wish I could have interviewed him when he was still alive. This French/Armenian singer won over the hearts of millions and thankfully has quite clear pronunciation. Put on his music, look up the lyrics, try to sing along, and enjoy a fun way to learn.

7. Repeat everything you hear, even if it’s weird

Il y a belle lurette (see point 4) a guy was buying a croissant in front of me. Before the receipt was even printed, the man said “Je vous laisse le ticket” (I’ll leave you the receipt). Then he smiled, and left. I’d never heard this phrase during such a routine transaction. You can bet that I did the exact same thing one minute later. Repeating words is how children learn language skills before they can read. So be like a child. And repeat the customer in front of you.

8. Don’t focus on the other verbs

Past podcast guest Shelly Bittler says the following “light switch moment” helped her French improve dramatically.

“At one point I realized that for basically ALL the conversations I was having, I really only needed to know the present, past, and maybe future tense of 2-3 verbs (etreavoir, and future for aller). I am, I have, I will go, I did, I went, etc. So I memorized those and ignored the rest for a bit, and it got SO MUCH easier. My brain space was freed up from trying to wrap my mind around all of the grammar rules, and I figured out that I could actually say a lot more than I thought I could.

“I ended up absorbing far more other vocabulary, because I wasn’t twisted around trying to figure out the subjunctive. And by the time I got around to having deeper conversations in French, I had become much more comfortable speaking, and they became easier to understand. So my tip: figure out the couple of verbs you need to know for most basic conversation, memorize them, and then use them and stop worrying about the rest.”

9. Get a QG

If you’re in France, a good way to take the conversation to the next notch is to visit places more than once. In other words, a regular hang out – or a Quartier General in French. They call it a QG, pronounced like cooj’ai.

On your first visit you can say your pleases and thank yous. The next time you can talk with the staff about the weather, and perhaps buy an unusual pastry. On the third visit, ask the waiter what country they’re from. By then they’ll recognize you and you’re practically a friend. As listener Carl Boehm says, once you start frequenting the same shops, cafes, and bistros, “you naturally begin small conversations and before you know it you’ve got several regular conversation partners. The waiters at the Café St Regis on the Ile St Louis strike up conversations every time I visit”.

10. Say that you’re Swedish

If you’re American or Australian or Canadian or British, there’s a really good chance that a French person will detect your Anglo accent and switch to English. Maybe they do it to save time. Maybe it’s because you’re massacring their language and they want it to stop. Who knows why it happens, but it won’t help you improve your French. So when it begins, respond, in French, that you’re Swedish and that you don’t speak English. “Je suis suedois, je ne parle pas anglais”. Of course, if they respond in Swedish then you’re in serious trouble. This is the riskiest one on the list, but might just help you out, if you dare.

11. Fake it

Lastly, you could always fake it. Here’s how I recommend faking it.

That’s all for now! Happy learning!

A big thanks to Augusta Sagnelli for the photos and Nathaniel Drew for the fun conversation.

If you want more from this very podcast episode, the transcript will soon be available in the form of The Earful Gazette, just for Patreon members.

Do you want to support this work? Buy one of our books below, or even better, become a Patreon member and unlock loads of Paris bonus content, including our 2023 PDF guide to the city.

5 thoughts on “11 hacks to make learning French more fun

  1. Oliver, this was a great episode. Wish I had more guts to hear myself speak French (I want to be perfect right away).

  2. Wonderful episode! Enjoyed this very much on a Saturday morning in sunny Melbourne 🌻 Inspiring language learning ideas … thank you so much🙏🏽

  3. Oliver, loved this post on making learning French more fun–some great tips. I totally agree with an interest in the culture being an impetus to learning that language. Which is why I decided to learn Thai language some time ago. When I first listened to the language CD, I thought “what am I doing? Why did I waste money on this?” But because I knew I was going back, I persevered and ended up liking it. I, too, love Charles Aznavour and still have him on vinyl from my high school days. Probably my favorite, most fun way to learn French is by reading children’s books in French. Makes me feel like I’m better than I am, since I can understand most everything, and they’re so cute!

  4. Dear Oliver, this was one of many Podcasts of you that I loved!!! Here’s why: I was born and grew up in Brazil 🇧🇷 (3 German grandparents and 1 American grandmother). My first language was German 🇩🇪 but around 5/6 Brazilian Portuguese became truly my mother tongue, here I feel safe. With my American Grandmother I learned some Englisch!!! Around 17 I started to really learn German and came to Germany at 22. In the German language I also felt safe, but my heart language is still Portuguese, American Englisch has improved. During the pandemic I started to listen to your podcasts and loving them!!!! And a lot of French things!!!!! A few wonderful family trips to France 🇫🇷 later… and since 1,5 years I’m learning French, mostly thanks to you!!! Languages & Cultures are soooo cooool!!!! Hope to maybe one day meet you and your lovely family! Feliz Natal 🎄

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