Learn French by Yourself or with a Tutor?

If you’re wondering about whether or not to learn French by yourself or with a tutor, chances are, you’ve already made up your mind to learn French and can even point to your motivating source, such as travel, work, or an international move. Looking at these motivating sources can be a guide toward helping you decide the best approach to learning French. You can also examine your own study habits and study history to determine what will work best for you. This, combined with surrounding circumstances (schedules, resources, funds, location, etc., etc.) will all contribute to what works best for you at this time. Whether or not it is possible to learn French by yourself depends on these circumstances, your own study habits, and what your goals are.


Learning French as an Adult

Learning French as an adult might seem daunting, since on the surface it appears to be so much more difficult than learning language as a child. Children notoriously have fewer problems learning language, which is partly related to how their brains work and partly related to environmental factors. I haven’t specifically studied language acquisition in children – or adults, for that matter, but I can point out some tendencies among my adult students that are absent from learning patterns that I have observed in children. Children have neither the ego nor the self-consciousness that adults have when they learn language – it is natural for them to learn through error, which is exactly how language is learned. They also have more time to learn different patterns of speech, either in their early years when they are generally learning how to speak, or at school, where the pace of lessons is slower (compared to a college classroom or a course at the Alliance Française, for example). As adults, we may not have the time that children have to learn new languages, but we can let go of our ego and self-consciousness, and some of our linguistic habits along with that.

Although there are obvious disadvantages to learning language as an adult, there are in fact some advantages, which involve analytical skills and experience. Adults can reach into all of those skills they have developed and know what does and doesn’t work for them when it comes to learning language. Adults are also typically aware of the great motivating factor that drives them to study a particular language, such as work, travel, or personal relationships. Adult speakers of English have also have a fair amount of exposure to French loan words and cognates, such as abundance, extraordinary, bureau de change, and limousine.

The remaining question is whether autonomous study or regular tutoring will work best for you. On the one hand, language has the function of allowing people to communicate verbally, so it would make sense to learn it with other people. On the other hand, learning the written language does require autonomous work. One distinctive feature of the French language is that it is spoken very differently from the way it is written and this might affect your choice of how to approach learning it.

If your ultimate goal is to be able to converse with various French speakers, then it is a good idea to practice conversing with other people. A tutor could provide you with the opportunity to converse in real time at the level of frequency you wish, and could also slow down – or speed up! – if you ask. When working with a tutor, set out clear parameters for the sessions, such as having exchanges be exclusively in French, preparing for the session by reading an article, or being ready to describe daily activities that have occurred since the previous session. It is also important to clarify your goals when engaging in language study. Would you like to be able to make your way around a French-speaking country? enroll in school at a French university? do business with a company based in the francophone world?

The personal interaction with a tutor reflects in part the opportunity of a classroom environment, which allows students to practice conversation with a group of people. Even in this environment, though, certain students get accustomed to hearing only the instructor speak, or conversing with the same one or two students who sit near them in the classroom each session. I remember a student mentioning that when I, an unknown instructor, walked in to give an oral examination to a class, there was a student who was thrown by my use of the standard French r /ᴚ/, which she hadn’t been accustomed to hearing from her regular instructor. It’s always good to hear different people speak, and one way of doing this, with or without a tutor, is to supplement your one-on-one interactions with audio resources that are widely available via different software or online. These sources may include features that analyze your pronunciation and are able to give you feedback, and you can refer to these on days when you do not see a tutor.

A tutor can guide you toward resources that are useful for speaking and listening, which you should definitely be using regularly to reinforce your language skills. Listening materials can be found in the language tools mentioned above, as well as in podcasts and transcripts of radio segments that are available through websites such as franceculture.fr. This website – of the France Culture radio station, which is part of France’s national radio programming – provides online transcripts for certain five- or ten-minute segments that you can read while listening to the audio. Sometimes the transcripts differ from the audio and noticing what is included and what is left out can also sharpen your skills.

For more interactive online tools, there are various quizlets in French offered by different institutions, including some universities, on themes ranging from Impressionist painting to cinema. And on this note, films are a good source for practicing your listening skills, as they come from a variety of francophone regions, expose you to many accents and idioms, and have the added visual component, as well as an option for subtitles.

Reading is part of language study that is mainly completed autonomously. Choosing to read French on your own makes sense, as long as you have the discipline to make this a daily practice. Again, it is important to state your goals when setting out to improve your reading skills. Also, are you an absolute beginner or more advanced? Is your goal to be able to read signs in the Paris subway or scholarly articles that will help you complete research?

If you are an absolute beginner, I would recommend incorporating some speaking and listening into your daily practice, and I would definitely recommend an interactive method that will attune your ear to the way in which French words and sentences fall together. For more advanced learners, focus on readings that use enough vocabulary and grammar with which you are familiar, with some new words and sentence structures introduced into the texts you focus on. If there is a topic that interests you, such as the environment, familiarize yourself with certain vocabulary that is specific to this topic, and then read an article on this topic. If there is a particular author you like – great! This is a wonderful opportunity to become familiar with the author’s works and with the vocabulary and speech patterns that are characteristic of this author’s writing.

Grammar books are also helpful as a supplement to your reading, since these will explain some of the more complicated and literary phrasing that you encounter. I would recommend grammar books that are written in French, but targeted toward people of your linguistic group. This way the books can anticipate the differences between your language and French and address common issues that speakers in your group might encounter when reading French. At the same time, you will be practicing reading in French. In addition, there are books that the French themselves use, such as Maurice Grevisse’s Le Bon Usage, which is an authoritative reference work on French grammar and style. This can be useful when you begin to write.


While autonomous practice works well for reading, you may want to get a tutor to help you if you are planning on writing, since there are certain elements of style that are particular to French that appear in the written language much more than the spoken language. There are a lot of structures that you need to follow when writing and it is important to go over these with someone else. If you have certain syntactical difficulties, you can discuss these with a tutor and the tutor will be able to assist in figuring out exactly where the issue lies. Complex sentences that require relative clauses, for example, can be parsed out so that you will know when to use certain relative pronouns and why. French has very specific relative pronouns that have preserved case inflection from Latin, meaning that they will reflect their function within relative clauses and may also reflect gender.

Luckily, if you read a lot, these become more familiar to you and you can use what you read as models. This will help you understand and eventually produce phrases such as this one from Muriel Barbery’s L’élégance du hérisson: “C’est le socle anthropologique à partir duquel se bâtiront toutes les exhortations à un monde nouveau et sur lequel est vissée une certitude maîtresse : les hommes, qui se perdent de désirer, feraient bien de s’en tenir à leurs besoins”. What will be built? To what is a major certainty fastened? Who is losing touch with what? Both the language and the ideas expressed in this phrase may be complex, but fortunately as an adult learner, you will be able to approach each of these with method, insight, and the spirit of inquiry that led you to study French in the first place.

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