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Learn a new language (French) with a minimal amount of work

As I may have mentioned offhand to very few people, BF and I have started speaking in only in French the majority of the time. We started sometime in late October 2012.

It’s really hard to switch from just English to French, but my French was intermediate enough that the painful transition lasted only about a month (during our little jaunt to Hong Kong for a few weeks).


We’re doing this, because I need to brush up on it before I move back to la belle province, and it’s kind of handy/nice to have another language to bust out in addition to English.

Plus, it impresses my parents because it’s Frrrrench and very posh to them even though they each speak 3 languages.

(My mom makes me pronounce French words and brands all the time to her on command like a trick monkey, just to hear the language. Her favourite is: Yves St-Laurent.)

My French is not perfect, mostly because of the same things every French student complains about:

  • the verb conjugation is insane — even French people complain about this
  • the le / la for physical items makes no rational sense to me whatsoever
  • you is not you in French, if you’re talking to a stranger, it’s vous and it ALSO conjugates differently
  • accents are cute, but not if you’re trying to type and learn them

Also as a side note for anyone wondering, I’m learning French from France, as BF is from France and I only really meet his friends and his family on a consistent.

I’m not learning Quebecois (Quebec French), and it’s just fine and dandy for working in Quebec.



To learn a new language, you need to know the basics, which namely, is 1000 words.

Once you have the core vocabulary of 1000 words in any language, you will be able to express most of your thoughts pretty coherently, albeit simply and in a roundabout way.

I highly recommend French Language Daily, as they already put a nice list of 1000 French words and verbs on there for you to learn.

I tend to use: Merde , Qu’est-ce qui se passe? , D’accord, and J’ai faim a lot.

(Crap/Damn, What’s going on?, Alright/Okay, and I’m hungry)

You can also try out this online website called Memrise that works a bit like the Rosetta Stone but forces you to type the words and learn meaningful sentences.


For the life of me, I have no idea why the French decided to make their language SO DAMN HARD to speak properly.

Just look at this INSANITY for the verb ETRE (To Be)!!!!


And they have the nerve on the site to write “Simple Conjugations in French”…. SIMPLE!?!?!? Gah.

BF says that verb conjugating only plagues French people, in the sense that they have to also write their language, and not just speak it.

Although English-folk are not that much better with their idiotic “U”, “4”, “Y” speak, and horrific lack of grammar, spelling & proper usage.

So when you write the language (especially in a French school or trying to get into a great school or des grandes écoles by going through those crazy Asian-like contests), the core language has to be spelled and conjugated correctly to say the least.

For a simple example:

  • Tu es (really, “T’es”) = You are
  • Il/Elle Elle est = He/She is

…it sounds pretty much the same when you’re speaking, with the difference in writing being in the verb conjugation’s spelling, with the additional “T” for the Il/Elle conjugation.

So if you are just planning on speaking it, you just have to learn 3 types of verb conjugations to begin with: Present, Past and Future.


For instance, you want to use the verb To Eat = Manger (my favourite verb!)

I am eating = Je mange

I have eaten = J’ai mangé

I will eat = Je vais manger

Easy tricks to help when starting out:

  • The last two sound the same when you say it: mangé versus manger
  • When you want to say things in the past, put the verb AVOIR before the second verb, and conjugate it in your head with an é at the end, or its required past version.*
  • When you want to say things in the future, put the verb ALLER before the second verb, and leave it unconjugated

*For other verbs not ending in ER, it won’t be just adding an éat the end, so you’ll have to learn the ones you use the most.

Let’s look at it again:

I am eating = Je mange

I have eaten = J’ai mangé = Je …..[AVOIR conjugation “ai”]…+….[VERB adding + é]

I will eat = Je vais manger = Je ……[ALLER conjugation “vais”]…+….[VERB left alone]

That’s it.

You won’t need to learn any other kind of verb conjugation unless you want to get fancy.

Learn the two verbs: AVOIR and ALLER, and you will be able to conjugate easily.

There are other ones that are trickier but you will get the hang of doing some educated guessing as you go along.

Play it off as being charmingly bad at French.


  • La table = the table (feminine)
  • Le chien = the dog (masculine)

….there’s no goddamn way around it.

You just have to memorize it, and after using it plenty of times, it may start to sound weird if you use the other one. Maybe.

The most annoying sentence BF must hear from me is: Is it Le or La?

The good news is that it’s kind of the same in other languages like Italian, Spanish or Portuguese, so if you ever feel the need to pick up a third language, the le/le stays just about the same.


I get this one screwed a lot. I am not used to a formal “You” and an informal “You”. There’s only one YOU in French, but when you speak to elders and strangers, you must use VOUS.

I get around this by saying Vous to everyone, even if I know them very well (like BF and his friends).

They find it mildly amusing (awkward?), but I have to learn how to use it since I’ll be working with strangers most of the time.

Until I am more comfortable to be able to flip flop from VOUS to TU, I am not to be trusted to speak to strangers who will judge me.


Not only is French full of traps when writing, spelling and speaking it, you also have to remember that some words, have accents above them or below them.

You can avoid all of this by typing only in caps and having people think you’re always yelling at them.

Apparently the rule in France is if it is in caps, you do not need to throw a ring on it, as BEYONCE** might sing.

(** sans the rather ironic accented E that is actually in her name… See what I did there?)


Or use my new version of French, where I ignore accents completely when I type, and pretend I’m an ignorant, clueless Anglophone, when I’m mostly just lazy.



I know, finding a French person who is willing to talk to you is hard, but you don’t necessarily have to go as far as to date one to find one who will be nice to you (like in my case).

I think there are a lot of language courses here, and maybe you can trade teaching them English, for learning French.

See, just reading, learning on paper, or listening to them speak isn’t good enough.

I hate to say it, but I could read French quite easily before I started practicing it, but as I started saying the words, going from le/la, conjugating verbs, putting words in front of another*, and then just trying to remember the vocabulary, I was tongue tied.

*Like when you say: “She said to me“, it isn’t “Elle a dit à moi” (literal translation), it’s Elle m’a dit” or “Elle [me + a] dit

I simply couldn’t bring it all together without taking time to think of each sentence.

It has gotten easier and easier, as I’ve basically memorized whole phrases/sentences I use a lot, but it was a hell of a trick at the start.

You have to practice it with people who speak French to some extent, not people who are starting to learn French.

Or at least, have a guide who knows the language to help you figure out how to say it.

Otherwise, it’s the blind leading the blind; you will get frustrated and give up.

It also works really well when you start listening to them speak, and they use words you don’t know. I end up learning 5-10 new words a week or more.


BF reminds me not to freak out too much.

I mean yes, the French folks (especially in France) take themselves and their language VERY SERIOUSLY, but if you are NOT FRENCH and you don’t look French, or have a French accent, they are just damn pleased that you are able to speak it, even if it’s all screwed up and totally, utterly mis-conjugated.

They are just pleased they don’t have to speak their version of English to you (if they aren’t bilingual), as they are shy and think we will be as judgemental and as strict on the English language as they are on the French language.

They also slur their words, talk quickly, don’t pronounce anything properly, and use slang ALL THE DAMN TIME.

I’m half lost when I hear them speak sometimes, because if I don’t get the context/start of the conversation, I can’t follow the rest.

…but sometimes BF does gets this look on his face like: How did you reach that sentence!?!?! WTF are you trying to say?

Old [French] habits die hard.


If you screw up badly and are awkward, just bust out some French praise, or hate something as passionately as the French hate it.

The French love nothing more than to talk about how great their country and food is (quite true, actually, on both counts)..

Praise Paris.

Praise Lyons.

Praise MOFs and their dedication to artisanal excellence.

Talk about French cheese and make them gush about how [insert their favourite cheese] melts in their mouth, that baguettes are a thing of beauty, and drinking a good wine will cure all that ails you.


You can also say you hate things like: Le vin mousseux est pour les chiens, hein!?

…And watch it spark a conversation between French people about how it’s a foul product that is not even good enough to bathe in.

Or just ask what they think of the current French President, and then step back and brace yourself for an hour of passionate, half-yelling/half-crying French politics, and comparisons to all of the previous French presidents and who they’ve all screwed (literally and figuratively) since then.

If worse comes to worst, smile charmingly and apologize as needed for your awful, twisted mangling of their otherwise lovely language.


At least…. they helped me!

You might also want to go into French bookstores, and pick up French to English books, so that it’s bilingual, but you can see it from the other perspective.

I picked up an English Business book in Paris, and it’s helped me immensely, although it is not available online.

I hope that helped a little, on how to start learning French from an Anglophone perspective.


  • Swissrose

    I loved this quick and dirty method lol (hein)!! 🙂

    As someone born into a family of linguists, I found it pretty funny – German has TROIS articles… I was lucky to grow up with French and German as second languages but I was in my teens before I got the familiar/formal thing in detail because I had never had to deal much with strangers, especially in German. The Swiss are even more particular and you really need to know the rules, ouch! Mind you, other languages seem a bit easier once you have these, I mean European languages; I have never tried Asian, Arabic or other languages 😮

    je te souhaite beaucoup de succès et plaisir avec la langue française!! 😉

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Merci beaucoup. Je pratique tout le temps chez mon bureau mais parce-que je parle anglais parfaitement, temps en temps les autres trouvent parler en anglais plus facile. :\

  • Cindy

    You live in Montreal now, yes? Do you use French in your everyday life (outside of life with BF)?
    I am also a student of French and have gone through formal route to learn the language. So, I understand all of the tenses and conjugations. But to speak it in everyday life is a challenge for me because I am quite self conscious about it. I watch YouTube vids and follow Damon & Jo who teach you everyday ‘street’ French. They’re pretty funny.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Yes. I use it at work, in stores.. no one can tell (now) that I only learned it a year or so ago. They’re all amazed.

      I still make mistakes. “Mon bouteille” not “Ma bouteille” but.. you just have to try. It’s no worse than their English for true Francophones 🙂 That’s how I see it.

  • Michelle...

    Oh yes! I hear ya!
    I’ve been learning Italian for a number of years now and find exactly the same thing. One good thing about the masculine/feminine thing in Italian is that feminine words end in ‘a’ (la casa – the house) and masculine words end in ‘o’ (il treno – the train) but of course, there are always exceptions (la mano – the hand)!

    Also, why does it seem that the most commonly used verbs are the ones with the irregular conjugations?!? The verb ESSERE (to be) is as wack in Italian as it is in French.

    Anyhoo, I think learning a second language should be mandatory. Here in New Zealand we have three official languages (English, Maori and NZ Sign Language) but it’s not compulsory to learn them (except English of course). Daft. We’re doing ourselves a disservice, which is odd seeing as how much Kiwis love to travel.

    Had a fascinating conversation with a shopkeeper in France some years ago. She was berating me that I didn’t speak French. So I tried to explain (in English) that it was more logical for me to learn Japanese (proximity etc). She grabbed on to that and so we concluded our conversation in Japanese 😀

    Just realised I’ve stuffed up a little. The languages that I speak are only really spoken in “their” countries (Italian, Japanese, Maori). Probably should have learnt Spanish and Chinese!

    Whoa. Brain dump!

    • save. spend. splurge.

      That doesn’t work in French 🙁 It works in Italian and I think Spanish or maybe Portuguese as well but French.. no 🙁

      We need a second language to be mandatory but actually enforced. I grew up in Ontario and we only had an hour of French a WEEK. That was not enough….

      I would have liked to have learned French growing up, maybe Spanish as well…

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