Best way to learn French? My experience with immersion, group classes, private teacher, italki, Lingoda, Pimsleur, and Assimil

Photo by Robin Ooode on Unsplash

It’s been a year since I last did a roundup of allll the avenues I’ve tried on my French-learning journey. That blog post is consistently one of the most read ones on my blog, but the information there is now partially out of date. So here’s the 2021-22 edition.

A year ago, I was at a low level B1 in French, meaning I could put together sentences as complex as “I am happy because I have bought a new sofa.” I put in a lot of effort throughout the year, and now I’m at a low B2. I can now engage in conversations like “what do you think about the sanitation measures in Switzerland?” and “regarding the design options you presented, I prefer the second one because it is more minimalist.” I can also travel around France and Switzerland and navigate daily life using only French.

Last year, one of my weakest points was grammar. Now, it’s vocabulary. A few weeks ago my French teacher presented me with a piece of paper covered with colorful cutouts of Christmas-adjacent objects, such as candles, pine trees and dolls. “Tell me the names of each of these items,” she commanded. I didn’t even know the French name for Santa Claus, for crying out loud. (It’s le père Noël, in case you’re wondering.)

In my French journey thus far, I have tried many different methods. They include:

  • Immersion in a francophone environment (2 years, 6 months and counting)
  • Professional group classes (8 months in person, 4 months online)
  • Private one-on-one French teacher (2 months)
  • One-on-one conversation tutors on italki (1 year, 8 months and counting)
  • Group classes via Lingoda (6 months)
  • Pimsleur audio lessons (3 months)
  • Assimil grammar workbook (128 pages)

Immersion in a francophone environment

I think I was a bit myopic last year when I said that living in a francophone city like Geneva won’t magically make you fluent in French. While that is technically true, the real reason many expats in Geneva can’t speak French is because they live and work in an English bubble.

My first two years in Geneva, I worked at an international organization that was 100% anglophone. Then, earlier this year, I started a new job at another international organization and was shocked by how much French was needed for everyday work. Half of the staff was locals from Switzerland and France. Entire meetings would take place in French. I was expected to be able to communicate fluently in French with colleagues about projects and tasks.

From a work culture standpoint, knowing French was key to everything. I struggled massively with isolation during my first few months on the job — and later on, I realized that a lot of people had been keeping me at arm’s length because they assumed I didn’t know French. (It wasn’t mean-spirited, in the way of “this person doesn’t know French and thus I detest them.” It was more in the sense of “this person probably doesn’t know French, and my English is very poor, so I would be too nervous to talk to them.”) I wrote more about working in French here.

When I showed people that I was eager to talk to them in French, and that I was brave enough to try to say anything, despite my limited vocabulary and many, many, many grammatical fuckups, I think people really appreciated it. I may not be able to assign the correct gender to 70% of nouns, but I have been told by many native French speakers that my pronunciation is very good, and they very rarely have any issues understanding me.

Professional group classes

As I mentioned previously, when I first arrived in Geneva, I took in-person group classes at IFAGE, an evening school for adults in Geneva, two nights a week. The classes were two hours each and added up to about 16-18 hours of instruction per month. With IFAGE, I was able to more or less complete levels A1 and A2 in two semesters.

Because of the pandemic, I did not continue with in-person classes at IFAGE. I tried online classes with Lingoda for a few months, which operates on a completely self-paced, on-demand model. More on that in a minute.

Then, earlier this fall, I returned to professionally taught group classes, this time hosted by the UN. Their classes are open to pretty much anyone in Geneva who works at an international organization, including interns and consultants. I took a placement test and was placed at level 7 (9 was the highest), and took part in virtual classes via Microsoft Teams twice a week, for 1.5 hours per session.

The positives: The quality of the course was very high. The professor was experienced and was quite good at virtual teaching. The course materials that we used were designed thoughtfully and tailored towards people who work in international development. The contents were highly practical — for instance, “compare the duty stations of Kinshasa and Port-au-Prince from the perspectives of security and hardship categorization”, rather than “talk about your favorite thing to order at the bakery!”.

The negatives: Online learning was really hard for me. I struggle with attention deficiency, and as we got deeper and deeper into the semester, I found it more and more difficult to stay engaged and pay attention in class. I was still ‘present’ in the Teams meeting, but I faded into the background. I found myself browsing the news or reading emails constantly while I should have been listening. But with at least 7-8 students, there was very little opportunity to actually speak. We only had a 10-minute breakout session each class for oral exercises with a partner, and I found it frustrating speaking French with another person who was equally bad at it, or worse.

In the end, I shamefully ghosted. I made it through the penultimate week of classes, and then we were supposed to put aside four hours to take the final test. I opened the test, read the questions, and closed the browser.

Thank God I am already done with my academic studies. If I had been in college during COVID, I think I would have genuinely flunked out.

Private 1:1 French teacher

Burning out from group classes was the catalyst for realizing that I needed a French teacher who could teach me one-on-one and in person. Neither condition was negotiable.

It took a bit of light googling, but I found a teacher in Geneva who could do just that. Every week, I go to her apartment, a quaintly furnished studio in a busy part of town. She always offers me a cup of hot tea, and we sit across from each other at her kitchen table.

My teacher uses a variety of materials for teaching — videos, pictures, newspapers, workbook exercises. Usually, she starts by giving me a cutout from the day’s newspaper and asking me to summarize the contents, then give my own opinions. We usually spend the bulk of the time diving into a few grammar concepts; once we have covered a subject, she asks me to come up with my own examples to make sure that I’ve truly understood it.

The whole time we are talking, she takes notes of things I’ve said wrong, vocabulary words that I didn’t know, conjugations that I faltered at. And at the end of the lesson, I go back and read the whole list of corrections from the top.

I’ve enjoyed these classes and will definitely be continuing them into 2022. A side benefit is that my teacher is Swiss and has lived in Geneva for a long time, so from her, I’m also getting a taste of the local perspective on everything from food to culture to politics to pastimes.

Private tutors on italki

For over a year, I had near-weekly conversation practice on Skype with D, a Swiss native who worked as a tutor on italki. She did more for me in learning French than anyone else ever had. With her help and encouragement, I was finally able to open my mouth and start speaking French.

Unfortunately, in late 2021, D notified me that she was no longer teaching in order to focus on her career as an artist. I still had over $100 in nonrefundable italki credits, so I had to look for another tutor. I booked initial sessions with three tutors:

  • A Cameroonian woman who lived in France. She was super nice but did not have any formal training in language instruction, and I recognized that I needed a little more from the conversation practice than just chatting.
  • A French woman who lived in France, with an MA in teaching French. She was also super nice but came across as quite nervous, and I think that had an impact on the atmosphere and flow of the sessions.
  • A French woman who lived in France, also with an MA in teaching French. She was very confident and friendly right off the bat — in the first message she sent me, she used the informal tu right away — and we immediately hit it off. She is now my go-to italki tutor.

Even though italki is purely online, I’ve gotten a lot out of it over the past two years, so I’m going to continue using it.

Group classes on Lingoda

In the first half of 2021, I did Lingoda for a few months. Lingoda is an online platform for learning languages like French, German, English, etc. For each level, they basically have a list of classes all centered on different subjects (e.g., one class might be focused on talking about immigration, while another class might be an introduction to the subjunctive tense), and you choose which class you want to join at a time that suits you.

The flexibility of it all worked really well for me. I had an unpredictable work schedule: some days I was extremely busy, other days I had more free time. Some days I had a lot of energy, other days I was exhausted. Not having a set schedule of classes meant that I had total freedom to dictate when and what I wanted to learn.

What I also liked about Lingoda is that even though all the classes are group classes, you have a LOT of opportunities to speak. The teachers called on us to read passages and answer questions on a rotating basis, rather than waiting for volunteers. I had to be on constant alert and actually pay attention so that I wouldn’t be caught zoning out when it was my turn to answer a question. I think they only allowed up to five students per class, so that was also ideal.

On the flip side, the quality of the teachers was wildly inconsistent. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had an Ivorian teacher who made weird, culturally inaccurate comments about a Chinese student in my class. A lot of the teachers were sweet and friendly and engaging, while a significant portion were irritable and put in minimum effort. The worst part is that you couldn’t ‘blacklist’ the teachers that were low-quality. Even if you booked a class with a teacher that you already knew and liked, if that teacher cancelled, the class could potentially be reassigned to a ‘bad’ teacher, and you wouldn’t be able to cancel with a refund.

At any rate, I did keep a list of the French teachers that I liked in my Notes app. I don’t know how many of them are still teaching, but in any case, here they are:

  • Cleo
  • Marion
  • Gael
  • Talla
  • Marie-Aude
  • Priscille
  • Anais
  • Chloe
  • Maelle
  • Karina

I eventually quit Lingoda because my schedule became too busy, both with travelling back to the US and starting a new job. Another reason was that the French teachers constantly mispronounced my name. I would correct them, and they would go back to the incorrect pronunciation five minutes later. This, I imagine, is to be expected when a teacher rarely has the same student twice — always a rotating cast of names, and thus no incentive to learn any of them.

Pimsleur audio lessons

Pimsleur is a completely audio-based learning platform. At each level of French, they offer around 30 lessons of 25-30 minutes each. You sit there and listen to the audio: it’s usually a couple of conversations about life in France. They play the audio at regular speed, then more slowly. They explain the meaning of each sentence. They ask you to practice responding to questions. There is a massive amount of repetition; be prepared to practice saying every single sentence five times.

As boring as that sounds, I actually think Pimsleur would be extremely useful for anyone who doesn’t live in an environment where they can regularly converse with native French speakers. Not only does the repetition help reinforce confidence and pronunciation, it also helps with grammar. I had a lot of trouble conjugating subjunctive verbs before Pimsleur. After repeating them (in the context of full sentences) nonstop over a couple of lessons, I had seared the conjugated forms into my brain.

The contents of the lessons are quite practical for travelling and living in France, even if they are weirdly specific. For instance:

  • “For dessert, I only want something light.”
  • “I am divorced; my wife left me. We had money problems.”
  • “Madame, you are sitting in my seat. Here is my train ticket to prove it.”

I find it helpful to listen to the Pimsleur app on my phone while taking a walk after lunch. I’m on level 4 out of 5 at the moment.

Assimil grammar workbook

Assimil is a website that basically just sells books and workbooks for learning different languages, if I’m not mistaken. I purchased the French Intermediate exercise book, which contains 180 exercises. Every time I had a free moment at work and my brain was feeling up to it, I would pull out the book and finish a chapter’s worth of exercises, then grade myself using the answer key in the back.

If the thing you care about most is grammar, this book is definitely the right choice. I found the exercises pretty difficult, and the grammatical concepts were only lightly explained at the beginning of each chapter. However, I did learn a lot just by doing the exercises, and it’s helped me strengthen my grasp on various verb tenses such as subjunctive, future, conditional, etc. Although when the book introduced the past historic tense I was like fuck this, goodbye.

Other resources

I continued my quest to find an English-French language exchange partner in Geneva. After being ghosted by or ghosting the three previous partners, alas, I was ghosted by a fourth. On the bright side, I did find a Spanish-English exchange partner through this same programme, and now we have become friends.

I’ve followed a lot of accounts on Instagram that teach French in little bite-sized posts. It seems that the more I follow, the more the algorithm introduces. It’s nice to get these little droplets of information as I’m scrolling.

Lastly, in an effort to improve my listening comprehension, I have taken to eavesdropping on people’s phone conversations on the bus. Guess what’s the most common phrase people say? “Salut, je suis dans le bus.” (Hey, I’m on the bus.) I was also on the bus when a fight broke out between two people over seats; somehow a police officer was also on the bus on the same time, and he tried to broker peace. “Monsieur, he pushed me!” cried one of the instigators. “But that’s not true, madame!” interjected a passionate onlooker. “Let’s all get off at the next stop,” advised the police officer. I was happy that I understood all of it.

2 comments

  1. I recommend you check out Fluentu. I think it’s hands down the best language learning environment once you’ve established basic proficiency. You might also be able to catch a year end sale. Bonne chance!

    Liked by 1 person

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