How to Learn the French Language with Online Courses

This year I’m heading back to Paris to see Taylor Swift! And that means it’s time to brush up on my French again. If you’re new here, I’ve been a student of the French language since I was at University (10+ years ago—don’t do the math!!!)

I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication with a minor in French studies. Since I’ve graduated, I’ve enjoyed finding ways to continue learning my favorite Romance language: French.

As I prepare for my adventure abroad, I’ll be diving into all the tools I use to prepare for my trip, starting with brushing up on the French language.

If you’re new to learning a second language (or even if it’s your third or fourth—you go Glen-Coco!), or even if it’s just been a while, it can be overwhelming to try and figure out where to begin and what method of learning is right for you.

To help, I’ve laid out some insights to help you make the best decision as you dive into learning the language of love!

So if you’re wondering if an instructor-led class is right for you, read on to learn about why this is one of my favorite ways to learn French!

Why Instructor-Led French Language Classes?

Scotch and the Fox at The Alliance Française de Chicago

One of my favorite ways to learn is with an instructor-guided class; either in-person or online.

Ask almost any adult language student, and they’ll tell you that they are terrified of speaking the language they’re studying—especially in front of native speakers!

Sounds kind of ironic, right? Isn’t that one of the major reasons to learn language skills… to be able to use them? It’s certainly not for the joy of verb conjugations!

The truth is, it can be really scary putting yourself ‘out there’ and risk being embarrassed by your mistakes.

But the reality remains that speaking and listening to the language with other people can be the way best way to get feedback (bonus points if it’s from a native French speaker!)

You should exercise the muscle that ties together translation from your native language to the new language by speaking out loud.

Back to the Classroom

After college (where, let’s be honest, most of my classmates were English speakers who were as muddled as I was, so we all struggled together) the first French course I took was at the Alliance Française in Omaha.

It was a French for Travelers class that I took right before my honeymoon. While the class was fun, I’ll be honest and say that the content didn’t really stick. Most of it was a refresher for super basic French words and phrases.

We also spent a lot of the course speaking in English. When I got to Paris, I was still so unused to speaking in French, that I stuck to English pretty much the entire time.

To be quite frank, I was rather devastated! I mean, I’d taken an advanced French literature course about Baudelaire and Victor Hugo for goodness sake!

Shouldn’t I have been swanning around, chatting like a local? Well… no, not quite.

The Lightbulb

After the trip I realized I needed to re-frame not just what I was learning, but what experience I was learning for: the real world.

I took a step back to reflect and ask myself, this: On my next visit, what kind of daily activities will I need to know how to speak to?

So, here’s the big A-HA! I discovered something that unlocked how I approach the language learning process, and in particular, classes for me: You need to study for the kind of French you want to use.

Sure, a French for Travelers course is helpful. As a traveler who will focus on food and shopping in everyday situations, I realized the importance of knowing what questions to ask in those specific environments.

What I needed to know was less about saying le taxi, and more about asking questions when I was in a store or at a restaurant. I KNOW this sounds obvious!

Nevertheless, there usually isn’t a course specifically built around topics like, “How to order dressing on the side”.

Keep it Simple

Turns out, it was mostly simple things that you’d certainly take for granted in your own language. And less of the content you might read in your Saisons workbook. Here are a few that were key for me:

  • Where is the restroom?Ou sont les toilettes?
  • How much does this cost?Combien ça coûte?
  • Do you have a table for two on the patio?Vous-avez une table pour deux au dehors?

Of course, these questions would be always proceeded with the necessary “Bonjour/Bonsoir”, and followed with the appropriate manners of “…si vous plâit.”!

Given the way I spend my time abroad (eating and shopping), these were certainly some of the most beneficial questions I was able to have on-hand.

The French Language Course Curriculum

So what does this mean when taking a course? The odds are, you aren’t going to be able to change the curriculum unless you’re working with a tutor.

But some classes (Conversational French courses, for example) have an open structure that allows for more freedom.

The good news is that regardless of your syllabus, you can take whatever lesson you’re learning, and use that to guide you toward other helpful phrases!

Right now I’m taking an online course through the Alliance Française of Chicago. In my lesson last week, we dissected a story about a cyclist who likes to escape the noise of the city by cycling to a town outside of Paris.

While I likely won’t be cycling to another city (here or anywhere else for that matter), it offered me some great French verbs I can use around day trips like the one I took to Champagne on my last visit!

Conquering the Fear of Speaking

One of the delicious new words I picked up was,embouteillages;(isn’t the French language just a feast of silent letters!?). Embouteillages means: traffic, traffic jams, a bottleneck—you get the idea.

And in a city like Chicago, I’ll certainly be able to practice using embouteillages in advance of my trip, don’t you think!?

Anyway, if you’re like me, your eyes bugged out a little looking at that word. So. Many. Vowels. And this is where having an instructor comes in really handy.

Fun fact: The Chicago Alliance only hires native French speakers to teach their courses!

Needless to say, I stumbled on this word like a baby deer on ice skates, ha!

My class has 5 other students in addition to myself, and you’ll never believe it… but nobody laughed at me when I crawled my way through each syllable!

Isn’t that everyone’s fear when trying something new? I took my time, and basically sounded it out because, well, look at all those letters, haha! Em-bou-teill-ages.

But my instructor patiently coached me through it in the 3 extra seconds I needed to try and try again until I got it right. And here I am, a week later and I’m letting it rattle around in my brain because it’s so fun.

Confidence and Convenience

And don’t get me wrong, I’m RUSTY. My French accent feels stiff in my mouth and my brain feels slow.

But I know after a few more lessons, I’ll regain some of the confidence I’ve accrued over the years by being back “in” the classroom. Especially with a fluent coach to help guide me through the hurdles of vowels and verb conjugations.

The best fit for my schedule is a class over zoom. I would love having the time to be on-site but most days I’m working right up until the session begins, so a commute is out of the question. Contrary to what I had initially believed, I actually love taking my class online.

In my opinion, the convenience of being in the comfort of my home while still having a real live teacher is the best of both worlds. While being on-site would be a treat, with my busy schedule, this is the best choice for my lifestyle.

Bonus: No embouteillages! (See what I did there?)

Where to Take Instructor-Led French Classes

These days, the classes have gotten exponentially more accessible with the addition of online courses. I’ve share a list of resources for where to take instructor-led classes in another post, soon!

But it’s important to find something that works for your budget, your learning style, and your schedule. 

Personally, I have always found French language classes at the Alliance Française de Chicago to be a good fit for me. The class sizes are small. And they offer a wide variety of times of day and days of the week for classes. I’ve had several great instructors from all over the world, too!

The catch? The cost. I think you absolutely get your money’s worth if you are an active participant. But if their courses aren’t in your budget, consider a self-guided online course to start!

An important call out: There’s absolutely no shame in needing to adjust what class you take. Most courses have a placement process that helps you figure out which level is right for you. I encourage you not to stay in a course that’s too difficult for you, even if you’re placed there!

In this economy? We are not wasting dollars on classes we can’t keep up with, babe!

Free Self-Guided French Language Online Courses

If you’re not ready to jump into an instructor-led course, there are plenty of online resources for some self-guided study.

There may be difficulties understanding some nuances (because the French language is riddled with nuance!). Sites like The French Experiment and eLearning French offer many free resources to get you started.

Pro tip: If you’re brand new to the language, start with the children’s content! You’ll get basic lessons that will help orient you around what to expect before you move into the other lessons. Content for kids often has a slower pace, so it’s a great way to ease into the basics!

À Paris!

Photo of blogger Scotch and the Fox in front of The Louvre Pyramid in Paris, France

As I begin preparing for my trip, studying French is one of my favorite ways to build excitement, and reconnect with the culture.

My class is an 8-week course, which will get me about one month out from my trip. Which is a good place to stop taking classes and start packing! (Yes, I will need the full month, haha!)

I’ll also do some learning by watching some French tv shows or French movies with English subtitles on, too. This will help me to continue tuning my ear to French sounds and the pace of real conversations.

I’ll also do some bite-sized lessons in a French learning app like Duolingo, since it only takes a little bit of time each day. You can find more on my time with Duolingo in my next post!

You do not need to learn the official language of France before visiting Paris! As one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, you’ll hear a HUGE variety of languages spoken, including English.

There’s fun to be had in learning a new language. And leaning into even the most common parts of everyday life through the local language make me feel all the more immersed in the experience.


Do you have an interest in learning a foreign language? Do instructor-led French classes sound like they’re right for you? Let me know in the comments below!