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Ten French language basics to master before studying irregular verbs

Tip: Forget the past subjective and concentrate on perfecting day-to-day phrases

You will need some practical phrases when shopping in France, like ‘How much is it?’ or ‘Where can I find an item?’ Pic: Kzenon / Shutterstock

You might think that someone either speaks French or they do not, but the truth is not so straightforward.

It is not the whole caboodle or nothing. The most useful tip I can give anyone about language learning is to decide what you really need to say and don’t go beyond that just yet.

It is the same for native speakers. You might get the impression they are all maestros but most people never master the finer points of obscure conjugations. They use language to get stuff done day to day.

You should do the same. Cut out all the surplus and focus on the essential.

Language lessons at school generally take the opposite approach. They expect you to be able to translate “they might have been able to win now” (in the past subjunctive) just in case you need it. What is the point?

Some teachers expect their students to recite lists of irregular verbs. Forget it. Learn the items you are going to use.

Concentrate on being perfect in the following points and you need nothing more for now.

Read more: How to stay motivated with your French language learning


1. First, learn how to be able to present yourself to a stranger – give your occupation, address, telephone number, date of birth, using the correct vocabulary.

Check your pronunciation on via the speaker icon at the top of each page.


2. Numbers are also vital but you need a lot of practice until they trip easily off your tongue.

Stop counting in English and get used to doing so in French. Get one to 100 off pat and any special numbers you will need.


3. Knowing the time (24-hour clock) and date are similarly essential for a whole range of practical purposes. 

Repeat them to yourself or into the mirror several times a day until it becomes instinctive.


4. Letters of the alphabet are not quite the same in French and some can be confusing – E and I, G and J, for example.

At the very least, you should be able to spell your surname, street name and the name of your village or town.


5. Consider the question ‘How are you?’ 

Your answer will oil the wheels of conversation. 

Be able to express your mental and physical state and to ask someone else about theirs.

Read more: 12 phrases every tourist must know before coming to France


6. Learn the conventions of conversation. 

Ça va? is the universal ice-breaking question which has many subtle meanings depending on the context and tone of voice. However, it can be broadly thought of as: “How are things?”

Similarly, you will want to be able to ask a guest tu veux…? (do you want...?) and understand the various answers to that question.

Merci, for instance, sometimes sounds as if it means ‘yes, thank you’ when it is actually a ‘no’.

7. Knowing how to give directions to your house is similarly important. 

Work out the simplest way to give these and try them out on someone French to ensure you are making sense. 

8. When it comes to shopping, you will invariably require some practical phrases to locate items and to check prices. ‘I’m looking for..,’ ‘how much is..?’ and ‘I’d like a refund for this…’ are useful places to start.

9. Other basic vocabulary – including colours, words for the weather, ways of describing your particular car or your boiler – you can acquire on the hoof.

10. Finally, learn how to let someone know when you have not understood. 

‘Could you say that again, please?’ is a useful phrase to have up your sleeve.

If you can say a little with confidence rather than a lot in a mental fug, you will soon see yourself improving. Only then is it time to move on. 

That’s when to start learning lists of obscure irregular verbs, not before.

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