There are a lot of aspects to learning French that you don't need a formal "French course" for. You don't need a French course to learn vocabulary, expressions, or how to pronounce French words. Books, websites, dictionaries, podcasts, YouTube videos and Netflix can help you with all these things.
But there is one aspect where you really do need a guide: Learning how to put words together so that they make sense — otherwise known as the grammar. Things like...
Knowing these things is pretty important, but they're also really hard to figure out by yourself. You really need someone to explain the rules to you.
That's where the French grammar course comes in. It might not be thrilling, and it probably won't be free, but it's the cornerstone of your French learning.
The French grammar courses that I've seen tend to fall into two main categories:
This type of course walks you through all the parts of the language step-by-step, piece-by-piece, and is the closest to a "traditional" style of language education.
If this style of learning works for you, it will be the fastest and most efficient way of learning the grammar: You'll cover the most important topics in a logical order, and everything should be well-structured and easy to find if you need to refer back to it later. (And you will.)
For example, here's what you'll cover in the "Language and Culture" component of Rocket French Level 1:
The problem with these types of course is that they're usually quite ... dry. (That's a polite way of saying boring.)
Most courses will provide interactive tools to drill you on what you've learned, and this goes some way to keeping you engaged, but it would have to be a very, very good course to be called fun.
The academic kind of grammar course is focused on teaching you the mechanics of French, so you may find that you aren't exposed to much additional vocabulary and "real world language" beyond what is needed to explain the grammar points.
This isn't necessarily a problem — you will probably be supplementing your study with other materials anyway. But it's a point of difference when compared to the contextual courses we'll talk about next.
I call this type of course "grammar by stealth".
Rather than sitting down for a lesson on reflexive verbs, in this type of course you'll focus on topics or situations (e.g., "Going to the hairdresser" — Mango, "Making new year's resolutions" — Babbel) or around something like a serialised story (French Uncovered, Frantastique).
As you explore a topic, you'll naturally come across grammatical features. The course will explain how these work, so you're always learning the grammar in context.
The good thing with this approach is that it is less abstract and more meaningful: It’s a lot easier to understand the purpose of learning “how to introduce your grandfather”, rather than “how to use first person possessive adjectives”. You'll likely find it easier to understand and digest the explanations because you can immediately see how you'd use them in everyday life.
You'll also be exposed to more vocabulary, casual language, and potentially a few cultural insights along the way.
The downside with this approach is that there will often be a lot of language rules squished into one lesson, and not necessarily in a coherent order. You can end up covering a grammar concept in pieces across multiple lessons. It can be hard to check back if you need a refresher on something. Did you cover that topic it in the lesson about going to the hairdresser? Or the one about ordering in a cafe? Or the one where the aliens and Victor Hugo went searching for mustard?
An even greater downside to these types of courses (particularly gamified ones like Babbel and Mango) is that they can make you feel like you really understand a particular grammar point — when in reality you might not. You might power ahead initially, but then get stuck in a long plateau because you've moved too fast, and you don't really have a solid grasp of the grammar.
If you really struggle with academic style courses, a contextual course might be the secret weapon you need to break through and get some confidence with the grammar.
But my recommendation would be that as soon as you feel like you're starting to "get it", try moving over to an academic course, or grab yourself a French textbook. The rules that were previously gobbledegook might feel more relevant and manageable now.
The first time you start seriously trying to learn a new language, you're actually signing up for something larger than just learning how to order coffee and make small talk with other people.
You are willingly exposing yourself to Grammar for likely the first time since school. That's Grammar with a big "G".
Now, depending on the education curriculum in your country, you might not have even covered the finer points of grammar at school. This means a lot of the terms you'll hear (particularly in academic style French courses) will sound like a whole bunch of jargon: articles, pronouns, adverbs, tenses. This can be one of the hardest parts of getting started — learning a new language so that you can start learning a new language!
And the idea of having to learn all these functions, as well as remembering all these new words and sounds — that's a big task.
But here's a thing: Have you ever heard how the more languages you learn, the easier it gets to learn more languages?
It's because, although all languages have their own particular grammatical quirks, they all have things in common: There will be nouns, adjectives, tenses, connectors. The actual words and sounds will vary, and the way they organize grammatical concepts will vary, but you find one same "core" list of grammatical concepts in every language of the world.
So once you've wrapped your head around it all once, and you've seen how the different grammatical concepts do their little dance within one language, you can apply this to other languages as well.
You can even apply it to your own first language, and finally understand the beautiful and terrifically complicated things you do in your own tongue on a daily basis.
Yes, it can be hard to learn the grammar. It can be boring. It can feel like you're having to read a massive rule book when you just want to play the game.
But the end result can be a teeny tiny bit like having the keys to the universe.