The French language sounds beautiful, and compared to oriental languages such as Japanese, isn't that difficult to learn for a native English-speaker. Both languages contain words derived from Latin, but although these words look similar on paper, they are usually pronounced completely differently!
What Is The Best Way To Learn French?
The most effective way to learn to speak French - or any other language - is to spend time among native speakers. It might not be possible for you to spend a long time on vacation in France, and moving there just to learn the language seems a bit extreme, but there might be a local group or class that you could join.
You could also search for French people giving one-on-one lessons in your area.
When I moved to France, I couldn't speak French - despite reading those 'learn French' books and listening to interactive cassettes designed to teach you French (I think the Michel Thomas ones were what I used).
I thought this would be enough to get me through, but on my first day in a French school I found myself completely lost - not only did the French find it difficult to understand me, but I couldn't understand them. It seemed like their speech was speeded up, and the regional (Normandy) accent made it near impossible for me to understand anything.
After three months or so, during which time I was constantly in situations where I had no choice but to get by, I suddenly realised how much of the language I'd picked up. I could hold a conversation, understand the slang, and explain myself - at least on a basic level. After that, it just got easier and easier.
What I'd Suggest
- Get a basic guide to learning French - whether that be a book, a website or an app - just to help you understand how the language is different from English. I'd personally go with something in audio format, as it'll teach you (at least roughly) how things are pronounced.
- Watch French TV aimed at children. I was thirteen, and was watching cartoons aimed at really young kids. This actually helped a great deal. Watching the same episodes over and over until I knew what was going on was really useful, although getting used to the squeaky voices of cartoon characters was a bit of a problem at first!
- Watch dubbed versions of shows you already watch in English. I remember watching House and CSI on French TV, and as I already knew what happened in House, it was easy to match the language to the visuals. It also helped me understand how French people speak - the speed, the intonations, and the accents. It's a bit weird hearing a different voice coming out of Hugh Laurie's mouth, though!
- Watch DVDs in French with English subtitles. I've been back in England for over four years now, and had barely spoken any French during that time. I started watching Spiral, a French crime drama, on TV, and although I had to rely on subtitles for the first episode, by the third or fourth I didn't need to read them at all.
- See if you can find a native French person to converse with - a relatively new thing is French 'classes' held on Skype, so you can see, speak and type to the other person. Some of these people will charge, whereas others might just want to improve their English!
Textbook French vs 'Real' French