Learning French

A guide to learning French

Learning French and speaking French

"'Parlez vous francais?" "Oui, je parle un peu, si vous parlez lentement." As conversations in a foreign tongue go, this one sounds promising. It's all in French, which is a definite plus point. However, although almost all ex-pats are able to stutter out the "Yes, a little, if you speak slowly..." response to the question, unfortunately that is about as far as it goes for far too many of us. Our claim to understand slow French is frequently disproved with the very next line, and we gaze blankly and wonder why this language we are hearing bears little or no resemblance to the French we learned in school.

Learning French - a must if you're thinking of living or holidaying in France

When you decide to move to France, or to invest in a holiday home there, you are, of course, very aware that you should learn to speak the language. Anyone who has spent much time in France will realise that although many French do speak at least passable English, they see no reason why they should do so in their own country. This is perfectly reasonable, and it is clearly our job, as incomers, to pay our respects to our chosen adopted country and to make sure that we can converse and operate our affairs in French. Learning French is therefore a must.

Learning French is harder as you get older

It isn't as easy as all that, however, and the sad fact is that the older you get, the harder it becomes to pick up a new language. Children will move from being completely lost to a very acceptable level of French in about a year, although it may, perhaps, take a little longer for teenagers. This doesn't of course, absolve us from trying to learn French! Even the oldest and least academic among us are able to improve our level of French, and there are lots of methods out there to choose from, so you should be able to find something to suit you and your particular learning style.

Learning French with cassettes and CDs

Learning French is possible using cassettes and CDs (many of which are excellent, by the way), and then there are Michel Thomas cassettes and CDs. In any ex-pat discussion centring on the difficulties of learning the language, someone will mention Michel Thomas, usually with enthusiasm. French teachers will probably be equally unenthusiastic. So who is right? And who is Michel Thomas?

Michel Thomas cassettes and CDs

Michel Thomas, to take first the easier of the two questions, is, or rather was, as he died in January 2005, a scholar and linguist whose experiences under Nazi persecution in France and Germany during the second world war led him to develop a unique and revolutionary system of language teaching. To return now to the first question, the answer is simply, forget about anyone else's opinion, and if it helps you, then use it. Michel Thomas employs a method which is remarkably stress free, and does seem to work to a certain level, for a high proportion of learners. His insistence that you must not write anything down or consciously try to learn anything, means that it is practical to listen to the tapes while driving the car, or doing the housework, or even by the pool!

Basics learnt using Michel Thomas

I have found that the tapes are actually, for once, better than the CDs (although the courses are available in both formats) because it is easier to rewind and fast forward to exact spots if you want to re-listen to a particular part. I know many people who have used the Michel Thomas system for learning French, and while it seems that none of us have become expert or fluent through the use of the system, we have at least painlessly learned some basics, and are able to call on these basic sentences and structures to help communication.

Learning French with Michel Thomas has its limitations yet works for many

Although the system has its limitations, what does seem remarkable about it is that once you have heard the tapes a few times, you really don't forget. Michel Thomas also increases confidence in his learners by calling to attention the many similarities between French and English, hence, almost all British ex-pats in France are able to confidently discuss the "situation politique, historique, economique et sociologique en France!"

Learning French online - Linguaphone

It is also possible to learn French in an interactive fashion, using a mixture of course materials and the internet. Linguaphone is a long established and very highly regarded company who can provide this type of course. Details are available from its website, http://www.linguaphone.co.uk. Its course uses real materials such as French newspapers and radio broadcasts to keep you interested, and it is especially good for those who have already achieved a certain level of French and wish to improve further.

Learning French on intensive courses in the UK

It is possible to take an intensive course of French lessons before you leave the UK, and this can be a good idea if you have the available time. You can attend a registered language school, such as BSL Interlenguas in London, (enquiries@bslinterlenguas.co.uk), which operate very successfully through a process known as immersion. You study for eight to twelve hours a day (they don't call it intensive for nothing!) although some of these study hours are actually social interaction... but always in the target language. If you want a drink, you ask in French. If you are given instructions, these will be in French. It is a tried and tested method, and it does speed up results.

Learning French on intensive courses in France

Of course, another way to learn French within this system of immersion is to take the course in France. There are many establishments and private individuals offering these courses, and the internet is a good way to find them. Immersion France, (www.immersionfrance.co.uk), situated in the Loire Valley (The Central Loire Valley Property Guide), is one such school, and offers not just language learning but a total French experience involving dining out, interacting with host families, visiting local places of interest and classroom work supported by highly qualified tutors.

Learning French by home tuition in the UK

Another possibility is to arrange private tuition in your own home, which can be a good choice especially if you want to learn as a family. Find a teacher who will arrange mutually agreed hours, and learn in the comfort of your own home. Results won't be as swift as if you undertake an intensive course, but it will certainly help you to build a starting vocabulary and form some simple sentences to ease your path in those difficult early days in a new country.

Finding a teacher

Tutors can be sourced through local schools and colleges, the Yellow Pages or on the Internet, but be careful to check credentials if the person is unknown to you. Teaching qualifications usually mean that a professional approach is taken and a structured format and tried and tested methods employed. Having said that, however, if you know a local student who is studying French at university, it can be a mutually acceptable agreement for them to teach some French in return for a small fee... good for their experience and helpful and less expensive for you too.

Continuing to learn French once in France

Once you have arrived in France and discovered that despite all the preparation you still need to improve your French, what can you do? Somehow you have to fit learning French into your everyday life, and this can be hard when you are juggling a new job (Jobs in France), possibly getting to grips with running gîtes or a B&B (Owning Gîtes and Chambres D'Hotes (B&Bs) in France), renovating a property (House Renovations in France) or simply trying to settle into a new country and lifestyle. Don't panic. There will almost certainly be plenty of private teachers locally, and word of mouth amongst other ex-pats will be the best way to find one to suit you. If you don't yet know any ex-pats, try local newspapers or the "petits annonces" boards in the supermarkets, where teachers frequently advertise.

Learning French with others in a class

Should you prefer to join a class, you can probably find details of these through an organisation called GRETA, which is an adult education provider similar to further education colleges in the UK. There may also be free classes held in your town depending on demand (in areas where the ex-pat community is large there will be more choice of class), and information about these will be obtained through the local Mairie. These classes, while usually taught by enthusiastic amateurs rather than highly qualified professionals, can be a good way to get your French off the ground while meeting other Brits who are struggling with the language too.

The best way to learn French

In short, the best way to learn French is to speak French with the French. The more time you spend with other Brits, speaking English, the longer it will take you to learn French. Join a club, a class, or take up a sporting activity (Sport in France), and spend as much time as possible speaking French. Put yourself into situations where you have no choice but to speak French, and you will be amazed at how fast you improve. Yes, it is incredibly difficult at first, not to say daunting, but it is exactly what we do to our children when we bring them out here and dump them into schools where they have nothing but French all around them. But, one year later, look how much they have learned! (French Education System - Schools in France, French School - experiences of a 14-year-old, Starting School in France.)

French spoken in France

Remember, French as it is spoken in France can be a very different animal from that you learned in school. There are regional accents, for one thing, some almost unrecognisable from the standard pronunciation. Then there is the sheer speed at which native speakers speak to each other, colloquialisms, trendy expressions and all manner of changes that seem set to confound you! For all of these, there is no substitute for listening and speaking. (Learning to speak French - Misadventures in a Foreign Tongue.)

Learning French by exposure to the language

It can be an awkward feeling, trying out a language that you are not sure of, but once you have made friends you will find that the embarrassment goes away and that your friends are only too pleased to help you, if you ask them. Most people won't correct your mistakes unless you expressly ask them to, however, for fear of causing offence. The other oft heard advice is also worth taking on board. Listen to the radio, watch French television (Television in France and French TV.) Buy local papers and try to work out what is being reported. All exposure to the language will help you learn.

Learning French - how long will it take?

So, the crucial question. How long will it take to learn French? Unfortunately, there is no standard answer. If you follow the advice above and put in a little effort learning the basics then spend as much time as possible interacting with native French speakers, chances are that in a year you will have improved significantly. Will you have gone from nought to fluency in a year? Most unlikely. At what point will you feel comfortable speaking French? This one depends on your own levels of confidence, dedication to the task and natural language learning ability. Everyone is different, everyone learns at a different speed, and at a different level.

Enjoy learning French

Generally speaking, the younger you are the faster you will learn, and the more you can immerse yourself in the language the faster you will achieve results. Apart from that it is entirely subjective. What is important, I believe, is to enjoy the process and don't knock yourself if you haven't picked it up as fast as your friends. Celebrate every small milestone, such as the first time you understand what the girl on the till at the supermarket says to you, and don't listen to anyone who claims to have become "virtually bi-lingual" in a month... or any other improbable claim! If you want to learn French you will find a way of doing so... and how long will it take? As long as it takes!

Additional articles which may be of interest:

Life in France
Living in France
Buying and cooking French food

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

Please note that the courses she mentions exist to the best of her knowledge, and she has personal experience of some and not others. She has spoken to people who have tried them all but it is really all down to personal preference.

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