Learning French when you move to France
The key to successfully settling into your new life is learning French. Without it, you’ll never be able to truly integrate. Once you know the language, a wealth of social and work opportunities opens up. So, give it a try – and don’t be too worried about mistakes! Luckily, French people like the English accent as much as we like the French one.
The importance of learning French
A lack of communication skills and the feelings of isolation this brings are often stated as the number one reason that British expats return to the UK.
Learning a little of the French language will truly help you as you begin to integrate. Imagine, for example, if someone arrived in an English village with no English – it would be very difficult to make local friends, or just carry out day-to-day errands.
It also has to be said as well that the French are undoubtedly fiercely proud of their language. As such, the way to their heart really is through communicating with them in their own words. Although most French people can certainly manage some sentences in English, it’s not a good idea to make assumptions. And, you will win enduring respect if you master the basics.
It is a common perception that the British are particularly bad at learning another language – this is more than likely because wherever they go in the world, there is someone who can speak a few words in English, so why would they go to the trouble?
The French are undoubtedly very proud of their language, and the way to their heart really is through communication with them in their own words.
There are many stories of parents who embark on exciting new lives in France, joining associations and clubs in the expat community. They send their children to French schools but then never start learning French themselves. Consequently, they soon become increasingly isolated from the community – and cannot communicate with their children’s friends or teachers. Eventually, they give up and move back to the UK.
Before you go
The best time to start learning French is right from the start. You don’t need to wait until you’re in place – try finding a local class to join, at your local adult education centre or college. If you have a branch of the Alliance Française nearby, they’re normally an excellent place to start.
Being able to speak a bit of the language when you arrive will, without a doubt, pay enormous dividends. It will ensure you find it easier to understand the culture, deal with day-to-day authorities like the bank and, most importantly, build friendships. Many people move to rural France for that neighbourliness and slow-paced lifestyle that can seem lacking in parts of the UK, so having the basics of French will be a huge help in enjoying that.
You can start studying on your own, or use self-study to supplement your classes. Above all, it’s a good idea to really immerse yourself in as much French as you possibly can. Try to watch French TV and listen to French radio. Even if you do find it hard to understand, you will get used to the pronunciation and the rhythms of spoken French. The news is generally a good one, as this tends to be spoken more slowly. As your French gets better, chat shows are usually great for a more natural and relaxed variety of French than the news. You can also find apps like Duolingo for your mobile phone, which you can use for short-burst practice sessions when you have a spare ten minutes.
After you arrive in France
When you continue your learning in France, it is important to remember that it’s something of a bureaucratic country. However maddening this can be at times, you can in fact turn it around and use it to practise your French! If you have to visit the town hall (mairie) to find out about your property, your land, or simply register for any course or local festivity, you can also listen to the way they explain things and the expressions they use.
Use visits to the mayor and any other official business to practise your French and listen to the expressions that are used.
It can be helpful to try and steer clear of the English crowd to start with, as this may give you an ‘easy out’ for not learning the language. If you can get past that first hurdle of forcing yourself to speak the language, then you’re halfway there.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes
Remember above all that no-one minds if you make mistakes. Moreover, the French love to hear their language spoken with an English accent (much as we like to hear English spoken with a French accent, of course). Get talking to whomever you can in shops, restaurants, when sightseeing and try to strike up a conversation. Tell them that you really want to learn. Listen to what they say – and even if you don’t understand everything, the chances are that there will be some words you will understand and that you will get the gist of what is being said to you.
Also, if you listen carefully, you will probably pick up a word or two from the sense of what is being said, which you can store away for future use. The best way to really learn French is to be here in France and to have patience. It won’t happen overnight, but in time you will gradually find that you are talking and understanding very well.
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