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The Keys to Learning French

Posted by Malindi Pender on July 18, 2018
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Moving to Paris is a dream for many yet, learning French seems like a nightmare. French and English are as different as can be: different sentence structure, use of gender, use of pronouns, formal vs informal…the list goes on. Yet, despite differences, Anglophones (amongst many other groups of people) find a way to make it work. You won’t be the first or the last person to move to Paris without perfect French, and that’s ok! It can take years to feel comfortable in your ability to speak French and if you wait until you’re ready you may never go. The most important part is to start. The Paris Living team has put together useful information, tips, tricks, and hopefully, inspiration for your journey in learning French.

Learning French is 20% vocabulary, 20% practice and 60% confidence.

In order to get the ball rolling with French, you’ll need vocabulary. You can start growing your vocabulary with the popular free app Duolingo. For a more in-depth approach, there’s an excellent podcast called “Coffee Break French” that introduces French in 20 minute intervals- it’s perfect for a train-ride or workout. Another way to practice French is (re)watching your favorite shows on Netflix in French with English subtitles. If you have the time and resources, enrolling at a French school in Paris is a great way to build a foundation with the language. French teachers (or private tutors) will provide listening, vocabulary, reading, writing and speaking exercises. With the help of daily French class I was able to go from zero French to B1 level in one year! Here is a list of a few popular schools for French learners:

After gaining vocabulary, you should opt to find someone to practice with. The challenge is that many Parisians can speak English! This is a good and bad thing. It’s good because your transition into society will ultimately be easier. There is a difference in attitude between younger and older French people that makes English less of a “scary” or “foreign” thing. Young French people recognize a value in speaking English and are excited to share and practice with native speakers. Lucky us! The bad part is, the desire to learn English often trumps their patience to practice bad French. I have had numerous conversations that start in French only to end in English. You will need to be persistent in your quest for practice partners who are serious about either a fair exchange of languages or about forcing you to think and speak in French. Worst case scenario- don’t be afraid to practice out-loud to yourself. Practice ordering at a boulangerie, practice saying “have a nice day”, practice asking for directions: all of this will be useful in your everyday life and ultimately help with confidence.

The most important part of learning French (or any language) is blind confidence. There’s a reason children learn languages so quickly: they aren’t afraid to make mistakes! You need to just put yourself out there and try your bad French without fear of sounding stupid. You probably sound better than you think. Even if you don’t sound great, it is not the end of the world. With practice and confidence comes improvement. Sounding good doesn’t count if its only in your head. So get out of your head and start saying phrases to yourself and speaking to people.

Two places to try speaking French couldn’t be more different: a local cafe/bar or a Meetup for language exchange. As an ex-pat you may find yourself often walking the line between wanting to fully integrate into French society and also wanting to be around people that just speak your language. This is normal. Finding a balance between “living like a local” and getting a dose of ‘home’ every once in a while can be difficult, especially when you are actively trying to learn French. The first suggestion, a neighborhood cafe or bar, will help you learn your neighborhood characters while also practicing French. You’ll be able to hear people’s conversations and hopefully, one day, participate yourself! There’s no better feeling than being able to understand random tidbits of what you hear in French, it’s a signal of progress. Introduce yourself in French, tell people how you ended up here and what you like about Paris so far. I’ve found that leading a conversation in French (especially one about yourself)  is much easier than responding to a conversation in French. In contrast, if you want to be in an environment catered to learning languages then Meetups are another option. These scenarios are usually at a bar with cheap drink options and a mix of people from around the world making casual conversation. An additional bonus is that there are Meetups that are strictly in French and some that are exchanges, so depending on your level of comfort you can challenge yourself a bit. If you decide to go, keep an open mind, bring a friend and have fun while learning French!

However you decide to begin, remember that most value is placed on speaking rather than reading, writing and translating. Speaking is important, but don’t forget to celebrate the small victories of being able to understand an advertisement, write a text message (download the French keyboard immediately!) or eavesdrop on the bus from time to time. Speaking s a way to prove to others that we are growing and learning but only you know how much you know and are capable of. The most important thing is to seek new ways to learn and to put yourself out there a bit by trying- the worst that can happen is you’ll become a real Frenchie!

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