Learning French While Living in France is Easy. Wrong!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

What? You’ve been living in France for five years? And you still don’t speak French fluently?
People usually assume that because you live in France, learning French is going to be easy. The reality is unfortunately quite different.

The theory is since the French language is going to be all around you, you’ll be soaking it in, and have many opportunities to practice, right?

Wrong. Actually, learning French while living in France can prove to be a real challenge.

In this article, I’ll explain why it’s not that easy to pick up the French language and give English speakers who live in France precise tips to learn French efficiently.

1 – A Fake French Immersion

Ok, you live in France but what language do you speak at home and at work?

If the answer is English – or any other language for that matter – you are not in French Language immersion. You may be surrounded by the French language, yet you live in a bubble: an English-speaking bubble in France.

So first thing to assess: realistically, how many hours per day do you spend communicating in French?

For many foreigners living in France, it’s actually surprisingly low. That’s one off the reasons why you are not “picking up” the French language.

2 – No Motivation to Speak French Fluently

Once you’ve mastered “bonjour Monsieur” and “je voudrais une baguette s’il vous plaît”, what are your daily needs to speak French?

This is especially true if you live in a city where lots of people speak English.

Most people you need to interact with will speak some English… Between your French and their English, you’ll be able to communicate. And if not, there will always be a good English speaking soul around to help you out.

Did you even choose to come to live in France? Did your job take you there? Or your spouse? Is learning French a choice or something you feel is being imposed on you?

In other words, what’s your motivation to speak French fluently? If the answer is “because I should”, it’s unfortunately not enough.

3 – Extremely High Expectations From The French

Furthermore, what’s the point of even trying?

The French tend to be extremely judgmental when it comes to their precious language. Most French people have no clue how hard it is to learn French and will give you no credit for trying, and harshly correct your every mistake.

It’s really hard to build any self-confidence in your ability to speak French if you let them get to you.

4 – Very High Expectations From Yourself

Students of French living in France often give up on improving their French.

The goal is just too high. Whatever their efforts, it seems like it’s never enough to please the French, or to even please themselves since they feel they will never be able to represent themselves adequately in French.

I went exactly through the same thing when I was living in the US.

I am a pretty funny person in French, I mean, I have a good sense of humor. And I’m pretty eloquent when I want to be.

But in English, I feel I cannot articulate with wit what I want to say, or show my sense of humor (puns or jokes take too long to formulate and I miss the ‘opportunity’ window).

And I hesitate and stammer a lot – or so it seems to me! In my brain, it’s often chaos: not only do I struggle to find the right words and pronunciation, but I keep hearing the mistakes I’ve just made, and then I blame myself.

My “inner voice” keeps yelling nasty things to me:

  • “what you just said sounded so stupid”
  • “you should know better: you’ve studied that!”
  • “really? Still mispronouncing that word after all this time?””

My close friends constantly bursting in laughter to mock me doesn’t help either.

So what’s the point of studying a language if you feel you’ll never be able to be adequate?

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5 – Accepting The Multiple Versions of You

That’s my first tip for English speakers living in France.

Yes, chances are you will never be able to reconcile your English speaking self to your French-speaking self. It can be scary and frustrating.

It also can be quite exciting.

As a foreigner, you are “exotic”. You bring a new perspective to the table. And this is intriguing to French people. The French will want to know you because you are American, Australian, Irish… You have the upper hand there compared to just another French person (even though his French is perfect…).

But more importantly, you can learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Constructing your “French” self will make you use parts of your “English” self that you are not accustomed to. Maybe you’ll smile more for example. Or be more grateful towards people taking the time to talk with you. It will certainly help you have more empathy towards people learning English!!

Once I accepted I couldn’t be “French” Camille in the US, my inner “blame” shut down. Darn! It’s amazing how much time you have to actually construct your sentences when you are not constantly insulting and judging yourself!

To my surprise, once I calmed down, I realized that people actually understood what I was saying. I made mistakes, OK, but they still understood me. And it got better with time and practice.

And yes, sometimes, my friends laughed at me, and it was hard to take at first, but once I accepted it was not ill-intentioned, I was “almost” able to laugh with them. Here you go, my “English” self had taught me to take myself a bit less seriously, and enjoy laughter for laughter. A useful lesson (in any language) for sure.

OK, so there is a bit of psychology involved… Once you are over that hump, what can you actually do to learn French in France?

6 – You Need a Roadmap

To English speakers living in France, mastering French may look like a huge mountain.

But like any mountain, it’s climbable: however, if you go at it by yourself, explorer mode, you are really complicating your life! However, that’s exactly what you do in French when you think “I’ll just soak it up once I’m in France”.

People have climbed this mountain before you… follow their lead: find a good roadmap or even a guide.

So, there is a bit of soul-searching to do before you start your French journey.

What’s your motivation: why do YOU want to learn French? And please leave the “should” behind…

What’s your real French goal – do you really want to put in the efforts, time, resources to climb all the way to the top of that mountain, or would a nice hike on the highlands be enough?

What are your priorities? Communicate efficiently (if not necessarily with eloquence)? Improve your pronunciation? Your grammar?

Which French learning method (= roadmap) is the best for you?

Should you hire a private French teacher to guide you?

How to learn French when you live in France

7 – Set Short Term, Realistic Goals

When surrounded by native French speakers, it’s easy to feel you are not progressing at all. So, set short-term goals for yourself. You have a huge opportunity since you live in France: you can find people to practice with.

It may not be easy to engage in full conversation with some people – waiters, shopkeepers, etc are usually busy: they may not be willing to speak French to you and may switch to English for efficiency sake. But you can still exchange a few words in French.

When you do that, push yourself and “place” in the sentence a new idiom or tense you’ve been working on. And enjoy the feeling of a winning challenge.

8 – Smell the Roses

Take the time to acknowledge what you have achieved. Yes, there will always be room for improvement – actually, when you think about it, there is room for improvement in your English self as well, isn’t it?

So now, you are able to go buy your bread in French in total confidence. Yeah you!

Next step, ordering in a restaurant. Next one, buying clothes…

Take time to congratulate yourself once you’ve achieved these goals. They are huge steps, important steps!

Next situation: talking to the plumber… Wait… is this realistic?

At this point in your studies, are you going to be able to successfully interact with a plumber who possibly doesn’t speak a word of English?

If the answer is no, then get some help. If the answer is “I don’t have a choice”, then heck, go for it… but don’t feel stupid or inadequate because the interaction was a bit rough… You are not omniscient. Neither is your plumber!

The highly philosophical conversation with your next door neighbor you’d love to impress? Well, this one will have to wait. Maybe forever. Impress him with something else… Or better yet, don’t! Who cares?

9 – Dealing with the French

And yes. There will still be people who don’t get it. People who don’t understand how hard it is to speak French fluently. People who are going to shame you into the “but you should speak French by now”, or correct your every word.

It’s frustrating. I know, I’ve been there… I am there.

Let it go. There will always be the lovers and the haters. And the lovers who love to hate…

Bottom line: you speak two languages. They only speak one. No matter what, you win.

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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