Learning to speak French

Learning the French language - don't underestimate how hard it is!

Even if you have a reasonable level of French from school, this is not the same as having a casual conversation with a 'real' french person. To do this casually, with no hesitation and to be well understood - and brace yourself for this - will take about 10 years. And that's if you are trying. Luckily, you can have a slow hesitant conversation long before that.

We know a lot of English speaking people here in France, and it is really quite unusual to find someone who can speak French well, to a French person, who has been in France a lot less time than that. It is much more common to find people who have lived here a long time and can speak almost no French.

I have a bad attitude about this, I'm afraid. I believe that if you live in France you must persist and learn the language. You can't hope to fit in properly, or make the most of your time in the country, if you can't speak the language. I don't accept that age makes it impossible to learn new things, and I don't accept that some people simply can't learn a new language. I do accept that for many of us (myself included) it is very difficult.

There are exceptions of course, and some people are more gifted than others at learning a new language, but be prepared for a long haul. The main way to learn, not surprisingly, is to find opportunities to speak to French people. At first, these don't necessarily arise as often as you would hope, but you can try - in the shops, neighbours, on the telephone. If they say in the shop 'will that be all?' try and say something apart from 'yes' or 'no', and so on.

We have also found it to be of benefit to have no English language television in our house - for many years, we have forced ourselves to watch French television only. Trust me, it was hard for a long time, and still is sometimes. You will need to actually learn french words and verbs, but nothing can beat hearing the words in context, understanding them, and trying to say them yourself.

One popular option is formal French lessons - better in France with a French teacher than in England with an English speaker talking French, and often supplied free by the local department authorities. These can work quite well, but again need to be backed up by real french conversations.

I perhaps over-emphasise this because of my own circumstances. Before I left England I learned a lot of words, practiced a bit, and thought I could speak OK. Within about 5 minutes of arriving in France I realised I understood more or less nothing that was said. Put the radio on in the car and listen to the song words and the weather forecast, read the local newspaper, read a novel, whatever you like, but it will all be worth it for the sense of satisfaction at the end. Never give up!