(This post is the first in a series of responses to the questionnaire posted at Would you like living in France. See the ‘expat requirements’ category for all posts in the series.)
The first question asked was ‘do you speak French?’.
Ah, obviously the answer is, there is no point moving to France if you can’t speak French.
Well, no, that isn’t the answer. We moved to France with more or less no French language skills – reckless perhaps, but it hasn’t done us any long-term harm.
To the best of my knowledge, we don’t actually know anyone who has moved out in the last few years who had anything like a good level of French speaking skills when they arrived (French degree students excepted).
Many people who profess to be fluent before arriving fade into silence when confronted with a ‘real’ French conversation. And many who admit to having studied ‘a little bit of French at school’ are really quite good.
So your own opinion of your level of French is likely to be wrong, at least until you get out and talking to French people. Your ability in communicating in French depends at least as much on your level of confidence as it does on your knowledge of verb conjugations.
Or more exactly, it depends on your lack of embarrassment when you are speaking very slowly and know you are making lots of mistakes. The benefit of evening classes before you come isn’t so much the actual words you learn, but the confidence they give you to ‘have a go’.
Note that I am not setting myself up as Mr Expert, I often lack motivation to sit and study, and don’t spend enough time practicing and learning. But even a small continuous effort pays off in the long term.
After you arrive you need to ensure you are having some kind of regular communication with French people, even if it is just striking up a little conversation in the bakers each morning. Reading, studying, learning, watching French TV etc all help but none is as efficient as a real five minute conversation with a French person.
Why? Because afterwards, when you realise what you said, and what you actually intended to say, you’ll cringe and be horribly embarrassed. But this embarrassment will guarantee that you remember what you said wrong, and will stop you making the same mistake again.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of other mistakes still to make in the months and years ahead, but at least you’re learning!
So in conclusion, the answer to the first question is: it doesn’t matter what your current level of French is, as long as you (honestly and truly) believe that you can make the effort to learn after you arrive.
The possibility of living in France and not speaking French at all – entirely possible and the option chosen by a remarkable number of people – is not one that I personally think is credible as a long term plan. Nonetheless it is possible.
So that’s the first tricky obstacle out of the way. In a day or two I’ll look at the financial challenges of moving to France…