Learning French Language, the Linguistic Dilemma
Originally posted on & updated on 17th November, 2023
This month Beth shares her experience of learning and improving her spoken French, but despite all the best intentions and tools available, this is usually not as easy as it should be... It's never too late to learn a language, and in our view, has never bean more important.
"As a homeowner in France, like others with similar plans, we started with worthy intentions of becoming fluent in the language. If we were to spend lots of time here, we needed to improve our existing linguistic skills. I use the word ‘skills’ loosely.
We had previously relied on school-taught French during holidays, picking up extra words along the way. This was fine for vacation-speak, but deep conversations were out of the question. No problem. I had a plan. Once we decided to buy in France, I enrolled on a course of evening classes in the UK.
I sailed through the first two terms easily enough. Soon, two practical issues emerged. As we spent more and more time in France viewing properties, I started to miss lessons. The penny dropped that our grand adventure abroad would take far more time than anticipated.
The other issue was associated with our region. We eventually bought a domaine in a rural backwater of the Tarn et Garonne. It’s the kind of place nobody knows about and certainly not tourists. Bliss. It was a chance finding and suited us perfectly, but there were difficulties, one of which was the accent.
We live in a sparsely populated area among farming folk, most of whom have never left the department, let alone the region. Why should they? It’s gorgeous here. We found their rustic southwest accent completely incomprehensible. Equally, despite trying hard, they couldn’t make head nor tail of our twee accents with a Parisian twang.
This inability to make ourselves understood became a major problem when we made another surprising discovery. For sensible reasons, at the point of sale, we had no idea that our property was falling to pieces except for the roofs. We quickly started living full-time in France and needed to communicate efficiently with a southwestern lilt. How we did it came in various ways.
Basically, nobody speaks English here. We considered having lessons with a tutor but couldn’t locate anyone close enough. Instead, we didn’t go anywhere for the first year without an English-French pocket dictionary. Fortunately, our long-suffering neighbours continued to find our quaint attempts at the language, ‘charmante’ and bemusing but were encouraged that we were trying.
Our charades, dictionary usage and hastily-drawn explanatory sketches were extended to the hapless artisans who worked on the buildings. Nevertheless, even if we used the correct French word, unless we pronounced it with a throaty southwestern accent, they were lost.
Once we had internet access, we tried online learning aids. There’s a wide variety. Some are designed as word games, others are visuals-driven, and there are lecture-based tutorials. We also tried CD language courses. Unfortunately, our efforts were hampered by an iffy internet connection, snail time download speeds, and a crisis-led renovation schedule. Still, they were all beneficial to a degree.
Of more practical use was watching the news, better still when we added French subtitles. A quirk of French current affairs debates is that everyone speaks at once, at the speed of sound. Having the subtitles helps no end. One English friend spent months glued to French cartoons, convinced they were the key to becoming fluent. No problem with that, although he has developed quite a colourful vocabulary.
Reading the local newspaper with a dictionary to hand was helpful. We read the France actualités online with Google translate alongside, and still do. Silly though it sounds, we also subscribed to a newspaper/comic for teenagers called L’actu. Published by PlayBac Presse, they offer different age ranges. It’s designed to be a daily ten-minute read on current affairs in France and globally.
These different learning aids helped, but the greatest improvements to our French language proficiency came from closer to home. Sitting in cafés or having a meal at a restaurant, listening to local chat, reading menus and talking to our waiter. Slowly but surely, new words began to sink in.
Every time I went shopping, my vocabulary was extended. We acquired a collection of random house renovation-related terms. Machine tools, garden equipment and animal husbandry-related words tumbled into our brains. We were less good at joining them up into comprehensible sentences. That did come, but more slowly.
We accepted invitations from locals to soirées, dinners, and reciprocated. It’s a great way to make new friends. I met French dog walkers, one of whom was a newly retired French teacher. Result! Every walk turned into a French lesson as I regularly murdered their language.
A bit like osmosis, we slowly learned more and more. By immersing ourselves in the local community, by accident, our vocabulary extended. We are now discovering new phrases, colloquial terms, stuff the textbooks don’t tell you about, and how to use them, and we can chat till the cows come home.
I regret that we’re not genuinely fluent French speakers, and I doubt we will ever be. But we have gained the most by working and socialising with local French folk. At times they still find our accents baffling, but we cherish their company and couldn’t be more grateful for their friendship."
So if you are planning to move or spend time in France (or any foreign country), we advise you start early. The key is vocabulary and our top tip is that you start looking at some of your favorite films or books in French, or perhaps easier (and better for everyday words), some news channels like TV5Monde, with the 'right' accent (neutral), possibly in English to start with.
For film and book lovers, there are many many excellent movies, le 'cinéma Français' is definitely worth exploring, we've just ordered the 1st Besson film (Subway) for Noel. As for French literature, where to start there's so much in every genre, perhaps with Les Misérables?
For more stories about rural living in SW France, check Beths' excellent books (in Engish), they're a great idea for any francophile and animal lover at Christmas, it's not too late.