Many of us arrive in France determined to be fluent within months, only to find that learning a language as an adult isn’t so simple. Five newcomers who are fluent in French reveal the tips and tricks that worked for them.
Bev Noone, 51, housekeeper, lives in Lot, Midi-Pyrénées, with her husband Jim, 60
I first came to France to do seasonal work in 1993 and met my other half, Jim, who is also British.
We have worked the summer seasons in France, the winter seasons in the UK for several years.
Finally, in 2003, we moved to France and bought a house.
Each season we worked for an English company on different campsites based in the Dordogne. As we usually worked with English clients, our French did not improve much from the GCSE level we both had.
We took French lessons every week when we first bought the house, but after a few years we saw no noticeable improvement. It was like going back to school – you had homework every week and you never wanted to do it!
Then, in 2014, I was fired. The company we worked for was taken over and everything changed.
We went to one of the campsite owners we had worked for and inquired about a job. Jim is really knowledgeable and experienced in mobile home repair, so they hired him. I got a job as a housekeeper on the same site.
The other five women in the cleaning crew were French and I had no choice but to try to converse with my limited language.
I used to feel sick with apprehension every morning.
It was made worse by the fact that they used slang words that I had never encountered.
After four seasons my French had improved considerably and I found a job at a local hotel.
I now believe that the only real way to learn is to be immersed. When you speak French all day, your ear seems to be listening.
Before, I always felt on the back foot. Now I feel more comfortable – although I probably know a few words I’d rather not!
Liz Francis, 75, a retired commercial designer and illustrator, lives in Quibou, in the Manche department of Normandy, with her husband Rod
We arrived in France in 2006 clutching our Michel Thomas CDs, having not studied French since school.
I had traveled to France for work at some point in my career, so my understanding of the written language was reasonable, but I had no real spoken French.
Unfortunately, Michel Thomas didn’t live up to the hype, for us at least. We found the CD method quite irritating.
We also tried Duolingo, but found it too Americanized.
Instead, we tried local French classes for a few years. My French improved a bit this way, but since I had been put in the middle group due to my comprehension, I struggled to keep up when it came to spoken French.
Then I had a brain wave.
Wanting to learn the words for the objects we use every day, I started writing post-its and sticking them on household items like the toaster, trash can, cookie jar. After a while, we had post-its on everything in the house – and even in the car!
Gradually, I found myself thinking of articles by their French names.
Of course, knowing the names doesn’t give you the full sentence – but when you listen to a conversation, you start picking out the words and it starts to make sense.
After a while, we started adding the verb we would use next to the noun, like conduct in the car.
As our French improved, we started mixing more.
I sing with a French choir and Rod is a member of the Rotary Club, where everyone is French.
We have many French friends and are integrated into the local community.
Post-it notes weren’t the whole answer, but they helped take our French to the next level!
Jack Jenkins, 29, is a writer who lives in Angoulême with his wife Rebecca and their three children, aged six, five and six months.
When we first arrived in France, it was in 2016, for an extended vacation of five months. While we were there, I tried Duolingo and was on the app for over an hour a day.
At the time, our daughter, now six, was a baby and I spent a lot of time walking with her while she slept.
I used Duolingo at the same time so I learned a lot pretty quickly.
A few years later, in 2018, we decided to move permanently.
I work for a software company writing documentation – something I can do remotely. By the time we arrived, our children were older, we had a lot of paperwork to do, and since it was no longer a public holiday, I had to work. But I still managed to access the app every day, probably for at least an hour.
Duolingo is really thorough – they employ skilled linguists and I find the platform motivating.
It’s gamified, and I’m a sucker for getting the badge, earning points, continuing the streak. It really attracts me.
I have the app on my phone, and since I don’t use social media, whenever I have a free minute—say, if I’m waiting to pick up the kids—I hop on Duolingo.
By the end of the first year, I could speak French with confidence – even on the phone. And now I would classify myself as fluent.
My written French is not perfect, but I don’t use it often – although reading homework with the children also helps to improve it.
Jennifer Chamberlin, 44, founder of My Bilingual VA, lives near Meaux with her husband Sylvain and their two children aged 13 and 14
I arrived in France at the age of 16. My mother had encouraged me to apply for an intensive language course which included six weeks of lessons in Paris, followed by a school year at a French school in Nantes.
I’ve always loved languages, so I applied and – to my surprise – I was accepted. At the time, I only had the French GCSE: I could order a cappuccino in a cafe, but I couldn’t do much else.
My tutor described my French on arrival as “awful” – but after six weeks of lessons (four days a week from 9am to 4pm) I really picked up the pace.
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During this time, I lived with a French family in Nantes and went to school at level 3ème (Year 10).
The course changed my life. When I left I went to university in London but I didn’t like the course.
In second year, I saw a job offer for a bilingual worker at Disney in Paris. I applied and was accepted. After two years, I started working as a bilingual secretary – my language skills put a lot of strain on me!
Now I work as a bilingual virtual assistant and run my own business. Although I was quite young, I was still old in terms of language acquisition.
For me, the combination of intensive courses and complete immersion in French life made the difference between learning a language and mastering it.
Dawn Smethurst, 67, retired, owns a house in the Var with her husband Peter
I studied French literature at A level, but I hadn’t used my French for years. I remembered the absolute basics, but my vocabulary was still very limited.
Then, in 2000, Peter and I bought a house in the Var for the holidays and a possible retirement.
With flights available from easyJet, we come several times a year.
One day in 2002, we were flying home and I bought the French translation of a book by an English novelist I knew. I wondered if it wouldn’t be tedious to read a novel in French, but I thought I’d give it a try.
I used a dictionary with the first chapter, but after that the story grabbed me and I was able to understand the gist even though I didn’t understand every word.
I started picking up more novels, especially those by authors I was already familiar with.
Read more: Joining a library in France: A free way to improve your French
For me, it was the perfect way to learn because it was something I could do at my own pace.
With cinema or television, or in conversation, you have to follow. With a book, you can search for words you don’t understand.
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And you want to continue to find out how the story ends.
After a few years, I started reading French novels, which tend to be stylistically different, so a bit more difficult.
I tried to find some that were in areas that I knew, so that I had a sense of belonging.
As my vocabulary improved, I tried to speak more often. I didn’t always pronounce the words correctly, but I adapted as I learned.
Our neighbors – both former teachers – really helped. They are happy to kindly correct me when I am wrong.
Reading novels is also good for slang and conversation. You learn more about places and settings – and if you read a book that people know, you have something to say too!
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