You’ve booked your plane ticket, you’re frantic because you’re officially moving to France this year. Then the nerves sneak in and you start wondering if your French accent is good enough. The one thing you don’t want is to be confused with a tourist! Will you even be able to explain what’s wrong to the doctor if you get sick?
Well I get it because I’ve had those questions pop up more than once when moving to Holland, Brazil and lastly Serbia. In each case, my language level ranged from intermediate to complete beginner and one of the first things I would have liked to type in Google was How much of the language do I need to know before moving there? But I just had to decide for myself what was important and what wasn’t.
As much as I’d like to give you straightforward advice, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. I did accumulate some wisdom I’d like to share with you today after going abroad multiple times and working with expats who were moving to France.
So let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
3 skills you’ll need to survive the 1st month
Whether you consider yourself a complete beginner or a seasoned learner in French, you should make sure you’re able to do the following 3 things before moving to France:
Skill #1 : Understanding some of what’s being said by locals
This is seriously the most vital skill you’ll need in the beginning of your stay in France. Not everyone (dares to) speaks English, especially if you don’t live in Paris.
Why is it more essential than learning to speak or read French?
Imagine that you arrive in France and want to take the metro but the driver does a few French announcements and people start leaving the wagon.
If you can’t ask anyone what’s going on and when the next train will come and you couldn’t understand the announcements, then you’ll be lost and discouraged really fast.
You can always use body language and drawings to make your point, but you’ll first need to understand what people ask and say to you.
Skill #2 : Being able to give short and clear answers in French
Once you’ve managed to catch a few words in someone’s speech, enough to have a rough picture of what they’re saying, then it’s time to focus on simple interaction. People won’t mind if you can’t say complex things, as long as what you say is understandable. This means the words should be placed in the usual place in a sentence, and you should make sure you’re pronouncing things correctly to avoid them misunderstanding you.
Logically this is the right moment to learn the structure of a French sentence, such as word order and the present tense (which happens to be one of the most irregular tense in French). Try to include the past tense called passé composé as well so you can mention and understand past events in a simple conversation.
Skill #3 : Interpreting what a French person really means
Here comes the real challenge of living in a different culture. Being able to understand a sentence doesn’t mean you get the intentions of the speaker. It takes a lot of practice and time to understand fully what someone meant to say. In French culture, there are times when people can be quite direct, and sometimes they will be extremely implicit.
For example, many French use their hands when they talk, one reason for this is to add meaning to what they say. They can be very expressive with their face (eyes and mouth) and use gestures to explain things they’d rather not say out loud. Being aware of these small nuances will make your life way less frustrating, trust me on that.
This is by no means a complete list of what you should learn before moving to France. Today we’re focusing on communication and interaction with locals, which I personally consider extremely important for the success of your life in an unfamiliar country.
What you need depends on your why
Are you planning to go for a short stay or will you be staying long-term?
I’d say anything longer than 6 months and you’ll want to have more than basic conversations at the local market.
But if you plan to stay for a year or more, you’ll end up getting cravings for 2-hour long meals with a couple of French friends. And talking from experience, it’ll be amazing once you get to that point.
So why are you moving to France?
Option A : You’re going to France to study
If you plan to take courses given in English, then your level of French won’t need to be so high when you arrive in France. Knowing enough to get by in the stores and in a cafe should be fine for a start.
However, just like with everyone else the locals will expect you to understand what they’re saying at a normal pace so I’d supercharge my phone with French podcasts and songs if I were you.
If you’re going to attend lectures given in French, then you’ll need an immediate vocabulary crash course in that topic, with a focus on recognizing spoken words. This other article I wrote will give you some useful strategies to select authentic resources for your specific needs.
What happened to me 8 years ago in Holland, I know you can get there too if you have the right tools, you meet the right kind of people and you are stubborn enough not to give up when you feel lonely.
It’ll be hard to feel like you’re as good as any other French student in your class. And you’ll need to make much more efforts sometimes, but it can be such a rewarding experience.
For your info, I graduated just half a year later than a regular student and I felt so proud when they handed me that diploma I had worked so hard for. It made all the sleepless nights and the moments of doubt worth it.
Whether you study in English or in French, you will want to :
(tap/click on title to read more)
As I was saying earlier, you’ll want to at least be able to identify prices, times and dates when someone says them out loud. You’ll find everything you need to learn and recognize your first French words on Lexique FLE. I usually share these modules with my beginning students in this specific order : hours, calendar, numbers, clothing and pricing, getting lost.
On IE languages you’ll be able to find a very detailed guide on how to speak informal French. They have tons of audio files and exercises to help you speak just like a local, all for free!
This will help you when meeting French students at the library, communicating with housemates and even getting better prices at the local market. Use the well-written dialogs from Podcast Français Facile to practice your understanding of simple, medium-speed conversations.
Vocabulary such as house items, house chores, cooking, French food, student lingo, you may even need a few administrative terms if you ever want to extend your visa (good luck with that, French bureaucracy sucks!). You can check out my Pinterest board called Living in France for a collection of relevant guides and vocabulary lists from all over the web.
French natives communicate within a specific cultural context which could be translated by the use of body language, what certain expressions may imply and much more. You could start with Comme une Française vocabulary videos made for expats moving to France. If you can follow simple conversations in French, then I’d dive into some French comedy with the short sketches from a Guy and a Girl, a must-see series from the nineties.
Option B : You’re moving to France for work
So you finally got the job you wanted and now you’re wondering “What next?”. Well first of all, congrats!
Also, I’d recommend you take a good look at the company you’re going to work for and try to discover:
- How often will you be expected to speak or write in French during work hours?
- Will your colleagues mostly be French, or is it a very international environment?
- Do your coworkers use “vous” or “tu” when talking to each other, what about using their first names? (this really depends on the company and sector)
- How old are your colleagues and what do they enjoy talking about during lunch break?
Let’s be brutally honest for a moment here. If you do get hired by a French company and you’re expected by your boss to use French most of the time, then you’ll need to know a huge amount of words and nuances. And even if you do intend to practice months ahead of time, it’s nearly impossible to be completely ready for your new job without having started to work there.
Why is that? Once you enter your new office, you’ll be thrown into an environment that will probably have its own set of rules, such as specific terms only your colleagues will know and use.
Every project I visited in my first week had created its own world and the only way to make sense of that was to spend the next 2 weeks asking loads of questions to the coworkers I liked, writing down what wasn’t clear and especially by reading the company’s whole blog and twitter history.
I dived into their world until it became mine, and apparently that worked as I was offered to stay as a park manager at the end of my internship!
So don’t give up yet. A lot can be done before you start your new job, and once you do work there you’ll be able to fill in most of the blanks within a month. I’m just saying it’ll take a lot of efforts and you’re better off if you’ve already had a lot of interactions in French.
In a nutshell, you’ll need to set time aside well ahead of time to:
- Learn Business French vocabulary that will be relevant to your sector, for example by looking for authentic material. This article I wrote will help you find French resources for your specific field of work.
- Improve your “soft skills” in French, depending on your branch this may include the phrases used during meetings, negotiating, giving feedback and/or making compromises. There aren’t many online resources about that so I’m planning to write an article to help you learn the vocabulary specific to meetings and such. Comment below if you’re interested in learning more about this!
- Be fluid in small talk and in giving your opinion so you can contribute to the animated conversations French people love to have during lunch breaks. Avoid looking confused when your colleagues quote Louis de Funes by checking out this guide to French cultural references.
- Master the small nuances of written French versus spoken French to avoid misunderstandings with clients. Compare the different registers here to make sure you’re using the right tone.
- Be aware of the differences between your own work culture and the French one so you can prevent tense situations with your colleagues. This website will give you a good overview of cultural characteristics you’ll want to be careful about.
If you’re not sure yet how much French you’ll use at work but still want to start preparing, then I would focus on the 3 last points as those skills should come in handy no matter what.
Option C : You’re moving to France for love (!)
So you happen to be a true romantic. Well I’m delighted to see so many people in their twenties who are bold enough to change country for the pure sake of love.
I’ve personally done it twice, actually I still switch countries now and then because of the man I love. I probably learned the most about myself through these experiences, read on to find out why.
But first, let me give some recommendations to those who have a French partner.
If you’ve already been in an intercultural relationship, you must’ve noticed that it’s easy to have different interpretations of the same word, like what “a date” or “a good meal” means may not be the same depending on your culture. This can make it extremely confusing and complex to have a conversation on important topics such as finances, family or your ex-partners.
That’s why my advice for intercultural couples is to work on:
- Using French on a daily basis so it becomes a habit in your couple. If you already speak enough French to say basic things like “Where is the wine?” and “Could you help me with this?”, then you should really both use French in those simple moments. It will help you think and switch to French almost unconsciously and after spending a year with someone, you tend to associate a specific language to that person which is a very hard habit to break later on if you got used to English. And the best person to help you learn words like “a coffee mug” is, you guessed it, your partner.
- Finding your own circle of friends. If your partner is a native French, you can’t be expected to catch on what’s being said by his friends and family during meals. You’re still completely new to informal speech and anyway they speak way too fast for you to take part in the conversation. I imagine you’ll be nodding and smiling your way through most of their social meetings during your first year. Instead, focus on meeting people who share your interests and don’t mind speaking French slowly with you. Scroll down to the Quick tip for some suggestions on how to find like-minded people.
- Being aware of each other’s cultural differences when it comes to daily life, like dividing household chores and much more. Once you’re not in familiar grounds anymore you’ll want and need your partner more than ever, so you better get to know that person really well. Check out this list of movies and books I put together for those looking to understand French culture in depth. If you’re brave enough, watch them together and start a discussion after (as you probably know the French love to debate)!
But perhaps you belong to the second group: you may have decided to follow your partner to France because of a job or study opportunity.
In that case, my guess is you both have no social network within the city, plus you’re probably not yet fluent in French. No worries, I have some tips for you as well.
As a matter of fact, I’m currently living in Serbia for a short 3-month stay and both me and my boyfriend are total beginners in Serbian. A lot of people seem eager to speak in English with us, but that’s no reason to at least know the basics of their language, right?
As a newbie couple in France, what you’ll want to focus on is:
- Encouraging each other to reach a similar level of French. I’m not talking competition here, but the bigger the difference in level, the more one of you will have to depend on the other to communicate with locals.
- Being able to small talk and potentially give your opinion about hot topics like politics, the latest global events, and obviously gastronomy so you can extend your social network fast. Stay updated with these online French newspapers and magazines and you’re good to go.
- Finding ways to include French in activities you do outside of home. If you’re both not French, your home will obviously be an English zone. It’s important to compensate for that by looking for a job, classes or a hobby you can share with French speakers.
What should be your next steps?
Before you start making a list of all the things you need to learn, here are a few more steps you can do that will help you relax and enjoy moving to France:
Step 1. Evaluate your knowledge of French
If you want to know how far you are in the 3 skills I mentioned at the beginning of this article, then you’ll need to get your French checked. I had thought of giving you a link to an online quiz, but to be honest this is far from ideal when you want to find out if you can really speak, understand and interpret the way a French person talks.
Instead, I’ll share an easy and extremely cheap way to do that without leaving your computer. Go to italki.com and book a 30-minute trial class with a French tutor. You can do that for about 5 dollars and the half hour you’ll spend on Skype will be enough for the teacher to give you a detailed evaluation of your level in grammar, vocabulary, speaking and listening skills. Just make sure you let the teacher know in advance that you’d like to be evaluated and why so she can prepare your class properly.
Step 2. Schedule your study moments ahead of time
Are you ready to craft your own learning schedule based on this article? Then download, print and fill out this detailed worksheet. It’s just too long for one article so I decided to give you this as a bonus for willing to commit to this great challenge. I’ll show you the essential steps and how often you should be practicing your French skills.
Step 3. Let me know how you plan to learn French in the comments!
Quick note: The link to italki is an affiliate, which means both you and me will receive the equivalent of 1 or 2 trial classes, thus encouraging us to learn more of a language! Just to be clear, I love using this platform to teach and learn languages and would not recommend it if I thought it was crappy.