Like most travelers, I love delving into the local culture and opening my eyes to new ideas. In my opinion, you can be completely immersed in a new country, but until you know the local language, you won’t REALLY know the ins and outs of the culture.
I hear dressing like the stereotype helps when speaking the local language
I can only speak from my personal experience, but I have a feeling that most other Americans left high school and even college language classes lacking the basics for communication in a foreign country. Maybe you felt like, “Yeah! I’ve got this! I can ask a few questions; I can express likes and dislikes. No problem!” But when the first local opens their mouth to speak, your eyes widen and before you know it, you realize that the past few year of studying have failed you.
If you find yourself suffering from, what I like to call, Language Class Disappointment (LCD), you’re in the right place. Today I present to you some tips for learning French (or any language, really), should you ever find yourself in France. When I moved to France, I had only taken two semesters of French. Somehow, despite my lack of communication skills, an amazing French family accepted me as an au pair (nanny) for their adorable children. The following are some tips I learned that helped me speak French 500% more than when I arrived in France.
Nothing like learning the word for “ice cream” by having my French kids scream it over and over again!
- Live with a French family: My French family couldn’t speak English, so I had no choice but to speak and listen to French all day, every day. Even if you can’t live with a family as an au pair, stay away from touristy hostels and try to find a local host family (or couch surf with a local). Offer to teach English to them or their children once a week. Offer to cook a meal from your home country. You’d be surprised the people willing to let you into their home for a small cultural exchange.
Many wonderful afternoons were spent speaking French with these two lovely girls
- Find French speaking friends: Honestly, during my year in France, I didn’t have many actual French friends. Instead, most of my friends were other au pairs, but because we all came from different countries, our mutual language was French. Learning from someone who is about the same level as you is a great opportunity to gain confident speaking and understanding. Instead of just understanding the gist of the conversation, like you might with a local, you’ll understand everything except one or two words. Ask what those words are, and you’ve just added to your personal vocabulary!
- Go to a language exchange: In Paris there is a group called The Polyglot Café that meets several times per week in different cafés around the city. People from a variety of nationalities, but a majority French, get together to practice dozens of languages. I chatted weekly with so many open, friendly Parisians who defied every stereotype given them. Don’t be afraid to go alone—most people do. Just walk up to a stranger and ask, “Bonjour! Vous êtes ici pour parler quelle langue?" You never know what kind of interesting conversations could be created out of the simple question, “What language are you here to speak?”
Reading in the neighborhood park is learning the fun way!
- READ READ READ: Find your local library, get a library card, and go crazy! I tore through the young adult section during my commute on the subway, while relaxing in the park, and to put myself to sleep at night. My favorites were Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, the first few Harry Potter books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and several other random books I picked up. In my personal opinion, I found the fast-paced action of young adult books kept my attention longer than children’s and lengthy adult books.
- Find a local French class: Due to the previously mentioned LCD, I recommend going to class. My experience with Institut privé Campus Langues in France was absolutely incredible. My teacher focused on speaking and kept us laughing the entire two hour period. Instead of getting bogged down in verb tenses (a mega-cause of LCD), we talked about our ideal mate, our future dreams, our home countries (each student was from a different country), etc.
Relaxing with friends in the Jardin des Tuileries beside the Louvre
If you are anticipating going to France soon and would like to brush up before going, I would suggest checking out free online resources such as FrançaisAuthentique.com, IlÉtaitUneHistoire.com, and French videos on YouTube. Most of all, don’t stress. Learning a language doesn’t come overnight. Remember that you are your worst critic, so try to step back and appreciate the progress you’ve made, even if it seems small. Now go out into the big, wide world of French speakers, and I wish you bonne courage!