There comes a stage, after your harmless flirtation with France, where France wants you to get serious – about the language.
French is very different to loosey-goosey English. Unless you learn it before the age of 11, you’ll have an accent – an accent that will casse l’oreille, or break ears as they so charmingly put it. But the good news is the French are more forgiving these days and you can level up your fluency with these tips and tricks.
Here are six levels of French to aspire to and how to attain each.
Level #1: Order coffee
Rely on eye contact and resolve – your look should convey that this is as good as it’ll get from you, and invite the native speaker to do the right thing and comprendre.
Remember:“Bonjour, Monsieur” and “s’il vous plaît” wins half the battle.
How? Use language apps or invest in a month of weekly French language classes. Go with “substitution” if you need to. I used to live on rue Rougemont, but no taxi driver could ever understand my “r” or “ou” or even “u”, so I subbed in a landmark: “le Grand Rex.” If you can’t manage “un grand café crème bien blanc,” start drinking cappuccino.
Level #2: Spend a solid hour sounding like an idiot
This stage is helped by wine. Put aside nuance and your personality and just string mangled sentences together until the in-law or French acquaintance in front of you understands SOMETHING. It’s best to aim for 10% being understood. Do not opt for group situations, one-to-one is the only way here.
How? You’ll attain this mangled form of French after a few months of immersion, or 12 dates with a French lover, or a month-long 40-hour-a-week language course. I used to meet up for a ‘speak-French-only’ coffee regularly with a French friend. It probably gave her a huge headache, but it helped me. Offer to pay for coffee to thank them!
Level #3: Office French – light version
This presumes you only need water-cooler French, not expertise to give presentations or win over French clients.
How? Talk your way into a job and make sure you work closely with a few French colleagues so you can bond over your lousy boss through non-verbal grunting and then, slowly, gossip. Your place of work might give you one-to-one language lessons, but I found them not as helpful as going to a gym and being hollered at by a personal trainer or following a Zumba class in French. Watch Les Guignols – sure, you won’t understand any of it, but it gets your ear slowly trained to when a joke’s been made so one day you can hope to laugh.
Level #4: Give birth
Ah, here’s where your French gets interesting, and sometimes life-threatening. Have an operation, buy an apartment, get married, or take up fencing – any life-changing hobby or major administrative hurdle will inevitably level-up your French comprehension and fluency. You’ll have a whole new vocabulary to grasp. You need to read the fine print (such as the rules on how fast you have to register a birth – it’s 3 days!). You need to grasp subtext and negotiate.
How? Google-translate brochures of info and read 100 times until you understand. Listen to French radio games, such as Radio FG’s “Vrai ou faux,” until double negatives no longer stress you out. Take another month-long intensive language course. Find a regular beautician who only speaks French and practice negotiations/ask questions of them until you start hearing answers that make sense. I cannot thank my pedicurist enough (Madame Kaddouch near Métro Cadet) for the years of personalized French classes she bestowed as she grated rough skin off my feet.
Level #5: Write a proper letter
Ah, the Holy Grail: write a letter that doesn’t convey embarrassing mumbo-jumbo. Written French is even more unforgiving than spoken, so prepare to feel like a 5-year old all over even when you can happily converse with the locals.
How? Google has these amazing “modèle de lettre de…” you can merrily copy until you start to see the patterns and realize that any letter is 90% pre-fabricated polite forms of address and only 10% original content. If you are writing to bureaucratic powers-that-be, keep asking a native French speaker to “take a quick look” so your grammatical faux-pas don’t impact on your residency status, for example!
Level #6: Be interviewed on French TV
If you reach this level, I salute you because the closest I came was selling our apartment all by myself because my French husband wasn’t in the country. And negotiating the release of my daughter out of French neo-natal intensive care.
How? Take up a hobby in French, such as skydiving, where you need to truly understand the questions. Get coaching for your TV appearance. And probably, wine will help. But only one glass. You don’t want to go all Gainsbourg.
The great thing about France is that you are forced to learn some degree of French because English is NOT the go-to default, unlike many parts of Europe and Asia.
You’ll experience emotions and want to scream into a pillow at times, but as you progress you’ll feel a thrilling pride – until you think back to how badly you spoke French in the early days and die of embarrassment.