If you’ve ever been to France, you know it’s one of the friendliest, most open and welcoming countries in the world, especially for people who speak only English and not a word of the French language.
Ah, I almost wrote that with a straight face.
OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, it’s a blatant lie.
If you are looking to be humble or have a slight degradation problem, moving to France without speaking the language is for you.
As an Irishman with one of the above (I’ll let you guess which one) I decided France was for me and left when I was 20.
Now, to be fair, I had studied French in school and got an A on my final exams. But I became a living indictment of the Irish school system because after six years of French lessons I couldn’t string together a sentence in the language unless it was pre-written and memorized.
Work in a “bilingual” call center and set up
Initially moving was a big culture shock. I went from being surrounded by all my English-speaking Irish friends to being surrounded by English-speaking international friends.
Naturally, I decided that speaking French made me feel uncomfortable (and I like being comfortable) so I just avoided it at every opportunity.
So tip number one: really speak French.
I know revolutionary things, and yet something that I and many other English-speaking immigrants can shelve upon their arrival in France.
After spending eight months avoiding speaking the language, I accepted a job at a call center that was looking for bilingual operators.
As I was not bilingual, it was a bit difficult.
Fortunately, the phones told us if a call came from France. When one of them appeared on my screen, I had a moment of panic before “accidentally” hanging up.
While I might not understand the jargon, I was clearly getting pretty French by being bad at customer service – and just plain doing nothing at work if I didn’t feel like it (okay, that might be a unfair generalization, but you get my gist).
This (sort of) brings me to tip number two. Find a job where English is required, but you still have the option of speaking French.
I guess the ideal advice here would be to throw yourself headfirst into an entirely French-speaking job with no ability to speak English. There’s this annoying cohort of people who thrive in these situations. You ask them how they speak a foreign language so well and they’re like ‘oh I spent two weeks there when I was 15 and just picked it up’.
I am not one of those people and if I had done that, I would have quit and moved.
In my work, I was surrounded by English and French and it slowly rubbed off on me, while giving me the confidence to strike up a conversation – and if all else failed, I would sink back into English.
While I was working in a call center there were more opportunities for English speakers, from multinational companies to Irish pubs. It will help you improve your French while having fun, then once you improve other opportunities will start to open.
Not speaking French would often put me in embarrassing situations
I already knew the importance of being able to speak French when I arrived, but one evening, while on my way to a night shift, I really hammered this necessity into my house.
The office was located a few kilometers from the city, so I had to take a bus.
It’s hot, the bus is packed and I’m listening to music with my headphones. The bus rolls and makes its first stop where several people are waiting – including an elderly woman.
The bus driver stands up in front and makes an announcement. I pause my music but she screams in French. I’m in the back and I don’t understand a word, but I guess it can’t be that important anyway.
After a few minutes of waiting, we leave. The next stop is mine and we’re getting close to it so I press the stop button and that’s when things start to go wrong.
A shudder of tension immediately reverberates through the bus, the man next to me starts to shake his head and people look around him.
The bus stops and I get up to get off. Immediately 80 heads turn to look at me.
At this point, I’m worried, but I’m right by the exit door and ready to go down. But the door stays closed.
The bus driver got up and looked me straight in the eye, his eyes burning. So I nervously go shuttle down the aisle to reach the top of the bus. I am greeted by a deluge of very loud and very angry French people.
Now, as is clear, I’m no expert in the French language, but I got the gist. That announcement that I so happily ignored/couldn’t understand was that the bus driver was asking if anyone was getting off at the next stop so he could let an elderly passenger get on. When no one answered the elderly woman was not allowed on board and we left until two minutes later I so innocently pressed the stop button.
Needless to say I avoided this bus for the rest of my time working there.
How I finally learned the language
Anyway, back to the tips. Another one I would recommend is to live with a Frenchman. That way, you’re forced to speak the language unless you’re cowering in your room every day (yes, I did for several months).
Your roommate has to put up with your terrible French and will probably want to help you improve just to make life easier.
It’s been crucial to my improvement and there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you can finally hold a half-decent conversation entirely in another language.
Always be direct and ask for what you want in France
It is important to learn to be assertive and direct, especially in the face of French bureaucracy. As this is what will help you find an apartment, a job and help you function in day-to-day life, it is quite crucial.
As an Irishman, I have a deep instinct not to want to be a burden or a hassle. Many of my emails or questions started with something like “If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind…”
It does not fly in France.
The bureaucratic machine will sense weakness and ignore you. You have to tell them what you want, don’t ask them, and then follow up consistently until it’s done.
I’m not saying to be rude to anyone, but you must be determined and straightforward, leaving no ambiguity as to what you are looking for. They will then ask for your birth certificate (you need your real certificate with you, not just a copy) and take about a year to give you what you need anyway.
Although moving to France can present challenges, it is a great country to live in.
There are beautiful cities, amazing food, a great quality of life, and an abundance of culture. So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, but aren’t sure about your language skills, I say go for it.
You won’t regret it, or at the very least you’ll have amusing anecdotes of French people yelling at you on a bus that you can tell for years to come.