How good was your french before you started a new life in france?

Hello everyone,

I have read a lot though the forum, and everyone says to work or run a business in France you need a very good level of French. Not just to deal with clients but all for all the administration etc. These responses are from people who have been living and working in France for a long time now, and have the experience to look back now.

But did any of you, just pick it up as went. Did any of you just go for it? Took lessons, muddled your way through it and was it as hard as you imagined it would be?

How much preparation can you do before you just have give it a go?

My question is, if you have a good base, can you pick it quickly with lessons and real life experience, just flat out practicing because you have no other choice?

What are some of your experiences from when you all started out, relocating to France, working and running a business in France?


For many years, I worked in England taking questions from my customers about orders placed on French speaking mills, getting the replies in French and relaying the replies in English. With a good level in both French and German, I studied with the Open University and obtained an honours degree. When my employer introduced the idea that our English customers could contact the mills for information, I was perfectly placed to join the customer service of a French mill. in 2009, my transfer was to Mouzon in the Ardennes and since January 2014, I have been in Dunkerque. These days, I can understand various accents, idioms and regional expressions whilst not only understanding lively office banter but occasionally joining in. It is important to have a good knowledge before you arrive in France because in the Ardennes for example, hardly anyone spoke English. Negociating with the famous civil servants on tax, motoring or health issues, or with dentists, GPs or hospitals means that you need to speak French confidently. Finally you will be completely hindered if you hope to include the French in your social circles without speaking the language.

I'm lucky enough to be pretty fluent in French, on a good day I'm nearly bilingual although my written French lets me down a bit, and of course legal letters and so forth are still very difficult to understand, due to the large amounts of very specialised vocabulary and twisted use of conditional imperfect subjunctive past historic tenses all over the place. Also I have learned most of my conversation skills amongst peers so I find it a lot easier and more natural to 'tutoyer' rather than use the formal register.

A tip I find very useful - when watching French TV or films, switch subtitles on. They don't always read exactly what the person is saying, but it's close enough. This has a two-fold effect of a) helping you understand what people are saying when they speak very quickly or with heavy accents and b) improves your reading comprehension. Or, if you still own DVDs and you fancy watching a film in English, stick subtitles on in French. Also, dubbed movies are definitely annoying but if it's a film you've seen in English a few times, watching it dubbed into French will also help get your ear in.

I did not speak French before I arrived except a few words.

I moved here when I was 21 and I immursed myself in French culture, TV, books and attended all the local events and still do. Also duolingo was brilliant for me to use to begin learning the language (free also) and yes lables..I had sticky notes on eveything when I arrived here. I wanted to know the word for everything in the house lol !

I have not watched English TV in a long time now. I watch the odd TV show online, mainly American fantasy/supernatural shows.

27 now and love it here :-D I rarely speak English and most English people who have been here long enough should know the very basics at least and so I ask them to talk to me in French unless they are really struggling.

Me and my partner tend to stay in our local community and socialise with mainly French farmers who come to fish in our lake and then drink my homemade wine up at the house after lol ! ! !

Also we have soirées at our place a bout 4/5 times a year for anything really. The last one was an Autumn meal using vegetables from our garden and our next one will be to celebrate the Chinese New Year so I have some rice rine fermenting away at the moment hehe ! :smiley: :smiley:

Very true Alan. French people just seem to love it if you but only try!

True, however my view is that the best way to learn is not to worry too much about the details and being absolutely correct, otherwise one is so stilted one doesn't try. Best to be fearless like Mrs Wells!

The 100% accuracy (if ever attained) comes later.

I have been bilingual for a long time (Dutch and English°, and when I moved to France it was with whatever I learned at school in Holland and the occasional business use over the years. So, very far from fluent. My husband spoke even less than I did. However, when we moved I worked from home for a Belgian company, so it did not matter too much. I had started to brush up a bit, and when the job went away a week after we moved (!!!) I did nothing for a month, other than reel with the shock.

After that I ramped up the french learning - I used tv, radio, Duolingo (free online course a la Rosetta stone principle) and bought the local newspaper and borrowed books from the local library. They were very lenient about letting me have a book for months on end so I could finish it.

Then about 5 months later I found a job with a local company. Talk about the deep end!! Answering the telephone was a nightmare, understanding my colleagues who speak at the speed of light was hard. Headaches and oh so very tired by the time the day was done. But, they were very patient with me (I still work for them!) and I improved.

Am I fluent? Sort of. Not quite yet, but it will take more time. I shall get there!! And my husband you ask? Well, that is a different story.. he tries, but is just not a language person. And he has nobody to speak it with all day long, so English tv etc is what he watches. And not being able to practise what he does learn is making it harder for him. I find it very frustrating at times, and I worry about how he would cope if something were to happen to me etc. But soit, que sera,sera.

And about sticking labels on things? When my son was little I used to stick labels on things too, same as Veronique did; just to get him to learn the words in Dutch. It really works!

I arrived here with fairly good French. I did a degree in the early 70s but had lost some fluency over the years. Have been here for two and a half years and most of it has returned.
I am now learning Basque and am using the labels and lists plus a very good free App called Memrise. Its available in 87 languages!!

My wife and I moved to France three years ago with a reasonable level of French (Both did A-levels 40-odd years ago...) but nothing prepared us for dealing with officials, salespeople, medical situations. On the whole, language courses are great for reinforcing normal conversation but not for specialised situations [knee replacement, installing solar electricity, paying income tax...]. We found that the only way was total immersion - and, avoid if at all possible, using English langauge serveices, otherwise you'll never learn! We found the people we needed to speak to were invariably patient, kind and helpful and we always got there in the end [even at the Hôtel des Impôts!].

The best thing that we have done is to start regular sessions with an educated professional couple who help us with grammar and a better knowledge of French culture and traditions as well as conversation!

Obviously, if you start with little or no knowledge of French, a total immersion basic course would be the best starter.

My French was really awful when I arrived, but during my first 18 months in France I never spoke English, as the employer forbade it, and I lived with his family, my girlfriend being his daughter. Obviously I picked it up. No merit, just a question of survival, since I'm a chatterbox.

'... and speaks charentais', with a small 'c', but as long as one is understood well enough to be corrected, why correct (except to help the person not to repeat mistakes)

We use them too. It frustrates people sometimes when they see 'marmalade' on a label twice but then when they see 'confiture de prunes' and 'plum jam' they get the message. English language TV, not absolutely necessary, movies on DVD that have original language on them whether UK, USA, Oz or wherever are great. You can watch them in both more than once and a lot sticks in minds, whilst our two watch English language TV because the programmes are by and large better and choice greater, watching films or playing wii, or YouTube on their computers they move between languages, that helps a lot. Our younger one is now doing the same with German to boost what she does at school (I only occasionally help because she prefers it that way) and sometimes does the same with Italian. All great learning media.

Hi Andrew - the labels really work - even if it means you get a mish-mash sentence at first it is a step forward. I even stuck them in the car, in the fridge... Also systematically asking what is it/how do you say that in (target language). TV in Eng would be good. It felt harsh at the time speaking nothing but French for the first 3 months, but it worked. Mimi, who was not quite 1 when we arrived, started speaking in both & by the time Pansy was born 3 years later she grew up as I did with everyone around her speaking both & flipping between the 2.

Sorry Ashley, I haven't had a chance to reply to your message yet but for the record I was fluent when I came here for good but remember back to my mono-lingual days and some very linguistically difficult holidays. I started evening classes in the UK at 30 just for fun and for holidays. That led to a degree in Italian and French then a PGCE in modern languages and a Maîtrise français langue étrangère. Taught for a year in the UK, couldn't stand it and came out to France in 2005. Taught in a whole host of institutions, ended up teaching French to Chinese students at an IUT! (I'm the one who corrects my kids' homework not my French OH!)

Obviously there are loads of people here who survive on little French and that suits them. If you're still thinking of your business plans, Ashley, then it'll need to be far more than that, unless you're dealing with anglophones and then you'll still have all the day to day admin etc. to deal with. There's an old adage which is very true - if you're doing business and buying something, the seller will make an effort to sell to you in your language. If you're the person trying to sell something then no-one's going to buy from you if you can't sell to them in the local language!

In short, if you have made some contacts in France, try and network and get some sort of employment via those contacts. Self-employment isn't for the faint hearted in France, Auto-entrepreneur is a doddle, setting up a company is far far more expensive with big bills to pay even if you don't earn any money (unlike the auto entrepreneur scheme). Already been mentioned but charges sociales run at 48% of income then you're taxed on top of that so look at giving 60% of what you earn to the state (against 25% as an auto entrepreneur and then only if you invoice/do business). I understand your visa dilema, perhaps it would be better to keep France for long holidays where you can really live what you want to rather than getting caught up in what can be pretty horrendous self employed scene here. Oh, and going back to linguistics, I met my French OH once out here, we only speak French as do our kids - I simply don't get enough time with my kids to talk enough English with them for it to sink in!

Véro - I love the idea of labels everywhere, I'll have to try that and get some UK télé at home.

I moved to rural France 8 years ago to area with no Brits. At age 58 I couldn't face classrooms so immersed myself in local community and learnt "on the hoof" from neighbours, people in bars, restaurants, shops , on the golf course etc. I did use the free BBC on line courses to improve. I had a French GCE O level failed from 1969; and it was suprising how many french words dragged themselves from the back of my memory when I needed them. If you live amongst your fellow Brits you will converse in English. We deliberately chose a rural area with no Brits because we wanted the full French experience, not an anglicized french life style. However if you have to work, I would not recommend this approach to younger people. If you need to start work soon after arriving then you certainly need to go to classes in UK before you arrive.

I came with what I thought was fluent French but I needed to practise a lot to be of a good standard. I give free lessons to many Brits and those that achieve the best results are those who make the biggest effort to talk and integrate with French speakers. How many watch French television and yet it's so available. Find something you like and watch a little each day. Talk to people, make phone calls and don't be afraid to make mistakes. If you are worried about making mistakes, you will never progress!

I grew up bilingual and my children arrived in France aged 6, 4, 3 & 1 in mid-July with some comprehension of spoken French (from hearing me talk to my mother & visits to family in France) but we didn't speak French at home in GB at all as my then-husband didn't speak French (and was anti doing anything he perceived as difficult, or might not be best at).

I was alone with my children for 6 months so I stuck sticky name labels on every single thing in & around the house no matter how small or insignificant (loo roll holder, tap, egg-basket, garden hose, light-switch etc, they could all read except the 1 year-old) and didn't speak any English until Christmas. I did a running commentary in French on any action I did & made them do the same thing. They also went to school.

By Christmas they were fluent but still a bit 'odd' and by Easter you couldn't tell they had ever spoken anything else. Now they are completely bilingual and at or beyond the level of linguistic skill expected for their age in both languages. It helps that they read voraciously in both languages & watch a lot of films, again in both languages.

My parents both just spoke both languages to me all the time then left me to get on with it wherever we were, France or GB.

Mine was almost fluent. Then I got seriously ill and some of my treatment did for that, seriously damaged my English too and left me best in the wrong language. That was spoke and heard language. Over the last three years I have regained 80%+ English, probably 45-50% French but still stumble of words that were once part of everyday vocabulary. Ironically, I have very little problem writing and none at all reading. What it as taught me is that patience and tolerance are a two way thing. People who once conversed with me very easily still take it easy and do not demand too much back. However, making the effort is much appreciated all round. That is my real point.

I had a basic knowledge of French when I bought our house........ But hadn't used it for forty years! My tenses are really mixed up , but I'm trying my best! To sum it up, I probably sound like the policeman from Allo Allo! hubby is now able to say three words......bonjour, au revoir and of course Mercy!!!!!!! Lol.......

Two of my friends, an HGV driver and a welder, have been approached by French companies wanting to employ them so there must be jobs out there for non fluent French speaking Englishmen.