Learning French – For free! (Well, mostly free) whilst living in France.

Learning French for free Up-Stix

We’ve been here for a few years now and whilst Nina and the kids are flying with the lingo I’m still hobbling along behind. I’ve realised recently that it’s mostly down to anxiety for me. I actually know a lot but throw other people into the mix and I’m running at 40%. For what it’s worth here’s our 10 top tips for learning French from our experience so far.

Before we moved to France, people would say: “Oh the kids’ll pick the language up in no time”; “The younger they are, the easier it is to learn”; “I knew someone who moved there and within 2 months the kids were fluent”. You’ve got to take some of these anecdotes with a pinch of salt but there’s no doubt, kids have a big advantage when it comes to learning a new language and that’s one of the reasons we moved here when we did.

Research has also shown that the advantages of learning a second language as a child extend well beyond the practical benefits. The experience can improve creativity, critical thinking skills and mental flexibility. Hopefully it’ll also set them up for learning other languages in the future if they fancy it. Now that they’re over the hump, our two (aged 10 and 7) are certainly aware of and can appreciate their newly developing skills.

Learning French for free Up-Stix

The kids have learned primarily through the ‘in-at-the-deep-end’ method by being sent straight to the local French school. Their progress has been smoothed considerably with the help of some bi-lingual friends of theirs and the teachers who have helped them along the way when absolutely necessary. Hearing them jabbering away to their buddies in French is really weird but very cool. French adults are regularly commenting that their French accents are near-perfect and there isn’t much of an English accent when they are speaking French! I know it’s not been easy on them at times but they’ve done remarkably well and I’m actually quite jealous.

Nina studied French at ‘A’ level but having not used it since, she’s also now improving rapidly. The longer we are here, the more she’s plucking out of a seemingly bottomless pit of memory archives. New information does seem to just gel in her memory.

I’m the weak link in the family chain I’m afraid, but I’m trying (very trying I’m told ;)) and I really want to crack it. I got to GSCE (as I think most people did) at school but I always found languages quite difficult. For me, it’s a matter of respect to make the effort to learn whilst we are living here. I’d love to be able to converse with our French friends without having to resort to them bailing me out in English.

If you’ve been reading our blog, you might remember that I had told the kids that if they went to French school so would I. Well, now that we’ve spent some time here, we’ve decided not to bother with lessons for the time being and luckily, the kids seem to have forgotten about my bright idea.

Screenshot from an adverb lesson in Duolingo Screenshot from an adverb lesson in Duolingo

There are a huge number of resources that are available for us to make good progress without having to go for expensive lessons. In fact, when you live here, there are free resources everywhere… you just need to make the effort to use them.

Our 10 top tips for learning French:

1. Make the commitment

Making the decision that you really want to commit to learning the language is the biggest step. Once the desire is there and you’ve mentally committed to it, you find yourself making an extra effort to jot down new things you’ve learned, to look up things you’re unsure of, to find more things that can help you learn. You will find yourself eavesdropping on as many conversations as possible to see what you can understand and to get used to the pace and sounds.

2. Total immersion

I think this is the fastest way to progress and it’s the way the kids have done it in school. Having a job in a French speaking business would be a similar experience. We had a friend in the UK who worked as a joiner in France for a couple of years. He said he struggled for a few months with all the French speakers on site. Then, one day he hit his thumb with a hammer and swore in French without even thinking about it and he realised he’d cracked it!

3. Apps

There are loads of terrific apps available, many of which are completely free. Our current favourite is Duolingo which makes learning fun and has daily practice targets. I did mine in bed before I got up this morning. There’s also the Google Translate app if you are connected to the internet which is brilliant for figuring out bits and pieces. It even has a feature that lets you point the camera at text and it overlays the translation on the screen. The kids’ favourite app is Fun French which is quite entertaining to listen to.

4. The Internet

You can get hold of everything online: verb lists, vocabulary, games, books, videos, pdfs and as we mentioned in ‘apps’ above, Google Translate is always very useful. Beware though… these automated translations are far from perfect and often get it wrong. We have a Google Translate feature for translating the content on this website and our French friends say that whilst they get the gist, it’s far from perfect! Get a second opinion before relying on it for something important like a legal document!

There are loads of useful images and infographics on Pinterest with common rules and useful phrases. Have a look at our Pinterest board for some examples.

Up-Stix Learn French Pinterest Page
Up-Stix learn French Pinterest page

5.  Radio, TV and films.

Since we arrived we’ve been putting local radio on in the van. It makes no sense at first but after a while you start picking up more and more of what’s being said. As in the UK, commercial radio here broadcast adverts on a regular basis. They speak so fast, it can take a while to tune in but it really helped our listening skills.

We’ve read about people who’ve mastered multiple languages and for some of them they have simply watched a couple of hours of TV in the new language each day. We recently tuned the TV in to receive French channels and regularly put that on in the background. There’s plenty of French films on Netflix and Amazon and you can even set the language (both voice and subtitles) to French on films you already know to help out.

Kids’ programmes are great as well because the language is so simple. Peppa Pig is a prime example. If, like us, you have spent the last several years of your life driving around to the soundtrack of Peppa and George in the car, you know that the language is basic and translated versions are readily available to watch. We went to see Kung Fu Panda in Chamonix for T’s birthday and after a few minutes I realised I was understanding most of it… Quite a confidence boost.

6. Schools/Lessons

Lessons are a success for a lot of people and if there isn’t a dedicated language school in the area, ask around. There may be night classes or private tutoring available.

7. People

Make an effort in everyday life whenever the opportunity presents itself. Us Brits always say: “The trouble is, you go in with your best French and they just look back at you blankly and reply in English”. The fact is, you don’t have to give up at that point. Just persevere. Quite often they, themselves want to practice and learn English and see it as an opportunity to do some speaking in English. Just keep going in French and you can both benefit.

Making friends with the locals is brilliant because they’ll be patient and want to help. The ones who are bi-lingual often have great tips. Tips such as: words ending in ‘tion’ are usually very similar in both languages like elevation / elevation. This also works to a certain extent for ‘tor’ and ‘teur’ endings like tractor – tracteur. Cool, eh?

8.Books, Newspapers and podcasts.

There are loads of books and audio resources available to purchase (and for free!).

Although we’ve not tried this one (yet), Michel Thomas’s Learn French series has been highly recommended. Apparently, it’s a completely different, passive way of learning languages which he developed through 35 years of teaching. Their USP is “No books, no learning, no writing”. We’ve tried the free app which was pretty interesting but to be honest, I initially struggled to understand what he was saying in English! It’s pricey but I think if we go for anything we’ll bite the bullet and try this one out.

Visit your local library and ask if they have any novels or newspapers in French. Choosing a novel you already know and reading it in French would be a great start and would massively improve your vocabulary. Basic daily news can also be found online at RFI Savoirs.

If you have access to podcasts on your phone or tablet via Spotify, for example, just search for ‘French podcasts’ and “voila”… you are off! Nina has recently been enjoying Inner French, the brainchild of Hugo Cotton who chats about a range of current issues. These enjoyable 30 minute podcasts are aimed at the intermediate French learner. Check it out here.

9. Parties

Parties, BBQs and socialising are an excellent environment to learn. It’s much more relaxed when you get settled, and after a couple of beers, the inhibitions melt a little and the conversation begins to flow. In normal situations I go blank but I find myself remembering words I didn’t even know I’d learned in a more social environment. I’ve found myself gravitating to a French person whose English is a similar standard to my French. You can muddle through and pick up loads of useful bits and pieces around the language overlap.

10. Persevere…Practice makes perfect!

Stick at it. Practice makes perfect and as soon as you stop practicing you start going backwards! We recently had a weeks’ holiday in Barra, Scotland and when we came back I had regressed considerably. In fact, a few weeks later, I’m only just getting back to where I was before we left!

We’ve got another party at our neighbours’ on Saturday night so I am swotting up big time! The Tour De France is on in the background in French and I’m doing some extra Duolingo in preparation. If all else fails I’ll turn to beer!

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