A good deal of things can be done, if you can speak French. Let me start by saying that you can learn it quite fast, if you know how to learn French on your own.
But first, let me tell you a personal anecdote. 💬
He was sitting on the other side of the desk. In the meter or so of space between him and me, there was his CV and the pencil with which I was taking notes.
I had just tested his English. But he mentioned as well an “Intermediate French”, so I was getting myself ready to put his French to test too. 📝
Donc, maintenant on va parler français pendant quelques minutes pour…
In a matter of few seconds, now I had a bewildered man in front of me.
I smiled to myself. Pronunciation and prosody are soooo linked to someone’s identity.
If you talk a language in a mothertongue-fashion, the people next to you may have the impression that… it’s not you. That a symbiote have gained control over you. 😹
“Me? I’m Italian, haven’t I told you?”.
“Yes yes, you did, but… have you lived in France?”.
“Uhm, with all my stays in France combined, I don’t reach three weeks there”.
“Wow, how could you learn French so well then?”
Let me show you.
Sometimes, I help companies screening candidates for vacancies. I take care of their language mastery.
That’s where this anecdote came from. I used it to introduce this long, extensive post about how I learnt French. 🇫🇷
I’ll inform you about why I decided to learn French, how I started, my false steps and, well, the victories I gained.
I’ll discuss about the difficulty of learning French, the richness it gives me as a person and as a professional, whether it is expensive or not to learn it. 💸
And also about how learning French have led me to jobs with higher salaries and better working conditions.
STOP RIGHT HERE!
If you’re thinking: I couldn’t care less of your experience, I just want to know how I can learn French
Then, go straight to the last chapter, where you can find links about how to learn French according to your current level. 🎚️
If you read the whole story, however, you’ll realize something fundamental: that each of us experiences similar problems when it comes to learning languages.
So, you’d see the way I have found to solve them.
Up until age 29, I knew more about string theory than about French. ⚛️
I had never been to France, had French-speaking friends, studied French at school (and this was perhaps my salvation).
Languages were already a part of my life: I mastered Spanish, spoke a decent English, some German and I was starting to feel Dutch. French, simply put, wasn’t on my horizon. 🌅
Neither I had anything against it. It is true, however, that I had this bunch of opinions lingering in my head, from those I grew up with.
– French are arrogant;
– French is a language for affected fusspots (being dothraki the complete opposite, then);
– no one knows how to write this language;
– French teachers are utterly pretentious.
Up until my 29 years of age.
In that moment, I had begun my second job in The Netherlands. My department was filled with French-speaking folks.
To my surprise, they weren’t seeming so… arrogant. Friendly, energetic, I’d say normal human beings. 😃
In the new office, I sat nearby the two colleagues taking care of the French-speaking markets. It was a kind of Customer Service position, so I had the chance to hear them talking French 9 to 5.
Despite the workload, I was paying attention to what they were saying. 👂Every day I was more intrigued. In the meantime, I was spending my free time with French guys too.
I have never minded them talking in their native language instead of English, which was the de-facto lingua franca up there. One faithful day, one of them invited me to his place (merci, Philippe 😉).
There in a big shelf, he had a bunch of language courses, all from the same publisher. Russian, Dutch, German, English…
Philippe, what’s this?
“Ah, that’s Assimil. It’s a French publishing house, I love their way of teaching languages.” 🧡
I spent some time delving into them. Leaving home, I immediately purchased my first course, French With Ease, together with this good dictionary:
Assimil French with Ease, by Anthony Bulger: the best way to learn French from scratch. It has been very useful. Bulger is a freaking, prolific genius.
The Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary: for someone who doesn’t stand a thousand ads when consulting online dictionaries, a gorgeous tool.
And so I started.
According what Assimil prescribes, I was studying a lesson per day, until the fiftieth. Then, I had to restart from the first, working now in a different way. 🗓️
Beside this, I was still paying attention to the conversations around me. I was seeking the French language everywhere.
If I had watched a movie in French, I’d prepare a brief resume in order to be able to talk about it with my pals. I began reading articles about France, so that I could widen my knowledge. 📰
Commuting to the office, I was listening to French podcasts and songs. I was looking for words in the dictionary, and I was replicating the sentences I were exposed to through Assimil.
So, I’ve slowly immersed myself into la francophonie.
Let’s go for the French market
Not three months had gone by, when the colleagues in charge of France had to leave for a couple of weeks. All at the same time, kind of an unprecedented situation.
Our manager asked: “Who is going to take care of France?”. “Fabio can, he speaks French now”, they replied. “OK, fine for me”, he agreed.
I was terrified 😳😱😨 I honestly didn’t feel I was at the level of what was at stake.
I thought about rejecting it categorically. I thought about taking a fake sick leave. Disappearing. Hiding.
All sorts of thoughts crossed my mind, but eventually, I also reckoned:
You’re always complaining about the scarcity of opportunities. Now that you have one, are you really ready to throw it away? 🤨
During the time left before that, I intensified my efforts. Two, three, four lessons each day. The French With Ease became my byble. But that wasn’t only that.
I was listening to real-life conversations, radio channels 📻 and podcasts. I was jotting down all new sentences to analyse them. I was learning lexicon and idioms.
When my colleagues were hanging up a call in French, I was asking them “What did you mean to say with that sentence?”, and I kept taking notes. ✍️
Once Assimil was over, I bought these two textbooks:
French-English Business Correspondence, by Stuart Williams: little choice I had. I had to learn as fast as possible and it had to be Business French too, not just hey gimme a beer or similar pleasantries.
Grammaire Progressive du Français: such a threatening title for such a wonderful textbook. Even learners of Chinese should go through it.
Perhaps my second favourite series ever, after Assimil of course.
I have made extensive use of them. I prepared a good body of standard sentences in the business world, ready to be used when talking to French customers.
I learnt product names, accountancy jargon, logistics lexicon. 🚛
I did mock calls in French with my pals. Furthermore, I devoted quite some time to a fundamental exercise: to repeat the dialogues taken from the audio supplement of my courses.
I repeated them until what I was uttering was as French as that of some Parisian dude.
I listened to the audio track, paused it, recorded myself repeating the sentence, listened to my voice, and… more than French, I seemed a woodcutter from Le Marche, my region back in Italy. 🪓
So, I persisted. Once, twice, three times… until I developed a knack for the French pronunciation. One day, eventually, I noticed that I sounded more French than weird. 😌
To leave the French comfort zone
The D-Day, at about 8h45, the phone rang. The prefix was +33. “Now we’ll see how good you learnt French”, I thought to myself.
Breath, Fabio, breath. It will be alright. I picked up, forced myself to smile and started talking.
📞 Bonjour, Fabio à l’appareil. Comment puis-je vous aider?
And so, during the whole time, everything ran smoothly.
I’m kidding. There were a couple of issues.
The experience was a useful reminder of several things:
#1 When you speak French on the phone, body language isn’t there to help.
#2 In a call with French native speakers accustomed to talk with other native speakers, you have little chances to avoid strong local accents and of a degree of complexity you are able to navigate in only after a long, long time of study.
#3 The line sometimes is bad, no matter how many times you call again to get a better network. 😒
So, what sort of problems did I encounter?
First drag: a French gentleman tried to tell me his name was Jules, but… his accent wasn’t nearly Parisian and there were several interferences on the line, so I supposed he wanted to postpone something to July. 🗓️
Now, we all know that juillet is different from Jules. If only I wasn’t in the heat of a hasty phone conversation… but eventually, it got solved.
Second drag: a Belgian salesman, who was a colleague from another department, complained to the management. According to him, it was unthinkable for such a renowned company to put a non-native in charge of such a demanding market.
Yeah well, you know what?
Whatever you do, there will always be someone who won’t appreciate. 😑We’ll all have to come to terms with that.
Nonetheless, the experience was satisfactory, for all the parties involved. 👏 When I was in a bind, I beg their pardon, reassuring them that I won’t have treated their queries with less care than my colleagues.
I simplified: Sir, please confirm I have understood properly: is this what you mean?
When I was answering, they were immediately asking for their representatives, so I was notifying them in French:
She is out of office until Monday 26th, and for the time being I’ll be the one in charge of you.
My French isn’t very fluent yet, but if you would talk slowly, I’m confident I’ll be able to help.
When hanging, I was concluding with a Thank you for your patience.
One day I told one of my most unfriendly customer, that the next Monday, his customary representative was going to be back.
He replied: ah, OK, but tell me please, how long did you study French? “I’ve been learning it for about three months”, I replied. He froze, muttered a sort of apology for having been a pinhead and praised my results. 😼
How to learn French: the reward of audacity
Resuming, very instructive experience.
Key points to highlight:
#1 From that day on, my French-speaking colleagues took holidays whenever they pleased, knowing I could lend a hand. I have done it several times since then: no problem at all. ✔️
#2 In an international environment, a language is highly prized. My managers took good note of my French learning endeavour, in their periodic evaluations.
#3 I have officially busted the myth of the unfriendly French 😉
#4 I have hoarded abundant phrases, idioms, jargon in French. 📚
So, I learnt in few days what most learn in months. I couldn’t be happier, and I certainly wasn’t willing to stop.
Going on learning French
French stuck with me during the two more years I have spent in that company.
Not as much as I’d like: my Dutch, even though poorly mastered, was also demanding time, and the job itself required a constant learning.
More than learning new concepts, I was maintaining the level achieved. As I am a kind of a bookworm, I have read several books in French. 📚
Those which I have found enjoyable and fit to my level (A2 to B1), are these:
Asterix et Cleopatre, by Uderzo and Goscinny: truly awesome comics. Comics doesn’t do justice to the masterpieces these books are from the linguistic and the cultural weight they had in France, touching taboo topics as well with skillful artwork.
As for language, comics and graphic novels are marvellous tools of learning.
Le Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien: it’s hard to exaggerate the pleasantness of this novel and the crafty language the South African-British author poured in it.
It isn’t properly a book for beginners, but after having read it in English, Italian and Spanish, I was ready to go through its excellent French translation anyway.
As life is unpredictable, from The Netherlands I moved to Austria. Fun fact: as I was physically relocating to Vienna, the project went up in smoke.
The man who was going to be my manager sent me an email while travelling:
There have been changes and we do not apparently need your services anymore. Es tut mir leid, viel Glück! I’m sorry, good luck.
I eventually decided to stay for three months anyway.
I enrolled in a German course, spoke all the German I could, without dismissing the practice of English, French and Spanish whenever I had the chance.
When autumn began, I moved to Spain.
How to learn French: the Spanish age begins
I arrived just in time to enrol to the French course offered by the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (EOI) of my city. To the most basic level.
I could have done a placement test in order to start straight at the second, third or forth of six levels (covering from A1 to B2). But I haven’t done it.
#1 I had no degree in Astrophysical Neurogenetic Engineering to help me understand the bureaucratic machinery in place at the EOI. 🤯
#2 After a time off, I wasn’t sure it could be a good idea to skip some levels.
In hindsight, it was clear I had underestimated my proficiency.
First course: French A1
In my first year, we have used these textbooks:
Alter Ego A1, textbook and workbook, by Hachette FLE: they’re good.
They also can be used as self-teaching tools, although originally conceived to be used in a classroom environment.
Then, Vocabulaire en dialogues. A1-A2, by CLE International: it’s so good, I literally burnt the CD. Very easy to use on your own.
Second course: French A2
Now, the textbooks and the workbooks for the second year were the following:
The Alter Ego A2, by Hachette FLE, is as good as the A1, even better if you go through it with a teacher.
The Grammaire Progressive Du Français, by CLE International, is marvellous and can be perfectly used in an autodidact way.
Once again, the choice was good. To make the whole journey more pleasant, I peppered my days with graded readers: an eye on the pleasure of reading, another on the didactic component.
Graded readers are awesome because they promote both: grammar books teaches a lot but are eventually boring, whereas books below your level are fun to go through but teaches you nothing new. Graded readers, instead, are engineered to find the soft spot in which you learn stuff through a sustainable effort.
So, thanks to:
- this study plan,
- watching movies OWS (Original With Subtitles),
- exchanging with native or fluent French speakers,
- using it in the office,
at June that year I passed the A2.2 exam, aka Basic French. It was effortless, and that made me reflect.
An exam should not be an insurmountable task. Nevertheless, there must be a degree of neuronal effort, or there’s no learning.
Then, summer came. This was the maintenance plan under the Spanish sun: 🌞
- chitchatting with the French pouring down for their holidays,
- reading light stuff,
- spending two weeks in Marseille.
At the end of September, there was the B1.1 French course waiting for me.
Third course: French B1
The textbooks were good again:
Alter Ego – Niveau B1 by Hachette FLE: what can I say? Just as good as the other instalments of the series.
Grammaire Progressive du Français – Niveau perfectionnement by CLE International: copy/paste from the textbook above. What can I say? The whole series is worth gold.
As already mentioned, the Alter Egos are better used with the aid of a teacher, whereas la Grammaire Progressive du Français is just perfect for self-learners.
But there was something wrong.
It seemed to be there was too big a gap between my French and that of my classmates. I was bored to death.
How to study French: Back to self-teaching
The Escuela Oficial de Idiomas is a great institution, no doubt. Flexibility, however, is not one of its defining features.
If you’re faster – or slower – than your mates, you can’t step to another level anyway. 😠
So, I decided to take my learning destiny in my own hands:
#1 I devoured the textbooks for the B1 level.
#3 I kept on working with the very beneficial Grammaire Progressive du Français – Niveau perfectionnement by CLE International.
Nevertheless, now I could eventually read something solid. In a few cases, I overshoot the mark, with books I wouldn’t be able to read for a couple of years yet. Novels by Michel Tournier, Amélie Nothomb and the like, quite common readings for learners at my intermediate stage.
Aside from readings, I did every mock exam I could get my hands on. I practiced oral and written French, I listened to endless hours of radio and podcasts.
In my car, I had the audio version of the books I was reading, the podcasts of France Culture and those of Frank Ferrand about history. At the end of June, I took the B2.2 examination, the so called Advanced French.
And I passed it.
How to learn French: life after the EOI
The intensive learning came to a halt, after the exam, but it has never really stopped.
In my job, due to some internal dynamics, I was now using less French than before. In the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, there was no C1 in those times.
What about now?
I’ve been using French on a regular basis. Not every day, but almost. I love it. I read Amélie Nothomb and Amin Maalouf, I watch French movies and Gad Elmaleh’s monologues, I listen to Zaz and Georges Brassens. 🎵
I obviously still have a lot to learn, but I haven’t had issues when:
- preparing trade missions in France,
- talking to my French pals,
- understanding legal documents drafted by French lawyers,
- rescue lost tourists,
- handling orders and quotes related to any French-speaking market.
Summarizing this all, would I do all of this all over again?
How to learn French: what I wouldn’t do again
#1 To leave French for a while, when I wasn’t fluent yet.
#2 To carry on with the school and with the learning-on-my-own plan at the same time.
At the Escuela Oficial, teachers and materials were good. But I was just advancing faster on my own.
#3 More travels and stays in French-speaking countries. 🧳
I still believe one can get to master a language from his own home, but having the chance, it’s good to immerse oneself where your target language is spoken.
How to learn French: what I’d do again
#1 To grab every opportunity to listen to, speak, use French, right from the beginning.
#2 The mix of textbooks I used and strategies I adopted. I was wrong several times, but I eventually managed to get back on track. ✔️
#3 To not being afraid of using it in the job, although I was far from fluency at the beginning.
And now, let me tell you what has French brought me, in terms of employment.
Is French sought-after in the labour market?
Well, let me show you what I have found out through my own experience:
#1 Job offers I received from Ireland, concerning being a representative for the European market: speaking French meant 100+ €/month on top of the salary in B2C environments, and 150+ €/month in B2B.
#2 Job offers from the United Kingdom: anything Customer Service or Back Office plus French, paid 24.000 – 26.000 GBP/year, against the 20.000 – 22.000 GBP/YEAR with merely Spanish or Italian. 💷
#3 Vacancies in France: well, being able to access to the French labour market.
Except for Paris and few corporations, there will be no company hiring you if you don’t master French. If you don’t find it interesting, well, it depends a lot on where you come from.
In half Europe, the wage you receive for whatever role is way below the one you can get in France or Belgium, let alone Luxemburg or Switzerland.
#4 Job offers in southern Europe: plenty in fields like hospitality, tourism, export, industry, services of all sorts.
Whenever there’s a vacancy for a “role”, an employer receives a thousand application.
If the vacancy is, instead, for a “role with fluent French”, it receives no more than a handful. And most of them are from candidate not nearly fluent enough.
So, you have an opportunity.
#5 Vacancies in European institutions and international organizations: French is very much in demand.
Should you like to work there, or even only to do an internship, it’s a fundamental criteria. Ever heard about the salaries in such entities? 💰
#6 Job offers in eastern Europe: many service centers are being relocated to Poland, Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria.
Once added French to my CV, there were days in which my mobile was on fire. 📱🔥
With French + another language, salaries begins being interesting.
One more thing.
No one is doubting about the prominent role of English as world’s lingua franca for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, French comes just right after. 🇫🇷
I had job offers (and jobs) even in the worse phases of the latest financial crisis, thanks to my knowledge of French.
If that’s no brutal competitive advantage, then I don’t know what that is.
How to learn French: Is French difficult?
I should start here a long, elaborated speech.
It should talk about:
- your commitment,
- what level of French you intend to achieve,
- what’s your current level,
- what are your native languages,
- what other languages you are fluent in,
- whether you know or not how you’re going to learn French,
- where do you live, where do you go…
But you’ll allow me to take the liberty of a straightforward, resounding “No”: French is easy.
It’s a language with its own snags, but certainly not difficult for an English speaker.
The orthography is a bit of a mess; on the other hand, native French struggle with it too, so chillax. 😄 Not for nothing, in the French-speaking world, you have dictation contests and they are all the rage.
French pronunciation looks scary too: no big deal, honestly. It’s just a matter of practicing, like everything in life.
Speaking like Laetitia Casta o Serge Gainsbourg is possible and desirable, but if they understand you when you talk, it’s good enough. 👂 You won’t be put to jail if you utter French with a British accent.
Hence, relax and enjoy 😉
Is French expensive to learn?
If you have a look at the materials I recommended you here above, you’ll see how cheap learning French is. Evening schools, business schools, private courses, universities… they will all be much more expensive. Their efficacy, questionable.
There’s plenty of stuff on the Internet to learn and practice: I’ll guide you through that in the posts listed below.
And please never, never, lose the pleasure to learn this beautiful language.
You’d like to learn it, but you’re not 100% sure yet?
OK then, let me give you some extra reasons:
French is not only the carrier of a grand culture.
It’s also the language with the highest ratio between the effort requested to learn it and the gains you may obtain with it. The best value for money you can get in terms of languages. 😀
I’m not fan of exageration, but this I can affirm strongly: learning French is life-changing. It changed mine. Let’s see how what marvels can do for you.
What are you waiting for 😉
WAIT! DON’T LEAVE YET.
If you got here, you know more about how to learn French than most of people you know.
If this post had been of use to you and you’re among the few without an Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, raise your hand.
You’ll just need to drop a comment below. 🙏
Regardless of my peculiar personal experience, what I’d suggest you if you were to start from zero, is what follows:
And share, share, share 🙏
Your personal language consultant,