Learning French and do you need it: The true story of an expat

Learning French - How should you choose your school? What are the best ways to learn French? I tell you my story as an expat in France!
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There is this story about the Tower of Babel. You know the one – where people wanted to build a tower that reached the Heavens. God thought that to be blasphemy and made them speak in different languages so they wouldn’t be able to do it! Calm down, I am not going to talk about religion here. But this myth always made me think about the fact that without understanding each other, it’s impossible to do anything.

I also learned that the hard way, when I was a teenager, living in a foreign country (Libya), in school where I didn’t know how to ask where the bathroom was. Big mistake – trust me! Forward a couple of years later and … I decided to move to France. Without, mind you, speaking a word of French. Yep, I never learn. But learning I had to do, more precisely learning French.

I like to be honest here. Sugar-coating things has never proven helpful to anyone so I will tell you exactly how I felt about the French language and the process of learning French. It sucked! Correction, it sucks, because I can’t say I speak French yet. It should be noted that I learn languages fairly easily. I speak Bulgarian (my native language), Russian and English at a proficiency level. I thought that learning French will be a piece of croissant. But it wasn’t.

As beautiful and as lyrical as the French language is – it is hard. The grammar is complicated, and the spelling is confusing. On top of that, the french like to use phrases and expressions that make no sense in translation. Also, it varies from region to region.

Did I scare you yet? No? But… I’m not done, mon ami(e)! (insert French accent here)

How important is it to speak French in France?

The answer is – extremely! If you are serious about wanting to live in Bordeaux or any French city, learning French is crucial in order for you to integrate. Don’t expect anyone to speak English for you. Of course, there are people who would, but most of the french don’t like to make the effort in my experience. And why should they? They are proud of their language and, let’s be honest here – it’s just easier to speak your native tongue. So, if you are at a soirée and you are the only foreigner, no one would try to speak English in order to make you feel included.

If we put the social aspect aside, we should focus on your professional life. The reality of the situation is that you will need to speak French in order to work here. Yes, there are some English-speaking jobs as babysitters and in pubs, but if you want to do anything else – you have to learn French. You have to be proficient enough in the language so you can have online and phone interviews.

Even if you want to go to Pôle emploi which is the French employment centre they will expect you to speak French. The ugly truth is that no one cared about my Bachelor’s degree in design or the 3 foreign languages that I spoke – all they wanted to know was ‘parlez-vous français?’ And I did not!

So we get to the question that’s on everyone’s mind – How do I learn French (in Bordeaux, France?)

Be serious about it

I wanted to write all the things above so you understand what I mean by this. Also, it is advice that I wish someone had given me before I started my journey of learning French. What you need to understand here is that you have to put a lot of hard work into it. And no one is going to make it easy on you or make you feel comfortable when you don’t.

Find a school that suits your needs

We have already established that you will have to speak French in order to live in France. And you will have to really work on it – now you have to find a way to learn it. Maybe some of you will be tempted to start learning French by yourself. This, even though admirable and a lot cheaper is something I do not recommend. The basics of the French language are very important and if you decide to study by yourself there is a huge chance you will set yourself up for failure. If you are on a budget there are a lot of online courses you can look at that will help you. But, I myself decided to go with a more traditional approach.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself before you start looking

What do you need French for? Is it for pleasure, work or university? There are some specific courses you might take depending on what you need. For example, there are of course business courses. If you want to study at university here you will need a B2 level of French at least and a diploma to prove you have it.

How much time do you have? There are intensive classes (20h per week from Monday-Friday,) extensive classes (4h per week) and preparation for DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française)

Where do you live? Considering one of the courses I would suggest later is on the territory of the university and you live in the centre of Bordeaux it might take you up to an hour to get there.

What atmosphere are you looking for? This is pretty self-explanatory and very personal depending on your taste.

How much money are you willing to pay? It’s a question of quality – plain and simple. I know that most people, moving to a new city are on a budget. But, honestly – it is hard to find a good French school for cheap. Unfortunately, if you are serious about your level of French, you will need a professional one.

But in case paying 1000 euro + is not an option for you, look for benevolent organizations that give lessons. Usually, there is one in every neighbourhood. This way you can get at least a basic level of French and also find some new people to communicate with. Here are some examples you can try looking into. (Note that usually, you have to be a member of the organizations to take part in the course.)

Free/Cheap alternatives for learning French



*Haven’t tried those personally so I can’t give an opinion.

Professional schools for learning French

Usually, those are schools that specialize in teaching French and they are the only places that actually hold the official exams that give you the DELF diploma – which you will need for university or work. Even though a lot more expensive, I found that the prices are worth it, as the teachers there are professionals and know exactly how to teach you in order for you to pass the DELF tests. If you need that diploma, buckle up and go for it:

University of Bordeaux – DEFLE ( Le Département d’Études de Français Langue Étrangère – The department of French as a foreign language.)

This course is part of the DEFLE department at Bordeaux university. They have day, evening and summer classes. Once you finish a level you get a certification called – DU (Diplômes d’Université) which basically does nothing since you will need the DELF certification in order to study in France.

When you first want to sing for classes they usually make you take a placement test to see your level of French. The system there is very school-like. You have different classes – from French grammar to French culture. I took my first levels here. It was OK, but for me, it wasn’t the right fit. The teachers were good, but they were literally acting like we were university students and not people in their 30-s. I know this might sound silly, but I don’t like being patronized and this is exactly how I felt. It’s a scorpion thing so maybe you wouldn’t feel this way. But I did.

Also, the University of Bordeaux is quite far away if you don’t live on campus. Not to mention that the trams are always full to the brim with students and I’m not about that invasion of my personal space. I would say that those courses are suitable for someone younger, maybe someone who actually plans to continue studying at the university after they get their B2 level. For me, though – I needed a different setting.

What you need to enrol:

Candidates must originally be from a country where French is neither the official or administrative language.
Candidates must hold either a qualification allowing them to register at university or a secondary school leavers’ qualification.
Candidates must be at least 18 years of age.
Pre-enrolment form
Official French translation of your most recent degree or qualification
Photocopy of your proof of identity

Day classes – 950 euros per semester (1900 euros per year)

Alliance Française Bordeaux Aquitaine

I am sure you know enough about this language school, as it exists all over the world. The reasons to move here were two: The first – purely practical. It’s in the centre of the city and it was easier access for me. Second – I preferred the style of teaching. It is exactly what you expect from a language school. You have a book, you follow a schedule. The atmosphere was a lot more chill. The teachers were accommodating and always trying to help. I simply liked it more. Not to mention that I made some of my closest friends to this day there. Obviously, it is more expensive than the one in DEFLE but here you have more freedom in choosing the date you take the course.

General intensive course (20h per week) – 4 weeks( 1 session) – 628 euro

Make friends with a french

Studying from a textbook can only go so far. You have to actually go out there and practice French. I know how tempting it is to keep inside your bubble and talk to people who speak your own language only. I wish someone had pushed me to burst mine much, much sooner, because postponing it makes it harder. And be ready. It is you who has to take the step to find local friends. And you will need them. Because what they don’t teach you in those fancy language schools is how to actually communicate in your day-to-day life.

See, in my opinion, there is a difference in the style of French you need in order to take your language diploma – > go to uni/work, and the French you need to speak to understand the locals. Count on your new French friends to teach you the local idioms and expressions, listen to how they talk, and abbreviate – this will really help you. And ask them to correct you when you make mistakes. Most of them are really cool about it.

Use French in your hobby

Find something you love to do where you can use French. For example – I love to read. So, I started by reading in French. You like watching TV series – watch series with French subtitles. If you like music – learn French lyrics. If you like video games – watch walkthroughs in French. You get the idea!

Be patient

And this is important. You won’t learn French in a week, a month, or maybe even a year. I still have troubles speaking, which drives me crazy. But you know what? Every time I speak and I feel like I failed in life the French always say – but, no… you speak very well. Because even they know how tough it is to learn the language. Basically, give yourself a break. You will get there.

Well, here you go, folks. My experience with learning French. It is a process for sure!

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