Learning French

Self-help, language schools, individual lessons and tips

Learning French

If you want to make the most of the French way of life and your time in France, it’s essential to learn French as soon as possible. For people living in France permanently, learning French isn’t an option, but a necessity.

Your business and social enjoyment and success in France will be directly related to the degree to which you master French. Although it isn’t easy, even the most non-linguistic person can acquire a working knowledge of French. All that’s required is perseverance and a little help, particularly if you have only English-speaking colleagues and friends.

Most people can teach themselves a great deal through the use of books, tapes, videos/DVDs, computer programmes and online courses. However, even the best students require some help. Teaching French is big business in France, with classes offered by language schools (see below), French and foreign colleges and universities, private and international schools, foreign and international organisations (such as the British Institute in Paris), local associations and clubs, and private teachers.

Most universities provide language courses, and many organisations offer holiday courses year-round, particularly for children and young adults (it’s best to stay with a local French family). Tuition ranges from courses for complete beginners, through specialised business or cultural courses to university-level courses leading to recognised diplomas. If you already speak French but need conversational practice, you may prefer to enrol in an art or craft course at a local institute or club.

In some areas the Centre Culturel provides free French lessons to foreigners. If you’re officially registered as unemployed and have a residence permit, you can obtain free lessons ( perfectionnement de la langue française) from the Pole Emploi, although complete beginners don’t qualify (contact your local Pole Emploi office for information).


There are numerous self-study French courses available, including those offered by the BBC ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/languages/french ), Eurotalk (http://www.eurotalk.co.uk ) and Linguaphone ( http://www.linguaphone.co.uk ). Websites offering free tutorials include http://www.france-pub.com/french , http://www.frenchassistant.com  and http://www.frenchtutorial.com .

A quarterly publication, Bien-dire (sic), is aimed at adult learners (http://www.learningfrench.com), and the About French language
website ( http://www.french.about.com ) provides copious information about the language and tips to help you learn.

There are several things you can do to speed up your language learning, including watching television (particularly quiz shows where the words appear on the screen as they’re spoken) and DVDs (where you can select French or English subtitles), reading (especially children’s books and product catalogues, where the words are accompanied by pictures), joining a club or association, and (most enjoyable) making French friends. Finding a French ‘penfriend’ while abroad is a good way to improve your language skills, and there are a number of websites aimed at putting people in touch for this purpose, including http://www.friendsabroad.com  and http://www.mylanguageexchange.com .

Language Schools

There are many language schools ( école de langues) in cities and large towns. One of the most famous French language teaching organisations is the Alliance Française (AF, 01 42 84 90 00, http://www.alliancefr.org  ), a state-approved, non-profit organisation with over 1,000 centres in 138 countries, including 32 centres in France, mainly in large towns and cities. The AF runs general, special and intensive courses, and can also arrange a homestay in France with a host family.

Another non-profit organisation is Centre d’Echanges Internationaux ( 01 43 29 60 20), offering intensive French language courses for juniors (13 to 18 years) and adults throughout France. Courses include accommodation in their own international centres, with a French family, or in a hotel, bed-and-breakfast or self-catering studio. Junior courses can be combined with tuition in a variety of sports and other activities, including horse riding, tennis, windsurfing, canoeing, diving and dancing.

Another well-known school is Berlitz (01 40 74 00 17, http://www.berlitz.com ) with around 16 schools in France, including five in Paris. And the British organisation CESA Languages Abroad (UK 01209-211800, http://www.cesalanguages.com ) offers advice and arranges language courses.

Most language schools run various classes, and which one you choose will depend on your language ability, how many hours you wish to study a week, how much money you want to spend and how quickly you wish to learn. Language classes generally fall into the following categories: extensive (4 to 10 hours per week); intensive (15 to 20 hours); total immersion (20 to 40 or more). Some offer telephone lessons, which are particularly practical if you’re busy or don’t live near a language school.

Don’t expect to become fluent in a short time unless you have a particular flair for languages or already have a good command of French. Unless you desperately need to learn French quickly, it’s better to arrange your lessons over a long period. However, don’t commit yourself to a long course of study, particularly an expensive one, before ensuring that it’s the right course. The cost of a one-week total immersion course is usually between €2,500 and €3,000! Most schools offer free tests to help you find the appropriate level and a free introductory lesson.

Individual Lessons

You may prefer to have individual lessons, which are a quicker, although more expensive way of learning a language. The main advantage of individual lessons is that you learn at your own speed and aren’t held back by slow learners or left floundering in the wake of the class genius. You can advertise for a teacher in your local newspapers, on shopping centre/supermarket bulletin boards and university notice boards, and through your or your spouse’s employer. Otherwise, look for advertisements in the English-language press. Don’t forget to ask your friends, neighbours and colleagues if they can recommend a teacher.

Individual lessons by the hour cost from around €50 at a school or €15 to €35 with a private tutor, although you may find someone willing to trade French lessons for lessons in your native language, especially if it’s English. In some areas (particularly in Paris), there are discussion groups that meet regularly to converse in French and other languages; these are usually advertised in the English-language press.


The Best Places to Buy a Home in France includes lists of language schools in the most popular regions of France. A comprehensive list of schools, institutions and organisations providing French language courses throughout France is contained in a booklet, Cours de Français Langue Étrangère et Stages Pédagogie de Français Langue Étrangère en France. It includes information about the type of course, organisation, dates and costs, and other practical information, and is available from French consulates and from the Association pour la Diffusion de la Pensée Française (ADPF, 01 43 13 11 00).

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

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