The French Language

For many people, the biggest concern about moving to France (or buying French property) is their limited (or nonexistent) knowledge of the French language.  While this is not a trivial matter, there are a number of steps that can be taken to minimise difficulties.  This page considers three approaches:

  • How to get by without French
  • Free software translations
  • Learning French

In addition to these topics, the following related pages may also be of interest:

Living in France without the French language

There are many villages within France, as well as some areas (especially in the Dordogne and Provence) which have become so popular with the English, that English has effectively become a second language.  Many of the inhabitants are English, there are English social clubs, notices are often posted in English as well as French and local businesses have often learnt some English accordingly.  The advantages of being able to deal in your native language for most things (with rough translations generally available for the rest) are obvious.  Throughout France one can get English TV (with a satellite dish), and many channels (including several BBC channels and several ITV channels) are free. In addition, one can not only get English papers, but there are French newspapers which are published in English. Consequently, one can get by without speaking French.

You may decide that you want to live in an area where there is not a large English population. This has the advantage that house prices have not been bid up by English buyers and that one has a more authentic French experience. Even in these areas, it is not absolutely necessary to speak French. You can get by on a day-to-day basis reasonably well with a smile and sign language. 

However, for formal contracts, you would be well advised to either have a translation or have a bi-lingual representative.  Perhaps the most important requirement for these is for the house purchase and associated contracts. In addition, there are a number of forms and applications which you will need to complete upon moving to France (for example, your residence permit) for which you will likely need a translator (even if it is a neighbour or friend you speaks a bit of both languages). However, once you've completed the activities associated with the original move, there is very little absolute requirement to speak French.

Free Translation

There are a number of free software packages which will automatically translate between English and French. While very useful, the quality of translation is less than perfect. For information on how to get the most accurate translations from them, click on Free Translation

Learning the French Language

One can live in France and live well without speaking French. However, the more French you speak the more you will be accepted into the French community and the more you will gain from the French experience. Consequently, one should try to learn some French, even if you don't speak a word when you arrive.

There are many approaches to learning French: attending classes, private tuition, audio tapes, computer courses and so on. Which approach is most useful varies widely from person to person, as we all have our preferred learning styles. Alternatively, if you speak a little French and make the effort to use it whenever possible, you will gradually pick up more and over time will become fluent; this is the way children learn languages and it works well for adults (although adults learn slower than children).

English and French share many words in common. For example, every English word that ends in 'ion' (of which I'm told there are several thousand) is spelled exactly the same in French, with only a few exceptions. However, when speaking, you need to give it a French pronunciation in order to be understood. The quickest way of picking up a French vocabulary is to learn how the French pronounce the alphabet; one can then take advantage of the large number of words which are the same in both languages.

Most of the day-to-day activities (buying something in a store, ordering a meal) can be done without speaking a word of French and without the other person speaking a word of English. Goodwill and sigh language will take you a long way. You just have to be relaxed and feel free to be a bit silly; if you want a steak or some lamb in a restaurant and don't know how to ask for it, feel free to 'moo' or 'baa'.

Try to use your French whenever possible, no matter how little it is. This will endear you to the locals, reinforce any lessons that you are taking and will be a great learning exercise. Even if the only words you know are  'thank you' (merci) and please (s'il vous plaît), combined with a smile they will take you a long way. The French are very proud of their language and will appreciate the effort. Sometimes, they even understand English and after you’ve struggled for a while, will start speaking English (fluently or broken, depending on their ability). However, if you start in English, they may be offended by the implication that they can or should speak English (imagine if a French person came up to you on the street in your native country and starting speaking French with the assumption that you should understand their language!) and will likely not try as hard to understand or help. 

Some Cautions

Many Frenchmen often will not speak English even if they are able to do so, for a variety of reasons.  The French consider language proficiency very important and sometimes are too embarrassed to speak poor English (although after listening to someone speaking terrible French for a while, they sometimes will give it a go).  Alternatively, they may expect people living or working in France to speak French and see no reason to speak English.  They may also think that you prefer to speak in French (for the practice) and will struggle to understand you rather than insult your language ability by speaking English (although after a while, when you are clearly out of your depth, they will give you an encouraging smile and switch to perfect English). 

For whatever reason, you should never assume that French people cannot understand English merely because they appear not to.  I'm constantly amazed by tourists that open criticise individuals or the French in general, assuming that the people around them won’t understand (in such cases, the French will often give no sign that they understand, but will be deeply offended). 

Of particular note, if you are selling/buying something or engaged in a business negotiation, never assume that the French people opposite you do not understand English perfectly, even if they appear not to understand a word of it.  It is not unknown for French salesmen or businessmen to appear not to understand English either for the reasons discussed above or in order to gain business advantage.  Turning to your wife/husband/business partner and making statements such as “the price is reasonable, but I’ll try to get another 10% off” is likely to completely undermine your negotiating position.  Making rude statements about the other party, even if you think they will not be understood, will also have a similar effect.

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