What's it like moving to France without knowing French?
Many people who move to France do so without being able to speak any French. Although it might be acceptable for certain professions, most expats will find that their having more fun as they pick up the language. Generally, people develop their language skills out of necessity. If there’s no necessity to speak French, there’s just not enough motivation.
If you’re moving to France permanently, you will find that by immersing yourself into their culture you increase your quality of life. Such “immersion” is, obviously, not possible without being able to speak the language, or at least making an effort. The French are usually open-minded and welcoming. Also most locals will have had some exposure to English at school – only they won’t let it show until you make an effort to speak French.
Professions that can get away with not speaking the lingo
Many expats moving to France without knowing French do so intentionally when they’ve been offered a job in an international company where English is used to carry out business. That’s why some highly skilled workers in finance and investment banking industry spend many years in France without being able to speak the language. This trend is particularly prominent in Paris, other big cities and the South of France where expats have a booming English community to socialise with, however, if their ties with the expat community are not close enough, they will soon find themselves in social isolation.
Other professions that can get away with it, at least at the beginning, are English teachers at language schools. The pupils who attend a language school already expect that they will be thrown in at the deep end.
There is also an increased demand for English-speaking nannies. French schools take teaching foreign languages very seriously so many parents opt for an English nanny to get children to begin learning English from a very young age.
Laying the foundation
Nevertheless, most people who’ve moved to France will think about the need of learning the language sooner or later. All the stories of people picking up a foreign language by listening to a local radio or simply by mixing with the locals are largely a myth. Research has shown that in order to make a reasonable progress on learning a foreign language, an individual has to exert an effort. Things like building the general concept of grammar, language structure and basic words are something that needs to be acquired through concentrated work. Once the foundations are there, picking up a language is an attainable task. How to learn the basics of French then?
As far as the basic vocabulary is concerned, English linguist Charles Kay Ogden proved that you don’t need more than 1000 words to efficiently communicate with people. His research was aimed at developing Basic English – a subset of English language intended for the use of foreign students.
Although there isn’t an equivalent of Ogden’s method for other European languages, it’s fair to say that learning any language based on the Latin script won’t take more than 1000 words to get by with the day-to-day stuff. Ogden’s contemporaries I.A. Richards and Christine Gibson did some work on producing an equivalent method for French languages and their books occasionally pop up on Amazon and out-of-print booksellers. There are also a range of websites featuring a list of most popular words in French language.
Red tape as the main motivation
Unless you have a local concierge or a French-speaking PA that does everything on your behalf, you will regret moving to France without knowing French once you’ve encountered their red tape. Getting the simple things sorted, such as connecting the broadband or applying for residence documents may become mission impossible for people with limited use of the language.
Whether you’re thinking about moving to France or have already made the move, you will find your life much more enjoyable with a French phrase book in your pocket.
Information correct at time of publication