A Worldwide Education: The Unexpected Journey of How I Learned French
Would you believe it if I told you that learning French landed me a job at Paris’ fashion museum?
Or that it led me to meet my husband?
And to live in an apartment that overlooked the River Seine and famous Notre-Dame Cathedral?
Well, it’s all true!
I have French to thank for many wonderful experiences in my life.
Learning French can open up so many opportunities for you. Below, I’ll share the story of how I learned French and the unexpected journey it took me on. I’ll also provide you with the tips and ideas I picked up at each stage, not only for French learning but also for finding work opportunities in France.
Even if your French learning journey doesn’t follow the exact same route, you can imitate my successes to learn French strategically and quickly from anywhere.
How I Learned French in 7 Unexpected Steps
1. Starting to Learn French (…or so I Thought)
I’d always dreamed of going to Paris one day, and it was this infatuation that made me want to study French in the first place.
Having the opportunity—or sometimes the requirement—to study another language while still in school is an asset that shouldn’t be overlooked, and I definitely took advantage of it.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that I was able to make straight As, was a member of the French Honor’s Society and participated in my high school’s French club, I graduated high school knowing almost no French at all. Plus, my French accent was absolutely horrible!
How was this possible after four years of French study? And what can it tell us about the French learning process?
For one thing, I think high school students can be distracted by the many emotions experienced in puberty, by social pressures at school and perhaps even by a lack of motivation. It’s hard not to be self-conscious in your teenage years, and learning a language requires the freedom and confidence to make mistakes.
So even if you’re well out of high school, don’t feel like you’re necessarily at a disadvantage. You’ve probably heard that the earlier you start learning another language, the easier it is—and that’s true to a certain extent. But as an adult learner, you’re probably more confident and aware of your own learning needs and goals. Plus, you have an internal drive to learn French, not a grade looming over your head.
Another thing that makes high school French learning difficult is that it’s easy to get good grades with a little study and memorization, but it’s much harder to apply what you’ve learned outside of the classroom.
After all, the ultimate goal is using French rather than just passing a few school tests.
Looking back on it now, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to make French a part of your daily life from the very beginning. Relying on lessons and exercises alone won’t cut it. Immersing yourself in French is the only way you’re ever going to reach fluency and reap the benefits of your hard work.
Later in this article, I’ll show you how I was able to do this by getting a job in France, but you can actually start this process from anywhere. All it takes is surrounding yourself with real French media.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Every video comes with interactive subtitles that you can click to learn any unfamiliar word while you watch. There are also vocabulary lists, full transcripts, flashcards and fun quizzes built into every video. It’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in French the way native speakers actually use it, without ever worrying about missing a word.
2. Starting Over in College
After graduating from high school, I went straight into college to pursue a degree in English literature.
I knew I needed to meet the general education requirement of having at least an intermediate level of a second language. I took my time considering whether or not to try and test out of beginner French classes and simply take the intermediate ones to meet the requirement early.
In the end, I wasn’t confident in my French abilities and decided to start over with the most basic French class my university offered. This ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made!
Everyone should remember that it’s okay if you need to start over.
Starting over reinforced the material and clarified concepts that I’d previously misunderstood. Plus, I was determined to improve my French skills this time around.
Once I had met the language requirement, I was already so involved in the language department (with both French and English) that I decided to go for a French minor. I got to finish the advanced French classes and begin really interesting courses in French literature and cinema. These classes worked miracles on my listening and reading skills.
I also ended up doing an independent study where I taught a French class on Savoie, a department in France, under the supervision of my professor, which helped my speaking skills.
If you’re a college student yourself, why not get a French minor instead of spending those leftover classes on electives? The cost is the same either way and you’ll take a major leap towards fluency!
But what if you’re not enrolled in college right now? Remember that most universities allow locals to audit classes for a small fee, so you don’t need to be a college student to attend French classes at your local university.
Not only will you get a structured, university-grade French education, but you’ll also get to focus on specific areas of French learning that more general classes don’t cover. In fact, I’d particularly recommend seeking out a French pronunciation class, if your local university offers one.
This was the most beneficial French class I ever took, as I struggled with pronunciation more than anything else. It’s also one of those language concepts that’s a lot easier to learn face-to-face with a teacher, as opposed to online. My professor didn’t shy away from having me make funny faces and sounds in front of the whole class to learn how to pronounce certain words, and after several weeks of this, my shyness because of my accent was completely gone.
Only after wiping away all fear of sounding silly was I able to improve my accent, and I left that class with more confidence than ever.
Overall, my college French classes were difficult but fun, and my professors were so knowledgeable and wonderful that I ended up learning a ton. I graduated college with useful French skills and I was proud of that, though I still wouldn’t say I was fluent yet.
3. Landing a French Visa and Job
Fast forward several years to shortly after I had turned 24 years old, and I made the decision to leave my job in the U.S. and travel the world, which I’d always wanted to do. I actually didn’t start with France—I started with Italy—but inevitably, I wound up where I’d always dreamed: Paris.
I arrived on an au pair visa, teaching children who were homeschooled. While my situation was unique—most au pairs simply take care of kids before and after school—I recommend this avenue if you’re wondering how to get a French visa.
A few months after being in France, I landed a great job at Le Palais Galliera (the national fashion museum in Paris)! I’m sure I got the job because I could speak both English and French and had experience working in museums (the job I left in the U.S. when I decided to move overseas was at a museum).
Paris Musées (Paris Museums) is an awesome organization to work for, and they do hire a good many foreigners, so check out their website if you’re interested.
If museum work isn’t for you, there are so many different types of opportunities for those looking for a French job, if you’re willing to do the research. Like I hinted above, give yourself a leg up by making it clear that you know English, too.
4. Immersion in Different Types of French
Both my au pair and museum job were integral to expanding my communication skills. And the good news is that you can imitate the same type of learning even if you’re not currently located or working in a French-speaking environment.
As an au pair, even though I was teaching kids in English, listening to their French outside of our class time was very beneficial for me. The kids were native speakers, of course, but spoke lower-level French because of their ages.
For this reason, I recommend listening to French music for kids, watching children’s movies in French and reading French kids’ books. It’s a great way to take your comprehension skills up a notch without getting overwhelmed or lost.
Working at the museum is where I learned professional French by communicating my colleagues and the public. On top of that, I was having to fill out French forms, read French signs and use French every time I left the house. This immersion was priceless and I gained valuable cultural lessons, was exposed to various accents as I visited other parts of France and learned slang and colloquial speech.
If you can’t immerse yourself in a French job or daily French life, consider ways to simulate that immersion experience, even if it’s just for an hour or two each day.
For example, try joining a local French club, watching French films or even reading a French novel.
And don’t forget one of the most important things I discovered while living in France: for the most part, everyone was kind when I spoke French and made mistakes, and my coworkers and the public were interested in where I’d come from rather than judging me for my imperfect speech.
So don’t fear real-world conversations with French speakers. Look forward to them as an opportunity to build your skills and your confidence.
5. Mixing in Another French Class
As part of my visa requirement, I had to enroll in a French class while I was living in France.
I chose ELFE and highly recommend it for anyone headed to Paris. My teacher was amazing and their curriculum is fantastic.
Taking a class with other non-native French speakers helped once again with practicing without fear of making mistakes, since we were all in the same boat. It was also super helpful to once again have structured, progressive lessons and a place to ask all of the questions raised by my everyday immersion experience.
For example, I could ask my teacher about a phrase I heard on the street that I didn’t understand, or why people sometimes misunderstood me when I used a certain word.
His corrections and teachings were invaluable to me, and they were made all the more useful since I could apply them as soon as I left the class and was back on the streets of Paris.
No matter where you live, there are always opportunities to take valuable French classes. Unlike your first-time French classes, now you should look for ones that’ll help you build on the immersion techniques you’ve been using. This is where everything starts to come together and you should feel yourself entering the upper-intermediate to advanced stages.
6. Falling in Love in French
Somewhere along the way in my Parisian experience, I met my now husband, Javier, a French chef (who’s actually Colombian but was born in Paris—a story for another time). We dated for about a year and got married in the city of love, a fairy tale come true.
My French greatly improved after dating him, because I finally had someone close to me who could correct me and help me with my language skills every day.
However, my husband also speaks English, so we had to make an effort at the beginning of our relationship to use French often so I could practice.
I know how incredibly lucky I was—not everyone ends up in a French romance. But anyone is capable of finding a native speaker with whom to practice.
No matter where you live, there are plenty of online chat forums, places to find pen pals or local Meetup events where you can find a French buddy.
Practicing with a native speaker in this way is essential if you want to catch your French mistakes and develop natural-sounding speech.
7. Fluency Where I Least Expected It
Not too long after we were married, my husband and I moved to Colombia because I was having issues with renewing my French visa.
You see, despite being born in France, my husband doesn’t have French nationality, which is, like I said before, a story for another time. Thus, I couldn’t get a French spousal visa.
We thought I could experience some of the Colombian culture, get to know my new in-laws and learn some Spanish, so we packed our bags and headed for South America.
While we looked for the right city where my husband could open up his restaurant, we stayed with my in-laws for two months. They don’t speak English, and I didn’t know any Spanish when I first moved to Colombia, but we all spoke French.
Here’s the hilarious part: after two months of living together, my French was better in Colombia than it had ever been in Paris! I literally spoke it 24/7 for those two months, which was just the push I needed into fluency.
Between Skyping my friends back in France and frequently seeing my in-laws, I still practice French often, and this has made all the difference in maintaining my level.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to find ways to practice your French so you don’t lose it.
In the end, I’ve learned that no matter where you’re learning French, there are always things you can improve on and that continual practice is the only way to do it. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, the more you speak French, the better your French will be.
There’s no one path to French fluency. The story of how I learned French might look very different from your story. But the overall lessons should help you find your way, and the journey just might change your life in ways you couldn’t imagine.