In September 2009, I didn’t take a magical train to Hogwarts.
I did something better.
I flew across the Atlantic Ocean to start my new job as a live-in au pair in the suburbs of Paris.
A few days later, I found myself exploring Paris alone. I stopped at Starbucks for a soy chai—except I didn’t know how to say “soy milk” in French.
The Parisian and I went back and forth until I finally asked for le lait végétarien (vegetarian milk). His eyes lit up as he exclaimed, “Le lait soja!” (soy milk).
I learned something new that day—and every day after that.
French Immersion Is the Best Way to Learn French
Living in France (or in any French-speaking area) is the best way to learn French.
Completely immersing yourself in both the language and the culture changes the way you think about a second language. In fact, eventually you won’t just think differently about French, but you’ll start thinking in French.
Surrounded by people who speak French as their native tongue, and possibly have only a limited understanding of English, compels you to use French to communicate.
Even if you lack the precise vocabulary or grammar, you quickly learn how to explain yourself anyway. Asking a French barista for vegetarian milk is a bit ridiculous, but I managed to get my point across even with my inadequate vocabulary.
A great benefit for young people learning French abroad is the ability to pick up on slang and mannerisms. Most of us don’t use Queen’s English, so why would we want to speak French formally?
I like to think I’ve perfected my French one-shouldered shrug with the informal, “Je sais pas” (I don’t know).
If you want to immerse yourself in French, France offers young Americans (and other native English speakers) several great opportunities to live abroad.
- Work as an au pair. French families hire au pairs to help with their children while the parents are at work. They often hire Americans or Canadians so the children can learn English from a native speaker. An extra bonus to working as a French au pair is the mandatory French classes, which your famille d’accueil (host family) must help pay for.
- Teach English. TAPIF is a wonderful opportunity to work just 12 hours a week in primary or secondary schools, assisting English teachers with their lessons. While this program has become more competitive in recent years, if you’re willing to accept placement in a rural town, you have a good chance of getting a position even from the wait list.
- Volunteer. While France offers many volunteer opportunities, Help Exchange also connects travelers with French locals. The locals provide room and board in exchange for a certain amount of work each day.
Can’t Move to France? 5 Affordable Alternatives to Immerse Yourself in French
I certainly loved my two years working in France, but it isn’t a viable option for everyone.
While au pair work and volunteer work usually include room and board, the pay is very little. TAPIF pays more, but then you usually need to find your own housing, which can be expensive in metropolitan areas.
Even if you can find work to cover your living expenses abroad, an international plane ticket is usually at least $1,000. Plus, you may have commitments in your home country.
Luckily, there are other ways to immerse yourself in French without leaving your hometown! These options include:
- French classes
- French tutoring
- Online French classes
- French audiotapes and books
- Local francophile groups
We’re going to explore each one of these options in greater detail now.
Take a French Class
Taking a local French class is a great way to immerse yourself in French!
Depending on the exact course, you can use it to either learn or improve upon French vocabulary and grammar. You also have the opportunity to practice speaking French with fellow beginners. While your combined accents might not be perfect, practicing with other learners is less intimidating than practicing with native speakers.
French classes are also surprisingly affordable. I’ve found courses running from 6 to 12 weeks in the $150-500 range. If your city has a local chapter of the Federation of Alliances Française USA, they might offer French courses. Also look into local universities or community colleges to see what language classes they offer.
Unfortunately, not every town or city will have French classes available. Even with reasonable prices, not every francophile’s budget can afford tuition. That’s still alright—stay tuned for even more immersion options.
Hire a French Tutor
If you’re looking for more one-on-one practice than a French class can offer, or if you want to supplement your French courses, consider hiring a French tutor. This will give you individualized attention to help you to succeed in French.
Like a regular French class, a French tutor can build your vocabulary and your grammar. Working with a French tutor will also improve your conversational skills. If you’re able to find a native French speaker to be your tutor, this can help immensely with both your accent and your understanding of French colloquialisms.
A French tutor will cost more per hour than a French class, which could become costly. You also need to be careful in checking a tutor’s credentials before hiring him or her. There’s a great deal of difference between a native speaker, an American with a Master’s in French and a French major still in college.
WyzAnt is one great place to look for tested and qualified French tutors.
Learn French Online
Learning French online is a great option for anyone with an inflexible schedule or a limited budget. Online French learning allows you to learn at your own pace, on your own time. French courses online are very affordable, with both free and inexpensive options.
FluentU, for example, offers variable pricing, starting with a free plan. Not to mention, it’s one of the most entertaining and engaging ways to learn French.
You can learn grammar, boost vocabulary, attune your ears to natural French syntax and improve your overall French comprehension through video and audio lessons. The downside of learning French online, however, is the limitations on practicing your verbal French skills. While you can certainly talk back to your computer, there’s no one to correct your pronunciation in response.
To remedy this, check out online language exchange websites like italki. There you can meet native French speakers and chat online for free! All you have to do is help them learn one of your native languages in return, and they’ll help you improve your spoken French in return. You can find more information on setting up an effective French language exchange here.
The italki platform is the best place to set this exchange up, too—if you decide you really want to crank your French learning progress into overdrive, you can use italki to connect with a private French tutor. Get it all done in one place!
Listen to French Audiotapes and Read French Books
My very first introduction to French, when I was about 10, was a children’s French book with an accompanying audiotape. Audiotapes and books are still a popular way to learn French. If you have a long commute, for example, you can listen to a French CD in your car or you can read a French book on the bus.
Let’s go back to the idea of listening to French—when you’re on the move, you’ve got tons of great options. There are French audiobooks and podcasts designed for both learners and native French speakers. Oh, and you can always load up your music player or smartphone with your favorite French music.
Books are a fun and relaxing way to learn. If you choose modern books, you’ll also pick up on French slang and idiomatic expressions. French audiotapes to accompany these books will improve your French comprehension in a whole other way. Both of these can be found for free at your local library, or discounted at secondhand bookstores or online.
Join a Francophile Group
If you want to meet new people while learning French, join a local francophile group! This will put you in contact with French speakers of all levels, from beginners to native speakers.
In my experience, francophile groups are a great way to practice French conversation. Everyone there shares a love for the French language. Both native speakers and advanced French students have patience with beginners because of that shared bond. You’ll have fun and make connections while you improve your French! Without even realizing it, you’ll be learning how to use new vocabulary and conjugate French verbs correctly and naturally.
An added bonus with a francophile group is the opportunity to learn more about French culture. You might take trips to an art museum featuring French artists or to a local French restaurant.
Joining a francophile group will also be free or low-cost, if there are membership dues. Usually there aren’t! You can find a group in your town via MeetUp, Planet Francophile or your local university.
Start Learning French Today!
While moving to France is still the best way to learn French, you can immerse yourself in French without ever leaving your city.
You have multiple options available to you.
If you want to start learning French today, I’d recommend you take a few seconds to sign up for a free account with FluentU!
The journey begins with a single step.
Brita Long is a freelance writer and copywriter who dreams of returning to Paris, her first love. Tweet at her (@belle_brita) in French or read her other musings on life at bellebrita.com.
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