What do you expect from your first study abroad trip to France?
You might draw a complete blank or just see vague images of French lecture halls, cheese shops and cafés.
You might even believe it’s good to go in expecting nothing in order to have an open mind.
But I’m here to tell you from experience that some preparation can be well worth the effort.
The time you’ll spend in France will just seem to fly by, especially if you’re unprepared.
The right mindset will help you get the most out of your study abroad experience.
Today, we’ll make sure that you can catch your return flight home with more knowledge, improved language skills and wonderful stories to tell.
Language Preparation Tips for Studying Abroad in France
The French I studied in college before moving to France left me woefully unprepared for the actual challenges of life in Paris, and lots of people have had similar experiences.
It’s one thing to fill out grammar exercises or discuss Molière—though neither one of these things is bad for you to do as a student of French—but it’s quite another to be able to buy a baguette or chat up the university librarian in order to gain access to a key item in closed stacks.
I recommend taking some time—at least a month—to focus on personalized study of the French you will need for your ideal French study abroad experience. That up-front investment will enable you to hit the ground running and really make the most of your short time in France. Trust me, once you’re there, the months will go by quickly.
To prepare, you must first identify the language skills you’ll need and haven’t yet acquired. What these skills are depends on the type of study program you’ll be in, as well as the sort of life you enjoy leading when not studying.
Below are the areas to consider:
- Learn informal French. Do you speak the informal French that will be common in the region and milieu where you’ll be studying? This might include verlan, or the unique slang of Toulouse, Paris or Nantes. If you’re staying with a host family that has young children, do you know about the fun words specific to French tykes?
- Learn French for dealing with bureaucracy. Does your study abroad program handle all the bureaucracy around university registration, housing, getting a mobile phone, student ID, etc.? If not, you’ll want to prepare for any of those areas that you expect to have to handle yourself, by studying or rehearsing any conversations that you may need to have.
- Learn French for your social life. What do you like to talk about in your social life, while flirting or dating and during other activities? (More on preparing for this in the next section.) You’re used to doing these things in your own language. Now think about what those conversations will be like in French.
- Prepare for your areas of study. What vocabulary is necessary for the subject areas you’ll be studying? Getting a handle on this ahead of time will help you ease into those first few lectures.
- Make sure you can enjoy French gastronomy! Are you ready to order French food and wine?
Make your individual French study plan
Once you know where you need to improve, it’s much easier to decide how to improve.
As you should have seen from answering the above questions, individual needs vary from person to person and your prep for studying abroad should be specific to you.
One great way to prepare for all these things is by taking some one-on-one online classes via Skype to zero-in on the areas where you want to improve. One excellent resource (and my personal top choice) for this is italki.
With italki, you can choose a teacher from the exact region where you’ll be studying, or you can look for more informal tutoring from a fellow student whose studies or interests are similar to yours. Be sure to organize your online classes yourself in order to better target your own needs.
Another motivating way to study—and a refreshingly large step away from university French classes—is FluentU.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with FluentU's adaptive quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning and play the mini-games found in the dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
As you study, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a 100% personalized experience.
It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
6 Social Tips for Studying Abroad in France
Lots of people who plan to study in France vow that, upon hitting the ground, they’ll “never speak English.”
That they’ll “only make friends with French people”
They will thus force themselves to integrate into French life.
In reality, very few students who study abroad in France actually manage to do something even close to this. It’s hard to make friends with locals, who, aside from the language and cultural barriers, already have their own friends and are less eager to meet and hang out with new people than, say, other students in your study abroad group.
So what’s the difference between those who actually manage to integrate into French life while studying abroad and those who just wish they had?
There’s a lot of grit, effort and sometimes even suffering involved.
In my case, early on, I remember quite a few incredibly frustrating nights spent out with lovely people who I could barely understand.
So, let me help you get started on the right foot here.
Below are some tips to help you jump right into French student social life.
1. Enjoy activities outside of your host university.
Step one is to get away from your university. Most French students go to their university just for their studies. It’s not a hub for activities and social life as is, say, an American university.
Instead, make plans to enjoy the same activities that you like back home, but in French.
Like dancing? If you’re at a lower level in French, any class in dance, yoga, rock climbing, etc. is a great way to hear and use simpler vocabulary while meeting people who by definition share at least one of your interests.
I myself found that I learned a lot more from my Parisian samba class than from my brief stint at the Alliance Française, whose group classes were too slow for my style of learning.
2. Date in French.
Go on dates, if so inclined.
It’s a great way to meet people whether or not you end up sharing an attraction, and the temptation of possible romance can make you more motivated to keep working on your French.
Your smoldering, flirtatious looks will also make French people slightly more patient with your haphazard communication.
3. Seek out people who don’t speak English.
It’s better for your language skills if you socialize with French people who speak little to no English. They’re certainly not hard to find.
Having a group of friends that has no desire and little ability to speak English will ensure that you’re forced to make progress with your French. Remember that sooner or later, any social group will inevitably revert to whatever language is easiest for communication—make sure that language is French.
4. Befriend French students who have also come from far away.
Make friends with students from other parts of France (not the town where you’re studying) or from other Francophone countries. These students are also studying far away from their own families and friends, and are likely to be more receptive to meeting new people. People from the south and from smaller towns are also famous for being much friendlier, than, say, Parisians.
5. Join the Erasmus community.
Look for Erasmus meetups if you want to meet students from other European countries who are studying in France.
Erasmus stands for European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, and is an E.U. program to facilitate international student exchange.
These Erasmus meetup groups meet often to drink, socialize and practice language skills while making new friends.
6. Don’t be afraid to be chatty.
Make the first move.
French people can be awful at starting up conversations, even when they might really like to, since French culture mandates a certain amount of inhibition about chatting up people without an introduction.
If you take that first step yourself, you might meet some lovely people who are quite excited to talk to a foreign student. Even if they end up not being receptive to your attempts at conversation, it’s absolutely worth the risk.
This has been an overview of the linguistic and social considerations to make when preparing to study abroad in France. You may also want to read up on practical aspects, cultural norms and travel during your study.
Your university or study program will, of course, also provide you with general guidance and support.
But I hope that you’ve realized that, to fully enjoy France, some very individualized prep and planning makes all the difference—as does a more social mindset.
Mose Hayward uses his decades of nomadism to give all kinds of travel advice, including the best gear to pack for study abroad.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.