Here’s Why You’ll Never Speak “Fluent” French, Even If You Live In France

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Theoretically, yes, you could learn to speak French fluently but, most people rarely take the steps necessary to achieve that level of proficiency. There are also other things to consider like age, where you live, how much you practice, and what you consider fluent, etc.

Disclaimer* I’m not an English teacher or a French teacher; however, I grew up in a multilingual home, and my children are doing the same.

I learned English when I was about five years old. My daughter is bilingual from birth. My two sons learned French when we moved to France when they were 13 and 14. And I have friends with multilingual children, so everything I’m expressing here is based on my own personal experience. 

How fluent will I be?

  • How fluently will I speak French if I study every day?
  • Will my child be bilingual or fluent after living in France for a year?

These are examples of actual questions I’ve received from parents who ponder moving to France and wonder how long, if ever, it will take them or their children to achieve French fluency.

I always find this question extremely hard to answer because to me; it’s like asking someone if they think I’ll make it to the Olympics or play the Piano like Beethoven if I practice enough.

Yes, you can learn to speak French fluently, but……

Anything’s possible if you put your mind to it, provided you have the aptitude and put in the time to make it happen.

However, like the athlete who wants to train for the Olympics, you have to put in the work, train like there’s no tomorrow, and do the right kind of training to achieve your goals. Even then, sometimes your best just isn’t good enough. 

What’s your definition of fluent?

Do you know what speaking fluent French looks like?

“Fluency” is such a subjective term.

  • To some, fluency is some magical point of speaking near perfect or even being at a native speaker level (which linguists define as “being bilingual”).
  • To others being able to speak with relative ease but lacking vocabulary is fluent. 

For the purposes of this article, let’s define fluency as the following:

  • You can maintain a conversation, communicate with other people in everyday situations, interact and understand replies easily.
  • You can express yourself fairly easily, even if you lack a certain vocabulary. 
  • You can figure out the context of a new word by listening to a sentence.
  • You can watch movies in French and understand most of what is being said.

You mistakenly think practicing more French grammar is the key to French fluency: 

While learning the basics is great, there comes a certain point of diminishing returns where learning more vocabulary and grammar doesn’t necessarily translate to speaking more fluently or understanding more. 

That is: there’s too much emphasis on studying more, especially grammar, instead of actually practicing what you already know.

When I say practice, I mean actually speaking because there’s a big difference between writing and speaking. When you write, you can see the word spelled out and take your time. Then you might hear that same phrase spoken and have no idea what the other person is saying. 

I equate it to looking at a recipe and photo of a recipe vs actually cooking it and eating it. Speaking is full sensory. 

You can learn French without grammar books

Believe it or not, you can actually achieve a good degree of spoken fluency without even studying grammar.

Learning a language naturally, learning whole expressions and spoonfuls of a language in context will get you further than just learning grammar. 

How do I know this? Well, think about it, babies do it, and so do children. 

Take these two phrases:

  • My pencil is yellow
  • Yellow my pencil

If you ask a child which of the following two phrases is correct: a native speaker will recognize automatically that the first one is but can’t tell you why.

They just know intuitively which one is the correct one. 

The best way I can explain this concept is by my own experience:

For example, my daughter, who has lived in France pretty much her whole life, has only ever attended French schools.

She learned to speak English without ever opening up an English grammar book.

How did she do this?

She speaks English with her father, watches some English TV shows or movies and occasionally reads books in English.

Is her English perfect? No. Does she have an accent when she speaks English? Yes a little but she can converse quite easily. 

Here’s another example.

When I moved to Japan, I kept hearing certain phrases over and over again.

  1. When I walked into restaurants and shops, I kept hearing “Irasshaimase!” (いらっしゃいませ!).
  2. When I left, I would hear “Domo arigato gozaimasu” (どうもありがとうございます)
  3. And If someone bumped into me “Shitsurei Shimasu” (しつれいします) 

By the end of my first week living in Japan, without ever having picked up a grammar book, I knew what these and many more phrases meant. 

I also picked up a phrasebook and memorized chunks of phrases that I thought I would need in practical situations, such as “how much does that cost?”. “Where is the bathroom?”.

As I memorized the phrases, I would use them repeatedly. Somehow I learned, intuitively the patterns of the language and could swap in new vocabulary to the phrases I memorized. 

You don’t practice enough:

Like the athlete training for a marathon, if you don’t practice and train enough, you’ll never reach the level of fluency you want to attain. 

Take for example, my two sons Kieran and André.

The first year we lived in France, my son Kieran surpassed Andre’s French fluency because he put more effort into studying French after school.

By the end of the second year, Andre surpassed Kieran’s level but Andre didn’t study more. Andre made friends and talked to his friends every day, during and after school non-stop. Kieran continued studying but didn’t make as much headway as Andre did. 

Learning French is not a necessity so you don’t progress:

In general, people are more motivated to learn a language when it’s a necessity or if they are genuinely interested in communicating with others for travel, experiencing another culture or for personal reasons. 

If you want your children to learn French (and you live in France), put them into a French school where they have no choice but to speak French.

I’ve seen this time and time again where families who move to France are afraid their children will suffer or lose their English if they put them in a French school. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. 

If anything, your child won’t make any headway speaking French if they’re surrounded by other kids who speak English and then go home and speak English and watch TV in English.  

I have another really interesting example involving a friend here in France who is an Anglophone. She is married to a French man and speaks French at home. This person speaks English to her children however, the children respond in French to her because a) it’s easier for them and b) they know that she can understand them. The end result is the kids can understand English however, can’t speak very well. It’s the craziest thing. 

My daughter is in a similar situation. I speak French to her and her father speaks English. But my daughter responds in English because she has to. Her father doesn’t always understand what she is saying. This is how we’ve maintained her English while living in France. By maintaining a bilingual home. 

Don’t stay in your expat bubble

Often times foreigners who move to a foreign country stick with other ex-pats who speak their language rather than making local friends. How quickly do you think your French learning will progress if you never have to speak French except when you go to the grocery store? 

I’ve seen it, especially with retired people who move to France. 

You think having an accent means you’re not fluent

Generally speaking, studies have shown that learning a  language before your 15 improves your pronunciation in that foreign language. 

On the flip side, just because you’re 30 years or older doesn’t mean you can’t gain a bit of French fluency either. It just means you might have to work harder to become fluent and you will most likely have a stronger accent than your younger counterpart. But that’s ok. 

I know plenty of Anglophones who speak French almost flawlessly but have thick accents when they speak French. 

Look at Antonia Banderas and Gerard Depardieu. They have accents when they speak English but they get along just fine despite their accents. 

Watch a French movie

One last thing. If you don’t live in France, or your studying French on your own and have no one to converse with, start watching some French films or look for movies on Netflix that are dubbed in French and turn on the English subtitles. Or head over to Youtube and watch some videos made by French creators. Another idea is to watch an exercise video in French like yoga

Good luck to you =  Bonne Chance!

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  1. Hi – if you enrolled your kids in a regular French school how did they make sense of French taught lessons?

    My daughter was born there but we now live elsewhere in the world. She is nearly 2 and we think we will return in a year to get her into école maternelle….

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