My level of French when I arrived in Paris
I’d studied French in the UK in school for my GCSE’s. But we’d only studied for two years and by the time I left school I could pass a basic listening exam but I couldn’t have a conversation. The problem with UK schools is that they just don’t give you any speaking opportunity when you’re learning.
By the time I decided to do my Paris adventure I also hadn’t studied French in six years so I was a bit rusty. I could remember the words for the train station, things in my pencil case and how to say my name and my age. Needless to say that wasn’t going to get me far.
I bought my ticket a month before I was due to go and in that time I did 50xp on Duolingo everyday, I tried to learn the basic conjugations of er, re and ir verbs (though this was hard for me to remember as I wasn’t really speaking), and I memorised some basic phrases to get me through my first few days.
So when I arrived in Paris, I wasn’t that confident at all but I could get to my apartment and I could order myself a coffee which was all I really needed.
Where I lived in Paris
This isn’t as helpful for people who are reading this to learn a language but it might be interesting if you’re thinking of spending some time in Paris.
I lived in the latin quarter, where there are lots of students. This was perfect for me because although I wanted to speak as much French as possible, it was great to meet other students and international people. I find it makes me feel a bit less homesick if you meet other people experiencing a similar thing to you rather than just being the only foreigner amongst a group of locals.
How I studied French
I’m actually really proud of how I studied French. Over the three months in Paris, I feel like I put in a lot of work and that was responsible for seeing myself improve so quickly. I met other people who started at the same time as me and their language seemed to progress a lot more slowly because they weren’t working hard outside of class.
So this is what I did:
I had saved up a lot of money before I went through working at the same job for two years and keeping my living expenses low, so when I got to Paris I decided to spend a big chunk of money on doing intensive French lessons. I could not recommend this more!
I was at class everyday for five hours. I had four hours of class and one hour of conversation practise (which was incredibly difficult during my first week, but got much easier as the course progressed).
If your school does offer a conversation class I would definitely take it, because although regular class is necessary for learning grammar and skills, conversation class makes an enormous difference to the person’s proficiency in the language.
In my class, there were eight of us and only three went to the conversation class as well. Within the first month there was already a big difference in speaking between those who went to the conversation class and those who didn’t. So much so, that two more people decided to join in the second month.
Over the three months we spent the first six weeks studying A1 and the second six weeks studying A2. I was really sad to leave my class who were starting B1 but I only had the time and money to do this for three months before I needed to go home and find a job.
If you can afford to take a class, I really would do it. The thing I like about classes is that they give you structure. When I’ve studied other languages, I’ve done it alone and found my knowledge to be a bit patchy, but with French I feel like I’ve really mastered A1 and A2 and that my knowledge of those modules is really strong.
This was the most scary for me at first but probably one of the things that separated my French from other student’s French.
For three months, I went to a language exchange twice a week to practise my French. I probably should have gone to more but I did find them intimidating and I met people to socialise with off my course as well.
The language exchanges were really useful because most people either wanted to practise French or English so I always had someone to talk to.
The first couple I went to were quite difficult and I ended up speaking more English than I would’ve liked but as my confidence grew and I was learning more French in my free time, I managed to speak more and more French at the language exchanges and I do believe this made a big difference.
While I was in France, I bought cihldren’s books in French. I started with the Mr men series and a dictionary because I thought the vocabulary wouldn’t be too hard. I ended up reading these surprisingly quickly and it was fun to revisit stories from my childhood.
For me this isn’t that sustainable because although it was fun, I don’t want to spend all my time reading children’s books. I think I’ll be much happier when my French gets to a level that I can read books for adults.
Movies and music
Although I used English to socialise in my three months in Paris, I promised myself that the only music I would listen to would be French, and the only movies I watched would be French.
I am proud to say that I managed to stick to this goal. I watched approximately 1 hour a day of Spanish television (with subtitles) and when I was around the house I always had French music or the radio playing. This definitely helped with my listening skills.
Although this method wasn’t as important for me once I was in France I did continue to use Duolingo because I find it fun, I didn’t want to lose my streak, and it really does teach me new vocabulary. If I’m honest I only did 10xp or 20xp a day because I found my other methods to be really effective and Duolingo didn’t feel as necessary once I was speaking the language.
For me Duolingo is a great way for you to get input to give you the confidence to speak before you actually start speaking. Once you can hold a conversation you learn so much by talking.
This was useful for me but I don’t think it is for everyone. I was really keen to master French grammar so I bought a French textbook that specifically covered the grammar in A1 and A2. Everyday after class I would do at least one exercise from the book. I found that made a really big difference for me, but if you like to study in a more hands on manner then this might not be as appealing to you.
Talk to people at every opportunity
If you’re in the country, like I was in Paris, this is the thing you should really take advantage of. Because you can’t do it at home.
Every time I was in a restaurant, instead of pointing at what I wanted, I would ask the waiter for recommendations in French. If he replied in fast French or English, I would tell him I wanted to practise and could he speak slower. Most of the time they did this for me, only sometimes I would get a waiter who was impatient and wouldn’t help me. and sometimes I couldn’t really understand them but it was still great practise.
I also made the effort to find a coffee shop nearby and visit there every day. At first the waitress didn’t even smile at me but the more I went in with my smile and friendly words, the more she warmed to me. Eventually she asked me what I was doing in Paris and I explained to her I was learning French over three months. After that point every day she would talk to me for about five minutes, which was invaluable practise.
Why I didn’t speak just French?
If you’re reading this article then you might have come across online polyglots who claim that speaking only in that language is going to improve your level the quickest. And when I told my friends what I was planning to do a few of me asked if I would use any English or just French while I was in Paris.
The answer to that is no, I definitely used English as well. And it’s not because I think that method doesn’t work, it really is an excellent method that drops you in at the deep end and makes you get used to using the language really quickly. It just doesn’t work for me.
I like to approach things slowly and I like to take a lot in before I’m ready to give it back out. So for me input is just as important as speaking. I’m not going to learn if I force myself into conversations I’m not ready for so instead I like to take a lot in, prepare what I’m going to say then give it a go, or it’s just a knock to my confidence and that sets me back.
Credit to Benny Lewis and Scott Young who can do this, but I personally find it a bit too daunting.
Also I kind of did just want to use English sometimes. I wasn’t setting myself a really difficult challenge, and speaking in a language you don’t know can really take it out of you. Sometimes it’s just nice to relax and speak English.
My level when I left Paris
I would say by the time I left Paris after three months, my level of French was probably strong A2, though I talked with the fluidity of someone at B1. I was able to use just French in all restaurant, taxi and hotel situations.
I felt I had mastered the grammar behind A2 French and with a bit of revision could probably take the A2 exam. And I was quite confident having conversations about certain topics.
Where next after Paris?
For me this is the most exciting part. Unfortunately after three months in Paris I do have to return to the UK for work but I intend to keep up my French and not lose my level. Then hopefully next year I can do the same thing but with a B1/B2 course.
I’ve managed to maintain my level in other languages so I hope this shouldn’t be too much of a problem and maybe I’ll even be able to improve my level from the UK. Regardless of how I do at home, returning to Paris is definitely something I want to do.