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How will I cope moving to France when I can't speak the language?

Probably most people moving to France from a non-French speaking country, move with either none, or only a few words of French. I say probably because there has, to my knowledge, been no survey to determine whether this is in fact true, but if you are one of those planning a permanent move from your country to France with very little ability to speak the language, then you may be interested in this article.

It will most likely be the early months that will provide the biggest challenge to you as a non-French speaker. The need to speak with officials, builders, utilities and make an attempt to at least pass the time of day with the neighbours will throw you in at the deep end, but do not worry. Firstly, the adrenaline rush produced by the challenge of the move to a new house in a foreign country will make those few words you possess go a lot further than you may think. Many of us who are living here look back at the first months, now we are 'bedded in' so to speak, and wonder how on earth we got by with so little language. But we did.

The most important words of communication in any language are always 'Please' and 'Thank you'. Add 'hello' and 'goodbye' and a smile with eye contact and you will feel, in those early busy weeks, that you are half way there. And in a way, you are. A simple and genuine friendliness will be apparent through your body language and a few well chosen words. If you are not a natural 'smiler', then practise. And when you've got the smile worked out, practise walking towards your wife, husband, best friend, smiling (not manically!) with your hand stretched before you ready to shake hands. Shake hands with every one you are introduced too, or know when you meet in the street, or who comes to the door. It is polite. It is expected. It is, quite frankly, rude not too. Ok. So we have endeared you to your commune and those who live in it. But now you need more practical tips, so here are a few.

Meet other English speakers in your area;
Running a vacation business here in France, many of our guests are house hunting. They come here for all sorts of reasons and with different expectations. Some have no wish to maintain or commence relationships with other people from their original country. This is fine if your grasp of the French language is excellent and if you can find a place to live where you will not bump into English speakers - an increasingly unlikely prospect these days when we all move about the world so much. Most of us, however, having spent our lives speaking only English on a day to day basis will want to have a chat over a coffee in our native tongue. But more than that, local expats will be able to provide you with a mass of necessary or helpful information in those early days. Not to use this network of advice and information could leave you feeling at the least frustrated and maybe also lonely and isolated. How and when to change your driving licence, register your car, join the French health or tax system. The quickest way to the best shopping centres. The supermarket that sells a brand of toiletries or foodstuffs that you desire. All things that can easily be explained to you in your own tongue so lessening the risk of costly or frustrating mistakes.

Not being a country known for their clubs and societies, networking through friends in the commune and workplace is a very French way of life. As they understand it themselves they seem to have no problem accepting it in foreigners who come to live here. Very early on, our French estate agent directed us to the bar in our small town where 'the English meet' knowing it was where we could 'network' for information and friendship. At the New Year's Eve celebration in our village there were 19 British residents and friends in the party of about 200 people attending the meal in the Salle De Fetes. Our Mayor welcomed 'the English' and made sure that we were all sitting with other English speakers so we could enjoy the evening in a relaxed manner. I am not advocating for a minute that you restrict yourself solely to meeting and mixing with people from your own country, or English speakers in general, but don't shun them when your language skills are on the lower level! So this, tip number one, will ease your early weeks here, whether or not you continue to see other fellow expats socially or not.

Make your Estate Agent work for his money.
It's very unlikely that the estate agent you dealt with won't have some knowledge of the English language, if, indeed, he isn't an English speaker to start with. In general, the agency fees in France are high but my experience and that of a number of friends has been that the agents do expect to do more than those in England, and I assume many other countries as well. So use them to really oil the wheels of your move. A simple phone call that they could make for you from their office to some official or other, or to arrange a builder to call, or even get you the name of a local dentist in an emergency! All these would be quick and easy jobs that could save you a lot of worry and most would do for you with pleasure. Their local knowledge, living in the area, is invaluable. They could contact the electricity or water company. Accompany you to the Notaire's office for signing documents. Many people end up having a good relationship with their estate agent, if only in the short term, so don't be too quick to let them go - just think of that cheque you'll be handing over!

Keep a dictionary in your handbag.
In the early months especially, when sentences elude you, key words are the essence of communication in shops, with builders, utilities etc. Get a small fairly lightweight dictionary (rather than a phrase book) which will fit easily into the handbag or glove compartment. You'll use it all the time. Whether you're in the DIY shops looking for screws or trying to buy wood at the builders merchant's. If you're in the Pharmacy hunting for wasp sting remedies or need to know how to add a trailer insurance at the Assurance company office, it will come in handy - with the French often taking it from you to put a French word into English! There is no disgrace in not being able to speak French. But not to try is unforgiveable. The sight of a dictionary coming out of your bag or pocket sends all the right signals. You are trying. And it can prove to be informative and amusing for all involved. Laughter, after all, is a universal language! But this brings me of course, to the next tip;

Take lessons.
You will quickly find out where and with whom the local expats are taking French lessons. There will be notices up, often in the Mairies or local shops, and you would have to be very rural indeed not to be able to find a local teacher. If you really can't find one, initiate one yourself. Ask a few friends (or even one) if they fancy getting together in a bar once or twice a week and battling through a bit of basic French. Even this is better than nothing and you'll probably find someone who knows someone who is French and will come to help. But it is unlikely you will have to do this. The French love their language, and there are courses being run across the country for immigrants like ourselves as well as the lessons arranged by private teachers.

Learning a new language for most of us, especially those making the move over the age of fifty, is a slow and painful process. Things that would have stuck or been simply absorbed a few years before just won't be learnt. Having a 'senior moment', when what you want to say simply floats off into the ether is a regular occurance. But don't despair. Don't expect to be fluent in six months, don't, in fact, expect ever to be fluent. Leave that to the children who moved to France with their parents and who quickly become bilingual, exposed as they are to French all day every day at school. Every time you learn a new word, try it out on someone. Buy the French papers sometimes and watch the TV. Go to the cinema for English language films with French subtitles and read them! Do what you can to learn the language but don't let your progress or lack of it rule your life and dictate your enjoyment of this beautiful country.

Scour magazine pages for translators.
All the English language papers and magazines about France contain adverts by people offering translation services. These days with scanning and email facilities on most computers, official papers, no matter how simple you think they should be to understand, can be sent quickly to a translator who can email you back a translation. Don't wander round the house with a letter from the electricity company worrying whether they intend to cut you off or raise your charges when for a few pounds it can be sorted almost immediately. Save your stress hormones for when you really need them!

Learn to ask for English speakers when dealing with officials.Only a few years ago this would not have been advised or advisable. But things are changing fast. The English language (or maybe we should say, the American language) is accepted as the language of business in the western world, and whatever Chirac thought as he walked out of that meeting, French bureaucracy and business has embraced this fact. Willingly or not, we may never know, but it is perfectly normal now for companies and bureacratic departments to have at least one English speaker available for their clients or customers. To ask, politely, whether one is available at your Prefecture/Hotel des Impots/Bank will no longer cause offence, as in many cases there will be one, or the company is planning one for the near future. And if the answer is no, or if a poor young clerk who did three years English at school is dragged from the back office, just get out that dictionary, smile, and the balance in your fleeting relationship will be restored.

It's a fact that many French people love to practise their English, especially the younger ones. They are exposed to it in their daily lives in a way we, as native English speakers, could not imagine. Music, films, computers, fashion. It's all there and with a bit of encouragement they will speak in halting or even fluent English. But the key word there is encouragement. Don't, on hearing a friendly 'hello' or 'can I help you', assume that you can fire off questions or problems in your, possibly regional, accent at normal speed. Speak slowly and simply, checking with your eye contact whether you were understood. Rather be thought patronising than send the person into confusion, unsure of how to answer your questions. Remember how you would or do feel yourself when the situation is reversed. The French have a politeness and formality in their culture which means they would sometimes prefer to give you the wrong answer than not answer you at all or say they don't know. So at least make sure you are understood in the first instance.

This article has been written from first hand experience in many cases, and from collecting the thoughts, fears and experiences of many friends and guests who have made the move here. I don't know, personally, anyone who is planning to return to their home country because they have not grasped the language. Although I know many people who have not grasped it. If you're bold enough to make the move to France, you're bold enough to struggle with communication for a bit. Many of us think it's well worth it.

About the Author: Fran Nustedt moved to France two and a half years ago, from her native country of England. Along with her husband she runs a successful bed and breakfast. She may be contacted at, and further articles written by her may be viewed at her website

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