Living Abroad: Learning the Language


We were never really planning to move to France, but  two years ago when Diego was offered a job we decided to jump on the opportunity. I was giddy. I had always dreamt of one day having a chance to study French and spend a month abroad to study the language- this was my chance! So, Diego took the job and we started making plans for the move.

In all the excitement of the move, we never really had a chance to learn the language. Our crash course in French was finding an apartment, going to the supermarket (with dictionary in hand the first few times), and figuring out how to open a bank account. Unfortunately, after one year, despite living in France, we still spoke mostly survival French. What happened? A week after we moved I got two jobs teaching English all day, Diego spent the day teaching Spanish, and we found a community of Spanish and English speakers in the city much more easily than a community of French speakers. We spoke enough French to get by and managed to let a year fly by without making much effort to improve.

Sometimes, it is easy to forget that when you move to a new country every little thing you do is new. From getting around the city to buying the veggies, figuring out which milk to buy or taking out the garbage, suddenly the mundane becomes a challenge… and it can be exhausting! After making in through the day, when it’s time to come home the easiest thing is to turn on a series from home and get online and catch up on blogs, Facebook, or anything else familiar from back home. It is so easy to end up living in a bubble.

After our first year being truly exhausted between work, bureaucracy, and daily life, in year two we made a conscious effort to study French and suddenly found language learning opportunities coming out of the woodwork. So, to share some of my experience, here are a few tips for learning the language while you’re abroad – level 101 to a master’s degree, it is time to get out of the ex-pat bubble and speak the language!


1) Buy a TV. We tend to think the TV is a no-no if you live abroad thinking you should be spending all of your time out and about in your new city, but when you move abroad TV becomes a real link to your new world.  Commercials, the news, your favorite series dubbed in the language, turn it on! Not only will the TV give you a dose of the language with images to match, but it will keep you up to date on what is happening in the country, what the popular foods are, and what the current slang is.

When you watch  turn on the subtitles for the hearing impaired so you can read what you are hearing. Even if you don’t follow every word you’ll start to put sounds and words together. Leaving the TV on as background noise will also accustom your ear to the intonation and flow of the language. You’ll start to pick out words and slowly put them together. If you have some practice in the language, get caught up into a cheesy soap opera. Here in France Plus Belle La Vie is short, simple, and overly dramatic, but the language is conversational and real, so just sit back, relax and take it in!

Like TV, the radio is another good option for language learning, but it is much more difficult for a beginner as you can’t follow the images with the sounds. But, if that’s all you’ve got, turn it on!

2) Pick up a Newspaper or Magazine. France is a goldmine for magazines and newspapers. Make your way to a newstand and pick up a few fashion or news magazines. With short articles with images to illustrate, they give you an easy way to accessible written language. For less than 2.50 euros, in France pick up Paris Match, Elle, or Be magazines for light articles about celebrity news, current events, fashion, and cooking. The Saturday newspaper, chock full of supplements and articles, is another good choice.

3) Find a Community or Cultural center. Here in France The MJC (Maison Jeunesse Culturelle) is like the YMCA offering a variety of classes at affordable prices. Check the offerings for a French for Foreigners class or see if you’re interested in any of the other classes the offer (sport and arts). The price depends on the class and your financial situation – you need to take your taxes in to register, or show them your student ID or unemployment papers for discounted prices. Not only will you improve your language skills, but it is a great way to meet others and get  involved in the community.

4) Listen to language learning podcasts. If you can’t make it to a class or can’t find one near by, check out a language learning podcast. My favorites are from Radio Lingua Network. The Coffee Break series is short and simple with a focus on grammar and vocabulary. You can also download PDF documents to study with or buy the entire series with extra support and materials. I found Coffee Break French really useful for improving my confidence in French. If you have a stronger level check out News in Slow French, a short program that discusses news and current events in French.

5) Buy a Book! As a teacher and learner I know that value that seeing the words can have on memory. I’m a visual learner, so the extra support of written language and exercises helps me immensely. Buying a grammar book with exercises to practice will give you the extra support if you can’t make it to a class. As a beginner in French, the book Easy French Step-by-Step was a great choice as it looks at high frequency grammar, not just verb conjugations (you can also get this book for Spanish and Italian). Plan on ordering the book online or ask a local bookstore if they can order one for you. 

6) Take an online course. Again if your schedule or location doesn’t allow it, an internet connection can get you connected. I’ve heard great things about Mango Language from teachers and Librarians, so it’s a great place to start.

7) Join a language school – Although the price will cost much more than any of the other tips, at an official school you can take classes, go on cultural excursions, and even prepare for an official test which will certify your level in the language. If you have the time and the money, it is worth taking a look.

So, no excuses now. Find what suits you best and get started!

What do you find works best for you learning a new language?

besos, Dianne


5 thoughts on “Living Abroad: Learning the Language

  1. Just stumbled across your blog by accident.

    I found reading children’s books helped with learning the language at first. Also watching old episodes of TV series that you’ve already seen in English – if you already know what’s going on, it’s easier to understand what they’re saying.

    • Great ideas! I was just looking at the adorable Mr Men and Little Miss books in French last weekend thinking they would be great for learners. And, so true about old reruns! Thanks for your comment!

  2. I had a pretty similar experience with Swedish, compounded by the fact that nearly all Swedes speak flawless English and are keen to practice! It’s so easy to be lazy and get by with English, but you definitely miss out, particularly if you are planning on settling.

    The only tip I’d add is to track down a language exchange group – I think they exist anywhere where there’s enough of an international community. The idea is that you get to talk French (or Swedish, or whatever) with native speaker volunteers, then in return you help them with your language. I found it a great way to break in to speaking Swedish with Swedes, as I was a bit intimidated to begin with to try it in normal life!

    • So true! Finding a non threatening place to talk is really important to get past the speaking barrier. A language exchange group or a polyglot cafe is a great idea! Thanks for your tip!

  3. Pingback: Links for le Weekend | A Beautiful Journey

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