My Journey to Learn Some French Before a Trip to Paris

As you stroll down the streets of Paris, you will be thankful that you know enough French to get by.

As you stroll down the streets of Paris, you will be thankful that you know enough French to get by.

We both took French in school - Dustin took it in high school, and I took it in middle school - and neither of us were particularly good or successful at it. I have always said foreign language was my weakest subject in school and so I hopped from French in middle school to Latin for the four years of high school to two years of Italian in college (my political science degree required foreign language or else I would never have voluntarily taken more language courses!). That’s right, I hopped from language to language hoping to find one that would click with me, but not a one! It was not all for naught, as I came away with a love of etymology and Roman history from my Latin classes and just enough comprehension to be able to halfheartedly translate the occasional foray into any Romance language in a novel. I also walked away with some basics of other languages that are foreign to English-only speakers like the idea of gendered nouns.

We booked our trip to Paris about ten months in advance, so the pressure was on: would I try to learn some French (which years ago I had deemed a failing enterprise) or join the hordes of American tourists infamous for their lack of attempting the language? Was that even really a question?

I want to be really clear about the level of skill I hoped to attain. I wanted to simply recognize important words and be able to attempt a few basics. I was also spoiled with the fact that we would be traveling with my in-laws, one of whom speaks pretty darn good French, but I didn’t want to be overly reliant on a traveling companion.


learning french through a language app

Just a bit of language bathroom humor.

Dustin found the app Duolingo, which I signed up for and immediately began doing on a daily basis. There were times that I knew that my prior language experience helped make it easier to understand the grammar - someone who has never taken a foreign language and is unfamiliar with things such as gendered words, which we do not have in the English language - probably would be utterly confused. I did the app every single of the 270 days until our trip and actually kept working at the app afterwards because I had made it so far. I was very proud of myself for tackling something that had always felt impossible to me and sticking with it consistently! (I have since switched over to Italian since we are going to Italy in March 2020).

There are a lot of reviews and opinions out there as to whether Duolingo or other similar language apps are actually useful as a learning tool. Here’s my opinion - the gamification of the app made it appealing enough that I stuck with it, which is half the battle in learning anything, and the app definitely both increased my vocabulary and gave me confidence in sorting sentence structure out. On the other hand, the app did not focus on the typical tourist phrases. For me, that was okay, as those are an easy Google search away.


learning french through film

A couple of months before our trip, I discovered that on Netflix, I could search for “French-language movies” (or TV shows). I found just getting used to hearing French by watching the movies (with subtitles) was helpful. Most of the movies I found were not particularly interesting - note to Netflix: expand your foreign film section please! - but they served their purpose. When I could make out certain words, I was very pleased with myself even if that was only a tiny percentage since native speakers speak quite quickly!


 

In the museums of Paris most (but certainly not all) informational signs are both in French and English.

 

how successful were my language learning approaches?

So what did my efforts get me? For one, I felt more confident going into a country feeling like I was capable of at least trying to get by; for another, I had a much easier time reading signs, menu items, and the like. Towards the end of our trip, I started reading the object labels in museums in French (most had English translations) just to see how well I could do. And while I certainly could not read them fluently, I could get the gist and then use the English version to help me pick up some new vocabulary.


should you try to learn some french before your visit?

The sage advice is true: in Paris, attempt to speak in French first, and in most cases, the person you are speaking to will quickly switch to English. Just the attempt goes a long way for showing that you are trying and don’t have the expectation that your language should rule the world.

Looking for some specific language tips for dining in France? Check out that blog, which is coming soon.

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