Practice French Before You Visit France: 5 Easy Language Tips

Dispatches from the Road, France, Studying Abroad — By on September 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Heading off to France and can’t remember your “s’il vous plaît” from “je voudrais”? Was that deux or douze euros? Did she tell me to turn right or left? Before I jetted off to France for the semester, I knew that I would have to do something to practice my French. I needed to review everyday French expressions that I would actually use, which is completely different from being able to repeat the grammar exercises in my textbook. I didn’t have anyone to practice speaking French with, so I started to look for other resources. Rather than resort to the old “parlez-vous anglais?” here are five ways to practice French so you can connect with the culture and steer clear of embarrassing linguistic faux pas:

1. Check out BBC’s Ma France

This is a series of interactive videos that teach practical everyday French under topics like shopping, dining out, directions, hotel reservations and more. Under each topic, there are 3 interactive videos you can choose to watch with French and/or English subtitles. In addition, there is a list of vocabulary, a grammar guide, and activities to put your French to the test. If you feel like you need some encouragement, sign up for the weekly email tips. With this series, you’ll have some practical French that you will certainly use throughout your time in France! Look up and click on “Start Ma France.” I used this series a lot this past summer, and so far it has been quite helpful. I love that the videos film people doing their daily activities, and you get a glimpse of French culture.

2. Listen to French language podcasts

If you have an iPod, peruse through the iTunes store for podcasts that teach French. Coffee Break French is an excellent learning tool for beginners and a worthwhile review of the basics for intermediate level French learners. Follow teacher Mark and student Anna through 80 lessons (all FREE!), 15-20 minutes each, that begin with the basics and work up to intermediate level French. It’s a very manageable and gradual introduction to the French language…perfect for beginners and those who don’t have a lot of time or money! You can download it onto your iPod and take it with you on the way to work, at the gym, or on your coffee break! There are also bonus materials on the website (for a fee): Just last night, some of my friends and I went out to dinner in Cannes and a friend ordered steak. She turned to me and asked, “How do I tell him I want it well done?” My mind immediately jumped to the podcast where Mark and Anna review vocabulary for dining out :”bien cuit, s’il vous plaît.” It is an awesome feeling to have the ready-to-use vocabulary on hand for practical situations like this– and a great feeling of accomplishment when you can converse with francophones!

3. Read French newspapers

Check out Le Monde online, You can read stories on whatever interests you – news, politics, sports, lifestyle, and more. Even if you don’t feel confident navigating the web totally in French, this is still a great exercise to train your eyes to recognize French. Take it slow and don’t let yourself get frustrated, if you can surf the web in French with a dictionary on hand, you’ve won half the battle! I was a little overwhelmed at first, but I committed to reading a small paragraph every day and now I am much more comfortable using the web in French. Besides, now that I’m in France, I’ve noticed a lot of the more touristy places will have materials in a variety of languages, but in the lesser known attractions or with things like roadsigns or directions, most often French is the only option.

4. Buy or borrow children’s books in French

Children’s books are an easy way to begin reading French because they use simple sentences and straightforward vocabulary. Better yet, you’ll probably already know the story, which makes it that much easier to recognize words. Look up these classics: Le Chat Chapeauté (The Cat in the Hat), Je T’aimerais Toujours (I Love You Always), Bonsoir Lune (Goodnight Moon), and Les Oeufs Verts au Jambon (Green Eggs and Ham). Use search terms like “children’s books in French” or “The Cat in the Hat French edition”- – you’ll be surprised how easy they are to find!

If you want more of a challenge than children’s books but don’t want to be overwhelmed, look for short and simple novels and poetry books. It can be tricky to find intermediate-level books, but here are some suggestions: La Mare au Diable (a romance set in the country), Le Petit Nicholas (series of stories about a mischievous young boy), Le Petit Prince (famous children’s story), and La Gloire de Mon Père (short novel about a boy and his father). Consider picking up a couple poetry books as well – poetry is relatively short, and you’ll also learn a little about French culture. Keep your dictionary on hand – don’t be discouraged if you have to look up a lot of words. I still have to look up about 5 words per paragraph, but I know the more I read, the closer I come to fluency. It still takes me a lot of time to read or write in French, so one of my greatest accomplishments was finishing a novel in French!

Money Saver: Search for used books; they’ll be in good condition and they’ll cost a lot less.

5. Listen to French radio: Look up Radio France International (RFI), and click on “Ecouter RFI” to listen to a live broadcast. You’ll hear practical French spoken by native French speakers, instead of the robotically slow and enunciated French, you’ll find on French learning aids. Tune in for 10 minutes a day (if even just in the background) and you will learn to recognize spoken French, plus your pronunciation will improve. I listen to RFI every morning while I get ready for class, so it’s an easy way to learn more French without a big time commitment. Though I don’t always know what they’re saying, it is great exposure to the language without pressure.

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  • Nancy says:

    Great tips! Thanks!

  • Myra says:

    I listened to Coffee Break Italian for my trip to Italy and found it useful and just started the French version for our trip to Paris. I’ll have to try reading Le Monde online — great tip!

  • Beth Partin says:

    I have been wanting to relearn French (I studied it in college), and you just gave me several great ideas! Thank you so much. Now I can slowly start to improve my French, just in case I end up in a French-speaking country soon.

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