The need to speak French when living here

As the government claps a new rule on immigrants from outside the EU, requiring them to demonstrate a working knowledge of French as a condition of residence, latest figures printed in Le Monde indicate that around 200 million people worldwide speak the language. This compares with 2 billion who have English but the language still has its uses. According to the Cape Argus, during discussion last year on the political crisis in Zimbabwe South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Robert Mugabe and deputy MDC leader Arthur Mutambara – all three university graduates – would sometimes switch into French among themselves to freeze out the fourth participant Morgan Tsvangirai (Mutambara’s boss!), whom they despised for his poor level of formal education and social clumsiness. That’s just what English toffs used to do in the eighteenth century.

Of course, for some English-speakers living here, this sort of exclusion can be a recurring nightmare and the need to be able to speak and understand French can never be stressed enough. We talked with Frédéric Latty of the Institut de Français in Villefranche about just how to tackle learning a new language.

“As everyone knows, French is a beautiful and interesting language. There is no doubt that by being able to speak the language of your host country, you can get so much more out of the experience and learning French in a programme such as ours is enriching and unforgettable. The biggest obstacle in learning a new language is lack of confidence in the face of this ‘awesome’ undertaking. It is therefore the task of the school and the teacher to make students feel relaxed, confident and optimistic as to their capability and the progress they can make. There are numerous advantages to a total immersion programme such as we have at the Institut de Français. First, its aim is to achieve, in a very short time, maximum results. That’s to say, the greatest ease and fluency in correct spoken French, a short time meaning 2 to 4 weeks for most professional adults who are not able to spare more time from their work or family life. The programme also means both an intensive and complete programme. Intensive is 8 hours, 5 days a week, while complete offers a programme that combines systematic work in the classroom with real life practice sessions outside the classroom.  The only disadvantages of this programme that I can see would be the time availability required and the obvious cost of an intensive 160 hour tuition.”

I’ve read that a good way to practice your new language is to have imaginary conversations with yourself. Are there any other tips to aid learning? “The best way, of course, is to practise in real-life situations where you even force yourself to ask a stranger a question, to talk to a neighbouring table in a restaurant (and so as to avoid an answer in English, saying: ‘Non, non, je suis Finlandais, je ne parle... anglais!’ This by the way can lead to surprising, often pleasant situations. Along with listening to French CDs or radio stations in the car, another way to practice French, if you’re at home, is to read aloud – preferably in bed before going to sleep, so it can work its way through during the night. Try a contemporary French play with fairly simple lines, acting out each part. It’s fun and effective, but you have to choose the right play with simple, short lines.”

Would you agree that time, persistence and hard work are the three secrets to learning a new language? “The secret, on the part of the teaching organisation, is an effectively structured programme with excellent, specially trained teachers. This is a must. Without that, hard work and persistence on the part of the student will come to very little.” 

From Riviera Reporter Issue 131: Feb/March 2009