Learning a new language can be a life-changing experience. It certainly has been for me. I started learning in high school when the two options were French and Spanish. I chose the former because “everyone learns Spanish and I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing.” This extremely adolescent contrarian choice ended up being one of the best ones I’ve ever made.
Not only was French my favorite class, but it became a subject of curiosity for ten years. I continued my studies through university, and even spent a semester in southern France, worked jobs where I used my French, and co-founded a language learning social group.
These experiences shaped me, and anyone with similar dreams of being fluent in French can achieve them with a little work and guidance.
It’s More Useful Than You Think It Is
Over the years, I have often found myself defending my decision to learn French to people who don’t speak any foreign languages themselves, but are sure that Spanish or Mandarin Chinese would have been a “better use of my time.”
I tell these people that French is the native language of over 300 million people worldwide.
It is the official language of thirty two governments.
It and English are the only two languages spoken on every continent and taught in schools in every country.
Even if all those facts weren’t true, a language is useful as long as you use it. As you’re about to read, I use it all the time.
Learning a foreign language is a great way to make friendships that transcend borders. Since French is a global language, the connections I’ve made personally through it are not limited to France alone. I have also met and spoken French with people from Quebec, Cameroon, Morocco, and Algeria to name a few. I’ve also met French learners from countries including China, Germany, Mexico, Estonia, and the UK.
These international connections have not only helped me learn about life in other countries, but made me think about things in my own country that I had accepted as normal. Whether it’s a former boss asking why Americans call the police so often, a friend complaining about laundry machines here, or a group going around the table talking about what it’s like to be gay in our respective countries, I love a good “why is your country like this?” conversation. I think we Americans need to be put in our place every once in a while.
Everyone loves to highlight that bilingual job candidates are in demand. I may not be a typical success story, but the coolest jobs I’ve had so far have been tied to my French skills.
After college I worked in the visa services department at a French consulate. Seeing what a foreign workplace culture is like without actually working in another country was a fascinating and probably uncommon experience. I knew before the job that the French are good at workers’ rights, but experiencing taking an hour for lunch every day, a generous paid time off policy, and a complete lack of “the customer is always right” expectations was luxurious. Americans, if you ever get the chance to work for a French boss, take it!
At the jobs I held in college I would meet French-speaking customers every once in a while and have a moment that would make both of our days a little brighter. When I lost a job and needed to stay afloat until I found a new one, freelance French tutoring helped. Even for unrelated jobs, people who interview me always ask about it when they notice it on my resume.
My non-French speaking friends and acquaintances often ask me if they need to learn French to go on a short vacation or business trip. My answer? You may not need to, but I recommend trying to.
It is true that many French people speak and understand English well, especially in cities that attract large numbers of foreign tourists. However, visiting France without any knowledge of the language limits your experience. Not only that, but it may give locals the idea that you do not respect them or their culture. When you know how to ask for directions, order food, and make light conversation, you can focus more on having fun than muddling through the logistics.
When I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, a small city near Marseille that is a popular destination for university students, my cohort included students with varying French skills. I certainly had a different experience than my beginner classmates. Two months in I frequently found myself thinking “Ugh, Americans! Oh, wait. I’m an American!” when I saw tourists behaving the way they often do. I saw this contrast most clearly when my parents, who do not speak French and have limited international travel experience, visited me for a week. I was happy to do all the talking and let them actually see my skills in context, but I’m not sure if they would have managed without me.
A New World of Entertainment and Culture
Limiting your entertainment consumption to English guarantees that you’re missing out on some remarkable stuff.
However, it can be hard to know where to start expanding these horizons if English is the only language you understand.
Reading translations of books, watching foreign movies with subtitles, and listening to music with lyrics you don’t understand are all great things to do, but engaging in foreign art with an understanding of the language and culture adds another layer to the enjoyment. Not every nuance can be captured with translations and without background knowledge, details can go over your head. This is why when I consume arts and entertainment in French I feel like I’m in on something.
French is a good language to learn for its artistic output. Not only do classic French-language films and literature have a worldwide reputation, but if you know where to look you’ll find some contemporary gems. Personally, I was a big Les Misérables fan in high school. I have recently enjoyed listening to Stromae, Christine and the Queens, and Yelle and watching Lupin, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and I Lost My Body.
If none of those are your thing, something else might be. Peruse some of these movie and TV series recommendations. Check out playlists like this one. Then the recommendation algorithms will keep finding more for you.
Changing the Way I Think
Making French a major part of my life has not only opened up my cultural perspectives, it has also made other changes the way my brain operates.
Studies have shown that learning a second language improves brain functions like memory, problem solving, multi-tasking, and observation skills because it exercises the brain in a way that few other skills do. Though I can’t necessarily pinpoint how much of it was caused directly by learning French, I do think that I’m a better problem solver, more observant, and better task manager than I was before I started learning.
Proximity to Other Languages
Though English is a Germanic language and French is a Romance language, the two have more in common than meets the eye. The similarities not only make French relatively easier for English speakers to learn, but they are fun to notice. Even the false cognates or “faux amis” as French educators often call them can lead to fun jokes like “the French are so hardcore, they eat pain for breakfast.”
Similarly, the romance language family is a “buy one, get a couple partials free” deal. If you also want to learn Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, or Romanian, you will have an easier time because a lot of the French grammar rules and concepts are shared.
For example, these languages all have masculine and feminine nouns. They also have similar syntax rules and subject-verb agreement. This also means that if you’re learning one of those languages now and want to learn French later on, you can.
I Just Think It’s Neat
French sounds cool and speaking it feels cool.
It’s smooth, lyrical, and doesn’t have a lot of aggressive sounds. Even the most mundane sentences have flair. Meeting a native speaker unexpectedly and having a conversation with them in French remains a powerful feeling. After the handful of times when people asked me if I’m from France I rode that high for weeks. Though I likely still wouldn’t “fit in” if I were to move to a francophone country permanently, these interactions make me feel like I’m part of something by choice.
Learning French is not all about dryly memorizing French grammar and repeating sentences out loud. Getting past the tediousness of getting the basics down requires approaching the subject with curiosity and joy. No matter why you want to get fluent or what you want to do when you get there, a French tutor can help you along the way. If you’re not sure how to learn French, they can lead you in the right direction.