This might seem like a stupid question, but why do you want to learn French? I ask because without strong enough motivation, chances are you will not succeed.
If you can’t think of a good reason, I am going to give you some.
The worst possible answer to my question is: “I feel I should.” A sense of obligation is not going to help you put in the hours required, or see you through the inevitable setbacks. You will just put yourself through pain and then punish yourself for being less than perfect.
1. Engage in everyday transactions
The basic urge for learning the language of the country you live in has to be because you want to engage in everyday transactions at something higher than the level of sign language.
I need French to ask for what I want in shops, explain my symptoms to my doctor, put questions to the mayor, and to complain to Orange if I am without a phone line.
I would like to be able to do these things without losing my cool or sense of humour. And I do not want to be dismissed as an annoying, tongue-tied foreigner.
That means learning not just elementary phrases but verbal manners and the formulae of small talk: the ‘necessary unnecessaries’ of French social life.
2. Feel part of the community
One step up: I want to feel part of a community. That means being able to chat about nothing with neighbours but, more importantly, plugging into the flow of local gossip. Sometimes the most inconsequential item of banter turns out to be something that it is vital for me to know.
By extension, I really need to be able to eavesdrop, when appropriate, and join a conversation that concerns me.
3. Become better integrated
The medium-term goal, however, has to be a higher level of integration.
In the last few years, I have discovered the pleasure of working in France – sitting in a university staff room full of fellow teachers and discussing anything from curriculum changes to the latest news.
Beyond this, it gets even more interesting. Language provides access to culture, both minor and major. Understand French and your choice of entertainment expands dramatically. It also means every library is yours to enjoy.
4. Learn how the French think
Culture is a conduit to something deeper and richer: how the French think.
Thought depends on language and an understanding of French enables me to appreciate why things are the way they are here, and why Britain and France come up with different solutions to the same problem. In reverse, I find myself asking if the Anglo-Saxon way is always the best.
This teaches me a lot about humility, perception, empathy, the importance of listening, and how jumping to conclusions achieves nothing.
In a small measure, my speaking French contributes to international understanding and solidarity.
5. Change your self-perception
The greatest gift of learning another language is that I see myself differently.
I am not quite the same person when speaking French as I am speaking English. I am forced to slow down and pick my words more carefully, because they are limited, and I am aware of how I choose to convey my opinions.
There are some thoughts that can be expressed succinctly in French that are more laboured in English, and vice versa.
So while it is good to be able to buy a baguette without pointing at it, French has so much more to offer on top. That is what motivates me to improve my skills.