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Immersion in French language is stressful but leads to huge confidence

We speak to two people who have thrown themselves in at the deep end to improve their linguistic skills

Getting a job in France often means your fluency will improve dramatically Pic: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock

For many learners, the idea of being flung into an environment where French is the only option might sound like a nightmare.

However, immersion can be the quickest way to improve or finesse our French and develop more linguistic confidence.

So why is immersion so effective? 

It could be that we are simply spending more time on a language. 

According to the FSI (US Foreign Service Institute), it takes 480 hours of learning to reach ‘basic fluency’ in French – so perhaps spending eight hours a day in a French environment helps by packing in the learning hours.

For Joseph Ford, lecturer in French studies at the University of London, there is another important reason why immersion works.

“The classroom is an artificial space in which we recreate life situations, whereas when you are immersed in a French environment, it is real life,” he says.

“It can be daunting and challenging but extremely rewarding and beneficial.”

Read more: Learning French: Five ways to push through the pain barrier

Days on end in ‘real life’ environment

Those resident in France are in a perfect environment to improve French fluency.

However, daily interactions may not provide the stimulation and language variety required: requesting items in shops or commenting on the weather will only get you so far.

The real impact comes when we are thrown in at the deep end for days on end in a ‘real life’ environment.

For many, this comes hand in hand with acquiring a job in the country or giving up time to volunteer for a French organisation.

Read more: Learning French? Women and men pick up languages differently

Getting a hotel job lead to full immersion

Zoe Padmore moved to a small hamlet in France in 1990 with what she describes as O-level French. 

For her, immersion occurred in two ways: because the environment she moved to was naturally immersive, without the internet and with few English speakers around, and because she took a job at a local hotel.

“When we moved 30 years ago, if you wanted to talk to anyone, you had to speak French. 

“We started by talking to our neighbours and gradually built on what we already had. But the real change came when I got a job.

“A hotel advertised for an English-speaking waitress to cater for guests, but nobody in the hotel spoke any English.”

While Zoe had started working on her written French by then – acquiring textbooks and revising her grammar – spoken French was still a struggle.

“My French progressed very quickly once I started waitressing,” she says.

“I didn’t find it particularly stressful, and after three seasons my French had improved significantly. 

“I have had other positions since, and have worked over the years with local estate agents and notaires to help English clients. My French friends say that I speak like a native!”

Volunteering at animal shelter was the key

Ruth Trevanion moved to Charente in 2013 with rusty A-level French but found her language improved dramatically when she was offered a job at her local SPA animal shelter.

“I’d volunteered there for a few years and then they offered me a contract,” she says. 

“I needed a job and it felt like a safe option. The work was quite stressful – we have 150-170 dogs at any time and although I knew some key vocabulary, everything is fast-paced and there is no time for explanations. 

“It was stressful but it improved my French dramatically. Last year I did my DELF B1 language test and passed comfortably. 

“I’m sure working at SPA gave me the confidence to tackle that. 

“I’d encourage anyone who wants to learn French to volunteer – it’s a great way to make connections and improve your confidence too.”

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