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Learn to speak French

Age is no barrier and the benefits are long-lasting

There are people who move to France and live there, one presumes happily, without speaking the language.

But what is the point?

You will get so much more out of your new life if you can chat to neighbours, local shopkeepers, market traders and your children’s teachers.

The human brain is quite capable of learning other languages – well over half the world’s population is bilingual if not trilingual. As the joke goes, what do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And someone who speaks one? British.

As an English speaker you actually already know thousands of French words without realising it...from à la carte, au contraire and café, to peloton, prêt-à-porter and tête-à-tête to cuisine, bon appétit and à la mode. In fact, more than a third of all English words have their origins in French.

The real impetus for learning French should be to fully enjoy living in your new home country – to chat to your neighbour (voisin), postman (facteur) or shopkeeper (commerçant).

In reality, you need it to call out the plumber (plombier) or tell the mechanic (garagiste or mécanicien) your car needs a service (révision), to get your medicines at the chemist (pharmacie) and, most likely, to deal with some paperwork.

The important thing is to give it a go – it gets much easier with time and there are even health benefits.

Research shows learning a language can also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Dr Alison Mackey, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in the US and Lancaster University in the UK, wrote an enlightening article in The Guardian about what happens in the brain when you learn a language (you can read it at

In the article, Dr Mackey says that Swedish research showed that learning a new language can increase the size of your brain and adds that “knowing a second language can help us to stay cognitively healthy well into our later years”.

To find out more, we spoke to Lara Bryfonski, one of Dr Mackey’s PhD students in Applied Linguistics at Georgetown University, who is familiar with her research as well as her book The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language, written with Kendall King.

Ms Bryfonski said it was a misconception that women find it easier than men to learn a foreign language. “Gender is only one of the many factors that interact to either promote or inhibit language learning in an individual.”

Differences such as the age of acquisition of the language, the quantity and quality of the input, memory capacity, attitudes, aptitude, and motivation also affect how easily an individual learns a given language, she said.

Nor does it necessarily get harder as you get older.

Adults and older children actually have an initial advantage in language learning (at least for the first one to three or even five years). This is because adults have more mature cognitive abilities and more learning strategies at their disposal than young children, said Ms Bryfonski.

That said, there is clear evidence linking the age of language acquisition and nativelike accents. Most people who start to learn another language at an early age (before puberty) can develop native or near-native abilities in the second language, especially with regards to accent. 

She said it is possible to attain a native-like accent as an adult learner but that it is rare.

Ms Bryfonski said that the study in The Guardian article explained that learners who learned grammar best from immersion were those who were skilled at recognising patterns and sequences.

“This goes back to the idea that individual differences matter greatly for second language acquisition,” she added.

The most effective method of learning a foreign language would be one that took into account the specific learners, their language backgrounds, and their language needs.

Jumping in and interacting with speakers of the language is going to promote learning, she said, but warned that, in order to acquire grammar skills, adults need to pay attention to the form of the language as well.

“Learners can achieve this either through formal instruction or simply by paying attention to the language they hear around them and attending to the grammar.”

There’s an app for that

These two free (with paid-for additional features) apps for your smartphone can help you improve your French. Both come highly recommended by Connexion readers on Facebook: 


A great app for compulsive phone fiddlers and useful for all levels of French. It uses a mixture of flash cards that test your ability to choose the word from its definition and vice-versa, plus spelling and speed tests. You can set how many minutes you want to spend on it a day and receive reminders.

Even using the app for just five minutes a day you can learn 60 new words a month (the Advanced French list runs to 1,006 words).


To get the most out of this app and website, you need to devote a bit more time than Memrise. For people with a good knowledge of French most of the tests will seem simple, although they do demand precision and will instil more discipline into your written French.

For beginners and intermediate French speakers, it could be a useful supplement to tuition. The key lessons in Duolingo are learned through group discussions of why you got the answer wrong. Native and advanced speakers chip-in to help explain rules with a nice community feel. 

The paid-for version of Babbel also received glowing praise. French Today, meanwhile, has an app for accessing your downloaded audiobooks.

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