How long should it take to learn French for everyday use?

The US government says it should take 600-750 classroom hours to become proficient in French. Do teachers and learners agree? We find out.

What are the most common pitfalls when learning French?
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How long does it take to learn French? You might think it is hard to put an exact number on, but not if you are the US State Department.

Its Foreign Service Institute has used over 76 years of language teaching to estimate that learners should take between 600 and 750 hours to achieve “general professional proficiency” in French.

The Connexion spoke to French teachers and learners to find out how long they think it takes to learn the language, the most common struggles, and their top tips for learning French in France.

What is ‘general proficiency’ in French?

The US government thinks it should take 600-750 classroom hours to obtain “general professional proficiency”, but what does “general proficiency” mean?

“I’d say that you’re able to carry on a conversation not just about the weather or what you’re buying in the shop – go to the doctor, have an interview with a bank manager,” says Claire Campbell, originally from the UK, who has been teaching French for over 30 years and has lived in France since 2006.

“There will be some technical terms which you may need to look up, but you need a minimum of grammar, a mastery of the tenses and enough vocabulary”.

How long does it take to learn French?

Is 600-750 hours an accurate estimate of the amount of time it should take to learn French?

“I think it’s always good to have an idea of the number of hours that is needed to reach a certain level,” says Ines Lluch Del Campo who has been teaching French since 2009 and specialises in teaching learners who feel out of place in the traditional classroom setting using the Neurolanguage Coaching® method.

“But when they give that number, it’s the number of hours in front of a teacher, so (doesn’t include) studying on your own,” she says.

“I think it all comes down to what one means by proficiency,” says American Emily Monaco, who moved to France in 2007 and has a podcast all about French language and culture called Navigating the French. “Was I able to get my point across after two months in France? Yes. Was I doing so well or elegantly? Not always…”

Natasha Alexander, who runs the blog Our Normandy Life, and social media accounts across Normandy and beyond, moved to France with her three children, then aged seven, 11 and 13, in 2017. She was at GCSE level when she arrived and is now at around B2”. This refers to the CEFR framework for languages, which rates language proficiency on a scale from A1 to C2.

“I divided the 600 hours into two hours a day, which gives 300 days, so less than a year, which would probably give you an A2 level depending on the effort,” she says.

Read more: A1, C2: What is the CEFR language rating in France?

She stresses that the common assumption that children soak up a language quickly is not necessarily true either. “It took (mine) a good year to be classed as fairly fluent and that was going to school every day,” she says.

Common struggles when learning French

No matter how long it takes to learn French, there are some common struggles and pitfalls that learners should be aware of.

1. Not enough practice

“A lot of retired English-speakers come to France thinking ‘once I live in France, I’ll pick it up’ but they won’t because the number of hours they spend per week talking and listening to French is minimal. They are with their partner, who speaks their own language and they go into shops, but that’s about all,” says teacher Claire Campbell.

“The biggest difficulty in learning French is not being immersed in it,” says blogger Natasha Alexander. “You do not acquire a language just because you are here. You have to work at a language and put in the hours.”

2. Not meeting French people

Natasha Alexander points out that one major pitfall many British people who move to France fall into is staying in expat communities.

“Many Brits here watch British telly and stay in those communities – no one got fluent watching BBC iPlayer.”

3. A focus on grammar

French lessons are often based heavily on grammar, which can be confusing for learners, especially native English speakers who did not necessarily learn the building blocks of grammar at school, says teacher Ines Lluch Del Campo.

“If you never learned grammar in your own language that creates a double difficulty – trying to learn French but also having to learn what grammar is in the language,” she says.

Read more: Tricks to get the gender of nouns correct in French

4. Confidence

A lack of confidence holds many learners back, Ms Lluch Del Campo says, warning that self belief, fear of failure and perfectionism can have a huge effect on learners.

She says many adults carry the memories of bad experiences of language learning, or learning in general.

Having the right mindset is crucial. “What do you believe about yourself, about your ability to learn?” she says. “If you strongly believe you’re no good at languages, how much do you think you’re going to improve?”

5. Motivation

“Motivation can be a big issue when you see a big mountain in front of you,” says Ms Lluch Del Campo.

“This is reinforced when you’re not learning things that are relevant to you so a key thing is to customise the learning so that you learn things that you need and can reuse in your day to day life.”

6. French people switching into English

Most of us have experienced a French person switching into English in the belief that they are helping us out or because they want to practise their own language skills. But this can hinder our French learning.

“It's not necessarily all that easy to improve your French in France, even if you want to, seeing as so many French speakers want to improve their English,” says podcaster Monaco.

7. French language rules

For Ms Monaco, who moved to French with a good knowledge of the language after studying it for years, one of the toughest things about improving her French was “the fact that even when you're not wrong in French, there are often ways to be more correct.”

“In French, if you deviate even slightly from the most correct way of saying something, you may find that people misunderstand you or don't understand at all,” she says, noting this is a marked difference between French and English, which tends to be a lot more flexible.

“Seeing as the French language is quite rule-abiding, it takes more effort to understand inexact or incorrect phrasing. As a learner, that can be really infuriating!”

8. Your surroundings

Your surroundings can have a big impact on how well you learn French, says teacher Lluch Del Campo. “If in a professional setting, are colleagues supportive or are they not?”

She says sometimes colleagues are supportive and other times they expect people to learn very quickly which is unrealistic and impacts motivation.

9. Teaching method

“Is the way you are being taught adapted to your personal style?,” Ms Lluch Del Campo says. She uses the Neurolanguage Coaching® method, which combines neuroscience and coaching principles to create a less stressful learning environment.

Ms Lluch Del Campo notes some learners, for example those with ADHD or dyslexia, need to make sure they find the right teaching method for them.

Top tips for learning French in France

Now we have covered the pitfalls of learning French, what top tips would our teachers and learners recommend?

1. Learn the basics with a teacher

French teacher Claire Campbell says older, native English speakers should learn the basics with a teacher who can explain the rules in English, rather than plunging straight into French when they do not understand anything.

She warns common tips like listening to the radio or watching TV will not work if learners do not know enough French to understand at least part of what is happening.

“They need to have someone take them through the foundation level, who can explain things to them in their own language,” she says.

2. Never lose hope

“Never think it’s too late,” says teacher Lluch Del Campo. “My first tip is never lose hope, there is always a solution for you, even if you have failed many times, even if you feel it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean you are always going to be like that… you just need to find the right method and right strategy.”

Read more: Five tips for learning to speak French in later life

3. Socialise and date

For podcaster Monaco, befriending French people and dating in France was one of the best ways to improve her French.

“Asking these people to correct my mistakes has been the most helpful means of improving my French... even though I often have to remind them to do it.”

Read more: Aimer, adorer, kiffer: understand the language of love in France

4. Cut out English

Blogger and social media manager Natasha Alexander says sometimes completely cutting out English is the only way.

“I used to have self-imposed rules that I would never speak English – that helps as you have to find the words.”

5. Soak up French media

Once you have learned the basics, then you can explore French media, which can really help with listening skills.

“I listened to the radio all the time, French TV with French subtitles and Netflix films,” says Ms Alexander.

Read more: Films and TV shows to improve your French in March

6. Prioritise speaking

“Put less of a focus on grammar, reading and writing – ultimately you need to understand and speak,” says Ms Alexander, adding the best way she improved was spending time with French speakers.

7. Volunteer

Ms Alexander recommends “getting out there” and practising your French in a practical setting. She volunteered for three years at a food bank. “It’s like no French you’ll learn, that’s for sure!” she says.

Read more: Informal synonyms for everyday French words

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Have you come across any particular hurdles when learning French? What are your top tips? Let us know about your experience of language learning at