I’m asked a lot by people visiting or other families starting a French adventure “how long does it take to become fluent?”
The smartass answer: “A lifetime.”
The other answer: “That depends.”
It depends on how you define fluency. I used to define it as: “able to speak, read, and write like a native speaker”. Wow. Talk about setting the bar high. Too high. I have since re-defined this term for myself. It’s now: “able to have a conversation with someone without using charades, able to read a newspaper article and understand at least 75% of it, and able to write an email without using Google translate”.
This is a much more attainable goal. And I got there in about a year, plus or minus a month on either side.
To be fair, I personally don’t speak or hear enough French. This is because I teach English and out of necessity, must insist that everyone at work speak English to me. If I were working in a French business with French co-workers and clients, I probably would have become (my definition of) fluent in about half the time. But here’s a tip for those of you seeking work in France: if you’re not fluent in French, you won’t get a job that requires French fluency! Huzzah! I know; crazy, right?
My kids are all able now to have a much more complex conversation in French than I am, although they aren’t able to tell really when their conjugations are off or when they’re speaking complete slang. Example: I ask my kids “Who left the oatmeal bowl in the sink without rinsing it off?” The answer I hear sounds like this: “Shay pah”. Technically, they should say: “Je ne sais pas” or “I don’t know”. So this is slang, but I hear adults doing it all the time. It sounds like they’re saying “Chez pas” in French which means literally: “the house of not”. Craziness!
I, on the other hand, know when a conjugation is wrong but not necessarily how to fix it. That’s because I learned my French on paper from books and antiquated learning devices. I learn new vocabulary or casual ways of speaking from my kids every day so that has helped me a lot. I will say that all the major French learning systems teach very formal and not often used French. Think Rosetta Stone, Pimsler Method, etc. Today’s French uses mostly expressions and different verbs for things than I learned with those products.
My littlest kid (8 years old now) is in the best spot. She’s speaking with a French accent and has long, involved conversations with her friends. She’s learning how to conjugate verbs right alongside her equally clueless French friends, so her being behind doesn’t show itself much. She’s a superstar in her English classes which makes up for any deficiencies she has in French grammar class.
The bigger kids struggle in some of their classes because of their inability to write French grammar properly. Even when they know the word and how to say it, they often don’t know how to spell it properly. Here’s an example: the word “parler” can also be spelled “parlais” or “parlait” or “parlé” or “parlez” or “parlaient” (all different conjugations of the same verb “parler” = to speak) and would sound exactly the same. So learning by listening and repeating like they do, without knowing the finer points of French grammar (taught to the 7 year olds and up), they are a bit lost. Slowly over their second year of school, they are figuring it out. A few paid-for lessons have helped too.
So if you seek to become fluent in French, I would suggest the following:
- Redefine what fluency means to you. Feel free to use my definition – I think it’s a fair measure of what you need to get along here and make nice French friends who respect you and your desire to learn their language.
- Spend as much time with French teenagers as you can so you can learn the proper slang and cuss words.
- Don’t take the stuff you learn on Rosetta Stone and think it will always be right – be willing to learn new ways of saying things.
You’ll find that at some point in your stay here in France, that one day a light switch just goes on. FLICK! and suddenly you’re understanding a lot more, able to speak a lot more, thinking in French or dreaming in French. It really does happen like that. It’s like your English speaking brain gets to maximum overload and then the barriers to learning and comprehending just collapse. I still remember the day I was in my car, turned on the radio, and realized I knew exactly what they were talking about. Wild! And worth every struggle.
So where am I now? Getting there. I still use some charades. I still use 5 verbs to explain the verb I wish I could say but either forgot or never learned. Sometimes I hear stuff and say, “What the hell was that?” But all in all, I see progress and so do my French-speaking friends. So that’s success. I’m happy. I still love the language, even though it’s still kicking my ass.
My husband? He’s speaking what I call “crockpot French”. That’s where you throw in a few verbs, some adjectives, maybe an adverb and a noun when called for, stir it up so that the order is all mixed up, and then add a bunch of smiles and head nods. No conjugation needed; no ‘le’ or ‘la’ needed; no pronouns or any of that other useless nonsense necessary. Just the basics. He can say “maison, electrique, cassé” to our landlord, and he knows he needs to get his ass over to the house and fix our electricity which has gone out for the 10th time. The beauty is, my honey doesn’t even know if he’s saying “cassé”, “casser”, “cassée”, “cassait”, or any of the other verbs that sound exactly the same but mean different things. He’s happily clueless about all of it and doing just fine.
Whatever your goals, whatever your abilities, you can do this too. French fluency or crockpot French, it’s totally worth it. You just have to try!