I live in France (for 4 years) but am having trouble learning French

Hi everyone,

I stumbled onto Steve’s blog through a link from ted.com… and after an hour of looking around, watching a few of his videos, etc… I’m thinking that maybe I can share a bit of my first thoughts.

My wife and I moved to France about 4 years ago… we live in a tiny little village (300 people) on the island of Corsica (near St. Florent, if you’re interested).

Mine is kind of an interesting story, but in a nutshell, we decided to come here because my father was born in this village and I figured it might be a way to get to know more about him. (He died when I was young.) Needless to say, he did not speak French (or Corsican) when I was a kid, which is a shame since he also spoke a few other languages…

… Anyway, what I’ve discovered is that learning French is not something that “just comes” even by being here. Part of the problem I have is that my job is internet-based, and I find I’m constantly thinking and writing only in English. Since we don’t speak French well, we have very few friends… and so that means we’re not out and about having daily discussions in French with different folks, etc.

So I am wondering if anyone has some advice. It does seem a bit odd that we’re living here surrounded by French people, yet I’m struggling to learn. My wife is doing very well, as she appears to have a natural gift of language learning. Me, on the other hand, have a gift of forgetting everything I’ve heard 2 seconds after hearing it.

I do have some family here (lots of cousins) so when we go out to their houses for dinners my brain tends to “shut down” after a few hours of constant French talking… it’s like suddenly a switch gets thrown and poof I can only think in English from that point onwards.

Any advice? Is this normal? I didn’t speak a word of French prior to coming here, and now I can at least have basic conversations with people… but I still feel like I can barely speak. Is it perhaps because I’m a perfectionist and compared to a native French speaker I’m an infant? Or is this normal in the process of learning, where you get to a point and realize how little you actually can do? It’s extremely frustrating, and I’m just about at the point where I want to pack everything up and go back ‘home’ where I can have easy conversations with friends/family without having to fry my brain.

We also have two kids now, one is 2.5 years old so she’ll be starting Maternelle in September… and I’m paranoid the teachers are going to treat her poorly since we speak English in the home and our daughter doesn’t speak French like the other kids. (She goes to the creche two days a week, so she knows some French, but certainly not like she speaks English…) I’m very concerned she’s going to have a difficult adjustment in September.

Or perhaps, it might be good… and I can grab her French textbooks and learn from them since they’ll be designed for kids! haha…

Sigh… sorry for just throwing up all my thoughts here…

Thanks for listening. :slight_smile:


Have fun with it and let it happen.

It is no longer “fun”, after 4 years, to sit around a dinner table and be the only one who isn’t able to participate because I can’t follow what anyone is saying past the first sentence.

Fun might be a weekend in Paris surrounded by French people and French culture… but after 4 years of being here and basically treated like a moron because people can’t understand me, and I can’t understand them… I’m about ready to give up.


I’ve been looking around these forums and this website, but really… I can’t figure out what it is they are selling or offering exactly.

I’d love to take a course in basic French (I have a lot of “holes” since I’m totally self-taught), but there are no French courses here on the island… it’s presumed one speaks French already if you are here.

Should I give up, and just admit language learning isn’t for me? After 4 years, I don’t think additional “listening” is going to help me too much. And again, how am I supposed to read something I don’t understand? Sitting here with a French->English dictionary is about as mind-numbing as slamming my head against a wall… I would rather learn to speak French then read it.

Or am I missing the learning process entirely? If so, then how do kids learn to speak without first learning to write/read?


Have you tried making flashcards here at LingQ?

How do I do that? Is there a “what are flashcards” link I can click?

(I’m just reading through the forum post about how to better monetize the website, and I can definately say that adding links to explain the different “features” of lingq (flashcards?) would be helpful.) I’ve been around and around, and seen mention of flashcards, but where can I find what they are and how to make them?

Sorry for my ignorance. :slight_smile:

Just click the “help” button (top right hand corner) and look for “how to create LingQs”.


I’d like to give you some encouragement at least on your daughter’s schooling. We were in a similar position a year ago with our daughter; she started Maternelle Petite Section in September with ZERO French, and now she’s getting on just fine. Her French comprehension is already very good (although not speaking much yet, but that will come). She loves going to school and is quite proud she knows two languages. So don’t worry about it. Full time in school is immersion enough for her to make rapid progress. Kids’ brains are like sponges - especially at that age - and they don’t share adults’ anxieties and resistance to change.

Mr, hstraf, I see that you have some dificulties. When I was a student in Paris at the age of 23 years, I had many many difficulties to understant what my professor said. He was always angry with me because I could not play the saxophone although he poited some weak points on my play… And when my collegues was talking each other in café for example, I could not understand very well what they said…

I am very sorry for not being able to find some sollutions… But one thing I want to say is to find interesting things…
As for me, I liked to watch some programmes on television… I always watched many programmes… and even today I continue to listen and to read something…

Sorry to write my bad English…

First of all some facts from my experience,

  1. Just being surrounded by the language will not enable you to learn. It takes a deliberate effort.
  2. You need to build up your ability to understand what is said. That is the first goal, not to speak. For the time being your ability to speak is not important, just accept it as it is.
  3. You need words, lots of words. You cannot use a word actively, until it has been a part of your passive vocabulary for a while.
  4. It is normal to forget what you learn. I can be considered a good language learner and forget most words that I learn.
  5. You need to listen at least 1 hour a day, and at first listen more than once to the same content.
  6. Read the text of what you are listening to. You need both aural and visual exposure to the language at first.
  7. Save or “LingQ” words and phrases that you either do not understand or want to be able to use. This will automatically create flash cards.
  8. Review your flash cards regularly to help you notice them when you listen and read.
  9. Kids learn better mostly because they are not anxious about their learning. Take it easy and try to find a way to enjoy your learning.
  10. If I were lucky enough to live on Corsica I would be going for walks in the countryside and listening to interesting content on my iPod, but in my case it would be Russian or Portuguese,but it would not matter.


Listen to podcasts in french language - even if you do not understand one word - listen to the music of french - how many hours of listening english do you have - 1000s of hours and now you understand english - listen 1000s of hours of french and you will end to understand it.

Record radio and tv in french and listen listen listen. Podcast, tv and radio recordings you can listen as many times you want - people in the street even french teacher will end to be tired to repeat before you listen enough times to understand.

Now with numeric tv some tv channel in France broadcast american tv series like CIS or ER or Dr House etc either in french or in their native english version - as most episode are broadcasted more than one time you can record them in french and in english

Many tv games are the same in France and in UK - Going for gold is Question pour un champion (France3) - The weakest link is Le maillon faible (TF1) I do not know if this game is still broadcasted in France.

Remember this : how few you understand french - you probably understand more french than your neighbours understand english.

Some important sentences to know

Je ne comprends pas = I do not understand
Je n’ai pas compris = idem but past time

both meanding the same but the second refer just to what has just be said when the first one is a more general misunderstanding call.

Pouvez-vous répéter ? = could you repeat ?
Pouvez-vous répéter plus lentement ? Could you repeat more slowly .?

And if you want to be polite

Je suis désolé, je n’ai pas compris - pouvez-vous répéter plus lentement ?
Encore une fois s’il vous plait.
Merci vous être bien aimable.

= I am sorry, I did not understand - could you repeat more slowly ?
One more time please
Thank you - that is very kind from you.

People in little village more so on an island like Corse are very closed to foreigners - but when they open you will get friendship as you never get in big cities like Paris

I do not recommend spending much time listening to things you do not understand. Having learned 11 languages I can tell you from experience you are better off spending your time listening to content that you have a chance to understand, where you understand at lest 50% and eventually 75% and are struggling to learn more. You listen more than once, read,and mine this material for words and phrases that you can start to “own”, to understand in different contexts and eventually to use.

You can play the radio in the background, or watch TV for fun, but the learning of the language requires a more deliberate strategy. That is what LingQ is about.

Agree with you Steve but

When a mother teach her child to speak she does not explane the words - she simply keeps repeating the words. How would she explain words to her child when he has no word to understant the explanation.

Of course with older child and with adults we can refer to our first language to explane a second one but this implement a risk.

Learning language is not learning translation. You have to think and act in your target language. If you try to translate everything to or from your native language then you will always be too late in the conversation.

The first step is to identify the sounds of the language
Step 2 identify words
Step 3 identiy sentences
step 4 start understanding the meaning

Try the first lesson of Deutsch Warum nicht on Deutsche Welle they explain how to understand some parts of what you are listening by recognizing similar words as in english or by recognizing if some speaker are happy or unhappy etc

Of course it will be difficult at the start. First it will only be noises - then music - then you will recognise sounds, more of them then one word - then a second etc More you do more it will become easy. Do not listen too long - but do it every day at least 15 minutes - no exception only to do it more never less.

The voice of Californian police officer Columbo is very pleasant in french - French people loves this old serie mainly because of his french voice. I also love to hear the french voice of actor Morgan Freeman.

I agree. Although I think it’s “good” to listen to the language even when you don’t understand much( to get accustomed to the sounds of the language, if nothing else), I fail to see how the language itself will be picked up by osmosis, especially in “low resonance” situations (by the way, great expression, Steve!) such as watching TV, listening to music, or even hanging out with locals.

A few years ago I used to listen to French radio passively in the hope that it would eventually sink in. It never did. Active listening is the key. My own strategy here at LingQ is to listen to short pieces, typically 1-2 mins in length, and lots of them. For each new item I listen first, then read the transcript (and LingQ words I don’t understand) then I listen once more and then move on. This is my basic unit of work. The reading is less to do with developing your reading skills than giving you comprehension of the material you’ve just listened to, so when you listen again it’s with greater clarity. And it works. A year or so ago I couldn’t understand spoken French at all and I wasn’t able to have a basic level conversation. Now I can understand French news reports, converse to French friends and my daughter’s teachers etc. I’m not there yet, but I know now I’ll get there. And this insight helps me stay focused and motivated.

The child focuses on bits of the language that are important to it, and typically that is a limited range of content. The brain is able to prioritize things to learn (read Spitzer) and shut out things that are not yet important or relevant. Eventually the range gets larger and larger.

That is why it is important, as a foreign language learner, to focus on content that is interesting and meaningful. That means having some of the vocabulary, hopefully being familiar with the subject, and a relatively non-frustrating way of acquiring more of the vocabulary.

Nothing wrong with having the radio on, but it is not going to do much for you in my experience. Being with native speakers can be a high-resonance situation if you take it as an opportunity to listen and learn and do not worry about your own performance. You will know when you are comfortable speaking up, meanwhile just build up your language power through listening and reading and do not allow yourself to become frustrated.


You have mirrored my experience. You do not deliberately learn in the sense that you study something and then “own” it. It is not a matter of direct cause and effect. You just try to do things that will fill your brain with useful bits of information and experience and the brain will put it all together on its own terms. When you least expect it you will notice that you understood something more easily than before, or that a phrase that you learned long ago has suddenly popped into your mind. On the other hand you will suddenly find yourself unable to remember a simple word that you felt you already “owned”.

Through it all, mysteriously, the language becomes a part of you.

One of the strangest things is that when you spend time on a third language, you end up doing better on your second language.

It is quite mysterious. That is what is wrong with language teaching, where the expectations that things that were taught will be learned, and should be tested, just because they were taught.

I want to thank all of you for your encouragement and insight into my struggle with learning French.

It has been a real challenge, and in many ways I am already somewhat “burnt out”. However… after reading through this thread, and really thinking things over in my mind (and going for a nice long walk, listening to an mp3 I downloaded from this site, and realizing that hey… I actually do undestand about 50% of it…thanks Steve!)… I am going to really make a concentrated effort this summer (starting now) to learn more.

Not just to learn more, but to change how I have been learning (which hasn’t really been much of an effort at all, despite living here).

So, I will begin on Monday. The local elementary school has a “singing night” on Mondays (Corsican chanting, which is rather beautiful), and I will force myself to go, even if it means feeling like an idiot because I’m the only foreign guy standing around looking like a moron in the midst of a group of Corsican men. After all, I am half Corsican myself… haha.

I also made a rendezvous with a guy from a nearby village who runs an ice-cream shop who invited me out a long time ago to see his place up in the mountains. He actually speaks English very well, but I told him that I will only speak French to him and expect him to speak only French back, even if it means we can barely communicate. He understands my desire to learn, so I’m sure he’ll be patient with me.

Other then that… I will also start really looking into this website to see if the lingQ system works with my learning style. I’m definately not an aural learner, so I think the reading part will be helpful, albeit painful since I hate hate hate “school” type stuff. I’m also not a huge fan of writing, even in English, but alas, I fear it will be a necessary evil in order to really solidify the concepts and French words/verbs I’ve just read.

Really though… it’s too bad there doesn’t exist some kind of brain pill we can take. Like on the movie called the “Matrix”… I know Kun-Fu. And I can speak French! That would be great, eh?

Anyway… thanks again for your responses – you have all been very helpful and encouraging, and I feel like I can lift myself up for just a bit more to try this again with some renewed effort.


(BTW - if anyone is ever in the Patrimonio area of Corsica and wants to stop by and have a drink with us… feel free to let me know.)

Be careful who you invite if you live in such a nice place. My wife and I may just show up, hungry and thirsty.

Good luck. :slight_smile: Force yourself to stay with it for the first few weeks until you develop the habit, then you won’t be able to stop. Follow your targets and you’ll notice significant improvement within even a few months.

The last thing I’d describe lingq as is “school type stuff”. If you enjoy listening and reading in your own language, you should enjoy lingq, it’s just that first 3 month period that Steve describes where you’re listening to beginner material that may not be sooo interesting.

To me it is though, because I get excited seeing the clouds slowly fade even with the beginner material.

It’s not at all strange that living in France doesn’t mean you automatically know French. A lot of people learning English at LingQ live in North America. They work in offices where their native language is spoken, and short of going out and chatting up strangers in bars they struggle to get enough opportunities to speak English. Also a stranger in a bar is unlikely to correct your use of gerunds. Not even a sober one :wink:

If you can go a few hours speaking French before you hit brain-freeze you are probably doing better than I can in German. In Russian 30 minutes is my limit. It will build up with practice and a wider passive vocabulary.

Your daughter will learn just fine at school. In fact she may be tutoring you in a couple of years’ time :wink:

Hope you enjoy LingQ. It gives faster results than any classroom-based instruction I have ever had, and it’s fun.