How will I cope moving to France when I can’t speak the language?

Probably most people moving to France from a non-French speaking country, move with either none, or only a few words of French. I say probably because there has, to my knowledge, been no survey to determine whether this is in fact true, but if you are one of those planning a permanent move from your country to France with very little ability to speak the language, then you may be interested in this article. It will most likely be the early months that will provide the biggest challenge to you as a non-French speaker. The need to speak with officials, builders, utilities and make an attempt to at least pass the time of day with the neighbours will throw you in at the deep end, but do not worry. Firstly, the adrenaline rush produced by the challenge of the move to a new house in a foreign country will make those few words you possess go a lot further than you may think. Many of us who are living here look back at the first months, now we are ‘bedded in’ so to speak, and wonder how on earth we got by with so little language. But we did.

The most important words of communication in any language are always ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’. Add ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and a smile with eye contact and you will feel, in those early busy weeks, that you are half way there. And in a way, you are. A simple and genuine friendliness will be apparent through your body language and a few well chosen words. If you are not a natural ‘smiler’, then practise. And when you’ve got the smile worked out, practise walking towards your wife, husband, best friend, smiling (not manically!) with your hand stretched before you ready to shake hands. Shake hands with every one you are introduced too, or know when you meet in the street, or who comes to the door. It is polite. It is expected. It is, quite frankly, rude not too. Ok. So we have endeared you to your commune and those who live in it. But now you need more practical tips, so here are a few.

Meet other English speakers in your area; Running a vacation business here in France, many of our guests are house hunting. They come here for all sorts of reasons and with different expectations. Some have no wish to maintain or commence relationships with other people from their original country. This is fine if your grasp of the French language is excellent and if you can find a place to live where you will not bump into English speakers – an increasingly unlikely prospect these days when we all move about the world so much. Most of us, however, having spent our lives speaking only English on a day to day basis will want to have a chat over a coffee in our native tongue. But more than that, local expats will be able to provide you with a mass of necessary or helpful information in those early days. Not to use this network of advice and information could leave you feeling at the least frustrated and maybe also lonely and isolated. How and when to change your driving licence, register your car, join the French health or tax system. The quickest way to the best shopping centres. The supermarket that sells a brand of toiletries or foodstuffs that you desire. All things that can easily be explained to you in your own tongue so lessening the risk of costly or frustrating mistakes.

Not being a country known for their clubs and societies, networking through friends in the commune and workplace is a very French way of life. As they understand it themselves they seem to have no problem accepting it in foreigners who come to live here. Very early on, our French estate agent directed us to the bar in our small town where ‘the English meet’ knowing it was where we could ‘network’ for information and friendship. At the New Year’s Eve celebration in our village there were 19 British residents and friends in the party of about 200 people attending the meal in the Salle De Fetes. Our Mayor welcomed ‘the English’ and made sure that we were all sitting with other English speakers so we could enjoy the evening in a relaxed manner. I am not advocating for a minute that you restrict yourself solely to meeting and mixing with people from your own country, or English speakers in general, but don’t shun them when your language skills are on the lower level! So this, tip number one, will ease your early weeks here, whether or not you continue to see other fellow expats socially or not.