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Moving Abroad Won’t Make You Fluent in a Foreign Language. But This Might

Moving to a foreign country is just the first step.

Here’s a popular line we’ve all heard before: the easiest way to learn a new language is to move somewhere it’s spoken. I studied French for roughly five years in high school and college but didn’t attempt to use it in the “real world” until after graduation. I spent months traveling in Francophone countries and, more recently, have been living in Montreal for six months. I can assure you, the learning curve is MUCH steeper than anyone can anticipate and is not as simple as moving abroad.

I’ve now attained a B2 (high intermediate) level of fluency (according to the Test de Français International), which had me contemplating a new job offer in Montreal and graduate school in Luxembourg before the pandemic. Since becoming an independent speaker, I’ve reflected on my past experience and have come up with some things you can do to ensure you get the best language practice abroad, as well as everyday things to look out for that may trip you up.

No matter your method(s), learning a new language is hard work, and while being surrounded by the tongue you’re attempting to master can certainly be a major help, you can’t learn purely through osmosis. So, please enjoy these hilarious (and sometimes embarrassing) stories that illustrate just what I’m talking about.

Tip #1: Expose Yourself to Different Accents

The first time I traveled solo to a French-speaking country, I stayed with a couple in the South of France who needed help at their B&B. Having previously only spoken French with other American students in a classroom setting, where any listening comprehension involved Parisien speakers primarily, I’d only ever given a passing thought to different French accents.

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Upon arrival in a tiny town, imagine my surprise at being greeted with the nasally and sing-song southern French accent. The experience was comparable to taking a French student practicing English and dropping them in the Deep American south.

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The accents threw me off so much that I’m pretty sure my host family thought I didn’t speak much French for the first week. Even once my ears adjusted and I gained confidence, it took me a while to realize the “new” words I’d learned were actually words I already knew, just pronounced differently. For example, “à demain” sounded like “à demay,” which led me to believe I’d learned a different term for “see you tomorrow.” It went both ways. One time, it took a solid 10 minutes for me to explain that I’d planned to hike in the afternoon, as my accent confused them (and randonnée, the French word for “hike” is super hard to pronounce thanks to the roughly rolled “r” at the beginning).

More recently, in Montreal, the Québecer accent bewildered me more than a few times. The fact that it was mid-pandemic with mask mandates muffling the already hard-to-understand accents did not help. And just like in the South of France, Québecers often had difficulty understanding my accent. Even in English, I found myself having very shouty conversations in shops, which often resulted in looking at my boyfriend completely confused at what was being said.

The lesson here is to try and get exposed to a variety of accents before heading overseas. Even if you’re still at a loss when your plane lands, you’ll still be light years ahead of where I’d been. The good thing is that in today’s digital age, it’s never been easier to expose yourself to myriad accents. For French, you can look up language podcasts, watch Francophone Netflix, or explore YouTube—there’s certainly no shortage of resources.

Tip #2: Practice Confidence in Your New Language Skills

Because Montreal is a bilingual city, it had me fighting my urge to speak English, especially as my stint took place during a pandemic where spontaneous conversations were rare. Additionally, if you don’t sound confident, people will often switch to English. This is meant to help you, although, for language learning purposes, it actually does the opposite. On the aforementioned inaugural trip to France, I was asked four times in a Marseille bakery if I wanted my treat warmed up. The first two times the question was asked was in French and then English because my first few tentative “oui’s” weren’t said with much confidence.

The lesson here is to mentally psyche yourself up to persevere in the non-English language, no matter what. If the other person switches to English (presuming that’s your native tongue), just keep trying in the language you’re learning, and hopefully your conversation partner will understand and reciprocate. The one exception is if you truly can’t remember a word, in which case I recommend trying to describe the word in the local language or simply asking how to say it.

Tip #3: Keep up Those Language Studies

Vocabulary and accents differ greatly between regions, even within countries (pain au chocolat vs. chocolatine is a national debate in France), and places with numerous official languages often mix them or use words interchangeably. For example, in Morocco, many conversations begin with “Bonjour, ça va?” before proceeding in Arabic.

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When discussing gardening and how the birds can be a nuisance in France, I wanted to ask if they used a scarecrow but didn’t know the word in French (it’s épouvantail, not exactly a common term in French courses). So, pulling from the vocab I did have, I subbed in “garden doll” (poupée de jardin) to everyone’s amusement. We had a good laugh and eventually came to an understanding (and I learned a new word).

In Québec, I was initially confused when someone would refer to their “blonde,” assuming it was a term of endearment for their blonde partner. Nope, it’s just a colloquial term for girlfriend, no matter the person’s hair color. The lesson here is that learning a language can be much more formal, and the vocabulary you attain isn’t exactly what you’ll use in everyday conversations. Take note of new words and phrases you learn, create flashcards, and practice speaking a bit each day, no matter what.

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Tip #4: Don’t Get Blinded by the Excitement of Moving Abroad

This is often the biggest downfall of students who study abroad to learn a language. The enthusiasm about going abroad for a semester overwhelms you. Nights are less about taking note of all the new words you learned and more about going out. Instead of using days off to practice real-world speaking, you jet all around the region, desperate to take it all in.

Even if you’re not a 20-year-old college sophomore, it can be easy to get swept up. I definitely felt this at various points in all my travels but always had these experiences to keep me grounded. Just remember that we all move abroad for different reasons. If yours is to improve your language skills, changing countries is just the first step.

blea4354 September 5, 2021

I found your comments very interesting....
When I was 19 (now 74) I spent 6 weeks living with a French family. First in suburb of Paris, then Saint Tropez....(long before most Americans had ever heard of it). I will never forget hearing an 'Italian' accent when locals were speaking French LOL. 
All these years later I am still fluent...I have returned for travel..multiple times being asked where in France I was born 🙃...Obviously the height of a compliment....
My ear is apparently good enough to hear the different accents from Basque to Normandie etc...HOWEVER, I am sure they soon realize I am not native born when I screw up the rather particular French grammar. Reading is simple...but for the life of me my written French is beyond deplorable ( and with all the gender agreement that shows up even more in written format!)
All this to say, that after ALMOST 50 years of speaking on a very limited basis for so many years) I am fortunate...however I believe the key is to be totally immersed. I spoke better French in college (major) after 6 week immersion than those WH spent Junior year abroad....and today they cannot speak much less understand. There are immersion  programs...the key I believe is to get to the stage you THINK in French and don't allow anyone switch to English. And just let it roll without fear of making a mistake. ALWAYS START W BONJOUR!