1) No need to live in France to learn French
I am a French native who never lived in an English speaking country, but I consider myself a fluent English speaker. And I’m not the only one, you will always find people who speak a language fluently without ever even visiting the country where that language is spoken.
So it’s not because France or any French speaking-country is a perfect place to learn French that you desperately need to go there to learn French. What truly matters is not the place where you are, but how determined you are and what you do on a daily basis to achieve your goal to speak French.
It’s extremely important for you to create an immersion bubble. It should be an environment where French is all around you, even when you get tired of it. French becomes such an important part of your life that you have no other choice but learning it. For example, let’s say you want to watch the news, just do it in French. Nowadays, you can have access to French TV very easily with internet. You can also try to watch French movies, or find the French version of an English movie. You can read books or articles in French…
I know it might be difficult to switch everything you do in French overnight, that’s why it’s important to create this immersion bubble progressively. If you start to read a huge and complicated French book like L’Assommoir of Émile Zola while you barely speak French, you will have a hard time: you won’t understand any of the French and you will easily get frustrated.
One thing you could start with is to change the language of all your electronic devices or things like your Facebook and email accounts. I’m sure you use them all the time, so changing them into French won’t stop you from using them because you are already very accustomed to use them.
I changed my Facebook account into English many years ago and I don’t even notice the differences anymore. After a few days, you will already learn a few useful vocabulary and even better, you will get used to speak French (or at least the idea of speaking French) and you will want to study more.
Once this is done, you can think about all the activities you could do in French rather than English. As I said earlier, you can start by watching movies or TV shows in French instead of the usual ones you watch in English. It’s a very enjoyable way to learn and you can start with English subtitles at the beginning. At this point, it doesn’t matter if you understand what you hear or not; it’s all about getting your brain used to the way words and sentences are spoken in French.
It’s the same thing with music. It’s really a simple and good solution to get more familiar with the sounds of the French language. You don’t need to be actively listening because you will naturally recognize the words you already learned, and you will be able to discover them in a different context. If you really enjoy a song, I really encourage you to try to learn it by heart, it will considerably improve your pronunciation.
When you were a kid, you first learned to speak your native language by listening to people around you. At some point, you started to repeat what they were saying to you, and you began to make sentences. After a while, you went to school and learned basic grammar which allowed you to read and write. So basically, you began to learn by passively listening, before starting to speak actively.
The active phase begins when you’ve learned basic French sentences and have an idea of how to pronounce and write French words and phrases. This active phase is very important in your learning process and it is subject to many debates between language learners. Some people like the famous Irish Polyglot Benny Lewis swear that you have to speak from day one. Others prefer to wait to master grammar and build a solid basis of vocabulary before speaking.
I personally think it’s very important to talk in French as soon as possible, even if you make many mistakes, because the good thing about making mistakes is that you learn from them. If you have the chance to speak with French natives, you can also get feedback on your pronunciation, and that’s essential at the beginning. Besides, you will more efficiently remember words and sentences when you use them actively.
If you think you are not ready to talk with someone in French yet, you can start by writing down what you want to say, and then repeat it out loud once you made sure what you wrote is correct. The problem with this is that you don’t know if your pronunciation is good or bad. But at least, you get used to speaking and using the words you’ve learned.
So basically, you don’t need to live in France to learn French. You just have to receive and transmit. You receive by listening and reading a lot of French, and you can transmit by speaking it and writing it. The more you practice this, the closer you get to fluency.
2) Living in France is not enough to speak French
Imagine if living in a foreign country would automatically make you learn the language. That would be awesome, right? You would naturally become fluent while visiting the country, trying out all kind of foods and having fun. After just a few months, you would come back in your native country and show off your new skill in front of everyone.
Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but it’s not going to happen, unfortunately.
Of course, if you live in the country where the language you learn is spoken, it’s a great advantage. If you live in France or any French-speaking country, the French language is constantly surrounding you. People speak French all the time all around you and everything is written in French. It’s very easy for you to practice French whenever you want, and that is perfect for your immersion bubble.
However, there are many French learners who go to France and barely improve their French. Why? Because they don’t transmit (speak/write) and receive (listen/read) French. Just the fact of living in France is not enough: it won’t make you practice these four activities magically. In fact, you could live in France for many years and still remain in your English bubble: watching TV in English, talking to other foreigners in English, reading books in English…
Instead of simply living in France, you must become French for a few months. You need to do everything like a French person. Go to the bakery in the morning and buy your bread in French, hang out with other French people, do everything you can in French… When you are living in a foreign country and nobody speaks your language, I know how you can feel a bit lonely. You start to miss your native language and all the jokes you could make with it.
So it’s natural to look for people speaking your language, but that’s a big mistake. You should avoid English speakers as much as possible, because otherwise you will quickly find yourself speaking English all the time. This will destroy your French immersion bubble.
This is what happened to me in the summer 2017 when I had the chance to go to China for 2 months for a university program. I went there with 20 other French students and we stayed at the dorms of the university in China. We had Mandarin classes in the morning and the afternoons were free. I thought: “my friends are French but it doesn’t matter, because when I’m not with them, I will only speak Chinese”. But when I came back to France, my Mandarin barely improved.
Since my roommates spoke French, I was speaking French all the time, even when we were hanging out together. The only moment I was actually speaking Mandarin to Chinese people was when I had to say “hello” to the bus driver or the lady at the supermarket…
In the end, I wasted my time because it was easier for me to speak French than Mandarin since I was always with my friends. Of course, I should have stepped out of my comfort zone and create contacts with Chinese people, but I procrastinated. I was always telling myself to do it the next day, and in the end I never did it. I would even get frustrated of my inability to have conversations with natives so I would switch to English hoping they would understand me.
The first time you speak in French to someone, you too will get frustrated. You will have plenty of things to say and not enough words to express your thoughts. This will be even more frustrating if you find your conversation partner interesting. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to talk to someone and not be able to do so. You shouldn’t give up, though. Whenever you feel the desire to switch to English, remember why you want to speak French, and remember that if you keep speaking French you will eventually get the reward of fluency.
Your conversation partner may want to switch to English at some point; after all, he too may want to improve his knowledge of a foreign language. In this case, you should, of course, do it. But make sure you don’t end up speaking English all the time. A good way to avoid that is to set a timer. You have 15 minutes to speak French, then 15 minutes to speak English, then 15 minutes to speak French again, etc.
Some language exchange meetings make it easier for you to practice French by strictly forbidding the use of your native language. In such meetings, you will only be allowed to use the language you are learning. If you don’t do that, other people will remind you.