5 Tips for Improving your French in Paris
You walk into your favourite bakery, café, or bar. You know just enough to get by. L’addition s’il vous plaît. Or, je veux prendre deux baguettes. But once the shopkeeper or the bartender steers away from traditional day-to-day vocab, you’re completely lost.
For all those out there aiming to improve their French, here are five tips if you’d like to one day speak like a real Parisian. Or at least be understood by one.
1. Language exchanges
There are meetings all around the city — usually in bars — where you can practice your French with a native speaker and speak a little bit of your native language with them, too. These “échange linguistiques” can vary. Some are specifically English-French exchanges in which natives of either language join to practice the foreign tongue they’d like to improve in. Others are an international free-for-all, where anyone shows up to mingle, with several different languages spoken at the same time.
Here are a couple I’ve checked out:
BlaBla Language Exchange
Le Piano Vache, via Le Piano Vache Facebook page
My favorite by far is BlaBla language exchange, which meets every Thursday at Le Piano Vache, a cool, rock n’ roll bar near the Pantheon. It’s my favorite mostly because of the venue, to be honest. The entire place is decorated with photos of the your favorite rock musicians from top to bottom, and sometimes there’s live jazz on Thursdays.
The bartenders are warm and friendly, and the drinks reflect the cool atmosphere. If you’re going for the first time, start with the house beer and go from there. The language exchange always takes place in the front section of the bar. It can get a bit cozy, but the close proximity does help everyone interact with each other better.
Another reason this exchange ranks at the top is the good job of the organisers, keeping an eye to make sure everyone is getting a chance to practice. Language exchanges have a tendency to favour one language more than the other, so it’s always nice to have someone checking in to make sure you’re getting to practice what you’d like to.
BlaBla in general has a very stress free, no pressure vibe. You walk in, are greeted by organisers and get stickers that correspond to what language(s) you’d like to practice and what languages you already speak. From there, you’re free to mingle!
Next on the list for me is Polyglot, a language exchange right off of the Denfert Rochereau metro and RER stop. They meet Thursdays and Saturdays at Café Denfert, now so synonymous with the event it’s also called Polyglot Café.
I’ve checked out a few of their Saturday events and can tell you they are quite popular. It has the same set-up where you walk in, get a sticker, and get to speaking.
Boulevard Saint-Jacques, view from Polyglot Café, sourced from Scott Dexter via Wikimedia Commons
If you walk in after a certain hour there might not be anybody to give you a name tag, but no worries. Just head to any spot at the bar and strike up a conversation to see if there’s anyone trying to practice French.
You can find native French speakers to answer all the questions you wanted to know and some you never though to ask. You’ll learn idiomatic expressions there, like “tomber le cheval” or learn the latest Verlan from some of the younger eventgoers.
An added bonus is the “cocktail gratuit pour les filles” on Saturdays. You have to stick around late though, as the cocktails are only handed out after a certain hour and everyone is offered the same generic one. I’ve tried one once and, while it’s nothing to write home about, it’s a free drink nonetheless.
I’ll give honorable mentions to Mundo Lingo and TripMeeters, who have tons of weekly exchanges as well. But for a good look at all of the selections Paris has to offer, visit Meetup.com!
2. French partner
Pretty self-explanatory here, but always worth a mention. The easiest way to improve your skills in the language of love is to, well, fall in love. This is pretty much a given for any language, but with a tricky language like French it’s all the more helpful.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to marry a French person or exclusively date people from the Hexagon. Just put yourself out there. Use one of the many matching apps out there to chat with people in French.
Then when you meet in person, you can have all the awkwardness of a first date, plus the awkwardness of struggling to express yourself in French. But sometimes, you just have to jump right into the pool, and that’s a good way to do it. Who knew Tinder could be good for something?
3. French media
Radio France International
Photo via Unsplash
This is a sure-fire way to improve. Immerse yourself in all things French media, from movies and television to radio broadcasts. I recommend downloading the RFI — Radio France International — application.
On your train ride to school or work, you can listen to all of the latest “actualité” while learning a lot of great vocabulary that’s a mix of high level and colloquial. Even better, you can stay up-to-date with current events so you can join in on the conversations with colleagues or classmates.
RFI doesn’t only have the latest news but also interviews with interesting personalities or reviews on art. Radio speech is a very good introduction to the language as well. It’s a great start for getting your ear accustomed to how French sounds in normal conversation, especially when you listen to the broadcast’s interviews.
And if you ever want some inspiration, you can see the real headquarters. It’s accessible from the RER C line. The stop is Avenue du Président Kennedy — Maison du Radio France International.
As for reading material, there’s a wealth of websites to choose from. If you’re on Twitter, I’d recommend following all of the French media you can get your hands on. Le Monde, Le Figaro, Agence France-Presse, Le Parisien, Canard Échainé, Jeune Afrique, the list goes on.
What you want to do is read an article every day and stop when you get to a word you don’t know, then look up the word! It can be cumbersome, but if you keep at it it will be sure to produce results.
In fact, Le Monde is having a sale right now for young subscribers. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, you can get six months for just one euro. So subscribe and get learning!
4. Conversation partner
This method is for the most motivated of the bunch. It’s similar to a language exchange meetup, but much more personalised to your language needs. First, you need to go on social media, Facebook probably works best, and search for tandem conversation partner groups.
It should be fairly easy to find a group, then just place and add, saying what language you’re willing to offer help with in exchange for help in French. You should start to see your DMs fill with fellow lingophiles, and see if you can find someone who’s schedule and learning style matches up with yours.
I’d recommend meeting at least weekly with whoever your partner is. Sometimes it can be a café, other times a bar, but if you really want to change up the vocabulary, try going to a different environment with your partner every time. One time, visit a museum, so you’ll be forced to expand the art culture part of your vocabulary. Other times take a walk through a neighbourhood, all comme vous voulez.
Last but not least, the most obvious way to improve your level in French is by way of academia. This is especially useful if you’d like to be able to use French at work, and not just for bakery orders. It’s listed last only because it’s the only thing on this list that’s not free!
If money is no problem for you, go take classes with Alliance Française, located in the sixth arrondissement. Their headquarters, at 101 Boulevard Raspail, are easily accessible from the metro line 4, 12, and RER B. For a less expensive option, The Mairie of Paris also offers classes throughout the city that you can register for online.
But, in the end, if all this is too much work, here are 20 French phrases that will help you get around Paris.