How To Learn French: Before, During, and After Study Abroad

by Adrienne Erin

Going abroad is the reason many students study a language. But that doesn't have to be the end of the learning experience? Are you hoping to return to France and speak just as fluently as when you left? For those who are serious about speaking this romantic language, there are tons of ways to practice before, during, and after the trip! Whether you need to prepare for your French semester, shop in the French market today, or keep Toulouse or Bordeaux alive back home, these steps will help.

Tourist looking on The Louvre
Prepare for a trip to The Louvre with tips for learning French no matter where you are or when the trip may be. Photo By Troy Peden

Before Going Abroad

Get a Penpal.

The single best thing to do before going abroad, hands-down, is getting a penpal. Students connect with penpals after beginning their language studies and can have a year of speaking with a local under their belts before even getting on the plane. Imagine having a friend waiting for you upon arrival. If they are in another city it will create a place to stay and a great resource for visiting the area. Travel together then stay in contact after returning home.

ToLearnFrench, is unfortunately an unattractive website but with a great goal: connecting English speakers who are learning French to French speakers who are learning English. You may have to sort through many contacts to find someone close to your age with similar interests but it's a good idea to take time in your search.

Soak in the Media.

One of the easiest, most fluid ways to improve your French is simply to inundate your life with it. Listen to French news, watch French movies and TV shows, rock out to French music, and find French websites. The local library likely has a collection of foreign films to rummage through; if not, ask your French professors. At the very least, you can find some French-language tunes on YouTube. Try these three favorites to get started: Cœur de Pirate, Camille, and Les Cowboys Fringants.

Take a Class – And Dive In.

It's one thing to take a French class – it's another thing to go above and beyond the course requirements. Participate heavily in class and study like a sponge trying to soak up all the knowledge it can. Collect your favorite words and stay on the lookout for more. Anything academic will ultimately be beneficial, and help your grade, so go for it! If you're advancing ahead of your class, it doesn't hurt to try testing ahead into a more advanced French class.

Take Advantage of Your University.

The university environment is a bottomless trove of resources. Many colleges have weekly or even daily French language tables at lunch or dinner where students of all levels can practice speaking. Some have French film nights. Others even have a French house, society, or the resources to let you start one. 

During Study Abroad

Do a Homestay.

Staying in a French household is the best form of language immersion there is. While the experience varies from household to household, many programs will try to match you to a great host family. Learn about their jobs and daily routines, meet their pets and eat homemade French meals. 

Start Random Conversations.

Talking to people is a logical way to practice your French, but it can be surprisingly hard to accomplish depending on the program or city. Some study abroad programs do not enforce French-only in their classes – find one that does. In a bigger city, as soon as some people detect an accent they'll switch to English. It can be frustrating, but don't be afraid to insist on speaking in French.

Travel Solo.

More likely than not, you intend to do some traveling during your time abroad which is great, just don't make it the only objective. Don't go jet-setting every weekend, or at least make it a point to stay in French-speaking places some of the time. Paris is not all there is to see in France – there are many other great cities just begging for a day trip or a short trip. Unless you can find a friend stubbornly committed to speaking only French, try traveling solo. Traveling with a friend, especially someone from an English-speaking country, results in the temptation to switch to English at the slightest hint of tiredness or confusion. But when traveling alone, you'll be forced to strengthen and rely on your own language skills.

After Returning Home

The Magic of Skype.

Keep in touch with friends from abroad – and not just via Facebook or email. Skype with them. Not only is it more personal than communicating in writing, but you'll get to practice speaking with someone more familiar with the language. Don't be embarrassed or annoyed by corrections – once out of college and the academic environment, corrections are few and far between, so you can end up making the same mistakes over and over and over.

Find a French Meetup.

This wonderful tool can be found even in small towns. Use to look for one nearby, or start your own if you feel particularly ambitious.