Discomfort: the key to improving your French

Learning French is hard. Discomfort actually becomes the norm. It’s painful to constantly need to ask “répétez s’il vous plait”, and grammar or vocabulary mistakes can be mortifying. As a beginner, I remember once repeating the word bouteille over and over as a confused server stared blankly at me. Quel horreur ! Uncomfortable situations like this are not only inevitable, but they are a necessary part of mastering French.

Discomfort: the key to improving your French

How to improve your French – are you making progress?

One of the biggest challenges of learning anything new is to work out how to make progress so as to be sure that they’re not spending hours of repetitive practice without real progress – as valid when learning French or other pursuits.

In the book ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Dr. Anders Ericcson explains, “The amateur pianist who took half a dozen years of lessons when he was a teenager but who for the past thirty years has been playing the same set of songs in the same way over and over again may have accumulated ten thousand hours of ‘practice’ during that time, but he is no better at playing the piano than he was thirty years ago. Indeed, he’s probably gotten worse.” 

For beginners, French textbooks and vocabulary cards are excellent ways to learn grammar and vocabulary basics. However, to progress, it’s beneficial to constantly switch up our study methods and seek out new linguistic experiences.

If discomfort is the key to improving your French – how adventures can help?

It was a trip to France in 2015 that truly helped me understand how much getting out of my comfort zone would help my French language skills. For two weeks, I worked in rural Normandy through a program that exchanges food and lodging for farm work.

Discomfort: the key to improving your French

All my years of academic French could not prevent misunderstandings and embarrassing mistakes.

For example my host maman chastised me on the first day of my stay for taking a break when I was supposed to be cleaning the rabbit cages!

I often didn’t understand the instructions flung at me in rapid French and had to be painstakingly guided through the daily tasks.

Worse still, I couldn’t fully express myself!
At the beginning of my stay, this created a distance between myself and my host family.
I hated the feeling.

Resolved to bridge the communication gap no matter how much persistence it took, I started by asking as many questions as I could formulate. In no time at all they were asking me about my life in the US and laughing about our cultural differences.   

For the work, I had to become comfortable often feeling clueless.

Each time I learned a new word, I would add to a list in my journal. Little by little, I grew my vocabulary which helped me ask helpful questions and better understand directions.

While the initial communication difficulties rocked my confidence, they helped me identify my weaknesses and pushed me to communicate more effectively in French.

French immersion adventures – try staying with locals

Staying with a host family in France is another sure way to improve your French.

Challenging, yes.
Worth it, yes!
You will definitely make progress and improve your French. ‘Ça vaut la peine.’

Complete immersion in French language and culture will provide linguistic challenges, and create frustration, but it will most certainly provide new cultural experiences: there will be adventures and you’ll become more confident with your French speaking skills.

Discomfort became the key to improving my French.

Discomfort: the key to improving your French

On the farm, as we shared meals, I unexpectedly discovered French cooking techniques and learned about regional dishes.

Mealtimes, while not always pleasant for me, also provided valuable time to challenge my French.
– I had two host sœurs who would constantly giggle at my strong American accent.
– Even worse, every time I said merci, someone in the family would comment on the fact that I couldn’t properly pronounce the French ‘r.’
– As my frustration built, I stopped saying “thank you” altogether.

Eventually, not wanting to seem rude and ungrateful, I spent several hours while weeding the garden one day repeating the word merci to myself, giving special attention to the uvular ‘r’.

I was finally able to thank the family without being ridiculed.

Quelle joie !

Face-off with discomfort: why ‘vacation’ when you can ‘adventure’ in France?

Discomfort: the key to improving your French

Any trip to France is a chance to progress your French, yet vacations that prioritize comfort may not push you enough to make noticeable improvement. 

Elite Daily describes ‘traveling’ (versus vacationing) as attempting to blend in and wanting to leave as an altered and more educated person.

Blending in involves leaving the tourist trails to experience life as a local. A great way to do this is through alternative travel experiences like a work exchange or volunteering. It’s not always easy to be the only foreigner in a room or to adapt to local customs, but it will force you out of your linguistic and cultural comfort zones.

But not everyone feels brave enough or is attracted to these types of activities. Rest assured there are many other opportunities to mix with the locals.

Traveling is of course not the only way to push your French skills.

Discomfort: the key to improving your French via Keithvansickle.com

There are plenty of ways to step out of your comfort zone such as:
– watching a movie with no subtitles,
– reading a challenging novel,
– share an apartment or stay with locals,
– try volunteering in France,
– or find a ‘French exchange partner’ or joining a French conversation group
– and here is a series ‘Meet the French’ which may provide ideas that are perfect for you.

How do you plan to step out of your comfort zone when next in France? Do you feel that discomfort is the key to improving your French? Let us know in the comments below.


Image Credits
1. Répétez s’il vous plaît via flickr
2. Faux pas via Grammarly 
3. Discomfort=Growth via katesmalley 
4. Work Accommodation Food France via Free Volunteering 
5. Language Exchange Partners via Keithvansickle.com
6-7 Meet the French and language exchange via myfrenchlife


About the Contributor

Alexis Herrington

Growing up in the United States, I always dreamed of living abroad. After completing degrees in English and French, I was able to live in different parts of France as an English language teacher. I currently live in Bordeaux and work remotely as a copyeditor for Jellysmack's Paris office. I spend the rest of my time exploring this beautiful city and learning as much as I can about French wine.

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  1. Marthe Oct 9, 2020 at 10:04 PM - Reply

    Such a good read! I can definitely attest to all your suggestions for improving your French! Although the road to your progress was testing at times, I’m happy you were able to find different ways to perfect your French.

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