Fluent in French: My Journey—The long (and sometimes bumpy!) road to success in la langue française

I met my French husband in French and I will always be thankful. I know several English speakers married to French spouses who met speaking English and now have a lot of difficulty speaking French at home. I’ve been told that the language you meet in becomes your “together language.”

In my case, I didn’t realize until our third date (in Paris, in the latter part of the pandemic) that this tall, handsome, and charming man actually spoke perfect English.

My future husband (we call him Monsieur B) was so respectful of my French that, he just spoke to me (and texted) en français. If I weren’t already in love with him after our first two dates (I was!), the discovery of this kindness and respect would’ve been the thing that reeled me in.

Why? Two reasons.

First, I’ve spent years (on and off) working to become fluent in French. Second, I’d had the opposite experience with my longtime ex, a trilingual chef who absolutely refused to speak to me in French despite my earnest efforts. OK, we had, indeed, met in English, but still, un vrai con (a real idiot).

Side note: I sometimes dream of running into the chef now, as I could so elegantly pulverize him with magnificent French insults. #winning

Becoming fluent in French

My fellow French language learners often ask me how I got here. They’re impressed that I passed the DALF C1 exam in Paris in 2017 on the first try. I tell them, that wasn’t the first try. I spent four months doing practice exams with my private teacher and I think I did the oral presentation and the written arguments twelve times on twelve different subjects. In other words, I prioritized and prepared. And it was still really hard! But it wasn’t as hard as getting my French driver’s license.

But my French language journey didn’t start there.

It started in Dayton Ohio at age 11, when we all had to choose a foreign language to study. There was simply no question for me. Le français, s’il vous plaît ! I wouldn’t find out until decades later that my “French name” (our French teacher asked us to choose un nom français to use in class) would be one of the patron saints of Paris—Geneviève.

I wish that in the US we could put even more emphasis on learning foreign languages at a young age.
Here in Europe, it’s a priority. My amazing French stepchildren each speak four languages.

The problem is, even though I’d had success in school when I graduated I didn’t find an opportunity to practice (those were the days before online meetup groups and virtual courses). I didn’t have the chance to continue my studies at that point, and I didn’t have the resources to travel to France long-term to really advance. So I pretty much dropped everything. But I never lost my dream.

Years—ahem, decades—later, I found myself alone in Paris for a few days. I noted that I could still pick up a bit of the French I heard in taxis, at the airport, in the hotel. The language was still there, tucked away amid all the other clutter, collecting dust surely, but not discarded.

I tried to speak a little but was afraid of making embarrassing mistakes in French (now I know that not speaking is the biggest mistake you can make). My comprehension was weak, and there were more holes in my vocabulary than in a hunk of Swiss cheese.

But being in Paris, surrounded and overwhelmed by the beauty, the culture, and the language—the experience sparked a call to action deep within me.

“Karen, you have always wanted to become fluent in French. It is your dream. Tu peux le faire. (You can do it.)”

That was 2015. When people ask me how I did it, I tell them my secret: I am still doing it, and I’m nowhere near perfect.

The truth is, that speaking a foreign language is a journey that never ends.

It’s a journey not only of grammar and sentence structure, but of cultural references, inside jokes, idiomatic expressions, faux amis (words that sound like English words but don’t mean the same thing), and stuff you just have to know. It is a quest with endless peaks and valleys.

Fluent in French

Photo: The Paris Photographer

Funny story: on the day I found out that I’d passed the DALF C1, j’étais sur un petit nuage (I was on Cloud 9). I was floating down the sunlit streets of les Batignolles wearing a stylish scarf and repeating to myself: “Je parle français.”

That merited a celebratory lunch, et un petit verre (and a little drink). While waiting for the server to show me to a table, a slightly tipsy French man approached and began to flirt with me in French.

And you know what? I could not understand him. Merci, DALF C1 !

I tell this story not to re-traumatize myself (yeah, I cried about it), but to share what everyone who has ever tried to learn a language knows: it is not a linear process. Both school French and exam French are a far cry from the daily more casual French you might hear in a bar or among friends or family.

Part of me wanted to give up in that moment. But instead, I called my French teacher and told her, “I’ve got the diplôme. Now teach me real French.” And I have been working on that project (with several different profs) over the last six-plus years.

That’s what I mean by “still doing it.”

I live in France, which is an advantage, as I can speak French whenever I like. But I know some Americans here who don’t prioritize learning French and they get stuck at one level and can’t advance, so living here is not a guarantee of fluency. It takes a lot of effort. In Paris especially, you can create an English bubble around yourself if your spouse speaks English. You can find an English-speaking doctor and socialize exclusively with expats. But that is not what I want. My goal is to integrate into French society.

Becoming fluent in French — So what do I do?

For starters, I purposefully put myself in difficult and uncomfortable situations to help push me forward. One example: I told my French accountant (who speaks English) that I only want to speak French. I sometimes struggle to find specific words (des bénéfices, un montant, un prélèvement), but he respects my efforts and I make sure to prepare before our meetings.

  • Every day I work on my French.
  • I listen to podcasts and news to train my ears.
  • I transcribe French movie trailers (this is maddening!), and
  • I never speak to a French person in English if I can help it, even if it makes me nervous.
  • I watch my former quirky pronunciation teacher’s funny (but strangely effective) videos.
  • I set my phone and my laptop language to French.
  • I take every opportunity to become better.

But with all that effort, I still have days when I feel terrific and days when I can’t seem to make my mouth (or brain) work in French.

To become fluent in French don’t be a perfectionist

Years ago I decided to throw out my paralyzing perfectionism in favor of progress. When (before I met Monsieur B) a much less charming guy told me my French would never be as good as Jodie Foster’s.  Yes, I was insulted. But you know what? He’s right and it doesn’t matter. As a child, Jodie went to a French lycée, where she was taught by native speakers. I spent four years in high school in Cincinnati with a sincerely great teacher…who had never been to France and whose petit accent had just a hint of his hometown: Owensboro, Kentucky.

We all have our paths to forge toward our dreams. Some of us love traveling in France and want the language skills to enrich the experience. Others are planning to move or retire in l’Hexagone. My French language horizon continues to advance (I’m currently reading a French wine atlas en français), but I try to stay focused on how much I have accomplished and how much I love learning.

I have an enormous amount of support from my French family, who welcomed me in with the same teasing they all use on each other (with extra jokes about Americans of course). I’m just happy that I can now understand most of them.

Above all, I’m grateful to have spent the time on something that gives me so much pleasure and that—even without my knowing it—helped me prepare for a real connection in my new life in France. Because that’s what learning a language does. It sparks a whole new level of connection—and unlocks an experience you simply cannot fully have in English while living in France.

Where are you in your language journey? What do you do to keep the forward progress? If you have a question about learning French, please leave it in the comments and I’ll try to help. Bon courage ! Tu peux le faire !

Further reading: MyFrenchLife series—
Finesse your French: yes, you CAN learn French this time – a breakthrough method – introduction



About the Contributor

Karen Bussen

Love led me from New York to Paris, where I live and write about food, wine, my French language journey and exploring l’hexagone with my husband. WSET level 3 in Wines & Spirits. DALF C1 diplôme en langue française. For more, find me on Substack: https://karenbussen.substack.com/

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