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Speaking the Language

France - Speaking the Language

The official language of France is French and around 90% of the population have this as their first language. There are a number of minority languages, particularly in the border regions. The country shares a border with Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain as well as Belgium and Luxembourg. German, Italian and Spanish can often be heard in the border regions. These regions also feature a number of dialects which are a blend of French and these other languages.

One of the main regional languages is Breton. This is spoken in Brittany and around 1.2% of the French population speak Breton fluently and there are campaigns to prevent it from dying out. Other regional languages include Basque which is used along the border with Spain, although less than 0.1% of the population speak Basque. The regional languages and dialects do not have an official status in the country. Proven├žal is a dialect of the southern part of the country and it is estimated that more than 6 million people use this dialect. This is fairly close to French and those who speak it are able to understand standard French although visitors to the area might take a while to get used to it. Another major regional dialect is Catalan which can be heard in the Pyrenees.

Minority languages in the country are brought in by immigrants. One of the largest is Arabic. The country has large communities of expats from northern Africa and parts of the Middle East. Others include Chinese, English and Flemish.

French is the language of business. English would only be used in the workplace if the company is English run and the majority of staff there are English speakers, but this is a very rare occurrence. It is not really practical for a person to try to get by in France without learning some of the local language, particularly if you are looking for work. In the cities a minimum of a good conversational level of French is required. Many French people do speak a little English but you must be able to make the effort in their language. In rural areas a good level of fluency is required if you want to work. If you are not looking for work then basic conversational French is enough to begin with.

There are a number of options for learning French. These include language schools, of which there are several in Paris and the other major cities. The language schools specialise in intensive courses so that you can pick up a good standard of conversational French within a short period of time. The schools also offer standard night school courses for those who cannot spare an entire week but are able to take their time learning the language. One of the best ways to learn is with a private tutor as the tuition is one-to-one and can help you learn faster than in a classroom environment. In the towns and villages in France there are plenty of people working as tutors who can help you. They usually advertise in local press but word of mouth is also a good way to find them.

English language television programmes are often dubbed into French, but there are some which are only subtitled. In France it is possible to get English satellite television so you can still enjoy some of the same channels and programmes that you watched at home.

In France the children begin to learn languages at a much younger age than they do in the UK or the US, so most people can hold at least a basic conversation in English. Elderly people are less likely to be able to speak English, particularly in rural areas as language teaching was not a priority there until the last few decades. In the cities you are more likely to find English speakers as many people might need the skills for work or travelling.

English speaking expats often use their skills to find work. Those who have a TEFL certificate can often find at least part time work in schools, although teaching English as a private tutor is also common. However, if you are in a very rural area you should not expect to find a great deal of work in this way. The cities have more possibilities for using your language skills.

Useful Resources

BBC Learn French website

LanguageGuide.org - Francais

The French Tutorial (standard edition offered free)

Alliance Francaise (AF) - non-profit state-approved language training

Hachette (publisher of guides to improve children's language skills)

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