The limited language skills of French expats
When I arrived in Houston in 2019, my English was, frankly, not very good. I had a typical French level - bad. The best one can hope to have with the language teaching in France, which leaves much to be desired. At school in France, when you learn a language you don't speak it, it's mostly written work or reading. This is one of the major shortcomings of foreign language teaching in France in my opinion.
It is something that many French expats have experienced in their schooling. Every time I discuss it with other French people and especially with other French expats, it is the same feeling. You arrive in your expatriation country with an almost non-existent or at best very average level of English. And so what about the other languages!
This makes our arrival in our expatriation country much more intimidating and stressful. Our language level can be a big source of anxiety, blockage and immobility - even paralysis - for many French expats around the world.
My history and experiences with the English language
Of course, during my academic and professional experiences as a geoscientist, I was confronted with English and I had to use it. I had to read scientific journals in English, I did some missions in the United States and Canada where I had to present my work in English, and through my different projects, I had to exchange by email in English.
But all of this remained confined to my field of work, always the same vocabulary and the same subjects, and obviously the oral presentations I prepared in advance so I knew what I was going to say.
I could add my numerous trips where I had to deal with a rough English. But I'm not really sure that this contributed much to my English level, unfortunately.
All of this had absolutely not prepared me for my arrival in Texas. As a newly expatriated French woman, I was not at all prepared for the Texan accent, their expressions - howdy y'all - and the way they chew on words!
Southern English is a real challenge for French expats. Watch Walker Texas Ranger in the original language version, you'll understand what I mean!
My difficulties with the English language at the beginning of my expatriation
I faced many challenging and destabilizing situations at the beginning of my expatriation in Houston because of the language barrier. I will share some of them with you:
- The sweats I had when I had to make a phone call. Calling Ikea to confirm my order or the doctor's office to make an appointment put me in a state of intense physical and mental stress. I would prepare myself for 30 minutes with the written sentences and hope that there would be no unexpected questions.
- And what about the day when the alarm technician came to update the system after we moved in, I only half understood him. I think I understood barely 50% of what he said. I asked him to repeat 3 times, and he repeated the same way with the same speed and the same words so I finally gave up. Fortunately, we still managed to get the alarm to work!
- What a challenge it was the first time I went for coffee with an American friend - who is one of my closest friends here now. I was in such a state of stress. "What was I going to say, was I going to understand her, was she going to understand me, wasn't it going to be weird?" I thought 10 times about canceling.
- And of course the embarrassment of speaking English in front of other French expats. It reminded me of English classes in high school where they would make fun of you if you didn't use enough accent "Oh that bad accent" or if you used too much accent "Oh you are showing off". I was so uncomfortable, I felt sick to my stomach.
I managed to overcome these challenges but not without difficulty. I had big moments of doubt and depression. "I will never be able to integrate, I don't understand people, I will never speak English fluently".
Today I speak English fluently. Still with mistakes, but fluent. I understand 99% of what is said to me, I dream in English, I think in English, and I make jokes in English (I am very proud to be able to make jokes in the local language!)
What was the trigger that allowed me to progress in English as a French expat?
Actually, I had two big triggers:
- Taking English classes. Karly had told me about English classes in Houston where one of her friends worked. I took classes with the ESL community: English as a Second Language. It's a great way to take English classes (but also other foreign languages) where you can meet people from all over the world. You can find courses everywhere and it's often cheap! This was a turning point in my life as an expatriate. My English improved quickly and I started to build my social life, to make friends; French expats but also from all over the world. I started to go out and see people. It also boosted my self-confidence and allowed me to move forward on other subjects. The period of adaptation to my new life as an expatriate had begun.
- A friend who had given language courses had told me: "Those who progress the fastest and best are not those who speak little and who will make a perfect sentence the few times they speak, but those who speak often while making mistakes". It was a real change of vision for me who was ashamed to speak by making mistakes.
And of course, working with Karly on a daily basis has helped me tremendously to improve my English over time, and she continues to teach me words, expressions and to correct me! I do the same with her in French. We help each other a lot in our respective languages!
When I think back to our meeting 10 years ago, when I spoke almost no English and the same for her with French, it makes me smile. Despite the language barrier, we connected. Language is not such a big barrier!
We even decided to go to Toulouse for a day together. What a great moment! Karly was saying a lot of things in English and I was answering "yes" or "oh cool" unable to make a complete sentence. What a long way we both have come in learning these two languages!
5 tips for learning a language as an expat
There is no secret with languages. You have to get started. You have to speak, you have to immerse yourself.
Here are 5 simple tips to help you learn a language abroad:
- Immerse yourself in the language: Make an effort to use the language as much as possible in your daily life. Talk to locals, watch TV shows or movies in the original language, read books and newspapers and listen to music in the language you are learning. This will help you understand the syntax better, learn new words and phrases quickly, and become more confident in using the language.
- Find a partner to speak the language with: Connect with native speakers of the language you are learning and practice regularly with them - use social networks or forums. This is a great way to improve your speaking and listening skills and learn more about the local culture.
- Take classes: Enroll in language classes to improve your grammar and vocabulary, and learn how to structure your sentences correctly. This will also give you the opportunity to interact with other language learners and practice your skills in a supportive, non-judgmental environment.
- Join groups or associations: Participate in social groups or clubs that match your interests, such as a sports team, book club or volunteer organization. This will give you the opportunity to meet new people, practice the language and learn more about the local culture.
- Be patient and persistent: Learning a new language takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself and stay committed to your goals. Don't be afraid to make mistakes and always be open to feedback and correction. With perseverance and practice, you will soon be fluent!
Even though I know that as French expats we don't have a head start compared to some other nationalities in learning foreign languages, be persistent, proactive, and fully involved in this learning process, and you will succeed! And it is a real pleasure to speak a foreign language and to be able to exchange with people from other cultures and countries, it is so enriching!
"Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things."
If, despite your best efforts, you feel stuck in learning the local language, and that this is blocking you from growing and advancing in your expatriation - personally and/or professionally - our Expat Coaching Program is just what you need.
Our coaching program will help you overcome your blocks, be clear on your goals and take the necessary actions to achieve them.
If you would like to discuss this in person and share your challenges and goals with us, book a free call today with one of us: