For hundreds of thousands of Brits the dream of owning that coveted French escape from dreary Blighty is already a reality; and many more will fulfil that dream in the not too distant future, particularly if the pound continues its rise (which seems likely). But even with very careful planning, that dream can all too easily end in bitter disappointment sooner or later. Buy in France and, chances are, you will be selling not buying in, on average, ten years – for five good reasons. They are known as the 5 D’s: Debt, Disease, Divorce, Death – and Disillusionment! I have no advice to offer you on the first four (that is for others). But I have plenty on the fifth.
We bought our Dordogne house twenty-seven years ago and our Paris apartment thirteen years ago. We still have them both. We hope to have them a lot longer.
So what is the secret, if there is one, of a long, happy life in your French home? If disillusionment is not to set in, then you really have to integrate. You have to become a vibrant, living part of your local French community. You have to be adopted by your neighbours, just as you might adopt a stray cat or dog. Nothing less will do.
And how do you do that? Learn to speak French! Nothing is more guaranteed to deliver the long-term pleasure that comes from feeling well and truly integrated into French society. It is idle to believe that you will be welcome with the odd “bonjour” and the occasional “comment ça va?” That does not cut the mustard with the French!
My wife, Sue, and I began travelling in France over forty years ago. At the time, neither of us spoke even a word of French. My foreign languages at school were Welsh and Latin! Not very useful when you have just broken down on a deserted Normandy road with the engine on fire! So on our return, wiser and sadly very much poorer, we vowed to learn some French, enough so that we could return sometime soon and profit from what the country clearly had to offer. But how?
Well, we enrolled that September, like thousands of others up and down the land doubtless will have done, too, at an evening class at our local Wimbledon school. The teacher was a French national from Lille, and boy was she good! But, if you have tried it yourself, you will know where I am coming from. Trying to learn the language one night a week in a class of twenty-odd other adult students from so many disparate backgrounds was very slow going indeed and, to put it mildly, deeply frustrating. So at the end of the year we decided to go solo by developing our own learning techniques through the basic strategy of self-learning. We have done so ever since – and continue to do so, incidentally. After all, you should never stop learning! Now we are both fluent French speakers; and we now spend almost all of our time these days in the company of our many French friends. Yes, I know the Dordogne is supposed to be stuffed full of Brits – but we only know four!
Of course, if you are only there for the food, cheap wine and, hopefully, the lovely weather, then read no further. This personal reflection is not for you. But the Brits we do know have gone, or are going, for much more than that. The siren call of the French way of life is simply irresistible. In a word, it is the French culture that draws you in.
Now, I do not mean “culture” in the purely artistic sense of the word. The culture of a people is its distinctive way of life and which in France is different in so many ways from ours and that of other countries you might know. You will have experienced this for yourself, if only on holiday to France. Before, perhaps, you would have been holidaying in, say, Spain. There the Spaniards like to eat lunch at about 3.00pm. But such an hour is ungodly to the French, who can scarcely wait until midday to tuck into a steaming bowl of “potage”, followed by a rich “coq-au-vin”, the unctuous sauce mopped up with generous slices of freshly-baked crusty “baguette”, followed by a plate of local cheeses and to finish perhaps, with a generous slice of gorgeous “tarte tatin” to climax the feast. (And I have not even mentioned the sensational wine they will wash it all down with!)
Of course, holidays are one thing, but owning your own property, however modest, even if it is currently reserved largely for a few weeks of escape in the summer, is quite another. We started like that, spending all our childrens’ school holidays in the house (we were lucky: I was a university teacher and my wife had a term-time only job!) But children grow up fast. Ours eventually fled the nest and we retired. Now we were there out of season so to speak and there were no holidaying Brits to keep us away from our French neighbours. So we eagerly got down to the immensely enjoyable but initially challenging task of getting to know the locals really well.
But frankly, it is only possible to get to know the French well enough to form strong friendship bonds with them if you speak their lingo – trust me, they do not, or will not, speak yours!
But by “speak” I do not mean fluently, though. It is a process; and it takes time. But once it is obvious that you are attempting to grasp the complexities of their language, then they will take you to their bosoms. For they know only too well how difficult their language can be – they will frequently admit it – but they will forgive your faltering first steps and early errors with sympathy, encouragement and very often, practical help. They will feel flattered that you are making an obvious effort to acquire their language. Now you are no longer the object of sideways glances and even sometimes, yes, disparaging remarks about the arrogant monoglot English who, centuries after the Hundred Years War, have invaded their homeland yet again. Now you are invited to their dinner tables, to their anniversaries and much more, to talk about this and that (but never politics!) and to share fully the pleasures of their very distinctive way of life. Now you have arrived. Now, to use their favourite word, you are well “integré”, integrated. When you reach this point you now realise why you dipped your toe into the French property market, perhaps many years ago. I can tell you this for nothing: it is worth it!
So, how do you learn enough French to win the approval, even admiration of your local French community? Here are my top four “killer” tips:
First, recognise that there is no one learning style. We all have our individual preferences. For some it is face-to-face tuition, for others it is tapes, discs, videos, books, films, music… and so on. There are some who believe that just being there is enough; somehow it will all rub off on you by osmosis. Unless you are a mega-talented linguist, it won’t. Do not get me wrong: being there is hugely helpful, indispensable even. But not on its own. You will also need the vital supplementary help that comes from working at your French, whatever media you choose.
Second, understand that there are no quick fixes out there. You are in it for the long run. Forget all that “French in 3 weeks” nonsense. I started “ab initio” at 27 by taking public exams, first GCSE (then “O-level”) and then “A-level”, really to incentivise me to work hard at it. We all need goals and targets, I feel, and they were mine. That took me three years. Armed with a good grammatical foundation, I started reading books, particularly novels. I started with the relatively easy Marcel Pagnol provençal stories and with Georges Simenon’s Maigret “who dunnits” which are great because his vocabulary is unbelievably limited and highly repetitious. Then there were the classic French films of Truffaut, Godard, and the rest. But there are lots of good modern French films, too, that you will find relatively easy to understand, “Amélie”, for example. And do not forget French pop music: much of it is naff, I agree, but singers like Maxime Le Forestier are really worth listening to.
All this was aimed at improving my conversational French in the main. I never harboured ambitions to read all twelve volumes of Marcel Proust’s “La Recherche du temps perdu!” But the effort meant that I was now able to read French newspapers and magazines. It is amazing how much you learn from “Hello!” magazine or “Paris Match”!
Third, do not be seduced by the overtly contextual approach to language instruction (“at the bakers”, “at the airport”, “at the restaurant” etc). To acquire enough vocabulary successfully to manage all the hundreds of contexts you will encounter on your French odyssey, you would have to learn literally thousands of new words. Yet a good basic grasp of French can be had with fewer than a thousand words. How?
Fourth, focus on the structure of the language and the important parts of speech that provide that structure. All can be important in some cases (nouns, pronouns, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs… and several more). But only one is essential in all cases. That is the verb. A sentence without a verb is not a sentence: “The hunter the deer”: does that make sense? Of course not because the verb is missing: “The hunter killed the deer” – now that is a sentence. You can very often take almost all parts of speech from a sentence and still be left with a sentence: “Time flies”, for example or “Only connect” are full grammatically correct English sentences. It is just the same in French: no verb, no sentence. The verb is indeed the beating heart of language; and the good news is that not many verbs are needed to make that heart beat loudly and strongly. As my very recent book makes clear, only twenty-one “killer” verbs will do the trick. Yes, only twenty-one! That should be enough. But you will get nearly half-way there with only four: “être” (to be), “avoir” (to have), “faire” (to do or to make) and “aller” (to go). These four are so important that I label them the “serial killer” verbs. Know these really well and you will already be speaking French with some confidence and conviction. After that it is up to you.
So get cracking now (“allez-y!”) – and do not give up when it begins to get difficult. No language is easy; but the rewards for making the effort will be yours for life, not just ten years!
Derek Davies is the author of a revolutionary new approach to learning conversational French, “The Siffler Syndrome: How to Speak Amazing French with only 21 Killer Verbs”.