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Should you move to France without a word of French?

Some people move to France knowing little more than "bonjour" and "croissant" but should you really do it? And what are the main problems you'll run into? Members are encouraged to log in and share their experience in the comments section below.

Should you move to France without a word of French?
Photo: Alain Alele/Flickr

Whether it’s retiring to the sunny Dordogne, studying in Paris or taking the plunge to teach English in picturesque Bordeaux or Lyon, many people dream of living in France.

But how easy is it if your level of French is basically non-existent? And aren't you just asking for problems?

For a start, talk to anyone who’s moved to France and they’re guaranteed to mention the word ‘bureaucracy’.

Finding a place to live, opening a bank account and dealing with the endless amount of paperwork you’ll encounter can be cumbersome for any foreigner, even those who are fluent French speakers.

For some things a good knowledge of French is simply essential. For example if you’re planning to apply for French citizenship you will need to take a French test if you’re under 60.

And whether you're trying to register a car, get a French driving license or a resident's permit (carte de sejour) then speaking French is pretty much a necessity.

“Even if you are just applying for a residence permit, it helps to be able to explain your position in French,” explained Christopher Chantrey, vice-chairman of the British Community Committee of France.

“Many prefectures have forgotten how to issue residence permits to EU citizens because they haven't been compulsory since 2004. So it helps if you can explain to prefecture employees in French what French law actually says they have to do,” he added.

But it's not just the bureaucracy. Going to the doctors and trying to explain your symptoms to a doctor who doesn't speak English will be tricky and potentially a risk to your health.

And if you are dealing with banks, post offices and police you will likely struggle without the language.

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READ ALSO: The ten places in France where you really should speak French

The ten places where you really need to speak French

But there are ways you can overcome the bureaucratic hurdles.

For a start if you’re lucky enough to know a native speaker who’s willing to help, this can be a godsend. Even better if your partner is one because they will feel duty bound to help you through the process.

“Having a French spouse obviously helps, but you still have to do a lot on your own,” said Charli James, who moved from the US to France with little knowledge of French. She shared her tips in the link below.

How you can live happily in Paris without speaking French

But what if you haven’t met any French people yet?

Certain areas of France like the Dordogne or the Charente will have such an established network of expat English speakers that you'll probably be able to find all the help you need to settle down without uttering a word of French.

Many expats have set up their own services whether it's house renovations (be careful and watch out for the cowboy builders) or help with paying taxes so you might be able to get all the help you need from English speakers.

If you’re willing to pay, dedicated relocation agencies like Savoir Faire Paris can help you with things like finding insurance or registering your children in a French school.

A quick internet search will put you in contact with one in your area although if you live in an area with few English speakers you may struggle to find help.
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It goes without saying that moving to a major city like Paris or Lyon will likely be easier for non-French speakers than setting up camp in rural France.

Nadia Jordan runs the Foothills of France property hunting agency in southwest France.

“The area where we live in does not have a huge expat population compared to most of France and certainly no expat services,” she told The Local.

“One of the reasons I set up my property business was that there were very few good agents and hardly any spoke English. Most weren’t interested in dealing with potential buyers from abroad unless they actually walked into the agency.”

Even though you can get by with the help of friends and services (depending on your region and budget), most people we interviewed agreed that learning French before you move really does make your life easier.

“We were living in a small village in Occitanie,” says blogger Jennifer Greco. “You can probably survive in Paris without speaking French, but not out in the country. Shortly after arriving, we joined an association called the AVF (Accueil des Villes Françaises) and started weekly conversation classes.”

Naomi Duncan, who recently moved to Paris for her husband’s job, agrees that where you live can make a big difference. “I’m learning that it is possible to live in Paris without knowing French but personally it makes me feel ignorant and uncomfortable,” she told The Local.

How your local Town Hall could be the key to mastering French

How to make friends with your French neighbours in rural France

So even if you can generally get by without speaking French, especially in big cities like Paris, mastering the language of Moliere, Depardieu and Hallyday will really enrich your life in France.

Many who have moved to France suggest making French friends is the key to settling down. And without French language it really is almost impossible to really make friends unless you are lucky enough to live next door to English speakers. 

But any language learner in France will rightly tell you that it's hard to really learn French unless you live here.

The French you pick up in textbooks or in online courses at home can be very different from the French you learn once you are in France.

So it's understandable perhaps, that many arrive with no French language ability. The key however is make the effort to pick it up once you are here.

Jeff Steiner, who runs the Americans in France website said: “I didn't speak much French when I got here. My suggestion for anyone in a situation like that is really try and make an effort to speak French. Don't always fall back on speaking English to get by. Also try to make French friends, not always easy I know.

“But just try and put yourself in a situation where you have to speak French. You can only learn by doing and practicing. Also make sure to give yourself the time it takes for you to learn. However long that is, try and don't get yourself down if you don't feel you're making progress. Learning a language as an adult is one of the hardest things someone can undertake. But once you make it, you'll have accomplished something to be proud of.”

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by Charlotte Mason/The Local






















Member comments

  1. I have not learnt French since I was at School, 55+ years ago. However, after 15 months permanently living in Burgundy, I have obtained our Carte Vitales, Carte Gris for our UK car and sent in a Tax Declaration. The latter hasn’t been confirmed as acceptable yet, however. All with the help of Google and Microsoft Translator. I, generally, understand the gist of what the French say to me and always try to answer in French, which either raises a laugh at my pronunciation or a reply in English. The French seem willing to meet half way if you try. My wife is picking it up more quickly as she is younger and more outgoing.

  2. People should at least try to learn the basics, the French will appreciate you have made an effort and avoid the stereotypical label of English person abroad ” Talk louder and slower and they will understand ” !!!
    As stated in the article who wants to feel uncomfortable or frowned upon as ignorant ? At the very least a smile or grin about a dodgy accent or pronunciation could act as an ice breaker ?

  3. The tip about at least trying is key. My wife and I are in the middle of a three month sabbatical in Montpellier, and while most people can muster at least a bit of English, we insist on doing things as much in French as possible. Our language skill is limited, but without exception, everyone is more open to working with you if you show them the respect of using their language. Plus, if you actually manage to get through it, you’ll feel like you accomplished something, even it was just not making a fool of yourself at your local market.

  4. How on earth can one possibly contemplate moving to another country without getting one’s head round the basics of the language spoken there?? I came to France over 50 years ago and already spoke french (and german) but am constantly amazed at the ignorance – or is it arrogance? – of those who hope to wing it by “talking loudly and slowly”! The very idea! A word to the wise – be very wary indeed about internet/google translations.

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For members


MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

While French cities such as Paris are notoriously expensive, there are many areas outside the cities where it is still possible to buy spacious homes for less than €100,000 - particularly if you don't mind a bit of renovation.

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

We decided to look at where in France you could afford a property on a budget of €100,000, and it turns out there are some bargains to be had.

There are a lot of caveats while searching for property, and many local variables in place, but our search does show some of the areas to concentrate on if you have a limited budget.

We used the Notaires de France immobilier website in August 2022, and we specified that the property should have at least five rooms (including kitchen and bathroom) and a floor space of at least 100 square metres.

We also discounted any property that was for sale under the viager system – a complicated purchase method which allows the resident to release equity on their property gradually, as the buyer puts down a lump sum in advance and then pays what is effectively a rent for the rest of the seller’s lifetime, while allowing them to remain in the property.

READ ALSO Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain

For a five-room, 100 square metre property at under €100,000, you won’t find anywhere in the Île-de-France region, where the proximity of Paris pushes up property prices. The city itself is famously expensive, but much of the greater Paris region is within commuting distance, which means pricier property. 

Equally the island of Corsica – where prices are pushed up by its popularity as a tourist destination – showed no properties for sale while the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – which includes the French Riviera – showed only 1 property under €100,000.

The very presence of Bordeaux, meanwhile, takes the entire département of Gironde out of this equation – but that doesn’t mean that the southwest is completely out of the running. A total of 25 properties came up in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. One property was on the market for a mere €20,000 – but it was, as the Notaires’ brochure noted, in need of “complete renovation”.

Neighbouring Occitanie, meanwhile, showed 12 further properties in the bracket.

By far the most properties on the day of our search – 67 – were to be found in the Grand Est region of eastern France. The eastern part of France overall comes out best for property bargains, with the north-east region of Hauts-de-France showing 38 properties and and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté displaying 25.

Further south, however, the presence of the Alps – another popular tourist destination – pushed up prices in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region which showed just three results.

The below map shows our search results, with darker colours indicating more cheap properties.

Property buying tips 

In order to make a comparison, we focused our search on properties advertised online, but if you have a specific area in mind it's well worth making friends with a few local real estate agents and perhaps also the mayor, since it's common for properties not to be advertised online.

Most of the truly 'bargain' properties are described as being "in need of renovation" - which is real estate speak for a complete wreck.

If you don't mind doing a bit of work you can often pick up property for low prices, but you need to do a clear-eyed assessment of exactly how much work you are willing and able to do, and what the cost is likely to be - there's no point getting a "cheap" house and then spending three times the purchase price on renovations.

READ ALSO 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor' - tips for French property renovation

That said, there were plenty of properties at or near the €100,000 mark that were perfectly liveable or needed only relatively minor renovations.

You also need to pay attention to the location, as the sub-€100,000 properties are often in remote areas or very small villages with limited access to amenities. While this lifestyle suits many people, bear in mind that owning a car is a requirement and you may end up paying extra for certain services.

Finally remember that government help, in the form of loans and grants, is available for environmentally friendly improvements, such as insulation or glazing.