How I used cold callers and lovelorn French farmers to learn the language

The trick with someone calling from your internet provider to discuss deals is to get rid of them as quickly as possible, right? Wrong, this is just one of many informal ways to learn French, suggests blogger and mum of three Natasha Alexander

How I used cold callers and lovelorn French farmers to learn the language
These people could be your new, free, French tutors. Photo vadimphoto1/Depositphotos

When Natasha Alexander moved to Normandy in northern France with her husband and three children, her French was about at the level where she could ask for a ham sandwich. So with a business to run and children in school she had to learn the language fast. Here are her top tips for other learners.

1. Talk rubbish

Literally. We invited our lovely, lovely neighbours over for drinks at Christmas – this was painful as at times there were awkward silences. 

The chit chat became so banal that I even asked what days the rubbish bins go out. They must be thrilled with the newbies in town! General chit chat and boring chit chat at that but it does get better and you really have to launch yourself out of your comfort zone. It is far easier to put this off until your French is better. But guess what? Your French won’t get better unless you just invite yourself in to unsuspecting French people’s homes. Try and do this at least once a month.

2. Engage in conversation at all costs

Don’t just get your bread, queue up at the supermarket, say thank you and go. Try and engage in conversation at all costs. For instance, the children’s head teacher has spoken to me a few times. Initially I was like 'yes, yes' and would scurry away. But as time went on I would speak back to him.  For instance, my eldest two are being put in for a French exam a bit like a diploma so it shows they have a good standard of French. He told me about this and then instead of just saying okay, I understand, I repeated back to him what he’d said.

He’ll also ask if I’ve understood flyers etc and last term I remarked that it had been a very long term and that the children were tired. Same goes for the boulangerie. Comment on the weather, cakes – anything! 


Waste collections may not make the most fascinating conversation topic, bu it's all good practice. Photo: AFP

3. Make phone calls

Now so many people say 'Oh my French isn’t good enough to use the phone'. It’s probably not good enough out in general public. Why do people think the phone is in someway harder? At least you can have Google translate open. Seriously, you have to make phone calls.

There’s something about making a phone call which makes people go all 'I can’t, I won’t'. But the more you make them the easier it will become or certainly the apprehension of making them. I have used the phone lots of times. Yes, I could have taken the easy option and just trotted down to the garage to see if my car was ready – but no I phoned to see first.  I’ve phoned dentists, delivery drivers, doctors, schools, garage, MOT centres and more and it’s not easy but just man up, grow a pair and do it!

4. Don’t hang up on the cold callers

This sounds really perverted but bear with. These people speak super fast much like they would in the UK because they don’t want you to figure out, quickly, that it’s a cold call trying to sell you something. So I keep these bad boys on the phone. 

I get them to slow down, repeat what they’re saying and ask questions. They are naturally obliging because they want the sale. They have no idea they are in some perverse French lesson and then at the end you can just say non merci. And when they ask why,  just say I don’t speak very good French. They will then hang up on you. A free five-minute French lesson.

5. Endure Celine Dion on repeat

I like to have  the radio on when I’m cleaning or when the kids are at school just to hear French being spoken. It’s not as cruel a way to learn the language as watching the telly but it can be right up there depending on what station you listen to.

Now, my daughter likes NRJ which has all the funky songs, however, you won’t get much chat with that. You could go all culture vulture and plump for the station of the same name but even by my standards this is akin to self harm and not recommended. 

Or you can plump for France Bleu – you will have to tolerate a lot of Celine Dion, Pink and listen to one song by Adele (she wrote others!) but you will get a lot of chit chat, tips on cooking and game play.  You will have to endure the Celtic hour which goes on for a long time (longer than an hour I’m sure) and wonder why they are obsessed with Brittany.

L'amour est dans le Pré is one of many, er, highlights of french TV. Photo M6

6. Watch French farmers trying to find a date

Channel Four do a great range of world drama series and many are with French with subtitles. This is a great way to learn and not as painful as the television route, although there are some good programmes.

We watched one box set called Vanished by the Lake. We overlooked the fact that the detective was pretty poor – thinking it was everyone including her mother and dead father. It was a real Cluedo, a whodunnit and was set in beautiful surroundings. We are going to work our way through them. I also make notes if I find a word or saying for instance.

As for the telly. It’s not so bad. They have game shows where you have to guess the couple, local news and my all time favourite TV show L'amour est dans le Pré (Love in the Meadow). They get farmers to hook up with singletons for a week. They stay with them, sleep with them and its compelling television. Honest.

7. Find a French friend

Yes, even if they don’t want to be your friend just nab them. Naturally it helps if you like them, I have a mum friend and I just know we would get along fine and dandy if I was fluent. So I invited her round for coffee, have picked her up en route for a school meeting and we always wave and say hello and I get her to help me with my French. We had great fun getting me to pronounce the word brouillard (fog). Fine but let’s see if she can say squirrel . . .

8. Take lessons 

Call me old fashioned but there’s nothing quite like having a lesson once in a while.

Natasha Alexander does social media management for companies in Normandy and across France and also blogs about her move to France at Our Normandy Life. Find out more here.


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What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer


But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.