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learning French For Members

Tips for learning French as an older person in France

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Tips for learning French as an older person in France
A woman holds the printed 2016 edition of the French "Petit Larousse" dictionary in Paris. (Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP)

Learning a new language is difficult for anyone - regardless of age - but it can feel even more intimidating for those nearing retirement. Here are some tips for keeping up your French skills.

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It might be true that young people tend to pick up languages more quickly (especially children) - but that does not mean it is impossible to master French in your golden years.

In fact, there are many benefits to learning a new language as an older person - studies have shown that it can decrease cognitive decline and help improve focus and memory. Plus, there's the added bonus of feeling more integrated to life in France. 

For many people, the struggles come down to confidence and a perceived lack of opportunities to put their new skills into practice. You might feel a bit lost for how to keep learning once you have finished a class or gone through all that Duolingo has to offer. 

READ MORE: How to make friends with your French neighbours in rural France

Here are some tips for keeping up your French;

Visit your local town hall

The town hall (mairie) is responsible for many things in France. If you are new to the country, it might actually be one of the best places to visit first.

Your town hall is a great resource for finding recommendations for services, organisations, and activities, especially if you live in a more rural area. Many mairies also offer heavily discounted language classes.

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In Paris the mairie offers 'Cours d'Adultes de Paris' in everything from sewing classes to lessons in Excel, but there are around 300 classes in Français langue étrangère. The modules are between 20 and 180 hours and are adapted by level and ability. The courses are usually held in school buildings throughout Paris.

If you live outside of Paris, you can contact your local mairie to ask what they recommend in regards to subsidised language courses. They will likely be able to point you towards NGOs operating in the area that hold classes. If you are retired, the plus side is that you can take the courses during the daytime that are often less busy. 

READ MORE: How to find affordable language classes in France

Take university courses

The 'university for all' programme is about offering further education to adults, but unlike the UK's Open University it's not all at degree level and many offer beginner and intermediate French classes for foreigners.

It's organised on a local level so you will need to find the Université pour Tous website for your département and then search the courses - prices and courses on offer vary according to location. 

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If you cannot find any options in your area, try searching for 'Université du temps libre', 'université du troisième âge', 'universités tous âges' or 'universités inter-âges'.

You can also look into auditing classes (sitting in on classes but not taking a final exam) but this is subject to the number of slots available in the lecture room. 

To find out about available courses for audit, start by narrowing down nearby universities. You can contact them and ask for a catalogue of courses, as well as which ones are open for auditeurs libres (free auditors).

Consider volunteering

One of the best ways to keep up language skills is to make friends and put yourself in environments where you will hear the language being spoken. 

For younger folks, the benefit is that they might be able to practice their French in the workplace. Whether you are retired or living in France on a visitor visa (meaning you are not allowed to take up paid employment), you can still volunteer.

To find opportunities, you can use the French government website JeVeuxAider. You should be able to select the area you live in (if you cannot find it, go back to google and search 'JeVeuxAider' plus the name of your town).

Once on the site, you can narrow down volunteer options based on your own interests. It also lists existing 'associations' (NGOs) in your area.

READ MORE: Volunteering in France: What are the rules and do I need a special visa?

The mairie is another great place to find out about volunteer opportunities - you might get involved in local government planning, perhaps for annual festivals or parties, or you could simply ask about general volunteering (eg. food banks - banque alimentaire or soup kitchens - soupe populaire)

Join a club or class

Are you a fan of art? Maybe you like bird watching? Or perhaps you want to keep up your fitness with an exercise class? There is probably a club or class related to your interest not far from home. 

While this might require a bit more than a beginner's level of French, it does not hurt to give it a try.

Your local gym or public pool might offer exercise classes. To find classes, start by searching 'atelier' or 'cours' along with the activity you want to do. For drawing courses in Nantes, for example, you might search 'atelier de dessin adultes nantes'.

For activity clubs or senior associations, try searching 'clubs du troisième âge plus the name of your town. The website Assoce also lists clubs and groups based on location. Many départements also have a 'Club de retraités' (for example, here is the link for the one in the Morbihan in Brittany).

Your town hall's website might also list addresses, classes, clubs, and organisations - oftentimes free for seniors - operating in your area - here is an example for the Paris 20th arrondissement.

When in doubt, always head back to your local town hall to ask if they have any course or club catalogues for the area.

Look for conversation exchanges

As a native speaker of English you have a valuable skill to offer and 'language exchange' options are a great way to get free or reduced price tutoring.

As the name suggests, you chat with a French speaker and they help you and correct your errors and in exchange you do the same for their English.

There are numerous groups who offer this, so search online. Most are either free or charge a reduced price. You generally need to be able to chat at some level so they're not ideal for complete beginners but are a good way to improve your fluency once you have the basics.

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The social network "Meetup" is a great resource for finding pre-existing language groups in your area, or virtually if you prefer. This website might favour those who live in large cities, but you might be surprised to find options in small towns as well. Plus, if something does not exist yet, you can always create it.

Facebook groups are also another great way to find like-minded people who are seeking cultural and linguistic exchange. Groups like 'BlaBla (insert your city)' can help connect you to conversation groups. 

READ MORE: Is France a good country to retire to?

Conversation workshops at libraries 

Larger cities - like Paris - are home to several municipal libraries that language courses or exchanges led by library staff or volunteers. In Paris, both the BPI and BNF, as well as at least 15 other municipal libraries, offer one hour to one hour and a half language exchanges.

Outside the capital, some libraries also offer conversation groups, so ask your local library if they have something similar.

Get online

During the pandemic many language classes moved online, and plenty of them have stayed there, giving more options to people who live outside the cities or bigger towns.

If you are looking to practice your French solely online, some websites like Polyglot Club offer free choices for users to interact and practice their language skills.

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You can also join Facebook groups and make your own language exchanges, perhaps with other foreigners looking to practice. Search using key terms like your town or département, your nationality, or the word 'expat'.

READ MORE: 'Our life is so much better here' - Why do people move to France?

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