When I moved back to New York from Paris, I began to notice a trend. When people learned that I had lived in Paris, their first question (once they’d finished gasping with joy) was almost always: “So, are you totally fluent in French?”.

At first, I thought it was a test. People wanted to know if I had really lived in Paris. Because if I’d really done it right, then I would, of course, be totally fluent. But as time has passed and the question has continually been posed, I think it’s less of a test for me than it is some kind of self-assessment measure for the asker.

A lot of people dream of living abroad, but they hesitate based on their linguistic limitations. They ask, “Are you fluent?” because they assume the answer will be yes, and this will confirm their suspicion that they, without fluency, wouldn’t be able to hack it in a foreign country. I think they’re letting themselves off the hook too easily.

Girl walking a dog in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris
Mathias Reding

The question riles up my inner provocateur, and provides me with the perfect opportunity to wax philosophical on the issue of fluency. Am I fluent? Yes. And no.

To the American ear, my French is “fluent.” I managed to function socially and professionally in Paris, and had a great time doing it. But when my shower exploded and the plumber came, could I discuss the ins-and-outs of water pressure and drainage with him? Definitely not (although via that experience, I learned to). While I lived in Paris, my French improved and stretched in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, and I surprised myself again and again by saying things I hadn’t realized I knew how to say—until they were coming out of my mouth. Then again, there will always be vocabulary that I don’t know, and conversations that I still can’t quite follow.

Two people talking in front of a cafe in Paris
Timea Kadar-

Would a native French person describe me as fluent? Maybe not. They always seem to pick up on my accent, and though I’ve often been complimented on my French, it seems there’s always an unspoken addendum: “You have very good French… (for an American).”

So when I’m asked if I’m fluent, my answer is always the same: yes and no. I now realize just how fluid language can be, and how the very notion of fluency differs from person to person and culture to culture. Living in France, I met people who spoke three, four, five or more languages. At first, that blew my perfectionist mind. How? How?! But then I realized, that’s the point: people who easily pick up languages don’t approach them with an aim to perfection. They just wing it. They learn as they go. They improvise and experiment, and they don’t worry about potentially embarrassing themselves.

A window view of Paris streets
Anastasia Dvoryanova-

And thus, they learn languages. So while the rest of us are discussing whether we’ve crossed some imaginary threshold between non-fluency and fluency, they’ve just lapped us—and learned Danish in their spare time. Of course, one can have an “ear for languages,” but more important, I think, is to have the courage for them.

Soon after I moved to Paris, I was interviewed on a French radio show about the most recent US presidential election. I had no idea what some of the questions meant, so I evaded half of them and just said whatever came to mind. Did I make mistakes? Definitely. Did anyone care? No. I’m still kind of shocked that I had the youthful audacity to do that interview, but when it comes to communicating, a little bravery goes a long way.

Learning to Speak French – Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to become fluent in French?

1. Speak immediately, preferably with natives. Some experts believe the only way to learn a language is to make mistakes in real-life situations.
2. Focus on grammar. Memorize frequently used French vocabulary. Flash cards and apps can help tremendously.
3. Work on pronunciation. Recording yourself and comparing it to native speakers is eye opening.
4. Listen to podcasts and radio in French.
5. Immerse yourself in the language. If moving to a French speaking locale is not on the cards, watch French TV, read French publications, and set your computer and phone to French.

What makes French so hard to learn?

– Gendered nouns
– Verb conjugations
– Unique pronunciation

How long does it take to learn French fluently?

Around 600 hours or 24 weeks of full time study for English speakers to become proficient and over 1000 hours to make it to C2 level.

French Language Learning Resources

  1. If traditional French classes with convenience and consistency are what you’re after, try Lingoda language classes online. Classes are available at virtually all times of the day and night and best of all: HIP readers receive a discount!
  2. If you’re looking for something more bespoke, École J’oullette offers online sessions with the same teacher (and founder), Llyane Stanfield, each lesson, who can track your progress and offer a more individualized approach. There are group sessions, 1:1 lessons as well as an intensive immersion program and thriving community. These sessions are for open to all and are particularly great for business travelers.
  3. If you love French films and TV, combine your passion for entertainment with your desire to learn the language with France Channel our favorite French streaming platform. Get 30 percent off a year long subscription until Easter.

Written by Tory Hoen for the HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.


Tory Hoen

Tory Henwood Hoen has been published by New York Magazine, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Fortune, and others. She was Creative Director of Brand at M.M.LaFleur, where she founded the brand’s digital magazine, The M Dash. Her debut novel, The Arc, is available in bookshops near you and online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *