Going To A Store With a Beginner Level: Good or Bad Idea?

by | Sep 28, 2021 | French language tips

So you’ve been studying some French, maybe through a professional online course or through a self-study regime and you’ve arrived at the beginner level. Congratulations!

You may have studied definite (le, la, les) and indefinite (un, une, des) articles, present tense conjugations, or even the passé composé. These grammar principles feel like they’re in the bag and you’re comfortable with having some basic vocabulary under your belt. 

So what better way to practice and develop your French than with some real-life practice in real-world situations?

But with a low level, is it a good idea? Or in the event of a malentendu, will you feel too embarrassed, flustered, and traumatized to try it again?

In this article, I talk about expectations you should have when practicing your French with natives when you’re at a lower level. I’ll give you some useful strategies and tips to set yourself up for success — so you can have a fun, meaningful, and trauma-free experience. 

What You Need To Expect

Before you even get to the point of practicing your French with locals, there are few things you need to anticipate and prepare for.

You’ll most likely be interacting with people who have no clue what your background is (linguistically or otherwise). They won’t know that you are learning French as a second language, nor will they know your limited level or vocabulary.

That’s why they’ll default to speaking French at full speed, assuming that you are a fluent local. So don’t be surprised or taken aback.

Also, know that the person you are interacting with may have never learned a second language before (or have the patience of a teacher) so they might not know how to speak slowly or clearly, the way that your French teacher does in class.

Expect that they will speak fast with vocabulary you haven’t yet learned in textbooks. And if you try to ask them to slow down, they might not know how (it sounds strange, but for people that aren’t used to slowing down their communication — they may just default to speaking louder with the exact same cadence, which probably won’t help your comprehension at all).

Having taught French to all different levels for more than 15 years, I always warn my students before they venture off into real-life scenarios to check in with their expectations. After one month of an intensive course at the beginner level, you still won’t be able to interact with native speakers.

Unfortunately, that’s just how it is. 

It will take at least 3-4 months of full, regular, and consistent studies to be confident enough to interact with native French speakers. 

Common Mistakes

The common mistake beginners often make is to throw themselves bravely into the French-speaking jungle without a proper plan. They may have done a very tiny bit of preparation in advance, hoping that they can ‘wing’ the rest.

Take, for example, going into a boucherie to order some meat. Perhaps all you’ve prepared is “Bonjour, je voudrais un steak haché, merci”. You repeat this in your head several times, maybe even practicing out loud in the mirror. You have it down-pat memorised.

Bravely walking into the boucherie to recite the lines you’ve rehearsed and remembered to the small commerçant, you hope for a very easy and quick interaction. Ultimately, you want to walk away with your two rewards: your order and a sense of accomplishment.

The beauty of interaction and communication in real-life situations though is the small talk. And your butcher will probably ask you a bunch of follow-up questions. Like do you want fat or not? Or if he ran out of steak haché, do you want another type of meat? He might even chit-chat about the weather and the recent strikes.

The problem is small talk isn’t a thing at the beginner level. Not just yet, anyway. You’ll reach the small talk level at around an A2 level when you have more vocabulary and sharper comprehension skills. And even then you will encounter challenges and blunders.

You’ll probably be corrected with improper usage of the masculine and feminine, the pesky “le” or “la”’s that learners often confuse. Some beginners get offended and upset by these corrections. You may think to yourself:

“Hey, he understood what I said but he corrected me anyway!”

Yep. It’s bound to happen so be prepared and don’t take it personally. It’s not meant to be an insult against you, your accent, or your French level.

You’re right to think that the key point of learning a language is communication. So if the butcher or the server that you’re practicing your French with understood you — that’s a big win. Even if you made a mistake. So be proud of yourself for that. 

Consider that the reason they are correcting you is that they are used to talking and hearing expressions in a certain way. If they hear something different, it may cause some resistance. Remember that in general, people don’t like change and are stuck in their ways.

Don’t Take It Personally 

My first piece of advice, if this happens to you, is to shake it off with a smile and not take it personally. 

The same thing will likely happen if you order “un café au lait” à Paris instead of a “café crème”. The server will probably repeat “un café crème, ça marche” or “un crème, c’est parti!”. They’ll do that not as a way to correct you but to confirm that they understood what you’ve ordered. 

Local bars especially run by young staff will even use slang and colloquial expressions while working. At the beginner level, you won’t be ready to face these situations. This is maybe not what you hoped to read when you opened this article but please trust my 15 years of experience. 

And you know what? It’s okay to not understand everything. You don’t need to put intense expectations on yourself, especially when you are just starting out. At the beginner level, you are setting the proper foundation for all the fun communication, interaction, and small talk to come. Understanding fast colloquial expressions will take time.

Trust your French Teacher

My second piece of advice is to trust your French teacher. It can be hard when they seem to bang grammar principles over your head on repeat — we aren’t doing it to torture you, we promise. We are doing it to set you up for success so that when you do go to the wild jungle of French-speaking Paris (for example), you’ll be able to face real-life situations without stress.

If you are confident in your solid foundation things will be a lot easier. I promise.

The caveat with this is to be wary if your French teacher is correcting every single sentence you say. Yes, you are paying them to teach you proper French and any glaring errors should be addressed so you can learn. But as we noted before — the point of learning a language is to communicate in that language. So small errors here and there are really inconsequential in the bigger context of communication.

Study Relevant Vocabulary and Prepare

The last piece of advice may sound obvious, but it should not be overlooked. If you are going into a specific pre-planned situation, like a boulangerie, boucherie, or the dentist’s office and you plan on speaking French — do some studying beforehand.

No, you can’t predict everything they will say to you. And you may end up stumbling over your words or misunderstanding questions directed to you. But set yourself up for success from the get-go. Taking the time to research vocabulary, common phrases, or expressions will help enormously. Write them down. Practise them. Memorise them. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a necessary part of your learning.

So if you’re a beginner level lucky enough to live in a French-speaking country, and craving some real-life interaction, I hope these tips serve you well! Make sure you have realistic expectations for yourself and others and prepare beforehand. I’m cheering you on!

What’s your experience speaking a foreign language at a beginner level? Have you had negative experiences or positive experiences? Comment below — I’d love to hear the good and the bad!