Discovering the soul of language

"He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I met Elvin during my first position as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US in 2001. He was a reserved and hesitant student at the time. However, he was still able to improve his French considerably by the end of the semester. He has since adopted French as a daily tradition and inspiration. French has become and always will be a part of who he really is. He tells us here the journey of his transformation.

bird flying next to the Eiffel Tower
La Tour Eiffel, Paris

What is the concept of language to you?

A favorite quote of mine: "He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We live in such a diverse world that is full of so many things to explore. You may ask: what is it that can bridge anyone to explore any part of this diverse world in a deeper and more meaningful way? I believe one common variable would be language itself.

Coming from a diverse cultural background and traveling to various countries, I have always believed that learning a new language is a doorway to expand your horizons - where one can learn not just about the world, but about oneself at the same time.

What is learning French to you then?

Although my experience began in a bilingual environment with Spanish and English, French has truly been my first doorway to explore new and interesting opportunities.

I have always loved languages/culture as far as I can remember. To me learning a foreign language is somewhat of a love story that comes with a natural curiosity to learn/know about something or someone new that is so unique. It is something that has contained such a vast history, before I even thought to seek it out, and this is a part of what drives the growth and relationship with the language itself.

I have always thought that there is something very humbling about being before a vast ocean of words, phrases, and sounds that insist on taking shape very slowly, and only for the most patient touch.

The thrills and frustrating plateaus of exploring a language landscape (French in my first case), that was not made with me in mind, and often driving me to the brink of my own abilities, reminded me that there are limitless worlds to be explored.

Can you tell us about the French learning process you have been through?

The beginning of my journey with the French language began with small baby steps at the age of 11, fumbling with words, and sentence structures with not much grace. Yet, I do recall it being a lot of fun, as there was much game play and role playing with my peers in a social gathering. All, which is such a key element in learning a language just as young baby learns to speak.

Most people forget that kids enjoy this process very much before they are drawn into the abstract mechanics of all things, or life itself. I somehow feel that this happened to me at some point in my learning experience. I started to become detached from the sense of culture, and experiencing the language that I was initially introduced to. All which hinders progress in the language, and in turn can become discouraging.

Before this, in my early stages of learning, there was countless ways to experience the language such as field trips to French restaurants, historical sites, social role playing, the arts that included museum paintings, films, live plays, or puppet shows. It was a fabulous experience that brought real enjoyment to learning the language.

It really was not until I reached French courses in college that I was reintroduced to the social aspects of the language itself, thanks to a special instructor… Yes of course you, Hélène! Basically, going back to experiencing it vs just studying the mechanics of the language in a classroom setting. That social aspect is like being reintroduced to that lost love you had for learning the language in the first place, and that same love is what pushes you through the frustrating hours of grammar study, as if learning arithmetic.

I recall creating social scenarios in class that brought back those initial fond memories, which led to meeting at cafes or bars, just simply to converse and enjoy the company of others. It was also the first beginnings of learning slang that was a new flavor to this experience. How could I not enjoy! I can say that this was LIVE FRENCH in its infancy beginning to take form.

What changes has it made to your education?

Within a short timeframe, I began to feel a significant linguistic difference than ever before. I just wanted to continue this journey, which led me to continue studying economics, and business administration courses in French. The professors felt that my learning had come along so well, that they encouraged me to take examination for a diploma from the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris.

These are Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris examination courses, where students typically study 8 weeks of intensive French classes partaking, and following specific exam classes for their chosen CCIP course. These courses are for those who want to validate their French with an official diploma. This would be for a university, or a future employer, or for professionals who need to use French as a professional requirement, and certify their aptitude in communication in a working situation.

I was able to obtain a 1st degree diploma from this organization in my last year of college, and decided that it was also time to travel to France, and raise my experience to another level.

How challenging was it for you?

When I found myself in the birth region of French, I found very quickly that English was scarcely if at all spoken. What an adventure to experience this culture firsthand, and really forcing me to practice everything I had learned every single day. Every morning was the start of a new adventure.

I felt that I was running a constant obstacle course, where I would conduct my first conversations, and start to feel as though the language I was speaking was no longer simply memorized sounds being grasped from thin air. The sounds began to take forms that followed one another, that made sense, then formed coherent stories, thoughts and expressions — This is the art of feeling and experiencing the language itself.

Bouche de métro à Paris
Métropolitain, Paris

Did you really play the game of total French immersion at 100%?

So, I immersed myself 100% for the limited time I had, yes. When you do this, you go to a place where you can marinate fully in not just the sounds, songs, and the idiomatic expressions, but the people, the colors, the smells, and everything that makes the language something less tangible than just a set of characters written out in a certain order in a book. The sound of the language falls around you like heavy, warm blankets, telling you over and over that you are learning, making even the most mundane exchanges profoundly interesting. You are in a sense getting to know the soul of the language.

Every day, every second, provides a new opportunity to trip and stumble into a new level of understanding, of pronunciation, of fluid ability to express oneself. From speaking to the hotel clerk on how to use the subway, to ordering a meal at a restaurant, getting a phone card at the tabac, or casually speaking to strangers on the Eiffel Tower lawn. Whether I may have said something embarrassing or good, it did not matter, as I was having fun every minute. It is always encouraging to be told that you have a great accent, and that your French is very good.

Having fun while learning a language is certainly a key element for a better learning process and stronger results! What would you say about the effect that language immersion has had on you?

Being immersed in the culture wakes you up with a kind of conviction in your ability to learn that is rarely experienced. The brain seems almost to have run away with the knowledge you have fed into it all this time, to have taken it and molded it into something that can no longer be fully expressed in speech. A type of euphoria dare I say.

The language basically took root in me and expanded throughout every corner of my subconscious, wrapping itself around concepts that I may have considered unique to my own native tongue. To think, to feel, to make jokes in this new language felt almost a privilege. I did not just want to half understand it, I wanted to fully understand it.

I had not even left the country, and I was already beginning to miss it. How far I could go, if I could just spend a few months here? Being in this environment my learning became more fluid now. It became less an active seeking out of information, and more a gradual taking in of all that’s around you. True, there remains as much as ever to learn about a second language, but now that you can see it through the better-adapted prism of itself, the concepts and grammatical structures and slang become parts of a whole you have already constructed. They just simply need to be colored in. I felt as if I had swum up a river stream, and now I could bathe in the calmer waters of unintentional learning.

To me, every word became a gift. The sounds, the facial expressions no longer became isolated but rather became a part of everyday life. It is truly magical how this happens, when being immersed in the culture, as if you are one of the many locals. I was no longer just learning a language, I was actually living it. So much, that I was even intrigued at just watching television shows, and commercials in my hotel room. It really made me remember the social classes I had with you while in college. This was just another level of that same type of study.

What has it done for you professionally?

I felt that this experience alone opened up so many possibilities, even professionally. I have been a technical specialist at the Stepan Company, a global organization headquartered in Northfield Illinois that produces commodity chemicals. My background in French opened opportunities to work with our counterparts in France, as well as projects that involved translations, such as databases and web pages used worldwide. So much so, that it has also inspired me to learn other languages!

This is one of the wonderful things I have seen with the LIVE FRENCH structure. A wonderful tool that helps you experience the language firsthand, through an immersion that can lead you to grow socially and professionally. The possibilities are endless, and most importantly it is fun!

Thank you, Elvin. Would you say that learning French changed your life and that French is part of who you are now?

Sure, people may doubt my accent, ask where I come from or even assume I was a native speaker, but I truly felt that this immersive experience made the language not so much secondary, but rather something more intimate. You could say you become as what people may call; fluent. To this day, French is and will forever be a part of my very being, and I would highly recommend it to curious seekers. I may always be a tourist to this beautiful language, but to have climbed the mountain of learning, and realizing that the top of the mountain is a vast ocean of native speakers to be immersed in, to integrate with, is an experience that cannot be replaced.

Having just come out of a storm

A storm on the high seas of life, that nearly drowned me 

I now breathe new air on the calm seas

Sailing in the dawn of a new light 

To what seems a new beginning, yet everything unknown

Surprises waiting to happen in the new light of day  

A new current pulls me forward

... and there… a first surprise... and I saw you 

A tsunami of emotions all at once  

A new storm I entered, trying to gain control over the waves  

Waves that echoed from the past somehow 

A remembrance of many past times

What the hell did this all mean ?

No words could I even fabricate 

To describe something foreign, unknown, yet known, undescribable, yet beautiful and untouchable  

I have fallen into the ocean, barely feeling myself, gasping for air, yet I long to stay there 

Absorbing the currents of the past to this moment  

A new channel has been opened 

Awakened in the depths of my heart.  

Elvin Servellon

January 2022


Cultural shocks and keys to adaptation by a Canadian expat

Sarah Mann is a 39-year-old Canadian who worked in radio while living in Canada. Now based in England, she looks back at her experience as an expat in Paris where she spent several years as a “trailing spouse”. Unable to make a direct career transition from Canada to France because of a language barrier she was forced to look even farther outside her comfort zone than she anticipated! She talks about adapting to Paris life from a Canadian perspective.

What were your expectations before coming to Paris?
I think, like a lot of people, I had a very “Hollywood” view of Paris. My previous experience was only as a tourist so in my mind Paris was a lot of leisurely afternoons in cafés, wine, the Eiffel Tower; all the things you see on postcards. There wasn’t any waiting in line at the supermarché while someone writes a “chèque”, or lining up at 7am at la Préfecture.

What do you think are/were the impressions the French have/had of you?
Well, obviously I can’t speak for them necessarily, but I will say that most assume I’m American. I can understand why. I sound very American to everyone but Americans! But when I clarify that I’m actually Canadian, many people are very happy to break into a story about their last visit to Montréal, or their cousin who lives in Ottawa. There are a lot of French folks in Canada apparently!

Could you give me a couple striking differences in culture that you experienced?
First and foremost the biggest adjustment for me was the French definition of personal space versus the Canadian definition. It took a while to realize that people were not running into me or standing too close to me on purpose, it wasn’t meant to be rude or aggressive. They’re just used to living “on top of each other” here in Paris. In Canada we’ve got nothing but space, even in our urban centres, so I had to make an effort not to feel invaded when someone behind me in line was breathing down my neck!

How did you cope with it?
The more I observed the more I understood it wasn’t personal. They weren’t just walking on me; they were walking on each other as well! (laughs)

What other differences did you experience?
Well, aside from having to stop wearing my yoga pants to the grocery store I’d say the social formalities were intimidating. I (naively) didn’t realize France came with so many rules! Having never lived outside Canada prior to this I didn’t know how “casual” our culture is relative to Europe. Things like greeting every shopkeeper, saying hello and goodbye to people on elevators, and thanking everyone for everything all the time – even if they didn’t actually do anything. Oh, and kissing people even if you’ve never met them before!

Learning all these small but important social cues took observing the interactions of others while out and about, but also a lot of mistakes on my part. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes! And now these interactions not only come naturally when I go back to Paris, but I feel like a better person for adopting them. When I told my friends back home that I would greet my boss with a “bise” after vacation they thought I was odd. But like I said, what was at first intimidating is now what makes me feel comfortable.

Because initial social interactions in France are essentially scripted. And I don’t mean in a bad or artificial way, but that they are always the same. You always know what to expect when you’re meeting someone. It makes approaching new people easier because you’re all working from the same script.

Very good! You are Frenchified now!
Well, I am more now than I was before for sure! It still feels as though I stumble through things now and then. I like to say, “my Canadian comes out.” Whenever I run into something I don’t quite understand, the difference now is that I have French connections who can explain it to me.

Such as?
Why do clothes dryers never fully dry your clothes? Why does “no” sometimes actually mean “maybe?” Why does salad come after dinner? Why isn’t anything spicy? Where are all the blueberries? And why can’t I have my coffee and dessert at the same time?

What would you consider to be the biggest misconception about France or the French?
The impoliteness. Canadians have a reputation for being a polite people, and while we certainly aren’t awful, I’d say there is a lot we can learn from the French! We could stand to benefit from the polite greetings when entering or leaving shops, the frequent use of Mademoiselle/Madame/Monsieur, and even taking a moment to do a polite exchange before getting down to business at work. The first line in my emails now is always a short courtesy line, not my request/expectation/need! And to be fair, I have to add that I think everyone could benefit from Canada’s overuse of “sorry” (pronounced sore-y.) (laughs)

What would you recommend to newly arrived expats? Any tips?
You can find anything in Paris – just not when you’re looking for it! (laughs) No, but really like anything else you get back what you put in. It wasn’t until I stepped entirely out of my comfort zone that I really got to know the city and community outside that Hollywood image. I made it a point to leave the familiarity of my neighbourhood in the 16th arrondissement to explore the other side of Paris in the 18th, 20th, and 11th. And what I got in return wasn’t just access to peanut butter, but a fuller understanding of what it means to live in Paris. I’d recommend not sticking to what is “safe” and familiar, don’t just join American or Canadian associations because that’s what feels natural. Think internationally; Paris is an international city.

How much of a barrier was the language for you?
I know as a Canadian I should have a bit of a French advantage, but the truth of the matter is sadly not all Canadians speak French. So I actually found that language was both my biggest obstacle and my greatest asset to figuring out where exactly I fit within Paris.

How come?
I had a difficult time, at first, learning how to live day-to-day in Paris with my weak French. But being an Anglophone in a French speaking country meant I knew the distinct group I fit in: fellow international English speakers. Like I said, not necessarily other Canadians or Americans, but Australians, Russians, South Africans – people from everywhere who are away from home and have French as a second or third language.

So language has acted as more than a communication tool?
It’s how we identify each other, relate to one another, and bond. On Sunday I taught the Quebecois word “toque” to a group of Australians, French, and Italians! (By the way, it’s the knit-cap with a pom-pom on top that you wear in the winter.)

So what is it to actually live in Paris as a Canadian according to you?
It’s the ability to live the “Hollywood Paris,” the knowledge to live the authentic Paris, and the guts to live just as yourself in Paris. I’m not Parisian, I’m from English Canada, I’ll never be French (Canadian or otherwise) and that’s okay! Paris is big enough, diverse enough, and the Hollywood image is just malleable enough that you can fit in exactly how you are – there’s room for all of us. Even us English Canadians who speak terrible French!

If you had to summarize your experience in three words what would they be?
Difficult But Unparalleled…

     ☼          ☼          ☼     

Sarah’s experience is what we call an “intercultural process”. It is her ability to balance expectations by appreciating new things and distancing herself from her own value system — in turn accelerating her adaptation to French life.

Her adventure, like any other intercultural process, is based on embracing the differences between the world you are from and the world you are now living in. No matter how different your new environment happens to be from what you may have expected, successfully adapting is just a matter of maintaining objectivity, openness, and appreciation for all the new things you will experience daily.

Forget your preconceptions. Forget your rules. Let go of your restraints. Be open. Do not be afraid of losing yourself in the experience. Avoid getting caught up in comparing your old world to your new world; the richness and authenticity of your intercultural experience lies in the difference, in that special space between the two.

Paris, a city of revelation, will make you a citizen of the world!






Live French with Hélène Phelipon

Differences between a language bath and a language immersion course by Live French

I have just joined the network of Be-Rise, an interdisciplinary association for research and care for bilingual children, as an honorary member.


I am featuring my interview with Franck Scola, Chairman of the Scientific Committee, on the differences between an immersion language course and a real language bath “bain linguistique”.

Born in Angoulême, France, Hélène Phelipon is the founder of Live French and a field expert in sociolinguistics. She holds a Master’s degree in linguistics, culture, and training engineering. She has been a trainer and coach of French as a foreign language (FLE), English and professional French in Paris for almost 20 years for international companies, engineering schools and American university programmes.

She began her career as a French teacher and educational coordinator at the University of Illinois in the United States and attaches particular importance to culture and intercultural subtleties in teaching a foreign language. She has been a freelancer for 11 years and has created her own language programmes, Live French.

She agreed to answer Be-Rise’s questions about her approach to language teaching, and more specifically about her project through Live French.


Be-Rise: ‘Bathing’ and immersion are two situations of exposure to the target language, what distinguishes them?

Hélène Phelipon: Immersion courses carried out in the country where the target language is spoken are to be distinguished from the real language bath. In the first case, immersion is artificial: a recognisable framework, start and end times, instructors on mission to teach the language in educational sequences. The language bath, on the other hand, is a more spontaneous situation of exposure to the target language, requiring verbal solicitations in an authentic situation in that same language, which is then experienced as natural.


Could you explain your approach to language teaching?

For many learners, starting or returning to learning a language is never really associated with being fun. However, it is precisely on this last word that it is important to focus and where the language bath will make all the difference and make language learners communicate more effectively.

Blockages or lack of motivation in learning a language are very often linked to a bad memory or even a learning failure that occurred beforehand when we were students in a traditional educational situation, in a closed setting and a restricted environment: the classroom. The emotional aspect with the teacher at the time is also an element to be taken into consideration.

In the case of major blockages, the first step is most often psychological; the first role of the trainer/coach is then to de-dramatise and “break” this traditional and hierarchical approach of the teacher/student and to establish a climate of trust between equals. It is also the role of the coach to enhance the potential of one’s learners by identifying their profile. The second step is to transform learning into pleasure for better results and this is where the language bath when learning a language is essential.

Personalized French immersion courses
Learn French in France

So what is the difference in the outcome in terms of language skills acquisition?

In immersion courses, the language and its functioning are studied. Language is an object of knowledge. This can ideally be done in one of the countries in which the target language is spoken; we get the learners to communicate with each other or with us, but the learning context itself is relatively fixed. The teaching activity remains framed. We work more on our linguistic skills and we remain more or less in our comfort zone without any real feeling of achieving our objectives because we cannot evaluate ourselves in a real situation.

However, if the knowledge is not activated and put into practice in authentic situations; in other words, if the skills acquired – what I know – are not transformed into performance – what I can do in a real situation with what I know, and the concrete result that follows (a winning business negotiation, a completed project, a successful collaboration, etc.); the learning process will remain passive and there is little chance that without training in this transition or transfer of these skills to real situations, the learner will quickly become more effective.

The language bath will therefore place more emphasis on action and performance – what companies are looking for today to benefit their business; and the only way to improve performance quickly is to practice and activate all this knowledge actively and in real life, i.e. to transpose it into authentic situations through fun activities, which give rise to both the notion of pleasure and a satisfying challenge because they focus on the success of the result (cooking lessons – I succeeded in making my dish; wine tasting workshop – I now know how to recognise a Bordeaux from a Burgundy etc.). It is therefore important to learn in a relaxed atmosphere through social activities; this necessarily leads to faster but also more solid results. Moreover, as things are learned in context, the memorization process is much better.

The mechanics and abstract nature of a new language is often difficult because we “think” too much and don’t “feel” things enough. While mechanics are important for the basics, it is good to detach from them and make the language LIVE through another channel – a channel that involves bathing in the culture, in a very social and interactive way. This is undoubtedly the most effective way to learn a language. It helps you to “open up” your potential through experience and even your heart rather than through mechanical/abstract and repetitiveness. The channel of emotion, of pleasure, will therefore make all the difference in the language bath.


How to get the most out of the language bath in language learning?

The cultural project in language learning in the context of a language bath is a very effective and relatively easy strategy to put in place. To be carried out with the help of local professionals, for example, it involves investigating a cultural subject of one’s choice and going to conduct interviews on the chosen theme. The culture becomes the support and the vector of the language work. Once the interviews with experts have been completed to gather the required information, and documentary research has been carried out if necessary, the aim is to make a final PowerPoint presentation to a small audience. This type of project is a challenge that forces them to leave their comfort zone throughout the process; they have to adapt to different types of linguistic situations (formal, informal, professional, etc.) with the corresponding language register and to present themselves like an actor in front of an audience. Stressful? Yes, a little. But very beneficial for the future – always in a pleasant and positive atmosphere to activate their potential, their desire and motivate them to the maximum. Once the presentation is over, the language learner has a great sense of accomplishment thanks to the progress they have made only after a few days. The notion of a rewarding result directly linked to the notion of pleasure is essential for serene and lasting learning.

The language bath thus transforms the language (object of knowledge) into a real mean/medium for communicating and socialising in a much more natural and spontaneous way; but also for acquiring even more knowledge. The whole environment, whether social, cultural or linguistic, becomes a source of learning and arouses curiosity. A beneficial vicious circle! The learner is much more involved in his or her learning; he or she becomes the master and the main actor of the whole process. The bath transforms learning into a linguistic, cultural, social and human experience.

Moreover, what could be more beneficial than a bath to transmit cultural codes at the same time as the language? It is an opportunity to decode the implicit aspects of the codes in a real context and to shed light on its understanding and the acquisition of these new codes. Here we touch on the field of sociolinguistics, which is always closely linked to the issue of language teaching.


In conclusion, the objective of the language bath is significantly more beneficial to the acquisition of a language than the immersion course because it works more on performance and experience in a real context and consequently on self-confidence for the future. It should be noted that it is possible to carry out a training programme combining immersion courses and language bath in order to combine competence and performance.

Experiencing the culture in real-life situations in language training courses considerably increases your learning capacity and your performance! It is no longer just a matter of learning a language or speaking it, but of LIVING it. Hence the name of my organisation Live French or “Vivre le français” !

Live well, Live French!

Roberto Basilio, Live French interview

How language and culture merge with Roberto Basilio - Latin America CFO for L’Oréal

Roberto Basilio

Roberto Basilio is a 40 year old Portuguese national who is now the Latin America CFO for the Dermocosmetics Division of L’Oréal. He worked in France from 2010 to 2013 for the same company. 11 years after his immersion course in the Cognac region, he discusses the benefits of a language and cultural immersion programme and the importance of culture within the language learning process.

Roberto Basilio
Latin America CFO for the Dermocosmetics Division of L’Oréal

Roberto, you are Portuguese and speaks several languages. What is learning a language to you?

I have always loved languages. What I love in particular is what is beyond the language itself. And to me, this is what learning a language is all about. I am not really keen on learning grammar & rules etc. I’m much more interested in listening and the mimicry. I always try to reproduce, as best I can, the pronunciation and facial expressions of the person I’m talking to in order to sound like a real local. My learning process actually involves 2 steps. The first step is the analysis of what I am listening to and what I can see and the second step involves practicing to reproduce it. But the most difficult yet fascinating part is to learn the implicit cultural elements of a language!

As an expatriate working for L’Oréal, you were entitled to have a French language training here in France. You were proposed a French language and culture immersion course. Can you explain us the concept of this programme?

Actually it was a full week immersion course in the Cognac region in the south west of France. The morning was dedicated to the learning of the language with my coach (you! ????) and the afternoon to cultural visits in the region. Some dinners with local people were also part of the package. I got the chance to discuss a wide range of topics (politics, economy, travels) all in French! So it was not only a language course but a language and culture immersion course where I also had to run a cultural project on Cognac and do a PowerPoint presentation at the end of the week in front of a small audience!

After how many days did you start feeling a difference on a language and cultural level?

When you are literally surrounded by French people English is not really an option. It obliged me to practice and my coach was really helpful ????. This context is crucial for a real assimilation of the language. I think that from the 3rd day onward you start giving “automatic” answers in French even without noticing! You learn how to deal with locals and you reduce response time when you go to a restaurant, when greeting people in the morning, etc. You really start to feel the difference… And that feels great!

What does the word “culture” refer to according to you?

Everything is culture: codes, history, food, habits, background… Even facial expressions are, in a wider sense, part of the culture… and very important when you learn a language! I love the French “Pff” when someone is a bit angry or skeptical for example or “Voilà” (here you are or here is/are) or “Euh…” (hem). Those little expressions are really part of the communication process and codify an interaction. But having your green salad with your cheese. This is also French culture. Like being theatrical or emotional in a meeting or being formal in emails. Procedures are also very French. Humor is culture as well. And French humor is full of social references and subtleties.
Everything is culture! Really!

Alambic Cognac Charente

Can you try to explain the importance of culture within the language learning process?

To help me understand culture and decode certain behaviours I often use the iceberg theory of culture. When you look at an iceberg floating on the water only approximately 10% of it can be seen – most of it is below the surface. If you apply this idea to people you realize that this model is quite useful in helping us understand behaviours of other cultures. In the “visible” part we have ways of life, laws and customs, institutions, methods, techniques, rituals and of course language. All the rest (ideologies, beliefs, desires, assumptions, expectations, values etc.) is actually “under the water” but it’s so important to ‘dive in’ in order to get the whole picture! Everything beyond the language can be considered as culture and should not be differentiated from the language itself. It’s like a package. Speaking a language without knowing the underlying codes is like riding a car with no brakes. You can drive straight into the wall without knowing it or before you even realize it! You should work with your coach on the implicit cultural aspects of the language. This is part of the learning process and of any good language training!

Can you let us know about your personal experience during those 5 days? Has this experience changed your perspective as an expatriate?

It has. When you arrive in a different country and you are immersed in a language and culture programme like the one I did you start thinking “ok, now I’m here let’s become a local!” It gave me the opportunity not only to jump a level but also to break the distance between my host country and I. This is when I started to act and react like a local and feel much more comfortable in my new environment. And it has always worked like that for me. I can say that, after four years in France part of my DNA is, and will always be, French!

So what are the direct benefits of this immersion on a personal & professional level?

This immersion gave me all the language and cultural tools for my future adaptation. I felt pretty much prepared for all kinds of professional and social interactions. It was like an accelerated integration process for me. It was really useful. On a professional level I noticed immediately that in a meeting I was far more comfortable in my exchanges because I practiced that all the time during the immersion.

So would you recommend anyone to take a language and culture immersion course? If so, under what conditions?

Definitely! I had a wonderful week! The assimilation of any language takes time and one has to be realistic about the integration process. Experiencing the language in daily situations or through cultural visits helps a lot to gain confidence, to break the barriers and to give you the flexibility required to adapt to your contacts. A real context gives you a million more messages that you need than does a traditional class environment. That’s real French! As I said, culture is part of the learning process. An immersion focusing on both (a culture AND language immersion course) is thus by far the best deal you can find to perform better because at the end you manage not only to communicate much better but more efficiently!

What is your best memory of that week?

My best memory comes from the people I met and how generous they were : Francis and Raymonde, a couple of farmers from whom I gained a 1962 homemade Cognac bottle and learnt all the production process ???? – the visit of their large property lost in the middle of the vineyards where vestiges of the 100 years war could still be seen was amazing ; but also the family that has welcomed me in their home during the stay and with whom I became an expert in the famous Angoulême Comics, and all the other dinners with locals where I learnt a bit of everything about France: politics, culture, History… Those memories are still vivid and I hope I can go back there one day!

Today, 11 years later, in a new expatriation adventure in Latin America, what is your vision on this French immersion course and what do you retain from it?

I do believe it has really triggered my language learning process and actually recommend it to all my colleagues that have recently been expatriated to France! It has been an intense week full of great experiences, I have improved so much and felt much more confident, and you do not feel you are learning a language – it just comes naturally! For me that’s the key factor!
arnt a bit of everything about France: politics, culture, History… Those memories are still vivid and I hope I can go back there one day!

How to make it in France as an expat

Interview with Sharka Guiomar - she tells us about her personal experience related to her expatriation to France, from the obstacles she encountered in the beginning, to her bold life choices that led her to a new and fulfilling career.

Tell us about yourself and what brought you in France?
First, thank you for having me and hello to all Live French readers! My name is Sharka Guiomar, I am 39 years old and I am originally from Prague, Czech Republic. I’ve been living in France now for over 12 years, I am married to Marc (French/English) and we have two beautiful girls Emma (5) and Maé (3). I was always a cosmopolitan soul, in my twenties I lived in the United States then I returned back to Prague for a while and I decided to stay. My work background is in digital marketing and when I worked in an American advertising agency in Prague, I met my husband – who led the international account I worked on! We fell in love, we flew back and forth between Prague and Paris until a work opportunity came along. I decided to apply for a job in the Paris office and two months later, I moved to the city of lights (or love?). ☺

What were your expectations before coming to Paris?
I was so excited to start a new chapter in my life. At that time I only knew few words in French but I wasn’t that worried about that since my job was purely international, with just English needed. However, even though I lived abroad before, I’ve never had such a cultural shock like when I moved to France.

So what differences have you noticed between the way of living here in France and in your country?
First of all, if you don’t speak French, you are kind of screwed ☺ JK. No, don’t give up just yet! To all of you who are new in the country, I would suggest trying learning the language bit by bit but start right away. From the USA or Czech Republic I was used to that locals really do an effort when someone doesn’t speak the language. The conversation around the table actually circles around the person, not the other way around. It wasn’t like that for me in France but I also recognize this is only my own personal experience. I just wish I had started learning French much earlier and much more intensively. I would be less singled out during these typical 2h lunch breaks (haha) or during office get togethers. Fitting in would have been much smoother! What I love about French is that during work days they still think about their wellbeing, wellness and time to stop & reset. For example, in the U.S. it is a lot about nonstop work days, super short lunch breaks and close to no holidays during the year. I find it quite extreme. Working in France taught me that we should slow down, appreciate time off, develop new habits and definitely always find proper time for any kind of meal!

How has learning the language changed your way of life and your vision of things?
It changed it completely by 360°!☺ Like everything in life, when you start something new, it needs a lot of courage, motivation and consistency to stick with it and master it. Trust me though, my road was rocky. After I arrived, I was integrating into a new way of working and into a new account, also I had a not so easy personal situation (my husband already had a child), I was missing my family and friends. To be honest with you, I was blocked for a while. It was too much for me and I was not motivated to learn the language. It was hard. But then I thought, I am not a quitter! I will try my best and that is all I can do. I went through a whole bureaucratic procedure at work and demanded a French language trainer who was also my coach. It helped me a lot to learn more about French grammar and culture and I also found a friend at the same time! Step two was – pushing myself to step out of my comfort zone. I was not looking for Czech community in Paris, I had one or two expat friends but I was challenging myself to attend all the work events I could, I was going to lunches with my French team and also my husband’s son only spoke French so I had no choice but to speak. I completely immersed myself in the language and in this new social environment; a 100% French immersion! It was a challenge at the beginning but it all helped me to learn quicker and to instantly FEEL better when I was out and about, having no problem what so ever to chat with people, sort out my taxes, doctors appointment etc. You suddenly feel like a new person and things don’t seem so challenging like they did before!

What has been the best experience you’ve had here related to your expatriation?
I love the country and diversity that it offers. I think it has so much beauty, so much richness, and so much history. Also travelling around with my husband and discovering different parts of France holds the best memories. I am a huge fan of historic novels so the chateaux de la Loire is probably the most memorable trip, we also got engaged there ☺. And when you speak the language you instantly get to know French people better, it gives another perspective on situations and they become more open. The importance of language learning in my expatriation was vital; everything became more pleasant and friendly. Oh and let’s not forget, in France I discovered how a true champagne tastes like and it is the best!

What language do your kids speak?
That is a great question. I was thinking about this a lot before I had my kids. How will this work? Since my husband is half British and half French, we divided the languages ☺. I speak English and he speaks French. Between us we usually speak English, we never fully switched. My kiddos are now 5 and 3 and they both speak more French I guess, or half and half. However since they started kindergarten, they are exposed to French much more. My 5 year old can hold a conversation in both languages and I am so happy they have this huge advantage for the future! Teaching them my maternal language is then left to my mom because I personally feel that 3 languages would be a lot, especially since my husband does not know one word in Czech!

What is the most challenging aspect of your life when working in France?
I would use past tense here – what was the most challenging aspect? I think the most challenging, for us, working women, wives, mothers, is – to find a balance. Balance between work life /family life /our wellness and expatriation. Is it even possible? I learned many hard lessons when it comes to stress being a trigger of many health problems. I was forced to rethink, revaluate and prioritize my health – because frankly, health should be an investment, not an expense. When you live it, you’ll understand. We should take care of ourselves, constantly educate ourselves and this is how I’ve, step by step, started to change our lifestyle. I switched from the reactive approach to preventative & natural approach to our health. I literally became the “gatekeeper of our home”; I fell in love with essential oils and low tox lifestyle! It was the best thing that brought balance into my life and got our health back on track. Also as it’s said, something good can come from something bad, I discovered my true passion, something I was looking for my entire life. So, I changed my work path to what I truly love, to share my passion for low tox living. I guide others on this important journey through which we focus on preserving our most valuable asset, our health.

How would you describe yourself and what you do now?
I am an extroverted introvert, I can read a good book in two days, white is my favorite color, I love minimalistic homes, travelling and getting to know different cultures, I speak 4 languages, I love dogs, open water gives me peace (now living at Geneva lake) and my kids are my driving force.

After all this “adventure”, I am now a wellness advocate, an essential oil educator, a low tox guide and a mentor. Before becoming an entrepreneur, I was struggling for years to find true passion and purpose within my jobs. Nothing ever felt like the right fit. I was lucky to have found it and because I’ve walked that path, I am here to walk the path with others, make it stress-free and beautiful, and help them find the support they need, whether it is from oils, total wellness, low tox home or because like me, they want to relight a spark of passion for their own business.

If you had to summarize your experience in three words what would they be?
Life changing, humbling and fulfilling my dreams on every level!
And a little reminder for all of you, get out of your comfort zone to get the most out of everything!

A medical expedition into the bilingual brain

A medical expedition into the bilingual brain

A medical expedition into the bilingual brain

Live French is with Franck Scola, a doctor dedicated to expatriate families, specialising in cross-cultural psychiatry.

Why should the medical profession focus on bilingualism?
Each language is a code that works as a tool for language. Language is a physical, mental and social activity, since it involves the body, brain functions and life within a group.
Medicine brings together sciences that consider a human being in his or her physical, mental and social dimensions.
When several languages coexist in an individual, they are part of his or her linguistic, cognitive, emotional and identity functions. Thus, among the many sciences which study bilingualism (sociology, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, educational sciences…), medical disciplines (neurology, developmental psychology, transcultural clinical…) are an integral and irreplaceable component.

How do the developmental stages of the bilingual child differ from those of the monolingual child?
It would be inaccurate to say so. On the one hand because the population of bilingual children is not homogeneous but composed of different types of bilingualism; on the other hand, because the simultaneous bilingual child (two languages of exposure from the beginning of life) develops his or her oral language in a way that is closer to a monolingual than to a consecutive bilingual (one L1 language then another, L2 later before the age of six) or to a late bilingual (L2 after six years).
However, in the simultaneous bilingual, there is a delayed onset of oral language (false language delay in the simultaneous bilingual) followed by code-mixing (language mixing) and then interference as long as both languages are acquired “in bulk”, and until the two language stocks separate in the 5th year.
In consecutive bilingualism, the child is exposed to an unknown language that will become his or her second language. The child is first allophone (without competence in the environmental language), then becomes passive bilingual (able to understand this language but not to speak it), then active bilingual as soon as oral productions appear in both languages. The stages observed will typically be a selective mutism (oral expression rare, or even non-existent, in a foreign language environment) followed by a stage of interlanguage (oral productions which are incomprehensible because they do not correspond to lexical elements of the target language), then a stage of interference and code switching (alternating languages) during which the languages are mixed. Finally, the child will have enough competence in each language to use them usefully in the appropriate context.
In the case of the late bilingual, this is not language development through several languages. It is foreign language learning.

Are there benefits of bilingualism on intellectual performance?
Yes, there are, but not for all bilingual individuals. When this is the case, we speak of additive bilingualism.
These benefits can then be found at various levels:
– Linguistic (in the mastery of languages already acquired and in the acquisition of new ones),
– Language skills (oral and written),
– Auditory and vocal (heightened ability to recognise and imitate phonemes)
– Cognitive (on certain reasoning skills, notably the sense of the relative)
– Memory (memorization skills)
– Cultural
– Professional opportunities, in terms of career enhancement and networking

It is therefore in the active and additive bilingual person that these additional skills are indirectly beneficial to academic skills and offer advantages in terms of future socio-professional success.
However, these gains brought by bilingualism do not benefit everyone, because sometimes, on the contrary, bilingualism has disadvantages and involves some risks.

Among the risks associated with early bilingualism, which are the highest?

Among the risks associated with early bilingualism, which are the highest?
All those linked to conditions that are unfavourable to a fulfilled bilingual childhood, where monolingualism would have been more beneficial. On one hand, in the case of limited bilingualism, certain language behaviours show a regression. This is the case with double semi-linguisms (inability to function cognitively in languages) and subtractive bilingualism (where the acquisition of an L2 is at the expense of the L1). In subtractive bilingualism, the level in each of the languages is lower than that of a monolingual of either language. The consequences of these language deficiencies then have repercussions on oral and written language, and on access to knowledge.
We can also cite cases of disturbances in the identity construction process and in the case of the socialisation of bilingual children and adolescents living in a predominantly monolingual environment, in whom bilingualism is experienced as a burden rather than an opportunity. This is all the more the case when the language spoken is rare or less prestigious in the host country. The identity strategy aimed at integrating into the group and getting out of this painful situation will consist sometimes in erasing the language traits associated with the language of origin (accent, rhythm, etc.), and sometimes in perfecting the majority language. A third possibility is the attrition of the original language, i.e. the abandonment of its use until the ability to speak and even understand it is lost.
Language development delays may also be observed, although not all of them are real and even less pathological in bilingual contexts; also to be noted are states of isolation, selective mutism (no verbal production outside the home) and suffering in the school environment.
All of these signs, which are likely to worry families or educational teams, are the reasons why parents come to me for consultation about their child. In addition to these, there is one last one, less related to the child and more to his environment, when his or her language atypia is misinterpreted by parents, teachers, a doctor or a speech therapist. Indeed, the developmental specificities of bilingual children run the risk of being unduly blamed on pathological disorders.

Does exposure to foreign languages at an early age guarantee perfect and lasting bilingualism?

Does exposure to foreign languages at an early age guarantee perfect and lasting bilingualism?
This belief is as enduring as the inhuman assertion that a child’s brain is a sponge. Rather than through a process of absorption, acquisition of knowledge and skills by a human brain functions more like a processor, selecting and sorting incoming information, then processing and storing or discarding in different ways according to each individual.
The theoretical notions of an “optimum age” and a “critical period” put forward by several teams of neurologists in the 1950s assumed a superiority of linguistic acquisition in the smallest children. However, these demonstrations were called into question in the 1970s.
It is true that before the age of 6 (early bilingualism), languages are acquired without learning, and the language function is then acquired from both languages. In each type of early bilingualism, neither simultaneous bilingualism nor consecutive bilingualism demonstrates better acquisition in either language. Nor do they guarantee lasting mastery.
In the course of a child’s life, factors that could lead to a partial or total loss of mastery of that language are an interruption or deterioration in the quality of immersion in a language and circumstances reducing the usefulness or degrading the prestige of that language.
In internationally adopted children, attrition (total loss) of the native language is frequent both through the cessation of exposure and verbal solicitations, of responses to a need, and often because of a less comforting emotional etiquette compared to that of the host parents.

What actions are likely to favour or hinder language acquisition in the child of a mixed couple?
It is essential that such a child benefits from regular, prolonged and good quality immersion in the language of each parent. The quantity is important but also the quality (syntax, grammar and vocabulary). Each language must represent a need, involve trait affiliation (bonding) and be accepted and valued. However, the proportion of exposure to each of the two languages will inevitably be inequitable, particularly depending on whether the child is from a mixed couple living in the country of one of the spouses or in a third country. Moreover, since the unspoken is of paramount importance in parental transmission, many implicit factors will determine the difficulty or failure of the “natural” transmission of bilingualism to a child.
Eleven success factors and eleven failure factors were identified by Susan Mahlstedt. This researcher based her hypothesis on the observation that in some families where two languages live together, some children develop a near-balanced bilingualism while others have a dominance of one language, and finally a third category struggles to acquire one of them.

Are dys disorders more frequent in bilingual children?
It is rather that doctors, psychologists or speech therapists who are not trained to interpret the typical atypicalities of bilingual children, whether they are language related or language learning related, tend to conclude all too hastily that these atypicalities represent early dys disorders (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia…) in these children. My colleagues frequently ask me to clarify or confirm a doubt about dysphagia, dyslexia, dysorthographia or dyscalculia.
It should be remembered that this is how some specific disturbances of oral or written language associated with disorders of certain brain functions which actually facilitate the acquisition and use of language (memory, attention, concentration, temporo-spatial structuring, logical and abstract thought, ability to generalise…) are often classified. But to say they are specific means they are not the result of an illness, an accident, or even to a life context such as bilinguality.
These disorders can indeed occur in a bilingual child, as they would have occurred identically in the same child if he or she were monolingual.
Moreover, depending on the type of bilingualism, the symptoms of the disorder will not manifest themselves in the same way in one language or the other.
For example, in the case of a dyslexic simultaneous bilingual, slowness and a tendency to tire in the reading effort will theoretically be experienced just as much in both languages. However, in a dyslexic consecutive bilingual, these symptoms will be felt more in the L2 than in the L1, due to the additional work involved in translating. And this will be even more observed in the late bilingual.
Thus, we can consider that in the simultaneous bilingual, the effect of a dys disorder is the same as in a monolingual because it has the same characteristics in all the codes used for language. In this, it differs from the other categories of bilingualism.


Franck Scola M.D., PhD
Doctor for expatriates
Coordinator of the Be-Rise scientific committee

Current market trends and the changing role of the trainer in the context of the rapid expansion of distant learning.

Thanks to live learning the language trainer is back in the picture

An interview with Andrew Wickham, language training consultant, regarding current market trends and the changing role of the trainer in the context of the rapid expansion of distant learning.

Current market trends and the changing role of the trainer in the context of the rapid expansion of distant learning.

At a time when e-learning has become ubiquitous in language teaching, do you think it is really possible to learn a language without a trainer?
Well, the fact is almost all of us speak our mother tongue perfectly, without having had a formal trainer. Think of your own childhood. Yet toddlers don’t actually learn on their own; they have several language “trainers”: parents, family, carers and friends are constantly with them throughout the initial learning process. They encourage them, listen to them, make them talk, read them stories, sing them songs and nursery rhymes and correct their mistakes, day after day.
So, though we do have examples that show you can learn a language more or less on your own, through intensive or immersive practice, mostly in the country where the language is native, the vast majority of learners won’t have the time, the motivation or the opportunity to learn this way. They will need a trainer.
The fact is the essential role of the trainer/coach in successful language learning, whether ‘face-to-face’ or remotely, has been confirmed many times by multiple studies. It is particularly crucial to ensure learner engagement. A study* conducted by the University of Maryland, for example, tends to show that the disengagement rate of users of language applications in which there is no human intervention is almost total after twelve weeks.

What are the characteristics of a good trainer today?
Contrary to the traditional French approach, their mission is not to “teach” the language, because a language cannot be taught, it must be learned.

Exactly, the trainer is first and foremost a learning facilitator.
Yes, he cannot learn in lieu of the learner; he assists, encourages and accompanies the learner to help him to appropriate the language.
The trainer (or coach, or guide, or tutor) today has three hats:
Sparring Partner: giving the learner the opportunity to practise the target language, at his or her level, on a regular basis.

Trainer/Teacher: guiding learners’ progress along the chosen learning path, providing learners with interactive feedback, suggesting more relevant sentence structures and lexical items (rather than systematically correcting “mistakes”) and helping learners to progressively master them.

Coach: accompanying and guiding the learner throughout the course, offering learning advice, relevant and motivating resources, and constant encouragement, in order to maintain motivation and effort.
A qualified and experienced language trainer also plays the role of pedagogical advisor: assessing the needs of future learners, evaluating their level and skills, helping them to better clarify their objectives according to the means at their disposal, defining a learning path designed to achieve them and ensuring regular monitoring, to adjust the course to the needs and to the progress achieved.
A caveat, however: the quality of a trainer isn’t a given. There are good trainers and some that are not. A trainer who is inexperienced, unmotivated or a poor communicator can have a catastrophic impact on learning.


Would you say that the traditional trainer has more or less disappeared?
In the 80s and 90s, the critical role of the trainer seemed obvious: language schools extolled the qualities and qualifications of their language trainers: they were the stars in the most successful language schools and companies sought out providers who employed the best trainers.
However, at the turn of the 2000s, with the rationalisation and industrialisation of corporate training schemes, the trainer progressively disappeared behind the platform, the administration and the logistics, becoming almost invisible.
The “miraculous” features and technical qualities of digital platforms, each more “innovative” than the previous one, were massively publicised, while the inefficiency, the cost and the “outdated” approach of the traditional trainer were constantly emphasised.
Was this unfair? I can’t deny that in many cases, the loss of credibility was self-inflicted.

How do you explain this loss of credibility of the traditional trainer?
Some language schools, and not the smallest, got into the habit of hiring young people without qualifications and propelling them unprepared in front of the class, with a manual in hand. It was cheap and relatively simple to manage. Learners and buyers, lacking any frame of reference, were fine with it, as long as they were convinced that these ‘teachers’ were native speakers.
The result of both the industrialisation of training and the “low cost” response of part of the market was a loss of credibility for the language trainer, an increasing loss of job security and a rapid drop in pay levels.
Unfortunately, they threw the baby out with the bathwater: the many competent, high-level trainers, able to support and motivate their learners, were also impacted. Faced with the lack of recognition and the low pay, many abandoned the profession.

Do you think self-access training is a failure?
To facilitate the development of a market that claimed it no longer needed trainers, pedagogic theories were developed in the eighties and nineties around the concept of self-access, an approach that purported to develop learner autonomy and increase the effectiveness of learning.
However, it soon became clear that in language learning, interaction with a ‘live’ trainer/tutor is an essential component. In most cases, fully autonomous e-learning courses have proved to be a resounding failure, with disappointing completion rates.
The trainer has slowly come back into the picture in the new digitalised environment, initially as an e-learning tutor and more recently as a facilitator for the face-to-face part of blended learning. Today he is once again fully in the centre with the rapid development of “live blended learning” through platforms such as Skype, Teams, Zoom, Webex, etc.

So, it looks like the trainer was pushed out through the door and is now coming back in through the window (or Windows)? What does this new approach involve?
Well, Web 2.0 tools now offer trainers and learners new possibilities in terms of follow-up, interactivity, flexibility and integration. Freed in part from the laborious and thankless task of correction, thanks to automatically corrected exercises, the trainer can focus more on supporting the learner and his or her needs.
The use of Artificial Intelligence (adaptive learning) makes it possible to develop more personalised courses, which adapt themselves to the learner’s progress, profile and preferences.
More importantly, these technologies facilitate face-to-face or virtual interactions between trainers, learners and educational resources, breaking down barriers of space and time.
It started with the telephone. Telephone training, which has been around since the 80s, took off in the early 2000s thanks to the liberalisation of the European telecom market and the increased profitability resulting from the use of cheap offshore trainers in countries with large standard of living differentials.
Until the recent health crisis, remote learning with a “live” teacher accounted for between a quarter and a third of the market volume in France. It goes without saying that the impact of Covid-19 has massively boosted this solution and since it has shown it can work and has become an indispensable channel for business communication, we can safely predict it will make up at least two thirds of the market volume in the years to come.
Gradually, thanks to technological progress, telephone courses have given way to training by video conference (Skype, Zoom, Teams etc). Today, training by videoconference combines the advantages of face-to-face training (live interaction with the trainer, a wider spectrum of communication than on the telephone, better adaptation to low level learners) with those of remote training (simplified logistics, traceability of exchanges, integration of resources, flexible schedules).
In this context, yes, the face-to-face trainer, who was being pushed out through the door, is jumping back in through the window! (or Windows).

How has the trainer’s role evolved to adapt to this new environment?
By becoming more visible, trainers are gradually regaining their place in the learning process, motivating and building learner loyalty, inventing new, more playful teaching and marketing approaches inspired by the world of Youtube, gaming and social media. Some trainers are now stars of the screen with innovative educational videos and blended learning courses, marshalling millions of followers. The dynamic has changed and trainers are back in business.
But to succeed, trainers will need to be well trained in these new tools, because this approach demands a very different set of methods, approaches and skills. The personal and professional qualities required are very demanding.
And finally, online trainers have the same issue as face to face trainers: to deliver quality training sustainably, they also need to make enough money to be materially comfortable and able to invest in their tools, their skills and their well-being.

Andrew Wickham

Andrew Wickham

Consultant at Andrew Wickham Training and Consulting