Learning French at school in the UK does not equip you for life in France. There is probably enough in the English curriculum to get you through buying a baguette or ordering a coffee, but to venture into the territory of answering phone calls and negotiating with artisans, you need substantially more language.
Eddie Izzard captures it brilliantly in his video on learning French at school:
We moved here in part to perfect our French. Before we arrived, mine was reasonable and my husband's was better although he demurred from speaking it when I was around. But we were both in need of practice and improvement.
There are faux friends to avoid. Words like eventuellement, actuellement and normalement which sound like our familiar English ones but mean something quite different. There are tenses which don't add up to the same thing as ours, leading to all sorts of confusion over when exactly did you place the order? or have you placed the order? or are you trying to place the order now?
Then there is the panoply of expressions that make up real French as spoken by the natives. Words such as donc and alors. Phrases like en faite, par contre and the one I hear a lot which I still haven't quite managed to translate, du coup. My method is to bung a selection of these in at random in the hope they lend my French a little more authenticity. The French are too polite to tell me if I have made a gaffe.
At first, my system was to listen to people talking when I was out and about and to pick up one phrase I could take away and practice. I gave this up when a friend and I went to the local health food shop and I came away demonstrating a new expression. "I wouldn't copy his French if I were you," she said. "He speaks very badly and what you have just said is not very nice!"
Here in Brittany, especially in the centre, there are drifts of British people, many of whom don't appear to speak French. It amazes me how they cope. One man I spoke to, a large Cockney with a fabulous accent, told me "It's easy. The neighbours come round for a few bottles of wine. They speak French, I speak English, we understand each other perfectly!"
Hats off for bravery, but I think I will continue to try to learn a bit more of this lovely language.