The French Foreign Legion. A proven approach to learning French

by learn a language journalist

You may be scratching your head and asking yourself why does Bonjour & Bienvenue, a fun family friendly cultural center write a blog about the French Foreign Legion? And we would not blame you. Let us clarify a couple of things first. For one, it’s French and related to France, although not touching on the most romantic component of the French culture. What’s really interesting about the FFL (French Foreign Legion) however, is that despite amazingly tough physical and mental requirements, one cannot join unless one learns to speak French, fast, very fast. New recruits are given about 4 months to learn – operational – French. Whoever can’t do it, is asked to leave. Let’s take a look at their teaching approach.

“Legion Patria Nostra”

The French Foreign Legion is a mystical military entity which has been in existence for almost 200 years. Part of the French army, what sets it apart from any other military group is that it is entirely composed of foreigners. An obscure past, a need or desire for a new start or simply an accrued sense of adventure are all common denominators to those seeking to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. In exchange for just five years of your life the Legion will grant you a fresh start and a French passport. Whatever you did, whoever you are, no longer matters, should you happen to make it to five years that is. Fighting for the interests of France is almost secondary to fighting to preserve the honor of the Legion. Their official motto after all is “Legion Patria Nostra”, The Legion is our Fatherland, their unofficial “March or die”. The Legion is often considered one of the toughest military units and operates in areas and under conditions where Marines and Navy Seals alike may not. They were in fact charged with the protection of the US forces during Desert Storm).

“Your level of proficiency in French is irrelevant”

The requirements to enlist are simple. Travel to France at your own expense, walk in to one of the FFL offices open 365 days a year and simply state that you want to enlist. If you’re younger than 18 you must provide your parents’ consent. If you’re older than 39, they shut the door on you. You can’t call to get information. You can’t make an appointment. Your military background is irrelevant, and so is your criminal background unless you’re actively being sought by Interpol. Your physical and mental abilities don’t matter right now, they will be tested soon enough. And your level of proficiency in French is irrelevant too. They will teach you, the White Képi way (N.B. the white Képi is the distinctive white hat which only legionaries are allowed to wear). The initial few days of training help filter out 9 out of 10 candidates through logic and physical tests. Simply put, only 1 will make it for every 10 candidates walking through the door. This is on par with the 1 to 12 ratio of legionaries who make it through – i.e. survive – their five year contract with the Legion.

“The approach is direct and no non-sense”

The basic entry tests behind, the real training begins. From the Saharan desert to the jungles of French Guyana and the harsh cold of the Alps, there is no terrain too difficult for the Legionnaires. Yet, for the yearly 1,000 trainees of the Foreign Legion, one of the most difficult challenges lies in the classroom. They have four months to learn operational French if they hope to remain part of their unit. The approach is direct and no non-sense: learn vocabulary and grammar for four hours, repeat for 22 hours. Groups of two or three “students” are created, with a francophile assigned to supervise each group. The most important learning point: you cannot speak another language, and you must remain under immersion at all times, a task made simpler as trainees are forbidden to leave the walls of the garrison for their first four months and are not allowed to own mobile phones.

“French is synonym to mission objective”

“Je fais du vélo” says the commanding officer. “Je fais du vélo” repeat the students in unison. “Tu fais du vélo”, “Il fait du vélo”. A short break marks the difference between present, future and past. The ritual however remains the same: repeat after me. Over, and over and over. Exercises get more complex weeks after weeks. New words, new verbs, new sentences and new situations to learn. After class is over, students keep practicing today’s French lesson together at dinner, before bed and at breakfast. Do not get behind, keep learning. Japanese, Finish, American, South African or Belgium, your nationality does not matter. You are a French Legionnaire, your language is French. For francophones and francophiles, French is fluid and romantic. To them, French is synonym to a mission objective. On average the Legionnaire learns the most used 500 keywords in the French language, and of course all the additional words related to military command and equipment.

“100% of the legionaires speak French”

So there we have it. The key to success in learning French is repetition – i.e. practice – with a specific purpose, and in immersion with francophones leading the way. That’s exactly what we have set up at Bonjour & Bienvenue, albeit we have not yet introduced push ups, carrying a 120 lbs backpack and you don’t need to dress up in khakis or camouflage! But we do actually have our very own “French Boot Camp” course!  You’ll be fluent in French just like the Legionaires, and you get to learn in a nice & comfortable environment,  no sweating it out in the middle of the jungle!   Call us to find out more!


Our beginner level classes are perfect to give you the headstart your need! Why not give it a try and start learning French today!

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