Many travel guides and publications about New Caledonia claim that English is “widely spoken” but I beg to differ. To get by here in New Caledonia, you definitely need to know a bit of French – especially if you intend to go anywhere outside of Nouméa. If you’re just here for a little vacation you’ll be able to manage, but living here is a different story. Here in town, you will probably get a few words in English if you find the right person, but most of the time you need to have some basic idea of what’s being said. Since I’m not working at a “proper” job here at the time, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to learn French.
I’ve got to give props to the Croix Rouge (Red Cross) here in Nouméa and their Learning French Program. I’m definitely NOT a fluent french speaker (yet), but I’ve come quite a way. If you know me personally, I’m not much of a talker to begin with, so speaking in another language is a challenge.
The Red Cross program here is very flexible. They have ongoing “classroom” type lessons (twice a week for me) and several less formal “conversation” groups during the week and weekends. The classroom lessons are with the same volunteer instructor each time so you get to progress and get some good feedback while you’re learning the structure and grammar of the language. The conversation groups are a bit more of a free forum where you go when you can and do activities like describe photos or articles in magazines, fill in chat bubbles on a comic with the class, play some other games, or just talk about what you ate for breakfast. If you need some specialized one-on-one tutoring, that is also no problem – they’ll match you up with a volunteer teacher and you can set up weekly meeting times wherever works for everyone.
The French classes are also great places to meet people and find some fun stuff to do around the island like where to get some good food or where to go on a hike. I’ve met people from Austria, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, and Philippines just to name a few. Having a beer or coffee after class or hanging out with some fellow students or instructors is always a good time – especially when they don’t speak English so your only way to communicate is in French! The Croix Rouge often sets up trips to the (French) movies, museums, TV stations, and other activities as well. You can see some more here on their blog.
It’s a good feeling when you hear an announcement over the supermarket intercom and you can understand what they’re saying or go to a shop and be able to ask for something and understand their response. I’m not about to write a novel in French, and I certainly couldn’t name all the parts to a computer or car, but making steady progress is good. I’m sure I would have picked it up faster if I forced myself to speak French all day every day for a few weeks, but this will do! The best way to learn for sure is to get a French girlfriend or boyfriend but that’s not going to work in my situation… It’s all about putting yourself in situations where you have to speak it to survive and asking “Parlez-vous anglais?” isn’t an option.
The learning french program registration fee is 5000 CFP (a little more than $50 US) for a year of basically unlimited lessons so it’s a really good deal. If you want more information on the Red Cross Learning French program, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call +687-27.28.35, or best of all do the New Caledonian thing and stop by the office. It’s located in Centre-Ville at 32 rue de Sébastopol, across the street from the Best Western.