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5 celebrities on how learning French changed their lives

By Alliance Française Hong Kong Sponsored | 16 February 2021

Header image courtesy of Jean-Pierre Bonnotte and Gamma-Rapho (via Getty Images)

Ah, la belle langue! Thanks to the widespread influence of music and cinema, French has long held its status as the language of romance, literature, and art. It is also a major world language, holding official status in 29 countries, and is the eighteenth most natively spoken language globally. Bloomberg Businessweek has even ranked French as the third most useful language for business.

Although it doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to soak in the beautiful street scenes on Rue Mouffetard or explore the third arrondissement any time soon, that shouldn’t stop you from beginning your journey to mastering the country’s language now! For a bit of extra motivation, Alliance Française has spoken to five famous and influential people about how learning French has changed their lives for the better. How do you want French to improve your life?

Jane Birkin

Yes, the Jane Birkin, after whom Hermès has famously named one of their best-selling bags! This inimitable actress, singer, and 1970s “it girl” has been so closely tied to French cinema that it may be easy to forget that she is actually British-born.

Born in London and educated on the Isle of Wight, Birkin got her big break when she got cast as the lead female role in the 1969 film Slogan, starring opposite Serge Gainsbourg. Amazingly, she didn’t actually know much French at that point, and it was Gainsbourg who “taught her French slang.” Birkin relocated to France permanently after the film and recorded the famous song “Je t’aime… moi non plus” with her co-star, marking the beginning of a well-documented working and romantic relationship with Serge Gainsbourg that lasted 13 years.

Birkin humbly admitted to arriving onto the film scene with “fairly limited talent,” and that it was living in France for so long that has been the key to her success. We rather think it was because of her painfully cool sense of style and her je ne sais quoi quality, but there’s no denying that the French language has served to propel Jane Birkin to astronomical heights of fame!

Julian Draxler

Who knew German professional footballer Julian Draxler spoke fluent French? Not us! Draxler was born in Gladbeck in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, where he learnt French as part of his schooling. From a child as young as four or five, he would watch Schalke 04’s football matches with his father, and has since always wanted to play football professionally.

Draxler achieved this dream when he debuted in the Bundesliga football league for Schalke 04 in 2011, aged 17. He has also played internationally for Germany since, was part of the German national team that won the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and was awarded the Golden Ball trophy during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.

His French language skills must’ve finally come into play when he joined Paris Saint-Germain in early 2017, where he’s had a successful career even following a hamstring injury that left him out of the field for two months. Considering that he is purportedly also dating French dancer and choreographer Sethanie Taing, we can only assume that Draxler is very much enjoying the joie de vivre in France!

Blanca Li

Even if you may not have heard directly of her name, it is likely you will have already seen Blanca Li’s work. Ever watched the music videos for Daft Punk’s Around the World, Kanye West’s Heard ‘Em Say, or seen Beyoncé’s Mrs Carter tour promos? All works by choreographer, dancer, and occasional actress Blanca Li.

Born in Granada, Li took flamenco dance lessons as a child and went on to be a part of the Spanish national rhythmic gymnastics team. At 17, she moved to New York, where she trained as a dancer, was exposed to the birth of hip hop, and even started a flamenco rap band. Then in 1992, the plucky Li moved to Paris without knowing a soul in France, and joined a cabaret in Place Pigalle, soon establishing her own contemporary dance company. She laughingly recalled that it may not have been very good French that she was exposed to, but she learnt it anyway!

Since then, Li has gone on to choreograph for a vast array of major art institutions and projects, including the Paris Opera Ballet, the Berlin Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the Opéra Bastille, arts festivals, and more fashion shows than you can shake a baguette at. 

Not considering any one thing to be the key to success, she muses that what’s important is a sense of determination and continuity—”It’s a question of getting up every morning and doing it!”—which we think is also great advice for mastering a foreign language.

Tang Shu Wing

With a nickname like the Alchemist of Minimalist Theatre, it’s fairly obvious that Tang Shu Wing is an acclaimed game-changer in Hong Kong’s arts scene. This prominent stage director, actor, and playwright has been named the Best Director at the Hong Kong Drama Awards three times, and helmed more than 50 drama productions, but his talents would have remained buried were it not for the French.

Being interested in history, debating, and medicine, Tang initially studied law but also harboured dreams of being a painter or a film director, because he liked the idea of transferring what he sees into something physical. In 1986, he took a trip to France where he “discovered the living spirit of humans” and ultimately changed his life by drawing him towards live performances. Tang then finally decided to go into theatre by studying at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle and then acting at the Ecole de la Belle de Mai in Paris.

France was where his artistic talents flourished, and Tang returned to Hong Kong in 1992 to establish his own theatre company. The self-confessed key point in his career was when he became a drama instructor at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts—five years later, he went on to become the institution’s dean of drama. That Parisian sojourn was definitely a prod in the right direction!

Joanne Chan

Every year, we get to look forward to partaking in Hong Kong’s largest festival dedicated to French culture, art, and cuisine. Founded by Alliance Française Hong Kong, French May Arts Festival is one of the city’s annual cultural stalwarts, and we partly have children’s book author Joanne Chan to thank for it.

Chan grew up in an environment where her dreams and plans were always supported. She initially wanted to pursue law like her father, but going to study in France ended up changing her path. Immersing herself in French culture, she studied art history and fine arts—an industry which she is still in to this day.

Through French, Chan learnt to view her Hong Kong heritage through a detached foreign lens, which has made her appreciate her own culture more. After returning to Hong Kong, she went on to serve as the director for French May Arts Festival, acting “as an intermediary between French and Hong Kong culture.” The Chinese proverb “Knowledge can change your destiny” has certainly been the case for this artistic supporter.

Has seeing how strongly France impacted these influencer’s lives made you want to take on the French language yourself? Alliance Française Hong Kong has just the thing! The colder months tend to get depressive very quickly, and things aren’t being helped with Covid-19 restrictions everywhere, so why not do something productive that is fun and will also boost your marketable skills? Take advantage of Alliance Française’s intensive winter courses as their mid-term registrations are now open!

Expect to find adult online classes starting from $2,850, adult intensive classes from $2,850 (with smaller intensive classes from $3,600), and even pre-school classes from $1,150. With three centres spread across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories, Alliance Française should never be too far from your home or office. Mid-term courses will start from the third week of February and run for five consecutive weeks into March, so if “learning a new skill” was on your new year’s resolution list, consider this the sign that you’ve been waiting for! 

These celebrities have all used French to better their lives and careers, so what about your future story? How far will you go with French? Sign up with Alliance Française Hong Kong now, and see where learning French takes you!

Alliance Française Hong Kong

Fostering French language and culture in Hong Kong since 1953, Alliance Française de Hong Kong is your premier stop for all things French. As a non-profit, Alliance Française offers French language courses to all ages with centres found across Hong Kong. This is part of L’Alliance Française, the world’s largest network of French cultural associations.