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How much French do we need to know?

My husband and I are traveling to London in Paris in the spring. My biggest concern with the trip is the fact that neither of us know any French whatsoever. When we were in Montreal most everyone in the city spoke both French and English (granted I realize that we are talking Canada vs. France). Is this the case in Paris? I've heard that the French don't like Americans very much and I don't want to offend anyone.

Posted by
1118 posts

Last Oct on my trip to Italy and Paris I spoke neither Italian or French. I did learn how to say the common phases of hello, good morning, and thank you. I found for the most part everywhere and everyone I encountered knew some English. Also there are Apps for smartphones to help. World Lens, iTranslate.
Enjoy your trip.

Posted by
31513 posts

janet,

You'll be able to manage just fine without French language skills, as most people working with tourists will have some ability to function in English. However as the previous reply mentioned it's helpful to know a few of the polite words and phrases such as "Good Morning / Good Evening / Please / Thankyou / where is the bathroom", etc.

You may find it helpful both for the language question as well as sightseeing information, to pack along copies of the Pocket London and Pocket Paris guidebooks. If you want more information on the language such as words for different foods, also pack along the French Phrasebook offered on this website.

To address your last comment, although I'm Canadian it's never been my observation that "the French don't like Americans very much". Although I'm Canadian, I'm frequently mistaken for being American and I've never received an unpleasant response from the locals. If you're polite and always greet shop keepers when you enter stores, you shouldn't have any problems. The important thing to remember is that you'll have to adapt somewhat to their cultural practices, such as the greeting when entering stores, etc. The guidebooks have information on that.

One final thought - perhaps you should brush-up on your British English also (keeping in mind the old saying about "two peoples separated by a common language").

Bon Voyage!

Posted by
7205 posts

If you're capable of being friendly and polite you should be OK. You practice your hello, please and thank you in French just to have the bare basics.

Posted by
8995 posts

Don't sweat it, anybody who wants your money will speak english. Tourist sites, and merchants that cater to tourists specifically hire people who speak english. You get extra credit for learning a few common phrases in French. But even if you did none of that you'll manage just fine.
I have never come across any anti-American sentiment in Paris.

Posted by
5648 posts

Paris is a big city, and some "attitude" that some people perceive is likely more a big city thing than a French thing.

A couple of things will help interactions go smoother, in addition to knowing the key politeness phrases (Bon Jour, Merci, S'il vous plait) as mentioned above:

Start any conversation with "Parlez vous Anglais?" That tells them right away that your native tongue is English, and before you launch into English, you're establishing whether they are comfortable with that, and that you're not just expecting them to speak English (although it's likely that their English will be better than your French :-) )

Also, upon entering any shop, look at the proprietor or sales assistant and greet them with a cheery , "Bon jour!" This is definitely a French thing, and lets them know that you know that they know that you're there as a customer, and they're there to wait on/assist you, even if you're just there to look around. That will set you above the people who just walk in and expect to be served, or who just poke around and look at merchandise without acknowledging the person working there.

Out in the countryside you might run into people less fluent in English. Rick Steves' France and Paris guidebooks include some key Survival Phrases in French, but there are also more extensive phrasebooks if you want to delve more into French.

Posted by
1850 posts

My husband and I have spent a considerable amount of time in France and never encountered anti-American sentiment. We have also met French people when traveling in other countries and they have been friendly and engaging. If anything, the people we met in France bent over backwards to be kind and helpful. As anywhere, if you are nice people will respond in kind. As said above simple pleasantries are always good.

Posted by
8293 posts

"Anyone who wants your money will speak English." How cynical is that? Amazing as it may seem, there are people in France who would like to have your money, or anyone else's for that matter, but they DO NOT speak English. Oh, the horror! Don't be offended if you meet this situation. Be polite, use sign language, use an app, smile, all will be well, and you just made an impression as a good hearted tourist.

Posted by
6721 posts

It is minimally polite to master a few phrases so you can great people (a very big deal in France where every human interaction including asking for directions, begins with Bon Jour-- to launch into 'I want this' without that would be like an American approached with someone saying 'hey you') and say please and thank you. It is also helpful to know a few useful phrases like asking where the toilet is or the bus stop -- but hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and excuse me or pardon me are the minimum.

This is easy to do for any country you go to. We were in 4 different language zones this fall (well 5 if you count English in England) and were able to do these minimal things in all 4 languages including two entirely new to us, Czech and Russian. It is simply not difficult to do this and it goes a long way to making interactions smooth and pleasant.

Posted by
646 posts

I only visited Paris or France either for the first time a few years ago. I too had heard the French did not like Americans. I found Parisians not only polite, but often positively helpful, not to mention charming. In the tourist zone, everyone employed, speaks English. We stayed in an apartment a little outside the zone. The shop keepers and clerks there often did not speak English, but we had no trouble communicating and they were kind to us.

The only thing I found different about trying to communicate with non-English speakers in France, as opposed to in Italy, or Germany, is that the Italians and the Germans have no goal other than communication. The French will often give you an impromptu French lesson which can be either fun or irritating depending on how tired you are.

Posted by
8995 posts

How cynical is that?

Take a chill pill. It a quote from Rick Steves. It's not cynical it's practical. Also, I was specifically referring to Paris which the OP was specifically asking about. Most folks traveling to Paris will sticking to the tourist trail and the locals who work on that trail will speak english. By hiring folks that speak english, merchants and sites make more money. That's not an earth rattling revelation. If one travels to more remote areas, the situation will indeed be different and that's not earth rattling either.

Posted by
8293 posts

I just took a chill pill (aka a glass of wine) and I still find the statement cynical. Do you have a pill handy?

Posted by
77 posts

Can we move on now?

To the OP, I went to france for the first time with my family very nervous. I found everyone very helpful, even in Paris. They really appreciate it when you try to speak French. It seemed like it meant a lot to them that we made the effort (no matter how badly I butchered it) and would smile and say, "speak English?" and then we finished the conversation in English. They really loved it when my children would try to speak French as well!

I came to france knowing how to say hello, pardon, thank you, I would like, and where is? That really seemed to cover the bases! These phrases are really easy to learn before you go. It is polite to at least try.

You will have a great time!!!

Posted by
9898 posts

My experience has been as Amy found. I start out with a greeting in my awful French, a smile and if a restaurant attempt to stumble thru my order in French and hand signals. Almost invariably they smile back and answer in English.

To me the key is the greeting before you begin to transact business. That is going to be the basis of your interaction even if you have to then default to hand signals and mimes, lol. Always, always do a greeting in French even if you know you are butchering the language. This is sort of hard for me to remember as I do not routinely do this at home.

I find the Rick Steves phrasebooks handy and helpful if I get in to a situation where I am needing more than I can stumble thru.

Posted by
3713 posts

This is a way to get started learning the polite and essential French words, and it should help with pronunciation.

Go to Google Translate. Choose English for the left box. Type in the English on the left box. Choose French for right box. See the translation. Click on the speaker for the pronunciation. Repeat, repeat, repeat with other words, phrases, numbers, etc.

Note the usage information below the translation.

Now, go to the Dictionary of Slang at www.peevish.co.uk/slang/a.htm to explore the delightful world of British slang. And be sure to watch a lot of BBC TV programs before you go to get comfy with the accents.

Have fun learning both languages!

Posted by
11450 posts

First, Norma, thank you, you are on track as usual. So glad you are on this forum.

Secondly , some Americans think the french don't like them, BECAUSE they don't like the french. You know the type, the ones who called french fries " freedom fries" and poured french wine down gutters at one point. Do NOT listen to them.
I have often been mistaken for American, and always treated very nicely under that assumption.

Do greet anyone you have to deal with with " bonjour" and you will be fine. Don't forget " bonjour" !

Posted by
607 posts

The only complicated phrase you really need to know: "Ou puis-je laver mes mains?"

Posted by
15037 posts

In April, I spent 2 (wonderful) weeks in Paris. I tried to speak French. In nearly every situation, before I got an entire sentence out, the other person began speaking English.

I have never encountered anti-American attitudes. Americans smile a lot and expect their smiles to be returned. The French don't smile nearly as much and are more formal with strangers. I think that's why some Americans perceive the French to be unfriendly.

Posted by
5149 posts

We've been to Paris twice, and loved it both times. Ken and Cyn (and others) have given you great advice: when you enter any shop, sing out with your best Julia Child "Bonjour!" Really. It's considered rude not to greet the shopkeeper, waiter, whoever. (FYI, the same is true in Italy and Spain.) I speak a little French, but DH doesn't, and we were just fine. The only people we met who were less than helpful were one or two of the staff at the hotel. Be friendly, but not pushy, and you'll be fine. Bon voyage!

Posted by
9898 posts

Chani said Americans smile a lot and expect their smiles to be returned. The French don't smile nearly as much and are more formal with strangers. I think that's why some Americans perceive the French to be unfriendly.

Yes! Chani, that is a perfect description and I think this is the whole crux of the situation. Formal vs informal, with formal being perceived sometimes as rude and cold. It's not...it's just different and one of the cultural differences to be aware of as you travel. That's why the formal greeting is necessary.

Posted by
3485 posts

Quoting Janet ( above ) " we were in 4 different language zones this fall (well 5 if you count English in England) " . As professor Higgins once infamously said " In America , they haven't spoken it in years "

Posted by
183 posts

My wife and I were there in sept , and we don't speak French . We tried to say hello ,goodbye, thank you and a few phrases in French and once the waiters or people in stores realized we didn't speak French they spoke to English back to us . Everyone was more than friendly to us even as we mixed up our words and fumbled through , had a great time

Posted by
4589 posts

Janet, you will love your time in Paris, and it's always a fun adventure to go someplace where you don't know the language. I've been there three times and looking forward to returning next year.

Posted by
44 posts

My husband and I spent three weeks driving all around France in 2014, although we skipped Paris as we had been there before. Neither of us speaks French, although I can muster a few words and can decipher some written French--but really very little. We found that even in the countryside, people could come up with enough English to help us out. Furthermore, I don't think we have ever travelled anywhere where we were treated better. People were extremely friendly, and went out of their way to help us when we were lost. I also had armed myself with a French/English dictionary and a cheat sheet for traffic signs. While I realize that things might be different in the hustle and bustle of Paris, we did go to a few larger cities, such as Dijon and Lyon, and still had few difficulties--with language or attitude.

Posted by
711 posts

You will do just fine without skills in the French Language. While I speak French (and my daughters to some level), my wife isn't very good much beyond "bonjour, merci, desole, au revoir". However, those words are about all that you will need.
Neither my wife nor myself have ever been treated rudely anywhere in France, and we have been there 8 or 9 times. I've met many more rude folks in New York than I have in Paris, but I'm sure that they are there. If you're perceived as polite and at least trying to make an effort, you'll be welcomed with open arms.
Paris, in general, speaks pretty solid English. My wife has never been trapped without the communication succeeding to her satisfaction.

Have a great trip!

Posted by
258 posts

In 2011, we spent three weeks in a non-touristy area of Paris and found that most people spoke at least a little English and we could communicate well enough with those who didn't. A smile and a few basic words was enough. Au revoir.

Posted by
988 posts

I too was nervous about visiting Paris with no French skills - other than a very sad attempt at common phrases. I found the restaurants we ate it, the waiters spoke English and were very helpful and nice!

The only place I found some people who did not speak english were a couple vendors at the Paris Plage - one booth where she taught me how to ask for water - and the other, the bocce ball court where she tried to tell me which court to go to "six" - with 5 fingers. :) It was funny, I taught her 5! It was fun!

I really loved Paris, despite my initial hesitation. I found everyone very kind and helpful!
Kim

Posted by
13708 posts

English has pretty much become the international travel language. I came to that conclusion when i saw Russians speaking English to wait staff in Bulgaria. Since most businesses are in the business of making money I would suspect that most businesses that come in contact with tourists will do their best to have as many English speakers as possible. So, yes, if they want your money they will do their best to have expanded language skills. The exceptions might be French Canada and Los Indios, Texas; not sure.

If you speak 3 languages you are trilingual
If you speak 2 languages you are bilingual
If you speak 1 language you are American

Oh, and as for the French? Great folks. My experience is they are as kind and generous as any European nation; and that the reputation to the contrary is unfounded.