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Languages French vs English

I have been told different stories about if the French prefer we try to speak some French or just English.
I only know some very basic high school French from many, many years ago. My travel mate thinks they prefer we don't butcher French and just use English. Help!
Thank you.

Posted by
7991 posts

You don't need to speak much French, but you do need to know some basic phrases if you want to be received well. Do not approach a French person and just start speaking English to them, that's rude. Doesn't matter if you butcher it, but make the effort. It will be appreciated. When entering a store, or speaking to anyone (waitperson, post office, tourist info, cashier, at a bakery, etc.) always say "Bonjour Monsieur/Madame" then in French ask if they speak English. If they say no, ask someone else. Always say "S'il vous plait" (please) when appropriate and "Merci, Au Revoir Madame/Monsieur" when leaving a store, even if you didn't buy anything... or, after speaking to someone at the post office, tourist office, bakery, etc. To ask for a bathroom, say "S'il vous plait Madame/Monsieur, toilette?" (this is the simplest phrase if you know no French).
Most French people are wonderful, but they are formal and polite and they value good manners. These few phrases will go a long way in how someone will respond to you. If you run into a grump, just find someone else.
I think Americans who say the French were rude to them, were probably the rude ones. They probably just approached someone and started speaking English. I've seen it happen so many times in France I've lost count. And I cringe every time.

Posted by
2081 posts

@ Noel,

what susan stated is true.

It doent take alot of French to be polite. So, trying is better than not.

Just so you know, when i was overthere in 2012, i was told that the French govmt did a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to the french people asking them to be MORE tolerant of the many many tourist.

I didnt have any problem since i did the things in Susans response. I did have an issue with a clerk in a tack shop. She didnt like me touching a tee shirt. I knew they were sensitive about things like that, but i figured a tee shirt wasnt that expensive and wanted to look at the equestrian design on it.

just so you know, they will try to inform you if they speak english or not.

also, i had one sales person tell me straight off "i speak english" just by looking at me.

happy trails

Posted by
7991 posts

Ray brings up a good point.. when you go into a small store/boutique always ask first if you can touch anything.

Posted by
2353 posts

What Susan said is absolutely true. It is called using your manners and should actually be practiced everywhere whether you are traveling or at home. When in a foreign country it is desirable to learn at least a few polite words - please, thank you, hello & goodbye. Don't forget the most important one - "Where is the toilet"!

Posted by
11613 posts

Good advice. Last summer, I thought I might be arrested for assault and battery on the French language, but I tried. People immediately responded in English.

Posted by
3547 posts

Susan's advice is wise and practical. "La politesse" may seem formal but it is traditional and easy. Most French residents you encounter will be in business. Waiters, especially, will use whatever English they have because they are too busy to help you with your French lessons. But the gesture of politeness will be appreciated.

Posted by
12040 posts

They'll prefer you greet them in French, but converse in English. Simply because, most people you are likely to deal with as a tourist probably speak English better than you do French.

Posted by
6102 posts

If you can speak French, speak French -- it is France, that is what they speak. If you can't, then you can't.

BUT the absolutely rule of life is you MUST great everyone you interact with including waiters, grocery store clerks, people you are asking for information, ticket sellers, EVERYONE with 'Bon jour' before launching into whatever comes nest. Preferably it is 'Bon jour, Madame ' or Bon jour Monsieur' -- but at least 'Bon Jour'. And you must use please and thank you and goodbye when you leave in French. Beyond that people are good sports about piecing together what you want with pantomime and whatever language each of you has.

Posted by
664 posts

You've learned something valuable here, and it isn't that the French are a formal society and see it as rude to insist they use English (although that is true). No, its that your travel mate seems willing to confidently assert one should behave in ways that she/he is completely guessing at. This may make for some interesting outcomes on your travels ;-)

Posted by
4362 posts

Learn 'ne touchez pas' :-(

I highly recommend RS' phrasebooks. Not only are the categories helpful, but the phonetic pronunciation is the best I've seen for a casual American English speaker. You'll sound tres Français ;-)

Posted by
756 posts

If you read Rick's France guide book, he covers the language and customs issues very well along with the small things that will make you a welcome traveler as opposed to just another ugly American. Pick up the few phrases that will show them you have made an effort and they will pick up the conversation in English that is better than your French.

Posted by
1976 posts

I know this happens in Germany and may happen in France as well: French people may switch to English for you because they want to be polite and do you a favor by speaking in your native language. That said, you should always know at least a few phrases of the language of the country you're traveling in, and use them when you approach or greet locals, so that you can be polite as well.

Posted by
6102 posts

John makes a good point. Take advice from your untraveled friend with a grain of salt.

Have a great trip.

Posted by
399 posts

I heartily agree with the main thrust of these comments. I speak very little French (mostly from High School French class) but make sure I use the basic polite phrases. Our reception in France (3 trips so far) has been very positive. People either pantomime along with me or switch to their English, which is better than my French. It's interesting that my wife, who speaks less French than I do, often understands the garbled conversation better than I do because I'm struggling with the words while she's paying attention to the nonverbal cues. There are always rude, uncooperative people (just as there are here) but the vast majority of French people we've interacted with are polite and eager to make the communication work. It helps to brush up on your French using videos or audio discs from your local library (or Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, etc.) Bon voyage.

Posted by
12040 posts

"French people may switch to English for you because they want to be polite and do you a favor by speaking in your native language"

It's not really out of courtesy. It's simply a matter of more efficient communication. English is the current lingua franca in Europe. The person in France speaking to you in English probably speaks your language much better than you do French.

Posted by
38 posts

I had 2 years French in high school + 1 year in college -- and I just returned from my 5-day 60th birthday trip to Paris (first trip). I do like languages and always try to learn some before I visit another country and this has worked well. Before this trip I got a set of Pimsleur CDs from the library plus some others (but liked Pimsleur best) and listened to them as I drove around in the weeks before my trip. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well my language skills served me as I made all the efforts outlined by others in this thread. While some folks who apparently felt more confident in their English skills would switch over, I had entire conversations using my rudimentary French -- and people really seemed to appreciate my efforts. I felt like I was making nice connections with folks, and that's a big part of travel for me. So, even though your French was in high school, I'd encourage you to do a little review. Make up your own list of the 20 phrases or questions you think you'd be most likely to use, practice those and be ready to use them. I think it will add to your enjoyment of meeting people on the trip.

Posted by
41 posts

I speak French pretty well...(served with the French Army and went to their parachute School at Pau), but I am never mistaken for a Frenchman. The key is , as many others have said here, is to be polite. The French stereotype, just as we do, and their stereotype of Americans is, among other things, that we are loud and often overbearing in public. My advice: keep your voice down (don't bellow) when you are talking among yourselves, and use whatever French words you feel comfortable with. Contrary to popular belief, the French you will deal with are not nasty, they are usually just busy workers/shop owners etc., and simply do not have the time to stand around chatting. You will not get the "Hi, I'm Jason and I'll be your server tonight", stuff you would in the U.S. , but a good opener is to ask a waiter, for example, which wine or cheese he would recommend with your meal. This is flattering in that you recognize his expertise and a French waiter will always have an opinion on this. You might, as I have, even get folks at the next table involved in the discussion, which can really be fun.
Best.
Don M.

Posted by
12400 posts

Hi,

I agree with the advice and suggestions given here, it's accurate and on target. Even if your level of French is modest and you are afraid of "butchering" it, try the simple things first, greetings, or a question, etc. Then switch to English, if you need to. Not only is your attempt at speaking French endearing to them, it's also a sign of respect and acknowledgment. The people in the service/tourist industry will know why you changed over to English. ..

Susan's observation is accurate. I've seen those same scenes too. Stick around in France long enough and you'll witness likewise. They do want to make you cringe, and quickly turn away.

Posted by
14399 posts

One other thing. The French tend to save smiles for friends and flirting. They may even think that the perpetually grinning Americans are somewhat idiotic. So do not be offended if your smiles are not reciprocated. It's just the way it is in France, though less so with the younger generation.

Posted by
7991 posts

"Susan's observation is accurate. I've seen those same scenes too. Stick around in France long enough and you'll witness likewise. They do want to make you cringe, and quickly turn away."
The two most recent examples I saw:
Sitting at my favorite cafe on Ile St Louis, there is a young woman who sells Berthilon ice cream from a stand at this cafe... we've become friends and she is incredibly warm, friendly, nice... An American women came right up to her face and yelled very loudly and very slowly in English, enunciating every syllable: WHERE IS THE F-L-O-W-E-R... M-A-R-K-E-T?? I cringed and watched the young woman's response... she just looked at the American woman and had no response (she did not speak English). The American woman repeated herself a couple times then just walked away, probably annoyed she did not get an answer.
Another experience: I was behind 3 well dressed American women, in their early 60's, at a Metro station window. They were talking loudly in American and asking the man how to get somewhere... They never said hello, never said please, they just barked one question after another at him in English...the French man behind the window was very nice and very patient and answered their questions politely in English. He went to get a book and looked up the route, trains, etc for them and sold them the tickets they needed. It took about 20 min. These women, still talking loudly to each other, then just walked away. They never thanked him for his help!! I was so angry and so embarrassed. I went up to the man, spoke French to him, and told him how nice he was and how rude they were and I apologized to him for their horrible behavior. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders... and said, in French, "oh well, I don't let it bother me."
These are just two examples, but I see it often and that's why I believe most, if not all, Americans who say the French are rude were actually the rude ones to begin with.

Posted by
1399 posts

I have only been to Paris twice. The first time, my husband and I were totally unprepared. We knew no French at all - not even the simple words to greet people, thank them, etc. Twice while there I was yelled at because I touched something in stores. When we went back to Paris the second time, we were prepared. We had learned some simple phrases and we could tell how much the French people we encountered appreciated us speaking to them in their language. We had also learned a bit more about their culture so understood about asking permission before we would touch things, etc. So true what has been said here. Our second trip was a wonderful experience for us and we interacted with many very friendly and helpful French people.

Posted by
3897 posts

Yes - a lot of English speakers think it is perfectly fine to just start speaking English without at least making a small effort in French (or Italian or German or Spanish or...). I don't think you'd find a French person go to an English speaking country and just start speaking French assuming everyone would understand. If someone can't take the time to learn some basic phrases in the language of the country they are visiting, then that's just downright rude and ugly. (I mean, how hard is "please, thank you, excuse me, hello, goodbye, do you speak English?" to learn and remember?).

But it is fun when you do what I did in Italy - start mixing some French in there with the basic Italian...lol...being in Canada, I had a few years of French in junior high many many moons ago. I was trying to get past a lady in a pizza place in Cinque Terre, and I said Pardonez moi or excusez moi...lol. When the pizza guy gave me my pizza - he said 'Merci' to me with a little smile. Yeah - I have some weird mangled Italian/French/English hybrid language happening.

Posted by
12400 posts

@ Susan...how true these incidents. In that question on the flower market had she ended the question with "p l e a s e, " I might excuse it, (and that's stretching it), in spite of her condescending rudesness. Being addressed like that even if the waitress had known English, I would not have blamed her one bit for just walking away. My response to these two "incidents" is: you treat people like that esp. in Paris where tons tourists come all year round, year after year, the French won't put up with that, and no wonder they'll clam up on you.