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not speaking French in France

My husband and I are going to France for the first time and neither of us speaks French. How big a problem is this going to be?

Posted by
355 posts

We did not find it to be a big problem. We did find fewer English speakers in France than other countries we have visited, but did ok with our few words we always learn.
One big thing in France is the custom of always saying hello and good bye when entering and leaving shops - in French of course.
Use RS phrase book to learn a few basis words and phrases - and learn a little about French etiquette - you will be fine.

Posted by
10203 posts

Where in France? In Paris many people speak at least a little English, but I strongly urge you to learn at least a little French. Please - sil vous plait, thank you - merci, hello - bonjour, etc. In smaller towns you may have more problems. You will be treated much better if you at least try to communicate in French, even just to ask Parle vous Englais (do you speak English). They do appreciate the effort.

If someone was coming to Madison from France, would you not expect them to know at least a little English? Would you be able to communicate with them in French? No...I didn't think so.

Bon voyage!

Posted by
32198 posts

Barbara,

As the others have said, you shouldn't have too many problems with language in France. I find that it's important to learn a few of the common phrases (Bonjour, Au Revoir, etc.) and at least make an effort. Most people in the tourist trade have at least some ability to function in English, even if they're not totally fluent.

You might want to pack along a small Phrasebook/Dictionary, such as the ones listed in the Travel Store here. That will also help you to recognize important words, for example Sortie when looking for an exit from the Metro.

Where are you going in France? You may want to pack along a copy of the applicable Guidebook, as it's important to be aware of "cultural differences" as well, such as the practice of greeting shopkeepers when entering a place of business (as mentioned in a previous reply).

Happy travels!

Posted by
582 posts

I was in Paris for the first time just this past October. Many locals speak English, and the younger people speak English very well since so many kids took it up in school. In my own experience, I find the people in Paris extremely friendly and are happy to speak English to try to help you. Some people say that was not true for them, but for me, locals in Paris were the most friendly of all of Europe so far! I will go back to Paris someday, but I booked a trip to Buenos Aires Argentina this year!!! Someplace different.

Posted by
75 posts

Barbara:

It is easier than you think to learn a few words/phrases. I studied French for 7 years (back in the dark ages of school ...) so I can still get along passably well. My husband took Latin (go figure) in high school. I have taught him about a dozen "polite" phrases and words and he can get along quite well by himself now. He just smiles a lot ...

By the end of the 3rd day last trip, the local shopkeepers in our apartment neighborhood greeted him by name when he entered their establishments because I had taught him how to respond to an inquiry as to what his name is ... he's quite the friendly charmer now! LOL

Just get the RS Paris guidebook (if you don't have it already) and you will find enough French to get you by. Trust me -- the effort will go a LONG way.

Enjoy your trip.

Posted by
446 posts

I went to Paris last December, for the first time in years. I studied French in college and read and speak it reasonably well and mostly used only French while there. However, for lack of practice, I sometimes don't understand certain answers -- if somebody speaks a little fast, or uses some words I don't recognize.

Even though I used mostly French in Paris, I was surprised at how many people now speak English. I believe this has changed a lot in the past few years.

Posted by
22 posts

Wow!! Thank you so much for all of the wonderful information and advice. Of course I will attempt to speak French although not very well with the correct accent. I do have the RS guides for Paris and for France. We will be 4 days in Paris and 2 in Bayeux before we go on to Tuscany for a week. Our son invited us to Tuscany and since we have never been to Paris (we are fairly well traveled) I decided we needed to go to Paris (not my husband's first choice). My husband is abysmal (sp?) with other languages and I am not much better, but we will make an effort.
Thank you, thank you, thank you all!!

Posted by
2026 posts

Michael's comment echoes our experiences everywhere we have traveled: Money talks, and it's bilingual.

Posted by
4535 posts

2 Things:

  1. The French culture is very formal and people expect some basic formalities. Learn to say hello, goodbye, yes, thank you and "do you speak english" in French and use that each time you interact and almost everyone will respond very warmly and in English. This is a good lesson anywhere in Europe, but especially in France.

  2. Money doesn't talk in much of Europe the way Americans think it does. I've seen many Americans act rudely trying to pay at cafes or restaurants by waving cash or calling out to waiters and getting impatient because the bill didn't arrive "in a timely manner." It's higly insulting to waiters or service people to act that way. Understand that a bill will only be brought to you when you ask for it, and then it might be 10 minutes. Europeans never rush people out of their seats and are not interested in turning tables for the next customer.

Posted by
9099 posts

"Anyone who wants your money will speak English" is a direct quote from RS. It doesn't mean that with ones tourists dollars you can boss the locals around and demand quick service, or preferential treatment. It means that the average tourist is visiting lots of touristy sites throughout the day. These touristy sites specifically hire people that speak English (and other languages), so they they can make lots of money. A lot of first time visitors think that absolutely nobody speaks anything but the local language, anywhere they go. In my experience, most anywhere around the world, when you're on the popular tourist trails, you'll never have a major communication barrier.

Posted by
37 posts

Bon Jour, Barbara!

You're getting some great advice here. I think the answer to your question "How big a problem..." is, it depends. Are you set on not speaking French at all? Or are you willing to try a little?

We try a little and have always been well received. My children's French was complimented at every sit down meal (seriously, every single meal) because they learned the words for the items they enjoy. My son ordered a hot dog and fries quite a bit (hey, he's on vacation!) and so he learned how to say Saucisse-frites. If you love cheese, learn the word for cheese, etc.

We learned all the polite words and used them often. One other phrase we learned/used was, "I'd like" or "Je voudrais." It made ordering so much easier. I mean, you can look at the server and say "Chocolate crepe" but it is more civilized to say, "Je voudrais un crepe Nutella, s'il vous plait." Not that much more effort on your part. Ou est (pronouced oo ay) means "where is...?" and that might come in handy.

I'd recommend Rick's phrase book mainly for the food translator. But look through the first few pages - I bet you know more French than you think - use the French you DO know. Bonjour, Monsieur, Madame, bien, Salut, Au revoir, bon voyage. Oui, Non, Pardon, Excusez-moi. I'd pepper your English with your French.

Greeting shopkeepers (hello and goodbye) is very important. I've read that they consider their shops with the same feeling as their homes. You are entering/leaving their home, please do speak to them on these occasions.

Au revoir and Bon Voyage, Madame!

Posted by
2123 posts

If there is time before your trip, you might try to find a class in "traveler's French". A community college near us offers languages classes for travelers (usually one night a week for 8 weeks or so) and we have found them very helpful. My husband and I took the French class one year and Italian the next, just prior to our trips. We just learned the basics and had a chance to practice our pronunciation and hear the language being spoken. We did run into an occasional non-English speaker in southwestern France (we had rented a barge so were in tiny villages) and eventually were always able to make ourselves understood.

Posted by
446 posts

". . . and eventually were always able to make ourselves understood."

Good pronunciation is the most important thing if you are dealing with people who know little or no English. French is particularly difficult for English speakers to pronounce. As my first French teacher told me a long time ago, if you work hard at it, you will be able to achieve a good pronunciation, but the French will always know you are not French!

By contrast, Spanish is easier to pronounce. I speak Spanish quite well -- it was my major in college -- and, while I am not a native speaker, I can sometimes fool Spanish speakers into thinking I'm Mexican.

Not so with French.

Posted by
32198 posts

Tyler,

"French is particularly difficult for English speakers to pronounce."

I agree! I struggled with the French pronunciation when I was there last year. I could never seem to "get it quite right". On one previous occasion when I was trying to buy a rail ticket to Bayeux, I had to write the name of the town as the ticket agent just could NOT understand what I was trying to say.

The RS Guide on our tour (who is French) said that unless you're born in France, one will never get it perfect (that's easy for him to say - he speaks FIVE languages!).

I have an easier time working with Italian, and although I'm not fluent I can usually "get by" (I plan on being fluent at some point in the future).

Posted by
12040 posts

"French is particularly difficult for English speakers to pronounce." The converse seems to be equally true, if not more so.

Posted by
1113 posts

As others have said, learn some key phrases. Remember to greet with "bonjour, monsieur or madame" whenever you walk into a store, restaurant, etc. I was able to get by with a few words and usually they will just answer you back in English, but I think it's polite to try their language. I actually wanted to try my French but it must have been painful for them to hear me mangling it! The only unfriendly people I found were at the patisseries ( 2 different ones that I walked into) but those ham and cheese baguettes are delicious, cheap, and perfect for picnic lunches. I would have bought more pastries but they were downright unfriendly!

Posted by
108 posts

Most French people learn English at school but it is true it is badly taught and they don't get much practice at speaking. This is true all over France, whether Paris or not, it's the same. What the French do not like much is to see people not even trying to speak French when they are in France. If you show that you are trying with the little bonjour, s'il vous plaît. As soon as they see you are trying they will feel flattered and also they will feel more comfortable at trying their English. Don't worry about the accent, the French love English speakers' accent in French!!

Posted by
446 posts

"On a recent trip a few times I find myself needing to ask directions and I knew how to say "ou est Name of Street" and I couldn't get people to understand me at all."

A good way to know if your pronunciation is acceptable is to use one of those language courses that have you record yourself after listening to a native speaker. You then play back the recording and compare it with how the native speaker sounds. This gives you a good idea of whether you will likely be understood, or not.

Posted by
6 posts

I've been in Paris on business for almost two months, and I have found that making an effort to speak French goes a long way. And as per Libby's advice, use Rick's French phrase book- it's got everything you need to survive, and it's wonderfully indexed- plus, it's small and compact. I have it with me whenever I go out and more times than not, when a French person sees me thumbing through it and it's obvious I'm about to speak to them, they will smile and tell me they speak English. Like many have said, making the EFFORT to communicate in their language is a great idea and is usually reciprocated with pleasantries.

Posted by
2297 posts

I also need to emphasize that the EFFORT to learn at least a few phases goes a long way. People will appreciate it. yes, getting the pronounciation right will certainly help but no need to worry about any accents. When I was visiting France people would occasionally try to correct my pronounciation which I thanked them for. And then I made them pronounce a German word like "Streichholzschaechtelchen" (petite boite d'alumettes/little match box) and we all ended up laughing. Nobody who doesn't speak German as a mother tongue can pronounce that :-)))))

Posted by
88 posts

I agree with everyone's comments and I also think it's important to remember that there are rude people in every big city in the world (and small city too for that matter) and it has nothing to do with you, it's not 'the French'... it's just a rude person who is tired, hates their job, and is having a bad day, name a reason. In my two week trip in France I experienced one rude saleswoman. It was in a small town. She was young and I think I interrupted her cell phone call to a friend and she actually had to help me! lol

Posted by
446 posts

"French is particularly difficult for English speakers to pronounce.

"I agree! I struggled with the French pronunciation when I was there last year. I could never seem to "get it quite right". On one previous occasion when I was trying to buy a rail ticket to Bayeux, I had to write the name of the town as the ticket agent just could NOT understand what I was trying to say."

One problem is that the correct pronunciation of certain words is non-intuitive. I remember, once I asked a hotel clerk, at a hotel I was staying at in Paris, if they had any room on a certain date in July (I was planning to return then). The French word for July is juillet. I got it mixed up and said juliet (like Juliet in the Shakespeare play)! The clerk understood, but corrected me.

The French are usually not shy about correcting your French -- in a polite sort of way. Personally, I like this pragmatic attitude, and it doesn't embarrass me. I want to speak French as well as I can.

Posted by
25 posts

The first time I went to Paris, I was in HS and took french class for about 6 months. I was so excited to practise my french during my Paris trip, but everytime I tried to speak in french people would switch into English immediately. So I gave up and used English except for greetings :).

Posted by
22 posts

Thanks again for all of your input. I do not have time for any French course, but I think I will take some CD's from the library and do some practicing in the car where no one can hear me. I have to say that I am pretty excited about seeing the Eiffel Tower and going to the Louvre. I have also planned a trip to Bayeux and a Battlebus tour.

Posted by
446 posts

"The first time I went to Paris, I was in HS and took french class for about 6 months. I was so excited to practise my french during my Paris trip, but everytime I tried to speak in french people would switch into English immediately. So I gave up and used English except for greetings :)"

That can be annoying, because it tends to make you feel you haven't mastered the language well enough. But, what can you do? The French person may believe he/she is doing you a favor switching to English. It's also possible that, even if your French is actually quite acceptable, he/she wants to practice English.

I once had a Spanish teacher -- he was an American -- who told us how he got around this problem. When a Spanish speaker he was talking with tried to switch to English, he started using very colloquial English -- like, hippie talk, barrio talk, or the like -- that only a native English speaker would understand. The poor Spaniard gave up and went back to Spanish!

I wouldn't dream, however, of trying this nasty trick myself. It's really not fair.

Posted by
71 posts

I'm always willing to try a few words in another country's language but I agree French is very hard to pronounce. On a recent trip a few times I find myself needing to ask directions and I knew how to say "ou est Name of Street" and I couldn't get people to understand me at all. I would really need to study French for a while in order to get the pronunciation. I never had that problem in Italy or Spain.

(But most of the time people switched to English the minute I said Bon Jour. At least I tried).

Posted by
25 posts

"That can be annoying, because it tends to make you feel you haven't mastered the language well enough. But, what can you do? The French person may believe he/she is doing you a favor switching to English. "

Now that I think about it, I was pretty sure it was because I tried to use my french in touristic places (hotels and restaurants) where the people speak English. Maybe they just didn't have all day to guess what I wanted from my poor pronounciation.

Now I only try to use my french with the locals (when asking for direction etc) or when I was in a restaurant/market in less touristic places (when they seem like don't speak any English). They appear to appreciate me for even trying and more forgiven with my limited ability in speaking the language.

Posted by
425 posts

Barbara, I just got back from a trip to Europe yesterday, that included some time in France. I don't speak a bit of Frence and I got along just fine. As others have said, learn the basics of hello, please, thank you, etc. The word for laundry mat was the most important that I took with me. I looked for and found many menus with English below the Frence descriptions. And "pointing" works well. Use common sense, go slow, and have a great time!

Rob

Posted by
22 posts

Thank you again for all of your information and suggestions.
Barbara

Posted by
138 posts

It seems that there are (if I may presume to simplify) two types of posts here, both of which are good answers to your query. Some are are saying, no, it won't be a problem as far as getting along. Those who favor learning a few phrases mention that the French really appreciate it. .......I am going this June on a "RS Paris and the Heart of France" tour and am beside myself with excitement..... I have done the same as one of the other posters on this thread, popped a CD in my car (actually 6 CDs)(Pimmsleur). For the last six months, I've been making myself practice with it even if I really wanted to listen to NPR or music. ........I have done this before with Italian and really enjoyed the confidence it gave me last summer. On the other hand, when you can say a few phrases fluently, people start to chatter way in their language, so I'm glad the lesson also includes the phrase, Je'n parlais pas le Francais" (sorry if that was spelled wrong, the Pimmsleur course is spoken only and I don't have the slightest idea how to spell it!)

Posted by
10344 posts

Grace: "I have done this before with Italian and really enjoyed the confidence it gave me last summer."

IMO your effort with French will, if anything, give you even more satisfaction than your effort last year with Italian. I say that because I have the impression that Italians working in the tourist industry, for the most part, don't seem to really expect tourists to speak Italian, although any efforts in Italian, including the politeness phrases, are appreciated. In contrast, sometimes in France the expectation can be different, where (perhaps especially in the provinces) some/many French really do seem to appreciate, and even expect, an effort made by a tourist to speak some French--especially if the tourist has taken the time, as you have, to listen to spoken French and acquire something of an approximation to, let's say, less than an atrocious Anglais accent.

Posted by
3313 posts

I would just add that making the effort with the basic courtesies, including knowing how to say "I apologize, I don't speak much French" makes all the difference in the world. That, and looking embarrassed when you say it.

Posted by
1819 posts

If you are going to visit remote areas (example, Brittany around Carnac) you will not find many people who speak English. Use google translate to write out a few basic sentence stems which you can use.

Posted by
146 posts

Part of the fun for me when I go to a foreign country is to learn as much of their language and customs as possible before and during the trip. It shows basic respect and makes the trip far more enjoyable. And the little effort to communicate with some knowledge can lead to friendship and useful tips.