It’s time for September’s myth of the month! Today we’re looking at the language abilities of the French — specifically English. So do French people speak English? It’s a question I’m asked often by people who haven’t visited France… and it’s a major misconception.
Do French people speak English?
Tell me if you’ve ever had a conversation like this:
Person 1: Hey, I’m going on vacation to insert foreign country here.
Person 2: Cool, do you speak language of that country?
Person 1: Not really, but it’s OK because they speak English anyway.
Sound familiar? Well, I’ve heard that exchange a bunch of times in regards to vacationing in France. Tourists head to Paris and just expect the French to speak English (and the French are rude?). Now this isn’t the case with every foreigner who comes to France. Many are culturally aware and many more probably know at least a few words to get by. But there’s this pervasive belief that the French speak English.
Do French people speak English like people in other European nations do?
The short answer is no. Generally not to a conversational level and definitely not to any degree of fluency. If you’re wondering, “Do you speak English in France” because you don’t speak French and hoping the natives will speak English, you might have some trouble especially in smaller towns and if the conversation goes beyond the basics.
I can personally attest to the fact that the majority of people in my small town do not know English. Or at least not well enough to understand regular conversation or to try and speak a few words. My in-laws do not know English either. A few words here and there but they are nowhere near conversational.
You’ll find people a bit more conversational in bigger cities and those under 40, but France isn’t like other European countries where the majority of the population could hold their own in English. Not even close.
Do they speak English in France? No, they speak French!
So really, do you speak English in France?
Well, let me turn the tables. Tell me, do you speak French? It is spoken by 75 million worldwide…
Ask yourself this. What language did you take in high school? Maybe Spanish? Did you goof off or do you remember what you learned? How would you fare in a Spanish-speaking country today? Not that well?
The majority of us don’t remember what we learned in a high school language class and many French people (especially those in the country who have no reason to use English for work) are exactly the same.
They may understand written English and catch words and phrases here and there but the French are not English-speaking masters.
Do people speak English in France? Some do. Especially in touristy areas, enough to do their job well.
There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, don’t expect every French person you meet to speak English. Many French people have some knowledge of English and might even speak to you in English to practice, but don’t walk into a store expecting this.
Also, French people can be a little shy with their English and aren’t always confident enough to try in front of a native so they hold back.
You’ll also notice that tourist areas have a higher concentration of French people who speak English. Makes sense, right?
So what’s the best way to tackle the language barrier when visiting France?
Learn a few key words and phrases, use them often and be humble and respectful. Tourists in Paris should make an effort to speak basic French.
That goes a long way. And you never know — maybe that French person knows more English than you originally thought…
What has your experience been with the French speaking English? Do French people speak English in your experience?
You’re definitely right about the French people MAYBE speaking English to you to practice, and that’s only if they can tell you speak it. I’ve been told I’ve got a really good French accent (or maybe I should say I don’t have a very noticeable American accent when I speak French), but shopkeepers have spoken to me in English despite that. At first, I was offended, but then I realized they’d heard me talking to my friends in the establishment in English, and they jumped at the opportunity to practice their English. It’s much better for a tourist to assume that NO ONE speaks English than it is to assume that EVERYONE does. The best language to speak no matter where you go is the language of respect.
You see this is the main problem right here. You can’t expect tourists to learn your language just because they’re visiting. And it’s most certainly not disrespectful if they don’t try. But what I find ridiculous is the extremely low level of english in france and how well tolerated that is. You can’t compare spanish to english because english is an international language and spanish simply isn’t. Look at countries like holland, germany, sweden, norway etc. They all master english as their second language.. and what about countries like Lebanon? Where almost everyone speaks french, english and arabic fluently. So it just shocks me how france and southern europe, as well as american countries just keep whining about how hard it is to learn foreign languages.. just open up to the world and try it. The rest of the world does just fine.
And no, I’m not a native english speaker, nor am I a native french speaker but I have learnt to speak both fluently. I’m no einstein.
Hi, thanks for sharing your opinion. I always make an effort to learn a few words in the language of the country I’m visiting because I personally would feel like I was being rude if walked up and started speaking in English. But that’s just my two cents. I believe that all school children regardless of nationality should learn more than one language as young as possible in school. Our brains at that age are like sponges, so only good can come from it. 🙂 Happy Holidays!
This is an interesting perspective. As a french learner myself, France’s exceptional reluctance to master English compared to other nations such as Germany or Sweden. comes as glad news for me. What would be the point of learning a new language if its native speakers all speak English?
However, I would appreciate it if someone could help me understand how much a french native sees an English speaking acquaintance/stranger (or speaker of another language they might be trying to learn) as a valuable asset to his/her quest for linguistic knowledge and how little he/she sees such a person as a foreigner who is uncultured in their ways. I hope that made sense. Thank you for the information on this blog!
“english is an international language and spanish simply isn’t”
I’m afraid you’re extremely wrong about Spanish.