Why French is Hard to Learn Reason #451: Everyone Speaks English

Being a native English-speaker is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when you want to work overseas for a while (teaching English anyone?), it’s a blessing when you go to foreign countries and the default language is English if you can’t speak Greek for example. The curse part of it comes when you want to learn a foreign language and every time you open your mouth in that foreign language – the foreigner speaks back to you in English.

This is a constant source of frustration for a lot of English speakers and it doesn’t matter where they go – France, Spain, Germany people will automatically speak back to you in English because they want to practice their English.

English is the most learned language in the world and is seen as a necessary language to learn, so many people jump at the chance to practice with a native English speaker.

However I didn’t pay two grand to live in France and speak English all the time. Even though my French was reasonable when I arrived, there was no hiding my ‘petit accent anglais’ (little English accent).

Even in my little French city of 70,000 people I had to keep fighting to practice French… in France. It used to annoy me to no end, I didn’t understand what the French wanted. They were always complaining about English taking over and that no one speaks French anymore, but at the same time they kept speaking to me in English when I decided to make the effort and speak French!

At first I thought these French people were being rude and condescending – but the French don’t see it that way. To them, they are being polite. In their culture if you can speak another person’s language, it’s considered polite to speak to them in their language if you can.

But I wasn’t going to give up – there were a lot of people in my life in France who never spoke to me in English. The people at the bank, my host mum, the lovely lady at my local boucherie and a lot of French friends.

But there was still the few teachers who wanted to show off their English in front of their students, and would repeat things back to me in English even though I understood it the first time in French. Or the bus driver who responded to me in English when I asked if he stopped at a certain street, even though I was pretty sure my French was grammatical okay.

I learned to deal with it over time, and I find the longer you stay in France the better your French gets and the better your accent gets. Once these two things start to come together, people will begin talking to you in French rather than English.

Until you reach that level, here’s how to get the French to speak back to you in French.

1. Don’t live in Paris

If you are serious about learning French – don’t live in Paris if its your first time living in France. If you’ve never lived in France before, you’ll understandably be nervous about using your French in the ‘real world’ and you might not have a lot of confidence in the beginning.

So don’t live in Paris, where everyone has to learn English and deal with English-speaking tourists all the time. Or any big city for that matter. The smaller the place and the further you go out to the country side, the more people will only speak French.

Besides there are plenty of other great French cities that you can live in besides Paris. Lyon, Strasbourg and Lille are all great cities, with cheaper rent and less tourism-saturation than Paris.

2. It’s okay to say you want to speak French

As I’ve previously pointed out, a lot of French people believe that if they speak back to you in English they’re being polite. If they do this just say “merci, mais je préfère français” and explain that you have come all the way from X because you really would like to learn French.

You can always offer a free English lesson now and then, but if you explain to people why you would rather speak in French they’ll most likely understand.

3. Be confident

If you appear that you don’t have any idea what people are saying or if you look nervous in a French conversation, people will be more likely to switch to English because they think you don’t understand them. Whilst this may be true in some cases, you’re never going to improve if you don’t hear real French being spoken.

So tell yourself that you are going to understand when people speak to you, don’t panic – don’t freeze if you don’t pick up every word. Try to keep up with the flow of the conversation, if you don’t understand one sentence it might not be that important and you can still participate in the conversation.

It’s also important to differentiate between ‘je ne comprends pas’ (I don’t understand) and ‘je n’ai pas bien compris’ (I didn’t understand well). The first ‘je ne comprends pas’ in French means that you didn’t understand anything and the French person will likely switch to English.

But ‘je n’ai pas bien compris’ means that you got some of the sentence, but just missed out on a few key words – which is usually what happens to people who are learning French, and they will most likely continue in French but try to explain it differently – which is what you want! 😉

So don’t give up mes enfants! French may not be the easiest language in the world to learn, but if 180 million people can learn it – so can you!


2 thoughts on “Why French is Hard to Learn Reason #451: Everyone Speaks English

  1. I feel that by and large French people still suck at foreign languages (including English). You’d be way more frustrated if you moved to Northern Europe (Scandinavia/the Netherlands, Iceland…). There even the cashier or bank clerk will speak to you in English no matter how obstinate you may be.

    • Completely agree with you about Scandinavians! So many of them are fluent in English and are particularly proud of their ability to communicate in English, I used to live in Finland and I knew some expats who found it very hard to speak in Finnish with the locals even though they were learning it because they would always respond in English. It was one of the few countries where even though I lived there for a few months, I really didn’t feel much of a language barrier for a country where I didn’t speak the language.

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