When it comes to the French, everyone’s got an opinion. Rude, sexy, arrogant, romantic, everyone seems to think they know what French people are like. One stereotype that continually persists, is whether the French like speaking English or not.
Many say they hate having to speak in English and I have mixed feelings as to whether I think this is true.
When I used to live in France, I remember going out with my French friend Pauline and her Finnish friend Netta. Pauline and Netta had been au pair’s together in England and Netta had decided to come and visit her. We were in Dunkerque, a small town in Northern France, and decided to head out to a local cafe for some drinks.
Netta being Finnish spoke perfect English, but didn’t speak any French. Once we sat down and the waitress came up to take our order, Netta turned to the waitress and said…
“Can I have a hot chocolate please?” with a smile and in perfect English.
The waitress visibly stiffened and asked her with a scowl,
“Un chocolat chaud?!”
Netta had no idea what she was saying, so I told the waitress that yes, she did want a hot chocolate.
The waitress pointed a finger accusingly at Netta and shouted –
“VOUS PARLEZ FRANCAIS ICI!’ (You speak French here!’) and stormed off.
Pauline and I were left in shock, while Netta was basking in blissful ignorance.
“Um… What did she say?” she asked with a nervous smile and slight giggle.
Once the waitress returned with our drinks, we explained to her that Netta was from Finland and didn’t speak any French (which suddenly seemed to make it okay…?) and the waitress didn’t seem that annoyed by Netta speaking in English with her after that.
For a Scandinavian like Netta, she couldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with speaking English if they could. For her anyone who didn’t speak English was just weird.
However I don’t think this waitress had a problem with speaking English in general, she had a problem with Netta assuming she could speak English at all.
If we go back a few hundred years, French was a very important language, not just a pretty one. History tells us that before the twentieth century it was French, and not English, that was the language of the educated and upper social classes. France had a large empire and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that English began to take over, pushing French into the background.
Nowadays French is still a widely spoken language, there are more than 40 countries which have French as an official language and it is one of the most studied languages in the world. However it’s more expected that everyone will speak enough English to get by, rather than enough French to get by. In almost every country in Europe you can show up and only speak tourism English and get by if you don’t speak the local language.
This is not the case in France. While I can see that things are changing, almost every French student has to study English for their whole schooling life, American movies and songs are just as popular there as in English-speaking countries and young French people in particular seem to enjoy speaking in English when they get a chance.
Yet there is still the aristocratic, extremely stuffy French institution, the Academie Francaise who’s job it is to preserve the French language and protect it from the infiltration of ‘foreign words’ (and when they say ‘foreign words’ I think they mean ‘English words’), I’ve heard more than one French person express fear of their language ‘dying out’, the majority of foreign films and television shows are dubbed into French and there is a quota for radios that they must broadcast a certain amount of French songs.
In many ways as an Australian I can relate to their fear and paranoia. In Australia we often fear the saturation of American culture, to the point where government’s have put out quotas that 50% of the programming during prime time hours has to be Australian television and if at primary school you would say ‘Z’ like ‘Zee’ and not ‘Zed’ you’d get a sharp warning from your teacher.
There is such an infinite of American movies, television, music and media that we fear we’ll forget our own culture and identity and just end up with a watered-down version of someone else’s.
I feel this is how the French feel about English, and when you combine that with the historical significance of the French language it make sense why they don’t understand people assuming they speak English.
However that doesn’t mean they don’t like speaking English, in fact they love helping out a lost tourist! But they just would like to still believe that as long as people don’t assume they speak English, the French language is still hanging in there.
Is it paranoid? Yes. Is it understandable? Yes.
So what’s a tourist to do in France?
Memorise this sentence:
and you’ll be fine 🙂