Do The French Hate Speaking in English?

keep-calm-because-i-don-t-speak-englishWhen 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:

Parlez-vous anglais?

and you’ll be fine 🙂


20 thoughts on “Do The French Hate Speaking in English?

  1. It is not so much the language that is the problem but the fact that the waitress probably assumed that your friend was English. My husband had the same problem when he was travelling along the Riviera. He was trying to speak French but they pretended they couldn’t understand him but, then he apologised about the fact his French wasn’t very good because he was Australian and, all of a sudden, they could understand him!
    I don’t know why French still hate the English; actually I do understand, we have got a lot of English people why bits houses and even settle in France (especially in the South) but they refuse to adopt local costums, don’t even want to learn French and expect that the local population should be making the effort to speak their language. It’s a bit insulting, really. The waitress must see so many arrogant English tourists that she may have had enough( the English tend to be the worst customers. French are not great either, to be honest). That, or she is from Paris (my husband and I sat at a restaurant in Paris and, as we were talking to each other, he must have assumed we were English. When we ordered sandwiches, he said to us in French that we could have told him that we weren’t going to eat, bloody hell! I, then asked him in perfect French, whether we were supposed to inject ourselves with the sandwiches). That being said, there’s no excusing her behaviour. You just don’t treat people with so much disdain.
    Furthermore, you have to remember that, even though we have American films and tv shows, they are all dubbed. My generation is getting or has got to watching films in the original language (with or without the subtitles). On the other hand, my parents, for instance, can’t really be bothered. And having taught English there for a couple of years, I can say that we are not taught how to teach a foreign language ( if that makes any sense) as there is too much focus on grammar, not enough on communication skills. English is taught as a subject,not as a language (unless things have changed!)

    • Oh yes, films and tv shows in ‘version francaise’ me rend folle ! 🙂 It’s amazing how so many French people get used to the mouth and the dialogue not moving at the same time, it makes me cringe. I agree the younger generation are more interested in watching V.O than V.F, but a lot of my students still told me they only watched their favourite American movies and tv shows in French. The students who choose to watch them in V.O had much more advanced English skills.

    • what about the arrogant FRench tourists??? Once when I was in Wales, I was so ashamed by the behavior of this FRench couple that was so demanding and would not stop harrassing that Welsh waitress in that restaurant in Wales? They were never satisfied and criticized everything.

      Once my American Heritate teacher–an American–who lived in Belgium and France for two years said: “Funny, after all the Germans did in Europe during WWII, they are more popular than the English.” And then he said: “Regarding the French, nobody likes them.”

      I think if there is a nationality from Europe that will get on people’s nerves, it is the French because they bore people with their airs of superiority about everything. I do not think that only one people know how to do everything right and the rest of world knows nothing. No , this is simply French arrogance. I know all about it because I am French

  2. Hi! As a French person I agree with some of the things that have been said :
    1. Most French people will be happy to speak English with you, they just appreciate it when you learn to say “bonjour” and “merci”, and maybe just ask “do you speak English”, even in English. And we do the same when we travel. I don’t know anyone who would get into a store in a foreign country, be it Spain, Grece or Turkey, and start speaking English without asking that first. But most American tourists in France do. Even when they have a huge texan accent.
    2. Most French people, at least those who are not in their 40s yet, can read easily in English. However, speaking is another matter. We have no conversation classes at school. And from grade 6 all the way to the end of my studies, we were more that 30 pupils in the English classes. Try working on your speaking skills… And sometimes, tourists think French people are rude when they’re just being shy.
    I’d like to point out, though, that there is a confusion in the article : the linguistically conservative institution you’re describing is the ACADEMIE française. The ALLIANCE française is the equivalent of the British Council, the Instituto Cervantes in Spain, the Instituto Camoes in Portugal, the istituto italiano di cultura or the Goethe Institute : they just offer French lesson to foreigners, in France and abroad.
    Hugs from Lyon,

    • Thanks for your comment Claire! 🙂 And you’re right – I made an unintentional mistake and got my ‘academies’ and ‘alliances’ mixed up haha I’ve probably got ‘alliance’ in my head since I joined the ‘alliance francaise de Melbourne’ when I got back to Australia 🙂 I’ll edit it today! Merci !

      • I never knew that there was an Alliance Francaise in Melbourne. I have a pen pal who live around Melbourn area and she has French ancestry. Her cousin thinks that there was a French influence in some Australian (what shall I call it?) institutions?? Is that true??

        My email address is

        I am French and I lived in England for 10 years and I have been here in the USA for 26 years. I love being in English Speaking countries and speak English. I am pro English things. I love Australia. My pen pal sent me tons of postcards over a period of 6 or 7 years and this did a lot to educate me about Australia and how beautiful it is and how the people have created a very united country.

        I think that this is neat that you were helpful in France to explain to that French waitress about why that Finnish girl had to speak English.

        My question for the French is as follows: Why make such a fuss anyway about English taking over French when English has so much French influence in it? I could see how they could be upset if Chinese had taken over because it is so different, but why be upset with English when it is so French??

    • Non , ce n’est pas tout à fait correct , même parmi les gens qui sont en dessous de la quarantaine , majoritairement on attend tous la fin du cursus scolaire obligatoire et secondaire pour cesser l’anglais et même pour la lecture ce n’est pas ça , beaucoup ne font pas d’effort car c’est obligatoire et que ça ne les intéresse pas et qu’à part dans certains domaines en France ou pour l’étranger , ça n’en reste pas moins presque inutile en France .
      Je suis française , j’adore les langues étrangères (y compris l’anglais) mais je suis honnête , il y abandon de l’anglais après le secondaire et avant , c’est le strict minimum , le/la meilleur/e d’une classe est loin souvent d’être un pro et de maîtriser beaucoup de points de la langue , cet élève fait juste deux trois trucs à la maison que les autres ne font pas .

  3. Well in my opinion, from a foreigner’s perspective, there are many historical reasons to this.
    As you said – French used to be, along with German, one of most important languages in Europe for centuries. And now when you come to the country of 65 million people, of course it’s a bit impolite or people perceive it as an insult if you don’t try to say something in the language of that country at all!
    I live in Croatia, there are only 4.4 million of us and when someone just says a few things in Croatian we are happy as it shows their respect toward the country. But we also think it’s stupid for someone who wants to spend some time, 2 days,a week or more, that he even doesn’t say “thanks/hello/I’m sorry” in your language.
    And also, I think that a lot of people have opinion “You came to France/Germany/other big country” and why should people care for English? Of course, English is special case when learning foreign language as it is a LOT simpler to learn and use and everybody has a conflict inside like “I’d like to use English so much at the moment than French/German/Italian/Croatian..” as it’s easier, however trying to speak the language of the country you visited shouldn’t be bad experience and so terrifying. 🙂

    Sorry for small digression, but maybe to make the things simpler to understand for the native English speakers.

    I also heard many people from UK are shocked/terrified when you actually show them and explain that English and German are Germanic languages and share a lot of common, in fact today’s English has more than 60% of French/Latin/Greek words than original English. Many of my native ENglish speakers couldn’t believe this as they don’t like the idea of being related to German or simply that these two languages share a lot in common!
    From my point of view, I had great difficulties when I started to learn English and German in elementary school as practically the basic things are the same and I used to mix them a lot.

    I have a friend. = Ich habe einen Freund.
    I drink the milk. = Ich trinke die Milch.
    I eat an apple. = Ich esse einen Äpfel.

    Maybe now you understand what I wanted to say. I love languages but I try to understand from many perspectives how the things work. Also, I’m passionate about history and in Croatia we learn European and world history in detail, many friends told me I explained somethings about their countries that they never knew (which was for me unusual).

    Anyway, I liked the text. 🙂

    • Hvala for your comment! 🙂 I’m actually of Croatian descent myself, what a coincidence! Both of my parents are Croatian, my Mum was born in Croatia and is bi-lingual and still speaks in Croatian with my Buba. My Dad was born in Australia, but his parents are Croatian and he understands everything Croatians say and can speak broken Croatian back to them but is not bi-lingual. As a result they always spoke to each other in English at home, so my brother and I don’t speak the language at all. I can understand fragments of conversation, and I really impressed a young guy at an icecream stand when he asked me ‘how are you’ in Crotian and I was able to answer back ‘dobra hvala’ (sorry for the awful spelling, I have no idea how to write Croatian) when I was in Dubrovnik.

      Luckily when I go to Croatia all of my young cousins speak English really well, I struggle the most talking to my older Aunts and Uncles – but they tend to find a way to communicate with me by feeding me a lot! haha

    • I also forgot to mention that the last time I was in Croatia I really wanted to start learning the language, but it’s such a hard language to find resources for. In Melbourne I can’t find anywhere I can take lessons, and my relatives can speak Croatian but they don’t know how to teach it… I have a Lonely Planet language guidebook which is really good and I can now say a few basic phrases like ‘Ja sam Hrvatica’ but can’t have any real conversations…

      • oh my! I wrote several paragraphs and because of excitement I accidentally closed the tab!
        Yes, I think you have a potential to “revive” Croatian inside you.
        What I wanted to say is the lucky coincidence because I started recently making youtube videos and helping people with Croatian, helping those who learn it and who I have on Skype.
        You can view some of few experimental videos I made in last 7 days here:
        I’d be glad to help you!
        my skype: grgocroatia

        Sorry again, I had really a lot of text. :S

    • German never was an international language , you can find many people with German origins abroad but German language like another example Italian never succeeded to be an international language , or to put the german language where they were , but Spanish like French did . You can think German was , because you are from an area Czech Republique/Poland/Ex-Yougoslavia .

      • For central and eastern Europe German used to be #1 language. Even now in many schools it’s #1 Fremdsprache.
        Of course French and Spanish did because of colonization. And I never said “German is world language”, but it’s still important. The countries that colonized and forced people on other continents to learn their language – their languages are now the ones are used most.

      • I am French and I took German and I liked it a lot. Of course besides my own language French, I also like English. I am actually fascinated by English. I once read that English was a museum of antiquity for the French language. For example, the French lost the word “sport” a long time ago. Because the English take from old French, they brought back the word “sport.” And I am so glad that we have an Entente Cordiale because it should be that way.

        I have learned a lot recently about the Germans and how wonderful they are as a people. I just finished reading a book about WWII and in it, a former German flyer escorted a badly damaged American bomber out of Germany over the heads of Germans who could have shot it, had they not seen one of their fliers escorting it. This German flier and the crew of the American bomber met in real life some 40 years later and hugged and cried just as if they had been happy to see a relative they had not seen for quite some time.

        The capacity of this German to love was incredible. He was from Bavaria and Bavarians are different from other Germans. The difference is like the one that exists between South France and North France. That Germans did not want to shoot down that American bomber and he wondered for all these years if the bomber made it back to England. It did. Forty years later, he told the former American flyers that he loved them.

        So let’s give the Germans credit for the fact that they have feellings and that given a chance, like this German, they will open up and let us see what is inside.

        Bertrand Feuvray

  4. First of all , English words are still foreign words for us , English is not the whole thing of this world , l’Académie Française works on the French language itself and there are foreign words coming from another language than English.
    Then , as i am French , i find more normal if one in the group speaks French then that person to order , everyone tells her/him and then the order with the waiter/waitress , it is nothing against foreign languages but you cannot ask a person to speak all languages even with contact . In France , generally , when we are several we talk together about what everyone wants before the waiter/waitress comes and like this everyone knows for each other and anyone alone can talk to the waiter/waitress , one person speaking to another and like this we do not lose time , so that’s why in a situation where one speaks the country’s language and not everyone ,i find it normal , it helps everyone the person who works , the one who doesn’t speak French .
    So , i hope you understand , i try the best i can according to the country , i am part Italian and do not speak Italian but if i go to Italy , i speak Italian .

  5. France is situated in the nervous center of the earth and England is situated at its calmest point. Because of that, when the French struggles to do something like speaking another language that is hard like German, they give up. German is no longer popular in France. Because English is more familiar than German, English is more popular and more French people have learned to speak it. The French are reluctant to do things that bug them. So after a while when they see a good reason to do something, then they do it.

    Even though French is harder to learn for its difficult grammar and pronunciation, The English do better to speak French with a better accent than the French do in speaking English. You could probably count the number of French people who can speak English with no accent on the fingers of one hand. But many English people will speak French with no accent. The only way you can tell they are foreigners is because their French appears to be from books. Very proper!

  6. With regards to the closing statement: I’m Dutch, living in Amsterdam. People generally assume you speak English be it native or tourist so expats or tourists don’t open conversations with ‘spreekt u Engels? ‘.
    I’m perfectly ok with that, Dutch is not an important language unless you want to live here. And though speaking a few words in our language is appreciated, having every tourist start a conversation like that would quickly become a bit of a drag.
    Of course, this is what you get in a city with a lot of tourism. But I also think many of us pride ourselves in being able to speak two languages.

  7. Pingback: Magnifique Ways To Enjoy A Year In France - Mostly Amélie Mostly Amélie

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