Really? French people can speak English?

“French people don’t speak a word of English”

“If you need help in the streets, they’ll shrug their shoulders and walk away”

“The only thing they can say is that they don’t understand”

Well, this is one of the most widespread cliche about the French and even if a lot of tourists would agree on that fact, you would be surprised to discover that French people do speak some English. Though they might not be able to converse and rub their shoulders with the bigwigs of the world, they will probably be able to tell you the way to the nearest museum or tourist office. That being said, you probably wonder why tourists would convey that image of French people if that wasn’t actually true?

The answer is simple but confusing. People say French people can’t speak English because they simply did not manage to make them speak.

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Punio English

Beautiful drawing from Punio, to be seen on Tumblr

Waa… what do I do with that now?

To understand this senseless behavior, you need to delve into the French education system. Even though it tends to change for good, a majority of French are strongly affected by the way they’ve been taught. In French school, there is a hushed – yet very well installed- fear: the one of mistaking. Students would rather button it than say something that might be wrong (fear of the consequences, of teasing, of abasement). When I first studied abroad, I was amazed to see how students could raise their hands and shamelessly talk rubbish to the teacher. My wording might shock you but this is probably the unfortunate bottom line that drives French people not to talk to you.

They haven’t talked much during their English classes at school (English is a compulsory class from 13 to 18 years old) and their speech ability has been altered. When you ask them to jabber a few words in English, the same problem appears again. They want to answer you without any mistakes. They want to make sure, they’ll put an “s” at the end of the verb when they conjugate it with “he or she”. They want to make sure they will use the right past tense. This all become so overwhelming, it is better to walk away.

I know so many people like that. When they speak English, they always have to ask if what they just said was correct. At the end, the conversation is just barely audible. Too bad because no one would care your English isn’t perfect, as long as they know where to find the best croissant in town.

So remember, it is not that French people can’t speak English. They just don’t. 

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My advices to get them talking (won’t always work :)):

  •  it is better to approach someone relatively young. The new generation tend to be less shy;
  •  come up to people saying “Bonjour” and not “Hello”. How would you feel if a stranger would start off a conversation with you with a “Bonjour” assuming you speak French;
  •  ask “parlez-vous un peu anglais?” (“do you speak a bit of English?”) or “je ne parle pas francais, pouvez-vous m’aidez?” (“I cannot speak French. Can you help me?). This will surely boost up their confidence because you are in the same boat :);
  •  speak slowly, clearly, without a thick accent (big deal for French!) and preferably try to speak English with a French accent… you’d be surprised how much that helps;
  •  if possible, use words that are common to both our languages (like “I arrived late” instead of “I came late” or “my vehicle is damaged” instead of “my car broke down” or “my telephone has a problem” instead of “my phone won’t work”). All these can really help because you put yourself in their shoes. Here is a list of French and English words that look alike (“to look like” is “ressembler” (so you can use resemble :));
  •  speak with your hands… this is the best international language!

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Picture from the blog NowMadNow

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