How Important is it for a Visitor to Speak French in France?

Article written originally for www.global-directions.se

Introduction

When you travel to France, for work or leisure, it can happen that you encounter limitations and problems that you wouldn’t come across at home. Often, these are based on the local language and culture being different from the sounds and experiences where you live.

We actually do often conclude that this is purely a language phenomenon. And it’s definitely the most obvious conclusion, especially in Europe where so many languages are found over such a small area. The languages are also very different from one another and can hardly be understood without being studied first. In other words, limitations due to lack of skills in the local language become obvious as soon as you arrive.
On the other hand, we perhaps don’t think as much about differences in culture.
Some speak about a “European Culture” or a “Western Culture”, and there are of course common points, especially when comparing to Asian, or African lifestyles and values, for example. However, whoever has visited another European country and tried to understand how the locals live and think will soon discover that there are indeed a number of differences — both subtle and dramatic – even within Europe.
And this is important, because cultural differences and attitudes mostly form the core of those practical and social issues we face – not simply the language itself. Attitudes and cultural “lenses” are much more complex, and not as easy to identify. It often takes several weeks or months before we realize that communication – or something – isn’t working for some reason, and it becomes tricky to identify the cause of the problem as cultural. After all, don’t we all tend to assume that things are rolling along fine while no problem comes up directly out on the trip, during the meeting or at dinner?
Finally, perhaps we tend to blame language because culture-related issues often demand bending our brains a bit. They appear to require long-term solutions: specialized training, or time spent in the country – not to mention the time and energy spent developing a good dose of humility and open-mindedness.

Let’s have a look at how important it actually is to speak French in France, and especially why this is more of a cultural question than a linguistic one.


Speaking French to be Understood

It’s no secret that speaking French while in France is useful, just as speaking the language of the country you’re visiting will always make things simpler. However, in France, a significant part of the population doesn’t speak any other language than French, especially people living in the countryside or in small towns. All the more reason to learn the language.
We could also mention older people, who can very seldom speak English. Among middle-aged people we find both those who work or have worked internationally and thus speak fluent English, as well as those who have never had any use for any other language than French.
Of course among younger people, in major cities and on hot tourist spots there will always be someone who can speak English, at least enough to understand and be understood. It’s still a good idea to carry around a small conversation guide with useful phrases though!

France also is the country that welcomes the most tourists in the world and people there are used to receiving visitors from other countries and cultures. So as long as you don’t end up in the middle of nowhere or need to ask for something very specific or complicated, a mix of French, English and body language will do the trick.


Speaking French to be Listened to

We’ve just observed that it is almost always possible to be understood while in France even without speaking fluent French, but does that mean that people will listen to you?

French people think that speaking the language of the country you’re visiting is polite. Most of them will try to learn a couple of words of the language from the country they intend to visit and expect quite naturally that you will do the same.
It is unfortunately also true that many people in France won’t do this, mostly because they see their language as an international one that should be spoken everywhere, even at a basic level. These people will then probably speak French even when they travel and expect of course any visitor to speak French in France.
But in the end, the kind of particular person you happen to meet while in France matters little, since the general attitude – taken for granted – is that a visitor should know a couple of words in French when visiting the country. No one is expecting a foreigner to master the language but a sentence or two and a few simple words are enough to gain your audience’s respect and a more open attitude. For example, the following phrases feel absolutely necessary, if not always sufficient:

  • Bonjour (hello)
  • Au revoir (goodbye)
  • Merci (thank you)
  • Je ne parle pas très bien français (I don’t speak French very well)
  • Parlez-vous anglais ? (Do you speak English?)

This piece of advice is, by the way, even more important for people with English as a native language: in this case a French person will no longer perceive English as the international language but instead as the Visitor’s language. Few things irritate the French as much as a foreigner speaking his/her native language in France and expecting everyone around to understand. This is a purely and decidedly cultural attitude.
A simple tip: start the conversation with “bonjour”! This can be enough to elicit a much friendlier attitude from your counterpart.
For those who don’t have English as a native language the problem isn’t as serious, but for extra “insurance” why not say something like:
Excusez-moi, je suis [pick a nationality] et je ne parle pas très bien français. Parlez-vous anglais ?
Two birds with one stone: you spoke French while indicating that English was not your native language! Or in case you start in English, it can happen that the person in front of you asks whether you speak French. When you confirm while adding that you only have a limited level (with a certain mood of regret, if not humility), they continue in English.


In Conclusion

For these primary reasons, speaking French in France is much more of cultural than language significance. You may of course need the language to be understood and to get or do what you want, but it is first and foremost useful to be really listened to – and heard. Then you can switch to English, and continue to create a friendly and cooperative contact/bond. And in case the person you speak with only knows French, it is not uncommon for him/her to still do their utmost to assist you.

When you’ve hit the right cultural wavelength, speaking the same language is not as make-or-break as you think!

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