French Stereotypes: the French Don’t Speak English

Beret museum

Typical French people? Courtesy of the Musée du Beret, Nay

Every nation is afflicted by stereotypes that other nations love to perpetuate. Englishmen wear bowler hats, drink tea all day, eat overdone roast beef and sport a stiff upper lip. Frenchmen wear berets, drink wine all day, eat garlic and carry their hearts on their sleeves. There’s sometimes a grain of truth in these caricatures, but only a grain. Having lived here for 20 years, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these myths about France in an occasional series.

Whose country is it?

Whether individual French people speak English or not, I always argue that those of us who have chosen to live here should speak French to them. It’s only polite. After all, they didn’t ask us to come here. Of course farmers and local people in rural France don’t speak English; why should they? In fact, for some of the older ones down here, French is already a second language to Occitan.

I get exasperated with my compatriots who don’t make an effort or who think that speaking slowly and loudly in English will make them more intelligible. My experience is that if you try to speak French, even if you get it a bit wrong, French people generally appreciate it, especially those in country areas.

Lingua Franca?

Leaving aside the ethical issue, English has been creeping in by the back door for some time. It is increasingly the language of business. I did some freelance work for two French multinationals whose official international language was English. I dealt with employees in a mixture of English and French. Their English ranged from the reasonably competent to the fluent.

In addition, English words have become current in everyday French, for example, le week-end, le planning, le camping, le parking, le marketing. Many of them derive from business use, especially from the IT industry, which tends to be English language-dominated. It does also work the other way. In English, we use many French phrases without even thinking about it. C’est la vie.

Protecting the purity of French

However, moves have taken place to stem the incursion of English words into French on the basis that it has become disproportionate. A law, la loi Toubon (1994), asserted the primacy of the French language in the workplace, advertising and public media.

In addition, the Académie française, the crème de la crème of France’s intellectual élite (see? We do it too) is charged with defending the French language and regulating its usage by publishing a dictionary. It has long fought a rear-guard action against the Anglicisation of French.

Despite all this, increasing numbers of people, especially young people, are learning and speaking English. Younger people in shops or restaurants sometimes switch into English when they realise I am not French. Even after 20 years here, my accent gives me away. I continue resolutely in French, while they persist in English. Generally, my French is better than their English, but then I live here. They don’t live in England.

Be careful what you say

A personal anecdote shows that you should never assume French people don’t understand English. We live at the end of a rural lane. Even so, the Jehovah’s Witnesses manage to find us from time to time. You can spot them immediately: they work in pairs, dress smartly and carry briefcases. On one occasion, I was in the front garden and unable to escape or pretend no one was in. One of them started talking in French, plainly a native speaker. I thought I would cleverly head them off at the pass.

Je ne parle le français,” I said, adopting an even more appalling accent than usual.

“Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “I speak English.”

Qualified myth

I would qualify the myth in various ways. First, the French probably don’t speak English as well as some nations, such the Scandinavians or the Dutch, but the latter are smaller countries whose second language has, of necessity, become English. We have to acknowledge as well that French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic language and that adds to our mutual difficulty in learning our respective tongues.

Second, we have noticed that some French people of our acquaintance can actually speak English reasonably well but are afraid of not speaking it correctly. They are reluctant, rather than unable, to speak English. So, perhaps the French won’t rather than don’t speak English sometimes. This must have its roots in the education system, where the language may have been imposed too strictly and mistakes not tolerated. This is purely supposition on my part, since I have no experience of French schools.

Of course, I can’t do more than generalise in a short post, but I’d be interested to hear your take on the subject.

Beaumont-de-Lomagne - ail de Lomagne

Garlic at Beaumont-de-Lomagne. What’s wrong with liking garlic, anyway, provided you don’t get too close to people?

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About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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32 Responses to French Stereotypes: the French Don’t Speak English

  1. Hello from a fellow author, just over the border in the Lot-et-Garonne. Osyth sent me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      Hi Jane, yes, Osyth mentioned you to me, too. We are in NE Tarn-et-Garonne, so probably a bit away from you. Nice to meet other Anglophone writers in France. Will pop over to yours.

      Like

      • Yup, wrong end. Husband lived in the Tarn for a while and then moved to Toulouse. We’ve just moved here from Bordeaux.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Nice part of the world. We looked at houses just over the border in Lot-et-Garonne but also around Lauzerte and Montaigu de Quercy, but found what we were looking for over here. Bon courage!

        Like

      • It’s quiet. Very quiet. As the grave. But it’s what we wanted. I can write to my heart’s content. Husband has to get into Bordeaux for work but there’s a train station here so we’re lucky in that.

        Like

  2. I have been at an apero this evening held at our local social centre where I and other benevoles were being thanked for our support (homework club for the local college students). A french animatrice was presenting her drama work with various youngsters and used the phrase ‘work in progress’, said with a french accent, bien sur. Articles in the local paper is often liberally sprinkled with anglophone words. I totally agree about the lack of confidence in speaking English, especially amongst people of my generation. Their school English was a long time ago they always tell me! I feel some sympathy with expats who struggle with the language. My other half can’t converse despite doing a local course and computer things. When I apologize for him as I translate between car mechanics, plumbers etc. they often reply that with many English couples the french is spoken by one partner and that quite often is the woman! Talkative? Moi? :).

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      The use of Anglicisms (if that’s a word) is certainly increasing in France. Sometimes they are used in a sense that was not intended in the original English, but it doesn’t necessarily matter as long as everyone understands.

      I also sympathise with expats who have tried but cannot master French. Not everyone has a facility for languages and, of course, the later you start the more difficult it is. I know a number of people who fall into that category. Equally, some people just don’t bother – and when one partner speaks better than the other (and I’m afraid it does tend to be the woman, although there are exceptions) there is little incentive to improve. I spoke very poor French when we arrived, but I was determined to improve and took language classes for several years. I would not want to be on my own and be reliant on other people to communicate for me.

      Like

  3. ….language and a little study of that explains the pronunciation down here completely!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I can understand Occitan if I read it (although it was traditionally really a spoken rather than a written language) but I am at sea if I hear it. The more elderly people around here spoke it as their first language and, as you say, the cadences come through when they speak French.

      Like

  4. This is true. We divide our time between Aude and Argeles and the accent down here is quite hard to grasp. I too function better in Northern France.
    I am v interested in the Occitan

    Like

  5. Faye says:

    I totally agree that I should speak French when in France and I do try to all the time when staying at our holiday home near Perpignan. However, despite my French being ok, we regularly have trouble understanding each other in French. The accent down there is quite strong and they struggle to understand my English accent and usually switch to English to make it easier for both of us. I find this hugely frustrating. I don’t have the same problem in northern France where the accent is less strong.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      The local accent is strong around us as well. The further south you go, the stronger it gets. The Toulouse accent is very thick. On one famous occasion, I took part in a national grammar competition and managed to get to the regional final, held in Toulouse. This involved a dictation, during which a local person took over reading it from the one with a Parisian accent because all the Toulousains complained. I, on the other hand, preferred the Parisian accent and was lost once they switched. We still find our neighbour very hard to follow, even after 20 years.

      Like

  6. Osyth says:

    Oh how I shriek hallelujah at your comment about it being only polite to speak
    French when in France. Last week my youngest daughter who has just graduated and is in her first ‘real’ job stayed with me. I suggested she might like shoes for Christmas and we ended up in my favourite boutique (lovely shoes, a fraction of the price of so many shops) …. at the caisse the lovely assistant said something and I wasn’t entirely sure – it was to do with protection of shoes but seemed not to be a sales pitch. I asked her to repeat. She said ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak anything but French’. ‘Why would you?’ I replied ‘. We are in France, we should speak French, no?’ She thanked me for my kindness and it made me quietly boil. Grenoble is a very international city. But it is in France. No French person in their own country should ever feel they have to speak English, German or any other language. Of course many do and it is foolish to ever put your guard down and be rude in English because chances are you will be caught out (though perhaps less likely in Cantal than here 😉)

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      French people shouldn’t have to apologise for not speaking English in their own country. It’s up to us to learn to communicate better with them. In the end, it’s all a matter of being considerate and polite – and not assuming that people don’t understand. Sometimes I have had to smother a giggle because English tourists have assumed we are French and made comments about us. My husband and I were walking in Corsica. We stopped for a snack lunch and pulled out a box of Vache qui Rit cheese, which is easy to transport when you hike. Some English people walked past while we were eating and said, “Look, even the French eat Dairylea!” I didn’t enlighten them.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think you’re spot on about many French who can speak reasonable English but won’t because of a fear of not getting it right. Actually, I really like to hear French speak English, they make it sound so sexy 🙂 I’m with you. If you live in another’s country you should try to learn the language. There is a largish expat community not far from me and I’m horrified that some of them have lived here for twenty years and haven’t learned any French. Genuinely, its not a case of being embarrassed or uncomfortable… they just haven’t bothered to learn.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I have been quite surprised at times to realise that someone I know reasonably well speaks English. But, of course, I understand that they are doing ME the compliment of speaking in French. On other occasions, someone might admit that they speak English but feel embarrassed about making mistakes. And, yes, the number of expats who don’t make the effort…

      Like

  8. Of course we must speak French in France, anything else would be an insult. Mine is still a long way from fluent but I keep trying.
    We also have a strong mix of Occitan and Catalan speakers in our two home areas here.

    Liked by 3 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I agree. Unfortunately, some Brits don’t feel the need to. I know that some try but have difficulty mastering the language. Others don’t make the effort – and it is possible to live here and barely speak a word of French, since there are so many Anglophones, certainly in our area. Native Occitan speakers tend to be elderly people here now, but a lot of people understand Occitan, even if they don’t speak it on a daily basis.

      Like

      • Very true. We too are close to a number of Non French speaking expat enclaves. Frankly I despair. We have to speak French in our village as no one speaks English, and the old folk speak Occitan

        Like

  9. Gaynor Taylor says:

    Hi Vanessa,
    Many of my French friends speak good English, but, like you, I feel that I should speak French since I am living in France. My French is considerably less than perfect, but my close friends, many of whom were or are teachers, are happy to gently correct mistakes and help me. It’s a two way process- I traded support for a teenager struggling with English for help in tackling my problems with telephone and listening skills; with another friend we walk together frequently and talk French in one direction, English in the other!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m happy for French people to correct my mistakes, which of course I still make even after 20 years. Close friends are happy to do so, but people who know you less well feel it’s offensive. Reciprocal French-English conversation is an excellent idea.

      Like

  10. Judith Bryant says:

    Ah yes, “be careful what you say…” In the summer after my year studying in Grenoble (many years ago!), my parents and I stopped back at the apartment belonging to my landlady and her businesswoman-daughter, to arrange to ship my trunk home. We talked, I translated for my parents, my landlady gave us all a little brandy. As we said our goodbyes and my parents thanked the women for taking good care of me, I was still translating. Then Mlle. Michelle, the usually taciturn daughter, said (with a sidelong glance at me),”Yes, we have so enjoyed having your daughter stay with us” — in perfect English! My jaw dropped…and I wondered just what conversations and complaints she had overheard and understood all year long?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Osyth says:

      Grenoble is certainly not a place to assume anyone doesn’t speak English … it was quite bizarre for me after three years in Cantal to suddenly find people speaking beautiful English effortlessly in all situations when I moved here.

      Liked by 2 people

      • nessafrance says:

        Big cities are, of course, more cosmopolitan. It would be a surprise to come upon people speaking English in the part of Cantal you lived in – although, of course, one should never make assumptions. You hear English rather a lot around here these days – spoken by Brits, mostly.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        I had been in Champs sur Tarentaine for about 9 months when in the car park of the nearest Carrefour I head someone shouting ‘English Lady’ …. it took me moments to assimilate that it was English and that clearly they were speaking to me. My flat was above the École Maternelle and they had seen my car (which is bright yellow and right hand drive with French plaques) and put two and two together as I was loading my shopping. It turned out that they are a young family from Leicester who moved to the area about 11 years ago. We have become friends but the insistence was always that we speak French when out and about. I hope the Brits around you are of a similar mindset ….

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        That’s quite a coincidence. I can’t imagine there are many Brits in that area. It’s a dilemma to know what language to speak when out and about. If the SF and I speak English, we feel rather conspicuous. Equally, if we speak French, we are conspicuous for our non-French accents (his Swedish, mine English). We have never really solved this one.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        It was a shock. And then I started being told by all those that realized I was living on my own most of the time that I must meet a lady (who lives about 5 km as the crow flies away from Champs) because she was English and a widow (!) …. they are, of course all family. She and her husband had moved to Cantal 25 years ago and he sadly died about 10 years later. That was what prompted her daughter and son-in-law to move out. Now that I have moved they are back to being the only English in the area. I think we just have to accept that we will always be conspicuous as foreigners in this land at some level even though I know you are both ‘French’ in every other way. And I am always heartened when someone says they like my accent – it somehow makes it so much better that I will never have a truly French accent …. it’s surely injected at birth!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Quite a lot of Brits live in our area now, although there weren’t that many when we moved here. French people often ask if we know a particular English person, but of course we can’t know them all. And we are careful not to get drawn in too much to an expat set. We want our friends to be people we like regardless of their nationality.

        French people sometimes say my accent is “charmant” when I complain about it. I suppose that’s the best I can expect!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        We are entirely aligned when it comes to friends … I prefer to like someone for whom they are rather than nationality and in fact most of my friends in France are French. Charmant is such a lovely word ….. I could certainly never complain at being charmant in any context!

        Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, that uncomfortable moment when you wonder what you might have said! It’s a bit naughty of Mlle. Michelle not to have let on that she spoke English, but then I suppose you were there to learn French…

      Like

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