Rants and Whimsy, Travelling and Poking About

Speaking French in Paris

May 11, 2016

Paris-Frankie Paris1

I took French as an optional subject in high school. I stuck with it for those few years, and even continued with French lessons after moving to London. I can’t speak French.

Now, I’m not blaming anyone else for this sad state of affairs. I didn’t really try very hard and when it comes to learning a foreign language, trying very hard is the bare minimum of what you must do to get to yourself to a vaguely conversational level.

I’m not a complete idiot. I know quite a few of the words. If I am presented with a simple written text I can (usually) get the general idea of what’s being said. But when it comes to spoken conversations I realised quite a while ago that French people do not have time and patience for my shit.

Oddly enough all those French lessons have actually been far more useful to me in English exams than French ones. Occasionally a maverick English teacher would charge into the classroom and throw a full on grammar quiz our way – despite the fact that no one had ever bothered to teach us the intricacies of English grammar in any of our previous English lessons. While classmates furrowed their brows and growled “what the fuck is an auxiliary verb?” under their collective breath, the kids from the French class sailed through.  No one previously even thought the words “auxiliary verb” in English classes, in French classes, however, it was all we talked about some days and we used this knowledge to help us with English of all things. Isn’t that nutty?

I suppose the only way to really become fluent in another language is to try very hard and to immerse yourself in that language. You must be stranded with no recourse back to English. Only French. You want to eat? To sleep? To drink? To fuck? You gotta communicate that in French. In that situation I’m confident that necessity would have forced my lazy arse to absorb a lot more gallic flavour into my linguistic repertoire.

Paris-Frankie Sacre Coeur

Just dump yourself in deepest darkest France for an extended period of time and voilà, you’ll speak French. Thing is, I never seem to be stranded in France for long periods of time. I tend just to go for a few days at a time with an English speaking companion.

I have absolutely no chance of French communication in these circumstances, but this hasn’t stopped me. I always try to speak French to someone every time I’m in France and it never goes well. I try to order a baguette at the boulangerie and the bored shop assistant answers me in English. I smile at the hotel concierge and before I manage to get the “bonjour” out of my mouth he’s giving me tourist advice in my native tongue. Even the beggars on the street hound me in English.

Finally though, it happened. Someone actually spoke to me in French without me having to pay them to do so under the guise of tuition. It happened in Paris; of course it did, with a population of over 10 million my chances were good.

I was visiting the French capital with my friend Claire. A mega babe from my high school French classes and fellow patisserie lover. We had gotten used to the glowing, neon “English Speakers” signs that were obviously hovering over our heads that only French people could see. We had a small room near the Gare du Nord and we were returning to the area after a hard day sight seeing to rejuvenate in the hotel before figuring out our dinner plans.

Obviously the area is swarming with tourists, fresh off the Eurostar. Two young guys approached us in a very clean cut and nonthreatening way. They stumbled over the words: “Je voudrais….ummmmmm… trouver… un restaurant… umm…. umm… ici… peut-être… s’il vous plaît?”

Ok, so these guys weren’t actually French. They were American. This whole painful performance lasted a lot longer than you could ever imagine. But that was ok. We let them flub their way through the whole mangled mess. Why? These guys thought WE were French. The were clearly green as fuck. But they thought we could speak French, and that, my friends, is a magical feeling.

Once he’d spat it out he and his friend stood staring at us expectantly for a restaurant recommendation. We spoke English back to them. Because that is what happens when an English speaker tries to speak French in Paris. They needed to learn.


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  • The universe can be funny like that. That is to say: funny ending. 🙂

  • adales8

    Ha. My french seems to involve a lot of arms movements to make up for my lack of vocabulary xx

    • Haha, my husband draws a square shape with his fingers. That’s his charade for everything.

  • Hahaha. Way to pass on the feeling of worthlessness in the end XD
    I will absolutely take some of the blame for not speaking French very well, but I still mostly blame my US-obsessed French teacher, a French guy who insisted on watching American movies without French subtitles for 80% of the school year. Then again, I think it also helps when learning a language to really be into the language you’re learning. So even if you are offered a means of escape, you won’t wanna take it. Too bad I was more interested in watching Shrek in English than in French…

    • WHHHHHHAAAAA? That sounds like an interesting French class! We were taken on a school trip to watch Amelie and occasionally were allowed to read Asterix. Also, the Darling Buds of May episode where they go to France if it was the end of term! 😉

  • I think Paris is quite a special case in terms of practising French. They generally aren’t very appreciative unless it is good. However I’ve found most other places are happy to speak in French to you if they can see you’re making the effort!

    Keep trying though it gets easier the rewards are so worth it!


    • Haha, seems like I can always find someone to be displeased with my French, even if I’m not in Paris. It’s a special skill 😉

  • If it helps, French people generally don’t have patience for anyone that isn’t French! I live in Switzerland part-time…I’m supposedly fluent yet everywhere I go (France included), they always speak back to me in English and pretend that they don’t understand a word of what i’m saying!

    • Haha, at least it’s not just me. Thanks for reading 🙂

  • I, um, just take French friends with me 😉

  • Haha despite learning French at school, I don’t think I’d be able to speak it very well now. Those poor guys obviously couldnt speak it very well either haha! Your travel photos are great

    Rachel xx

    • Yeah, everything from school gradually falls out of your head. Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Ha ha, this really made me laugh! When I lived there, I used to attempt to speak French and they’d reply to me in perfect English. Would have loved to see the look on the American guys’ faces

    • Haha, I don’t even thing we gave them a good restaurant suggestion XD

  • Hahaha so true! Those poor guys 🙂 I’ve had so many conversations in Italy where I speak Italian, they reply in English, I determinedly continue in Italian, they persevere with English… so is the way of the world! xxx
    Lucy @ La Lingua | Food, Travel, Italy

    • Ahhhhh so it’s not just the French then 😉

  • Ha ha ha! Of course you’d get the tourists! I wonder if they thought you looked Parisian?

    • Haha, I hope so. Though I’m not entirely sure what that “look” is?

  • I probably know more French than I realize but I’m never going to be fluent. Sometimes when I start to speak French, they reply in French and then I just have to ask if they speak English! Very fun post!


    • Haha, that’s the opposite problem! Very funny 🙂

  • It’s funny that Parisians speak back to you in English – everywhere else in France they pretend not to speak any! I didn’t do French in school and know maybe 5 words, so I rely on Jan to do the talking! I once offered a “café au lait” at a service station in France and the response was a stream of French that I had no hope of understanding! I just handed over my money and hoped that was what he wanted. To this day I have no idea what he actually said!

    • Haha, I’ve also had people pretend they can’t understand what I’m saying at all even though I’m physically pointing to a menu item as I say it XD

  • I used to holiday in France as a child, I would excitedly try out my knowledge of the language to only be greeted back with English. Such a put down. I have redeemed myself though on the language front my becoming fluent in sign language in one year Lucy x

  • great!:)