French people never speak English. Or do they?

You dream of spending your summer on the French Riviera.

You already know all the places you want to visit and you already booked your hotel.

But you heard that French people never speak English.

It scares you.  But is it even true?

Do French people speak English?

French people speak EnglishA lot of people claim that French people do not speak English and that finding someone speaking decent English in France is mission impossible. Well, like many stereotypes, that’s simply not true.

According to the Eurobarometer report 2012, 39% of the French population speaks English. That includes people living in the countryside. Which means that in a big city like Paris or Bordeaux where there are a lot of tourists, the percentage of people speaking English is likely to be much higher.

How come it’s so hard to find someone who speaks English in France then?

In my experience, finding someone who speaks good English in a city like Paris really isn’t that hard.

The problem is that people always assume that the reason people don’t answer in English is they don’t speak English. Which isn’t necessarily true. Many factors can push someone to speak French rather than English (although they know you probably don’t speak French that well).

  • Fear
  • Pride
  • Laziness

Imagine you meet a French tourist in your country.
He obviously doesn’t speak English that well and you happen to know some basic French.
You could probably speak French with him and help him.
But wouldn’t you be afraid to speak French? A language you don’t speak fluently. What if you make mistakes?
If you are like most people, you certainly would be.

Or maybe you would feel irritated if a French tourist came to you and spoke French. He is in your country after all. Shouldn’t he make an effort and speak your language? You would have the right to be irritated.

Yet many tourists visiting France come and speak English directly (French people also tend to do that abroad).

As a French man, I find it really irritating. You are a foreigner, you don’t speak French, I get it. That’s totally okay.

But learning some basic vocabulary before visiting a country doesn’t hurt.
In fact it shows people you care about their culture, and it can make your time abroad much more enjoyable.
You won’t simply be seen as a tourist among millions of tourists.
You will be seen as someone with a genuine interest in the country. And people will have a desire to help you, and make your time in their country extraordinary.

So please, next time you go abroad, at least take the time to learn a few words. It takes 5 minutes and can considerably change the way people interact with you. A simple bonjour instead of hello can go a long way.

How was your experience in France? Was it hard for you to find English speakers?

Photo credit : tang90246 / 123RF Stock Photo

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters. You will also find him giving blogging advice on Grow With Less.

127 thoughts on “French people never speak English. Or do they?”

  1. I find that when back in France, even though I was born in France, in Paris at least I’m treated like an “American” when I speak French. Since I got my Master’s degree in Liège and that is French-taught, also since I was raised in Canada, this is doubly insulting. Elsewhere I get called an American when I speak English, and that’s because they’re being racist and assuming that because I’m half-Black, “only the States has black people.” Not France. In France itself just about the only way I can exist entirely in French is with other French-Black people.

  2. Continuing from my post above:

    All ended well. My husband is 6’ 3” and at first could find no one to help him. (Perhaps tall strong handsome American men are intimidating?) But eventually he found a nice taxi driver who drove around with him until he recognized the zoo which was down the street from our hotel. He found me sitting outside at the hotel cafe and all was well.

    Moral of the story: if you make the travel arrangements, write them down for your mate.

    Footnote: this happened ten years ago or so. I would guess finding English speaking people in Paris is a lot easier now!

  3. I studied French in high school and in college but alas Americans are not very good about teaching their students how to SPEAK the language. So there we were reading Les Miserables in French and discussing it in English. Decades later when I finally got to Paris I was shy about trying to speak this beautiful language with my terrible accent and badly remembered grammar. I found some waiters at cafes to be tolerant but not terrible patient with me. Yet I persevered.

    A year or two later we found ourselves on the beach in Cannes. A nice man was sunning next to us and as my husband will attest, I will talk to a brick. I realized very quickly that he spoke little to no English, but was very sweetly tolerant of my terrible French. We chatted for an hour or more and I remember being thrilled that I had actually been able to have a conversation with a native!

    Then a few years later we were in Paris again. I had made the hotel reservations probably because my husband didn’t speak French at all. The second or third day there we boarded le Metro to do some sightseeing (we were in a hotel in the West Bank and pretty much had just walked to wherever we were going). We went for a few stops and got off the train briefly (I don’t remember why) and when we went to board the train again he got on first and the door snapped shut behind him.

    I realized immediately he had no idea where he was going or worse, where our hotel was. Or the name of it. Or what street it was on. And he did not speak French at all. I got the next train and got off at the next stop hoping he would be there. He wasn’t. I decided the only thing to do was to return to our hotel and hope he would find his way back somehow. (We had one cellphone between us. It was in my purse.) I remember going into the small lobby and saying to the woman at the desk “Mon mari est perdue!”

    She didn’t really understand me. There was of course nothing she could do about it any way. I thought of calling les gendarmes and

  4. I think the French are very proud of their language, and they are not interested in making an effort to speak another language. For them, it is your problem not to speak French and they will not make any additional effort
    They will only speak another language, for example English, if they really need it, not you

  5. Recently I had visited Paris from London and I was not sure if I could communicate with the French speakers. But, to my surprise I found everybody from the station staff to taxi driver to bartenders to hotel receptionists, speak English with ease and in many cafes, there is an English menu as well. Barring few locals, who did not speak in English, most of the Parisians I have come across did speak in English to my ease.
    I loved the French culture and architectures and looking forward to visit France again.

    • I am German, and do speak French quite well, since I lived in Paris for 2 years as a kid. True: Last century when I visited Paris, you had to know French to communicate. Nobody would understand, let alone speak English. But in the last few years this has changed. I made the same experience as Anindia: Everybody immediately switched to English, even if I started to talk French. Actually I had to pretend to not speak nor understand English to be able to practice my French in Paris! This might be different in the country-side, but I had similar experiences in the East of France, where folks easily switch to German to talk to me, when I approached them speaking French.

  6. I have spent many months in France, and the problem I encountered was les Françaises (it was almost always the women) who pretended not to understand me when I spoke French to them. For example, in a Resto U, I was offered a choice between fish and spaghetti. Clearly “le poisson” and “le spaghetti” sound nothing alike (and spaghetti is pronounced nearly the same in English as in French) but the server stubbornly pretended not to understand me when I said “le spaghetti, svp” and pointed right at it. “Comment?” Comment?” she kept saying until she grudgingly conceded, “vous voulez le spaghetti?” Another woman at the train station didn’t want to sell me a ticket to Reims until I pronounced it EXACTLY RIGHT (and this is a difficult word for English speakers.) We went through a whole exchange where she said “Reims” and I repeated “Rance” as best I could but she just wasn’t having it. I’d just like to hear her say “this is my mother’s thing” in English without a trace of an accent!

    • Honestly, I highly doubt they did it on purpose. What sounded clear to you probably just wasn’t clear to them.

      • Sorry you find that someone passing through your country for a couple of days doesn’t know french is irritating to you, but this is total idiocy. You are literally the only country that has a problem with this. Its assenine and my guess the reason is pure snobism, because you think everyone should know french. Then you go on and say ‘we get it you are foreign’, there is nothing to get, the fact that you make it sound like foreigners speak in english on purpose to be annoying to you, just confirms the fact that snobism could be the reason behind it. Beautiful country but very unfortunate behavior for the most part. I can confirm from personal exeperience.

        • I just spent a couple of weeks in France and had nothing like the experience a couple of you are portraying, found everyone I met to be friendly, accommodating, and very helpful. I know very little French, but everyone seemed to be happy that I was just trying. Perhaps it’s something in your attitude that’s the problem rather that your words. Remember, most communication is non-verbal.

  7. First, I live in France, but am not French nor a native Francophone.

    I have difficulties to understand why French people (in general) have such issues with this? I’ve traveled to many countries, and I’ve seen French travelers who rarely speak anything other than French or English (and once, Spanish in Spain). What I mean is that when French people go to Japan, they aren’t speaking Japanese to the locals. Maybe they will say “excuse me” in Japanese, but my experience is that they usually use English (or French in some places when able). If you are going to be so intense with the idea that people must respect your language when they visit your country (visit, not live), then be prepared to do the same when you visit non-Franco or non-Anglo countries.

    Another note: as a French resident, my experience is that (in general) French people who are fluent in other languages, especially English, find it irritating to speak those languages in public. Why? It is one thing to be embarrassed about your language skills because you aren’t very good. I get it; I was the same when learning French. But I am speaking of many French people who ARE fluent in English. They seem to detest having to use it rarely in France. Now that I speak French, I am excited to speak French, no matter where in the world I am! And wow…if I can help someone in French, it would really make me happy (and it gives me practice). So I find it a bit strange that people who actually took the time to learn another language would be so rejecting of that. Perhaps Parisians who are bombarded by tourists get a bit of a pass, but there is the rest of France, which has plenty of English speaking French people. Most of them are not speaking English all of the time; why not help someone in English and then go on about your day in French as normal?

    PS: let’s remember that not all English speaking people are native-Anglophones. Most of the English speakers I’ve met while living here are from elsewhere in Europe (not UK) or south America.

    • As a French person raised in Western Canada, I will tell you why we hate speaking English in other countries. Because we immediately get called “American!” and when we were raised in Canada, that’s highly insulting. It’s done to me because of race, I know this because there are white Vancouver-raised people who sound exactly like me in English who don’t get that told to them the way people are so QUICK to do it to me. That’s the reason that not only as a French person but as a Canadian, we’d rather speak French when we’re abroad. English gets us insulted.

  8. Why does this article describe french people as being
    PROUD…. aaand also (SCARED??).
    I am not french but if somebody described me with words like Lazy, scared and proud. i would not be happy.

  9. Bro, if i remember correctly it wasnt french nobility that spoke english for like 3 centuries(11th to 14th century). If i remember correctly it wasnt french aristocrats in the 1700s and 1800s that spoke english trying to be like them. The english fared better in wars but that didnt change the status quo of french cultural supremacy.

    • It’s the other way around, the English nobility spoke French for three centuries, hence why there are so many similar words shared in both languages.


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