Have you ever started talking to someone in French and then they switched to English? Maybe it happened immediately, or maybe it was after you’d uttered a sentence or two. It probably made you feel bad or ashamed; after all, if a French person replies to you in English, it clearly means that you were speaking bad French – even that you were impossible to understand, right?
Well, here’s something you may not know: This has happened to every non-native speaker of French at least once, and probably a lot more than once, regardless of how well they actually know the language or even how long they’ve spoken French or lived in a Francophone country.
Trust me – I’m a fluent French-speaker who’s lived and worked in Paris for over a decade. I speak and use French constantly, including with my French husband, friends, clients, neighborhood shop owners, and the teachers at my son’s school. And yet…sometimes I can’t even get past “Bonjour” before a French person I don’t know switches to English.
Why does this happen? And what can us non-native speakers do to make a French person speak French with us? Let’s find out!
Why do French people switch to English when they speak to you?
When a French person switches to English, there are two possible reasons: you, or them.
When a French person you’re talking to switches to English, it doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily done something wrong. You could be a fluent speaker of French who’s even lived in the country for years, and you’ll still get an English switch from time to time. Trust me – this is the story of my life in Paris.
Here are the two main reasons people think that you don’t understand French:
In my experience, hearing a foreign accent is the most common reason a French person will switch to English.
Many French people, especially those who live in major cities or who work at restaurants or famous sites and museums, are used to tourists who don’t speak the local language. The slightest detection of an accent makes them doubt your French-speaking abilities, sometimes even if you’ve already said something in perfectly coherent French.
A few years ago, I was trying something on in a clothes store on Paris’s Grands Boulevards. I was looking in a mirror when a French woman beside me asked what I thought of the jacket that she was trying on. I told her, in perfectly correct French, that I liked it but that she might want a warmer color. She thanked me, then said, “You have an accent.”
This is something French people like to observe, and it’s usually curiosity-driven, so I didn’t take offense. I know that I have a rather strong American accent. “Yes,” I told her, “I’m from America.” “You can understand me?” she asked, in disbelief. I could only laugh and reassure her – after all, hadn’t we just had conversation about her jacket?
This story shows that sometimes there’s nothing you can do. You can say the right thing, even show that you have advanced vocabulary, but a French person will still think you don’t speak their language. I think the reason behind the woman’s disbelief might have been that she was used to tourists who speak just a little French, and maybe figured I was one of them.
Another reason for her disbelief might have been that she herself speaks very poor English and was impressed that I was able to navigate the two languages.
I’ll list some tips for improving your French accent a little further on, but one thing to know is that most non-native French people will have at least a slight accent when they speak French.
One of the reasons for this, a study has found, is that we process information in our native language, so it’s harder to use a new language without the influence of the first one.
Another reason might be how you learned or are learning French. Most of us learn French at school, where there’s a lot of written material to cover -and of course, that makes sense, since reading and writing are important for learning things like verb conjugations and other grammar, not to mention vocabulary and spelling. Speaking or hearing French may be of secondary importance to your teachers or to the curriculum.
Even if you’re listening to a lot of French, and speaking it, too, you may still just have a strong accent. This always makes me think of my grandfather. Originally from Poland, he lived in the US for decades, worked in a New York advertising firm, and obviously had a perfect grasp of English. Still, he never shook his incredibly strong Polish accent. So, if you can’t completely get rid of yours, don’t feel bad or embarrassed.
The second most likely reason French people switch to English when they’re talking to a non-native French speaker is vocabulary. Even if you speak fluent French, there might be words, or entire subject areas for that matter, that you just don’t know how to say or talk about in French. There may be turns of phrase, expressions, or grammatical structures that you use incorrectly or with slight errors.
Even if your French is usually impeccable, something like this could still happen if you’re tired, stressed, or in a hurry. Think about it: even in your native language, you probably forget words from time to time.
For a French person who’s already heard that you have an accent, a vocabulary mistake may be the nail in the coffin of your French conversation.
The other person
Sometimes, regardless of how your accent sounds or any vocabulary mistakes you may or may not have made, the French person you’re talking to will still switch to English. There are several likely reasons for this:
Habit or job training
French people who work at museums, monuments, restaurants, or other places where there are a lot of tourists are used to most visitors not understanding French. They may even have had job training that requires them to speak English, or to notice signs that indicate they should speak English to a customer.
A great example of this is French airports. If I ask someone for help or buy something from a store at Orly or Charles de Gaulle Airport, they’ll usually speak to me in French. But when I’m lined up at check-in and an airport worker sees my American passport, they’ll automatically start talking to me in English.
The French are generally a little more formal and polite than some other cultures when it comes to interactions with customers and strangers in general. For example, whenever you enter a French shop, you should greet the shopkeeper with a “Bonjour”, even if you don’t have any questions for them and aren’t planning to stay long or buy anything. When you leave, it’s customary for you both to say “Au revoir” or “Bonne journée”, as well, even if you haven’t bought anything.
Some French people will see it as a courtesy to you to speak English, especially if you seem to be struggling in French, or even simply if you have an accent.
If you’re talking to a French person who’s in a hurry or has a job where they have to keep things moving, they may just switch to English instead of wasting time on asking if you speak French, or speaking French and finding out that you don’t understand what they’re saying.
The other day, for example, I went to the Centre Pompidou with my son. While we were waiting in line at the cloakroom (vestiaire), we were talking to each other in English. When we got to the front of the line, the attendant, who’d overheard us, simply spoke to me in English, as well, not wanting to hold up the line to ask if I understood French.
Free English lessons
I’ve written before about the fact that many French people feel uncomfortable speaking in a foreign language, even if they’re really good at it. But not all French people are this way. In fact, some are eager to practice their English and want to do so any chance they get.
It’s heartening to me that these people exist, but it can be frustrating, especially since not all of them speak fluent, flawless English. The best thing to do in this case is to be patient and friendly. Put yourself in their place (you actually were there before the conversation started): How would you feel if you got to practice French with someone? You’d want them to be kind and encouraging, so try to be the same, even if it’s a bit annoying or it takes longer to accomplish the purpose of the conversation.
Genuinely not understanding you
In some cases, some French people may just have a hard time understanding you in French.
It could be because of your accent or because you don’t have the vocabulary needed to talk about a certain subject. It could also be their own issues – for example, not being used to hearing French spoken with a foreign accent.
If they feel comfortable speaking English, they’ll probably decide it’s the best solution. It stings when people do this, but try to look on the bright side: At least you can still communicate with them. The alternative, simply not understanding each other, is a lot worse.
The surprise twist: They don’t speak French!
Even if you’re in a French-speaking country, someone working in a shop or restaurant, or even someone you’re asking directions on the street might not speak French, or might not speak it very well.
Generally, I try to listen for a foreign accent in what little French we might have started with. (Keep in mind that this might not be an Anglophone accent. People from many countries around the world learn English, and not French.) If I heard that and then they switched to English when they heard my foreign accent, I just ask (in English) “Do you prefer to speak English?”.
If they would, there’s this brief sense of relief when they realize that we can communicate in a language they’re more comfortable with.
It may seem like a loss if you’re trying to practice your French, but keep in mind that in this case, it’s not as if you’d be practicing French with a native speaker, anyway.
How to stop French people from switching to English
Now that you know why French people might switch to English when they’re talking to a non-French person, here are some ways you can keep it from happening.
Try to find the source of the problem
Is it you, or is it them? If it’s them, you can’t really change their behavior, of course (although I’ll tell you some things you could say to them a little further on).
If it’s you, the first thing to do is…
Many years ago, I was invited to lunch by one of the kids I tutored in English. His French mother was a language teacher, and she told me that if I slowed down when I spoke, my accent would be less noticeable. I had to laugh at that, since I’ve always had a thick accent, but over the years, I’ve taken her advice and found that she wasn’t wrong.
Speaking slowly won’t make you sound more “French”, but it will do two things:
1. Give you time to choose your words and how you pronounce them.
For example, if I’m talking quickly in French, I probably won’t bother to pronounce the guttural “r”. This makes my American accent much more noticeable. But if I’m going slowly, I’ll take the time to make the best French “r” sound I can – I’ll even relish it.
In terms of word choice, if you’re speaking quickly, you’re more likely to make an anglicism or use a faux ami. But just a few fractions of a second more, and your brain will sometimes switch on and remind you of the right way to say something.
2. Give the person/people listening to you time to catch up.
You’ve probably heard someone speaking your native language with an accent before. Their pronunciation and intonation can take a little time to get used to, and certain words will be harder to understand than others. If you have just a few milliseconds extra to process it, you’re more likely to understand what they’re saying. The same goes for people listening to you when you speak French.
Continue speaking in slowed-down French to the person who switched to English, and they might feel confident enough to continue the conversation with you in French.
Keep in mind that “speaking slowly” doesn’t mean talking at a snail’s pace. It means pulling back just a little from your usual speed.
Avoid accent triggers
I know I’ve said it a lot, but I’ll say it again: You will most likely always have some kind of accent in French, no matter how fluent you become. The reason I’m repeating this is so that you’ll hopefully feel okay about any amount of accent you have, and learn to work with it.
That being said, in addition to speaking a little more slowly, there are some ways just about anyone can make their accent at least a little less noticeable:
We can’t always control how much or how well we sleep, and you may not want to get a ton of sleep simply to have a bit less of an accent. But for what it’s worth, like many things, I find that my accent is definitely affected by how tired I am. This is especially good to keep in mind if you have a specific activity scheduled where you’ll need to speak as clearly as possible, for example, giving a presentation or making an important phone call in French.
This goes back to the “slow down” rule. If you’re nervous, flustered, or otherwise riled up, your accent will definitely be stronger. After all, you’re not really focusing on speaking clearly – or on speaking at all. You’re stuck in your head.
There are lots of ways to be more relaxed, both in a long-term lifestyle way, and in a more immediate way. Personally, what helps me is to remind myself that the person I’m talking to wants to understand me, just like I want to understand them. There’s no judgment, and they’re not there to make things difficult for me.
If you have to do something like talk on the phone in French, you could think about jotting down how to say key words that you might be worried you’ll forget.
If you find that the person talking to you has switched to English, you can say (in French), “Sorry, I’m a little nervous,” or something along those lines, take a breath, and continue speaking in French.
Try to work on your accent
If you constantly have French people switching to English when you talk to them, or if they generally seem like they don’t understand what you’re saying, it might be helpful to work on improving your French accent.
Some ways to improve your spoken French include:
- Use a course like Mimic Method (affiliate link).
- Listening. Watch French TV shows, cartoons, movies, and YouTube videos; listen to French talk radio, podcasts, and audiobooks. Training your ear will help you become familiar with French sounds. Many French courses and platforms, including French Together, offer ways to listen to French words, phrases, and long audio clips of conversations, news broadcasts, and more.
- Speaking. You can practice speaking French with online platforms like these, or even reach out to find a real-life conversation exchange partner (always make sure to do this in a public place).
- Taking one-on-one lessons with a native French speaker, or practicing with a French friend. If you’re friends with a French person who’s fluent in English, don’t be afraid to try to speak French with them. If they want to practice their English, you guys can agree that sometimes when you get together, you’ll speak French, and other times you’ll speak English.
Work on building your vocabulary
Maybe your accent in French is fine, or even barely noticeable, but your lack of vocabulary is what’s holding you back. It may even be that you have an excellent French vocabulary level in general, but maybe you’re lacking when it comes to certain subjects.
Here are some quick ways to build up your French vocabulary in specific situations:
- Look up and memorize specific words in advance. For example, if you’re giving a presentation on a particular topic or are visiting a new area where you know you might have to ask for directions.
- Install a French dictionary app on your phone. This way, you can look up something before you ask a question, or even check very quickly while discussing.
Here are some long-term ways to build up your French vocabulary:
- Watch and read. One of the best ways to learn words and phrases is to encounter them in a memorable context. If you like comics, movies, books, short stories and fairy tales, TV shows, or just about any other kind of entertainment (or simply ways to get information, like newspapers, documentaries, etc.), seek them out in French, and absorb them.
- Look for vocabulary lists and exercises. Say you need to improve a specific area of vocabulary. You can do an online search for it – for example, “French driving vocabulary”. You’ll find vocabulary lists, as well as some free exercises.
- Take a French course. If you need to improve your French vocabulary in general, it might be helpful to take a French course. You can find a number of good ones here.
How to tell a French person that you don’t want them to speak English with you
Even if you’ve done everything I’ve just suggested, or even if you’re one of the best non-native speakers of French in the world, for some reason or other you will probably still come across a French person who thinks you need to speak English, or who wants to speak English with you.
Here are several things you can do to keep the conversation in French:
Continue speaking French.
This is what most of my non-native French friends and I do, and from many forum posts and articles I’ve read, it seems like it’s the most popular choice for other French non-native speakers, as well. The idea is that you’re showing you do understand and speak French, and that English isn’t an option for you.
Sadly, I can’t say this works all the time. Some people just don’t get it, or really want to speak English. In that case, you can go on in French, even if they don’t, although sometimes that ends up feeling silly or futile.
Say you want to speak French.
If it feels right, it’s perfectly okay to tell the person you’re speaking to that you want to continue the conversation in French. Here are a few polite-but-firm ways to do that:
- Merci, mais je préfère parler en français. (Thanks, but I prefer to speak in French.)
- Ce n’est pas un problème pour moi si on parle en français.(It’s not a problem for me if we speak in French.)
- On peut parler en français, si tu veux/vous voulez. (We can speak in French if you want.). Note that this is best used with friends or other people close to you, who will know you’re not judging them for their poor English skills.
- En français, s’il vous plait – j’ai besoin de pratiquer. (In French, please – I need to practice.) Note that this is fairly informal.
- Ça t’embête/vous embête si on parle en français ? Je voudrais pratiquer/J’ai besoin de pratiquer. (Does it bother you if we speak in French ? I’d like to practice/I need to practice.). Note that the verb embêter is a bit informal. If you want to ask the question in a more formal or professional context, it’s better to say: Est-ce que cela vous convient si on parle en français? Je voudrais pratiquer/J’ai besoin de pratiquer.
- Vous pouvez me parler en français, je le comprends. (You can speak to me in French, I understand it.)
And my personal favorite:
- Je sais que j’ai un fort accent, mais je comprends le français. (I know I have a strong accent, but I understand French.)
Note that all of these could possibly be seen as rude or very assertive, so just make sure that you say them in a gentle tone, with a smile. Delivered that way, my favorite one even takes on a tone that acknowledges the elephant in the room in a funny way, and doesn’t sound defensive. With all of these phrases, tone is everything.
Pretend you don’t speak English.
Sometimes, neither continuing to speak French, nor asking to, works. In this case, a commentator on this article suggests an interesting strategy: Pretend you don’t speak English!
The French person talking to you may not know where you come from, but since most foreigners speak at least a little English, they’re just assuming you do, too. If you say you don’t, they probably won’t insist.
Of course, you can’t use this strategy if the person knows you or knows you come from an Anglophone country…or just heard you speaking English. But in many cases, it should work.
When to stop insisting that someone speak French to you
As you can see, there are many ways to ask someone to speak French with you. But if someone still insists on speaking English, you should decide if it’s worth it to keep insisting that they speak French.
Here are some situations where you should probably laisse tomber:
- when it’s urgent. Is something urgent going on? If you understand the person talking to you, regardless of the language they’re using, that’s the most important thing.
- when there’s a line behind you. Don’t hold up a crowd by insisting on speaking French with someone behind the counter.
When to insist on speaking French
There may be times when the person trying to speak English to you isn’t as skilled in communicating as you would be in French. Sometimes, you could just smile and nod, but in certain situations, as I’ve learned the hard way, it’s very important to insist on speaking French.
When I first came to live in France, like all immigrants, I had an appointment at the Office des migrations internationales (OMI). The obligatory medical exam included an x-ray of my lungs. When the doctor met with me to discuss my results, he decided to speak to me in English. It could have been for any number of the reasons I’ve spoken about, but I believe it was mainly to practice English with a native speaker, or maybe even to show off or flirt with me.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t as competent in English as I was in French, and he ended up somehow suggesting that I had tuberculosis. I was terrified, but something didn’t seem right to me (namely, how could I have caught tuberculosis?). So, I insisted on questioning him, in French. It turned out that just a few misused English turns of phrase were at the origin of the problem, and I came out of there with a clean bill of health.
So, if a French-speaker insists on speaking poor English to you in a situation where it’s crucial that you understand, insist on speaking French!
I hope this article was helpful. Most importantly, remember that a few unwanted English conversations won’t keep you from improving your French. They’re just a part of being a foreign speaker, and at least you’ll come away with a few stories.
Have you ever had a French person switch to English when speaking with you? What did you do? Feel free to share in the comments!