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Speaking French in France: 3 golden rules

Sandra Brown - 16.12.13 - www.MyFrenchLife.orgWhile travelling, have you ever overheard a foreigner say something to a local and thought, “Ouch, you really shouldn’t say that!”  Or, do you sometimes want to extract your own foot from your mouth?

This is France, pas votre pays!

One thing that tourists can often forget when travelling to another country, is that it is, well, another country. Not their own. So, spending their days looking for familiar food, wanting signs to be in English (or insert own language here), expecting service to be the same (and so on) may lead to frustration for them and impoliteness from the French.

Regardless of what is expected or thought, the French do not have to accommodate tourists. Saying to the French, ‘In my country…’ will probably result in their eyes glazing over and you receiving une petite insulte.

So, here are three golden rules to avoid French language mishaps in France. Have you ever seen anyone make these mistakes? Or did you make a few in your more naïve days?

1. Don’t shout – it won’t make it easier to be understood

Non. It’s just not necessary. It is likely to evoke rudeness in our French friends. It would evoke rudeness in me.

Shouting (often masqueraded by the belief that one is simply talking clearly) makes it harder to be understood, and let’s face it, is rather annoying. It may also be the reason someone acts as if they didn’t understand…

2. Don’t refuse to make an effort – learning some French is fun!

Speaking French in France - www.MyFrenchLife.org

It doesn’t kill a tourist to learn a few phrases in French before travelling to France. No one expects every traveller to know multiple languages fluently, but heck, even Contiki tours give their tour groups practice and language sheets!

For example, if a tourist wants to know if a French person speaks English, it may be a good idea to learn the phrase, “Est-ce que vous parlez anglais s’il vous plaît?

As I found out very quickly in my first naive trip to Paris, asking that question in English will get you nowhere. However, say it in French and voilà! The locals will probably say they only speak it a little and then proceed to chatter in embarrassingly good English!

3. Don’t try too hard – not all jokes translate for the French

Some things can only be said amongst people from the same country. Laughingly saying to a French person, “So where can I get some frog’s legs? I know all you Frenchies eat them!” is probably not funny and definitely not original. It’s stereotyping and a good way to put a tourist offside with the French.

“Regardless of what is expected or thought, the French do not have to accommodate tourists.”

Likewise, mimicking the French accent to them by repeating lines from some bad ‘French’ character on English TV has been done a million times before. My French tutor in Melbourne says that this often happens to her when strangers realise she is French. She doesn’t like it as she’s trying to ‘fit in’ here and prefers not to have her ‘differences’ pointed out. Nor does she like her accent mocked.

The French are immensely proud of their language. Likewise, I personally remember little about the acting in the movie ‘A Cry in the Dark’ except for Meryl Streep’s appalling Australian accent. Ouch! My Aussie ears!

What do you think tourists say that they probably shouldn’t? Have you ever put your foot in your mouth? Share your experiences below!

Image credits:
1. Paris – Louvre, by .Harveer on Flickr.
2. English abroad, via Tom Beardsworth.


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3 Comments




  1. Mary An Gonzalez
    6 years ago

    Great advice I should have known of before going to France. Was so hesitant to speak French because I knew my accent would be so off and asked someone in the supermarket if she spoke French. She rebuffed me which, looking back, I guess I deserved.


    • Mary An Gonzalez
      6 years ago

      Oops, I meant, I asked here in English if she spoke English. And she shook her head before I could finish my question.


      • Sandra E Brown
        6 years ago

        Plus MaryAn, as you too use a wheelchair, it adds to my argument that just because one uses a wheelchair it doesn’t automatically make other people helpful:) As I’ve found, if someone is embarrassed, shy, feeling awkward etc they may not help. Going back to the person you spoke to, it is possible their English wasn’t great and no-one likes to feel uncomfortable. If someone suddenly talks to me in French, sometimes all I hear is ‘white noise’ until I know the context! That’s why knowing a few French phrases helps in France. The French person can then adjust to English if need be, in their own time. Ah the lessons one learns from travelling …