How many times have you ordered something in a café in France in your best French and been answered in English? How many times have you tried to strike up a conversation en francais only to have it firmly put on the English rails after at most one or two sentences? Even in the simplest and most rehearsed scenarios, most of us would be able to put our hands up to having had this experience. It’s certainly happened to me.
And let me tell you from experience, it probably hasn’t got anything to do with the extent of your language skills. Just take this example; My French husband had to fight to be able to complete even the simplest of requests in his native tongue, when we went back to Lyon on family holidays. No sooner had he asked for “Une table pour 4” than a waiter or waitress would zip to the table like an eager student desperate to demonstrate their perfected English skills to an examiner. and regale us with “The dish of the day is ….”, “Would you like drinks”…etc etc Imagine how disconcerting that would be in your own home town!
I suppose some people would be overjoyed to not have to go through the pain and shame of squeezing out the right verb conjugation, the vocab to fit the occasion and sound French enough not to be asked to repeat the whole exercise all over again due to misunderstandings.
But, that’s unlikely to be you. If you are reading this article, you are probably actively seeking out those opportunities because you know how great you will feel when you’ve had an actual conversation in French in France!
They say that 58% of communication is transmitted through body language. If your body language is telling the waiter, shopkeeper or person leading la degustation you’re on, that you are unsure of your language skills, basic human empathy will probably result in you being addressed in English. Take it as an act of kindness.
When I lived in France no one ever spoke to me in English and I didn’t expect them to either. It wasn’t because of my amazing mastery of the language, at the time I was just getting to grips with the most basic of phrases. No, it was because I expected to be understood. And eventually I was!
Years later, with far more honed language skills, I went for a weekend in Provence. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident and had started to doubt my communication skills in general.
When I arrived at my hotel and spoke to the hotel staff in colloquialisms a strange thing happened. The staff insisted on speaking to me in English and when I asked for some local info the receptionist wouldn’t hear of giving me the French version of leaflets. I even asked pour les “bonnes adresses” (best restaurants) and was sent directly to the most touristy, English orientated restaurant in town. I hadn’t sat on planes, trains and buses for the last 10 hours to feel like I was in Café Rouge! Grrr. What was I doing wrong? What had changed? Was it just because I was in a touristy town? Did I look too English?
The next day, I went to a café for my breakfast and the same thing happened. I had had enough and decided to see if I could change things. I had a word with myself and put me “French head” on!
My next stop was a local museum. I walked up to the desk with my newly fitted French attitude and the contrast in response was striking. Without a hint of English in the air, I was asked which “département” I was from. Once inside, I was approached by some French tourists who wanted to know something about the museum. I think they thought I worked there!
Later that day I saw a lady, who was clearly English, (how could I tell?) looking worried at a bus stop. I gave her some help sorting out her bus and as I was leaving she shouted to me “your English is really good!”. I told her I was English but it didn’t seem to register with her. I hadn’t even spoken any French!
When I go into a cafe, une boulangerie, or sit myself down on “la terrasse” in the town square, I have a listen to the conversations around me. It gives me an idea of how language is being used in that place. If you want to fit in you may as well pick up some language cues from the locals.
When you see someone ordering or being served listen to the phrase they use and when it comes to your turn do the same.
Obviously, make sure you know what it means so you don’t end up with the local speciality of sheep’s brains rather than the salad you were eyeing up on the menu!
So, if you are in a boulangerie and the person in front of you says “il me faut une baquette” and you actually want a baguette. Use this phrase instead of the stock “je voudrais” and see what happens. Chances are you will be replied to in French.
If you want to be spoken to like a local then acting like one is more likely to get that response from people. It’s just a riff really on looking like you know what you are doing. Try it and see what happens!