May 14, 2017

How to avoid speaking English in France

Speak French in France

Has this ever happened to you in France?

You want to speak French but somehow you end up speaking English. You are ordering “un café”, “un croissant” or checking into your hotel and before you’ve got past the “bon” of your friendly greeting you’ve been trumped and the conversation has switched to English.

Can we speak French please?

Maybe you respond with a bit of a linguistic tug of war, determinedly continuining in French, or perhaps you politely request in eloquent French that you would rather not speak English, or maybe you rather sheepishly admit defeat and put your hard earned French skills to one side and continue in English. Chances are the conversation will continue in English whichever tactic you employ!

Speak French in a cafe

Speak French not English in France

Is there any way around this problem?

Well, actually there is and it’s very simple. It all comes down to YOUR body language. Why do I think this? I’m writing this blog on the last day of a short trip to Provence where I have noticed a distinct change in people’s expectation of my language skills purely based on MY body language.

On my arrival on Friday evening, I encountered all the usual problems of an English tourist in France. Nobody expected me to be able to speak and understand the language. At the hotel, the staff were adorable, but when I requested that we speak in French, the kind lady at reception proceeded to speak very, very slowly with huge enunciation supported with mimes for the key information. It was a bit embarrassing.

I asked for some advice on where to eat that evening and was delighted to hear that only 3 minutes from the hotel there was an interesting, authentic French restauarant frequented mainly by locals. Once seated at my table, I realised that the waitress was speaking to my co-diners in English. When I tried to order my meal in French the waitress seemed afftonted. On this occasion, I played linguistic tug of war.

So what to do?

The next morning I went for coffee in a beautiful, quintessential café on a classic tree-lined French boulevard. The waiter wasn’t up for conversation or explaining my coffee options. I ended up with a huge cup with just about enough coffee to cover the base of the cup. What a joke! I’d wanted a large coffee to sip whilst watching the world going by! As I finshed my second, tiny sip and thus had finished my drink, the waiter happened to walk past and vent his frustration with the weather (it was about to rain) ; “Qu’est-ce que c’est ce temps de merde!” and then the penny dropped for me. French waiters are world renowned for uninterested, grumpy service. That’s exactly what I felt I had received as an obviously English tourist in Provence. I then started to see my coffee incident as hilarious and set myself the challenge that from thereonin people would speak to me in French and I would be listened to.

I changed my body language and people starting speaking to me in French

And that’s exactly what happened. It was amazing. Only 24 hours later people were only speaking to me in French, whether it was their native language or not. I was being asked which “departement” I was from, being approached by other French tourists for advice on how to use a museum audioguide, stopped in the street by an Italian lady asking me when mothers day was celebrated in France and to top it all an English lady complimented me on how well I spoke English.

Anyone can do this

By the way, none of these exchanges were very complex or demanding. Anyone, with basic French could have carried it off fairly convincingly.

All that I changed, was my thinking in French. I think this changed my body language and that in turn changed other people’s expectations of my language skills.

Why not give it a try next time you go to France?