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When Parisians Won’t Speak French to You – How to Handle It

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Don’t speak in English to me, Jean-Luc.

Doesn’t it drive you crazy when this happens?

Scenario #1: You’ve just settled in at a table in a cozy Parisian bistro. In your very best French, you say to a waiter: “Puis-je avoir la carte, s’il vous plaît?*

He nods and immediately hands you an English menu.

Scenario #2: You’re at the fromagerie**, preparing to order a lovely slab of peppercorn brie. You say: “Je voudrais le brie de Valbrie. Une belle tranche s’il vous plait.”***

And the fromager***responds: “Of course! Is this piece the right size? A little smaller, maybe?”

Grrrrr…

When your best efforts at speaking French seem to result rejection, it can feel like a slap in the face. You may feel embarrassed, annoyed, doubtful of your abilities, and end up swearing that you’ll never utter another word in French again.

But don’t let situations like this stop you from speaking French!

Most of the time, Parisians who respond in English to your French don’t mean to appear rude – often they’re genuinely trying to be helpful. Some simply enjoy speaking English and think that you’d prefer it. Some want to prove to their colleagues and bosses that they can communicate in English to customers. And some are grabbing an opportunity to practice their own foreign language skills.

Seriously, even if it  sometimes doesn’t appear this way, most French people do want to speak their native language with you and are happy to do so.  

So, with this in mind, here are four tips to get French people to speak French with you:

  1. Just Keep Going.

When someone responds to your French in English, just pleasantly continue your end of the conversation in French. More often than not, the person will eventually understand that you prefer to converse in French and will willingly do so.

  1. Express Your Preference for French.

You can also politely tell the speaker that you’d rather speak in French. Try to master any of the following phrases to make your point:

    • J’aimerais parler en français, s’il vous plait. Je ne peux pas m’améliorer si je ne le parle pas!

      (I’d like to speak in French, please. I can’t improve if I don’t speak it!)

   • Peut-on parler en français s’il vous plaît? J’aimerais améliorer mon français. Merci!  

      (Can we please speak in French? I’d like to improve my French. Thanks!)

     • Je ne parle pas très bien, mais je préfère parler en français. Je dois l’apprendre

      (I don’t speak very well but I prefer to speak in French. I must learn it! )

    1. Be Flexible.

 Sometimes it may not be a good idea to persist in speaking French at a particular moment. Say you’re trying to explain something above your ability level to friends or colleagues. Even though you may want to battle your way through, your listeners may switch to English – both to make things easier for you and improve their understanding.

Roll with it…there’s no shame in reverting to English when you’re struggling or your listeners aren’t comprehending. Once you’re on more stable linguistic grounds, switch back to French. Then your listeners will understand that you’re committed to speaking French, even if you still have work to do.

  1. The “Excuse me?” Trick.

Alas, on rare occasions you may come across someone who really does mean to snub you by speaking English in response to your French. Here, feel free to feign incomprehension with a polite but puzzled “Pardon?”

After all, if someone is daring to denigrate your efforts to speak their language, their English had better be flawless…. And since it’s perfectly natural to have an accent or make mistakes when you’re speaking a foreign language, it probably won’t be.  Chances are, they’ll get the point and start speaking French again pretty sharpish.

How do you handle it when a French speaker responds in English to your French? Please share below!

[Translations]

*   May I have the menu, please?

** Cheese shop.

*** I would like the Brie from Valbrie, a good sized-slice please.

****Cheesemonger.