Parisians don’t speak English.
The French are useless at learning languages.
French people find the English accent sexy.
The list of stereotypes about the relationship between French people and the English language is long… and filled with some half-truths and plenty of plain nonsense.
Based on my 6 years living in the French capital, including a year or so as an English teacher, here are some of my observations about French linguistic abilities.
1.) French people are shy about speaking foreign languages
Most French people have, at least, a basic and often a much more advanced level of English. It’s just that they are not always willing to use it! The French are naturally shy about speaking foreign languages – maybe this is due to the French education system that traditionally leaves little space for discussions and role plays – and therefore only use it when they have to. When confronted with an English speaker, they will firstly test your level of French. If you seem too confident or fluent, the conversation stays firmly in French. If they see moments of weakness and hesitations, they will then step in to save ze day as best they can!
2.) Language teaching in France is (slowly) on the up
This brings me on to the French education system. The French have been drilled by many years of English grammar and comprehension exercises at school, however, until recently, teachers seemed to forget that a language is spoken! I’ve met French people who know every single irregular verb in the past tense, but can’t string a simple sentence together. Things do seem to be changing though and I recently gave copywriting classes at a French business school in Paris entirely in English. The new generation of French youngsters increasingly love to travel, watch films in English and live aboard – a year working in a café in London or doing an Erasmus programme is à la mode.
3.) French people like the English language and accent
French people love to sprinkle their French with English words, particularly in the world of business. English is seen as sophisticated and conversations are littered with “meetings”, “briefs” and “deadlines”. These borrowings are often left unchanged, albeit with longer vowels and plenty of “ze”, but they are also sometimes adapted à la française – my favourite piece of franglais has to be “Je suis surbooké”!! (I’m overbooked). English speakers learning French often despair of ever being able to cultivate a local accent, but I’ve been told on many occasions that there’s no need to try – lots of French people love the English accent and find it exotic or charming. So, why get rid of one of your unique selling point if you can communicate fluently, make friends and order the wine you want?
The moral of story? Next time you think a French person doesn’t speak English, think again! You may be in for a surprise.
P.s. These experiences are Paris-based and may not always apply to more remote areas!