Tourists in Paris: Why a little effort with French goes a long way

Written by Diane on. Posted in travel

Tourists & the French language While standing in line at a Paris Ladurée over the weekend, I observed one tourist after another launch right into English when addressing the employees of the famed macaron shop. I’d hear a variation of, “Hi, I’d like a box of six macarons” over and over until I questioned if I had suddenly been transported to the Ladurée on New York’s Upper East Side. Nope, I was still in Paris and not one tourist started out with a friendly bonjour or a tentative, “Parlez-vous anglais?” And yes, this is a problem.

Read on!

Tourists in Paris

In France, the native language is French in case you haven’t noticed, and I get that most tourists visiting here don’t speak French and may never set foot in the country again. But we all are capable of learning a few simple words and phrases and I’d bet that 99% of the tourists visiting (or people anywhere) know that bonjour means hello. So then why start off an interaction in English when you know you’re in France. It’s not like the country’s native language is super rare and secret and only spoken by 1,000 people on the planet. French is pretty mainstream and just about everyone is capable of learning a few words and phrases.

Who cares if you mess up or have a terrible accent? No one at all. At least you tried.

By attempting a few words and a, “Parlez-vous anglais?”  shows you understand what being courteous means and the fact that you’ve left the U.S.’s borders and are now in a country that speaks French. A place where you shouldn’t assume you’ll bel catered to at all times. It’s a simple courtesy to start an exchange with someone in their native language. By not doing so is just plain rude and makes me embarrassed for my fellow countrymen. And tourists say the French are rude? Imagine someone stopping you on the street in your home country and confidently addressing you in their native language. They’d be met with blank stares. Or laughs. And the difference is that unlike in France where many people do know a little English, the majority of Americans won’t speak the tourist’s native tongue. So for tourists in the U.S., communicating in English is a necessity for getting the point across. English-speaking tourists have it too easy when traveling abroad.

What’s the big deal, you say?

Yes, of course the employees in the top tourist areas speak at least enough English to facilitate their job duties (and may switch over to English after you muster up the courage to say bonjour, and be gracious when they do!), but that’s not the point.

To be clear, no one is expecting tourists to speak conversational French or anything close, but making an effort to say a word or two goes a long way in showing you’re culturally aware, respectful and self-aware enough to know that starting off an exchange in English sets you up for a downward spiral into Ugly American territory.

So by all means enjoy your trip but keep in mind the French take pride in their language, so be respectful by trying out a few words. Learn ’em before you even get off the plane. And do the same thing when you visit any country whose native language isn’t English.

You’ll get a few smiles and might even make a new friend along the way.

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Comments (30)

  • Genevieve

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    Hear, hear! I love this post. Everyone needs to have a little cultural awareness. When I travel, I make sure I know how to say the basics in the native language of whatever country I am visiting. Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, etc. It’s always polite to do so and I often think, wouldn’t you be offended if someone was visiting your country and just expected you to understand what they were saying in their native tongue?
    I live in Germany and am in no way fluent and often worry about my pronunciation but I would rather attempt to speak where possible than be ignored for not trying!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Exactly, little gestures mean a lot and no one expects tourists to be experts on the language or culture. But like you said, everyone needs to have a little cultural awareness.

      Reply

  • Paperesse

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    I am in total agreement. I have been so embarrassed by American behavior (not just in France mind you, but world wide) that I have been known to apologize on behalf of my countryman (the American ones, I’m French now too). And how many times have I seen Americans yelling, trying to be understood, as if volume would somehow impart understanding. They’re French, Italian…whatever, not deaf. I have to confess as well, that I rarely speak English in American company anymore, I prefer to pass unnoticed.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yeah, it seems like the most embarrassing Americans are always in line right in front of me and I cringe. If you have the money to travel, have the sense to pick up a few books on French culture and educate yourself, right? Haha makes me laugh but not because it’s funny (although it’s sometimes funny). 😉 And I laughed out loud at the part about people being Italian or whatever and not deaf. Just terrible!

      Reply

  • breadispain

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    Oh my yes! It frustrates me so when I see native English speakers launch into English immediately. It is not hard to learn a few basic words or, at the very least, have some consideration about the fact that this is not an English speaking country. Le sigh! Glad you wrote on this topic!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      It’s very easy for Americans to take it for granted that English is spoken in just about all touristy places so we’ve gotten accustomed to NOT making the effort. Even little kids know bonjour means hello in French, so why the hesitation to actually use it? We’re spoiled! I was very proud of my dad for getting his baguettes entirely in French. With a very proud (and heavily accented) Bonjour, une baguette s’il vous plait. C’est tout. Merci. He fired all that off, was understood and felt accomplished. And I’m sure the boulangerie employees respected his effort. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply

  • Jennifer

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    Couldn’t agree more, it’s what I explain every time an American tells me French people were rude when they visited Paris/France. Well did you try a ‘bonjour’ at least? No? Well, that’s why!

    Reply

  • Dana

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    Yes, yes, so much this. I have told this to many English speakers coming to france. It is so simple yet SO IMPORTANT!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, spread the word!! I was SO tempted to be like, “Try starting off with a bonjour, you’re in France, ya know…” But I held my tongue.

      Reply

  • Ze Coach

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    Bonjour Diane! Great post. If it had been written by a French person, it might have sounded rude. But from you it’s better.

    I also have a story about “deaf”. My wife, who is French like me, was in a store and the cashier was making lots of jokes. Like me when I don’t understand everything and it’s not important, she just smiled without responding. So the cashier asked her “Oh sorry, are you deaf?” (which is a strange question to ask if you think someone is deaf BTW). She replied “No, I’m just French”.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Haha, yes I guess I can be embarrassed by my own country’s people. But it makes sense, right? You wouldn’t expect to speak French in NYC and be understood so the fact that Americans can get away with speaking English in touristy places and NOT know a foreign language is really lucky for them so at least be gracious and start with a bonjour. And asking someone if they’re deaf is so not appropriate. “no, i’m French.” haha

      Reply

  • Cheryl

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    Couldn’t agree with you more! My husband and I just finished our Duolingo practice for the day on our iPads — there are SO many helpful apps that one can use to learn at least some of the native language for the country you are visiting. There’s no excuse and almost everyone has some type of mobile device. Most of the apps don’t even require connectivity so you can study and practice anywhere like those 9 hours on the plane to your destination.

    Reply

  • Chris

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    Hear, hear, I agree! And learning some of the language in order to speak to people you meet while in France is fun. I just get panicky when the conversation moves beyond the French I have mastered. But all in all, being able to order in French some baguettes or vin, or fresh steaks in the heart of Brittany, was a very satisfying experience.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yes, you feel accomplished if you’ve asked for something in French and bonus points if you’re understood! 😉 You have to at least try, so keep up the good work.

      Reply

  • Jill Colonna

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    Well said. It not only gains respect but it’s so worth launching into the total French experience. And, dare I say, the more you try it sounds rather sexy!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yes, you can only get better and we all start from somewhere. And the sexy factor. There’s that!

      Reply

  • Maureen

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    Great post. You are absolutey right. Every time when I’ve visited Paris or other spots in France, if I try my best (not very good) French, everyone is really kind. It’s not tough to get a few phrases to work.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Exactly, all it takes is minimal effort and everyone can muster up the strength/courage/time to learn a few things. I’m a fan of starting a convo off on the right foot and saying “Hello, I’d like a…” just doesn’t cut it.

      Reply

  • Teddee Grace

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    Interesting. I’ve always read that our accents are so terrible that the French will pretend they don’t understand us even if we do try. I had three semesters of required French at university and could read the language fairly well, but never could “hear” it. The one time I was in France I was petrified to even say, “Bonjour” for fear the recipient of my greeting would start conversing in French!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi there, I think if you start with a polite bonjour and the other person replies in French with something more complicated, they’ll see in a matter of seconds that they weren’t understood and at that point, at least the initial effort was made in French. For me, it’s just the simple effort that makes a difference. 😉 No one expects tourists to be perfect at French. But I definitely understand being nervous about it! Have a great weekend

      Reply

  • Kissie

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    I have visited 4 cities in France in 15years, mostly been to Paris 5 times. I never spoke French when I was younger, and now at 29, I tried to learn it independently, and spoke the poor French to everyone, and most of the people just laughed at my face cause or the r-pronounciation. I didn’t mind cause I know how French people can be, but my friend who was travelling with me was furious for the lacking respect, she doesn’t even speak English, we are both from Finland. I speak Finnish Swedish German English and little bit Spanish and French, and I am going to study French now for a year for later purposes. But it really does not matter if you speak rubbish French, or English, response is similar, although I always got at least some what ok- or even nice service, but it has a lot to do with it how do I represent myself too. And btw, in Finland, the Russians only speak Russian, Africans only speak African, Turkish, Romanian, French… you name it. People don’t learn our language (which is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn) either and we are ok to serve people with English or with body language e.g. to guide people in the right direction. Of course tourists does not speak Finnish, but believe me, a large part of refugees also don’t even try to, and that is ridiculous if they are going to live on social benefits provided by us tax payers.

    Reply

    • Monsieur Florian

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      Hmm I’m curious, what do you mean by: “Africans only speak African” ? Africa is a CONTINENT, with 54 countries and over 2000 languages and dialects spoken. “African” is not a language or nationality.

      Reply

  • Cathe

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    It’s really weird, but as poor as my knowledge of the French language is, I love practicing my “French” whenever we are over there. Honestly, my better half (who is a born Parisian) beams so proudly whenever we go into a shop or restaurant or basically anywhere and I start to speak. In the ten years I’ve been visiting France, I’ve never once had anyone become annoyed with me. I made the EFFORT–that’s all that counts. LOL–we were in E. Dehillerin a few weeks ago and I started speaking my “bad” French to one of the sales assistants. He smiled and said that at the rate I was going he would be listening to me till 6PM. I told him he had better take a seat because I’ll make him stay till 8PM. He loved that repartee! If you just try, it makes a world of difference!!
    Cathe recently posted…A Son’s Visit. Recipe Fails and Successes–and A Fine (Kitchen) Mess I got Myself Into!My Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Exactly, no one is expecting a foreigner to know the entire dictionary but knowing a few words really does make a difference in how one is perceived. Just the other day I was paying for my lunch in Eric Kayser and the guy behind me walks up and says “Good afternoon” in English to the cashier. I’m like DUDE how hard is it to say BONJOUR??? Like seriously?? I think sometimes people think if they say something in French that they 1) will have to continue in French because the person will assume they do indeed speak French 2) just feel embarrassed that their accent is wrong or that they sound dumb. So they just carry on in English. Oh well.

      Reply

  • John V.

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    Having recently returned from our first trip to France, my wife and I recently discovered your wonderful blog. We have been devouring it in random order and enjoying ourselves immensely. Thank you for all the hard work you have obviously put into the blog over the years. This article really struck home with me. Fortunately, we ran across a youtube travel video that gave pointers on a few French phrases to use when interacting with people in France and on the importance of greeting everyone and being polite. No one on Earth could be more clumsy in their attempts at French than I was, but it was amazing to see people’s faces light up (even a customs guard or two) when greeted with a simple Bonsoir Madame or Monsieur! While of course, we encountered a few not too friendly characters, we were overwhelmed overall with how nice and helpful the French people were to a couple of clueless Americans blundering their way about on their first trip to France.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog, John! Appreciate the kind words. That’s fantastic that you tried to do your best with greeting people in French. A small effort really makes all the difference. Where in France did you visit? For your next trip, this post may be of interest if you haven’t already seen it 😉 http://ouiinfrance.com/2016/01/04/useful-french-phrases-travel-france-audio/

      Reply

      • John V.

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        We flew into Paris and spent a few days there before driving to Bayeux and visiting Normandy. It had always been a dream of ours to visit Paris, and although we only spent a few days there it was a magical experience. It is easy to see why so many people love the city and return again and again. As someone who has always had an interest in WW2 history, the trip to Normandy was incredibly interesting and moving. We visited Pointe Du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the American Cemetary, and Sainte Mere-Eglise. It seemed unreal to actually walk in places that I have read about my entire life and to contemplate what happened there so many years ago. Perhaps what surprised me most about the WW2 sites we visited was the large number of French families visiting the battle sites, museums, and cemetery. I expected it would be mostly Americans. At Pointe Du Hoc we met a French family wearing NY Yankee hats taking their children to visit the site and we took a picture for them and they for us at the monument. It is a moment I will always cherish and remember. They spoke no English and we no French, but smiles and hand gestures did the job. I imagine we were all there for the same reasons. Needless to say, what a small world it is. We also really enjoyed driving through all of the small villages and towns in Normandy, and the beautiful fields filled with blooming apple orchards, yellow flowers (rapeseed?), and herds of cows. Anyway, sorry for the long response. There are so many wonderful experiences that are still fresh in the mind. We’re in our early 50s, and it was truly a life changing experience that left me with a strong desire to learn more about the French language, people, and way of life (and your blog has been a nice start on that.) Thanks for the link. I will check it out.

        Reply

        • Diane

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          Wow, what a wonderful trip! I’ve been to Normandy a couple of times and one of the most meaningful was with my parents who visited the WW2 memorial with us. My grandfather was a veteran and it meant a lot for my family to see it. Did you go downstairs to the museum as well? Both times I went, it was sunny and eerily calm. I had goosebumps the whole time. So happy to hear you saw more than just Paris — nothing wrong with Paris, just that France has so much more to offer — and even met some French people along the way. 😉

          Yup, the yellow ones were rapeseed most likely. In full bloom around here now!

          You might have seen it, but we did a river cruise with CroisiEurope last year and went to Normandy. You might like reading about it:

          http://ouiinfrance.com/2016/07/04/river-cruising-croisieurope-paris-normandy/
          http://ouiinfrance.com/2016/07/25/river-cruising-rouen-honfleur/

          Reply

  • John V.

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    It must have added quite a bit to the experience having your parents with you in Normandy. We all owe so much to the men and women like your grandfather who served. I would like to return someday during the June 6th events to meet some of the veterans who are still with us.

    Thank you for the links to your river cruise vacation. I read all three posts. It seems like that would be a very nice way to explore more of France. I appreciated the photos of the ship, scenery, and shore excursions. They really gave a good sense of what such a cruise would be like.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      It really was incredible. Learning about the past by being there in person was an experience I’ll never forget. It felt so eerie walking along the same patches of grass that soldiers fought for their lives on. Sometimes it’s hard to really understand something unless you’ve been there to take it all in in person, even if it’s many years later.

      Glad you liked the river cruise stuff. There’s a post I did on the Loire Princessem a cruise on the Loire here in my neck of the woods. They let me on the ship to take a few pictures for my blog. Happy to have you hear, John!

      Reply

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