Ahhh France. The home of romance, and love. France is a hugely popular tourist location, especially the capital Paris. But how many speak English in France? If you visit the country on holiday, can you get away with just speaking English in France, or should you learn a little bit of French first?
Bad news, English is not spoken widely in France. However, if you visit the more touristy areas, you will probably be able to get away with speaking English in France. Particularly at the well known attractions, and in the bigger cities, you can speak English in the hotels and restaurants.
If you venture further afield though, you’ll quickly find your English useless. Knowing a few basic French phrases will make your visit to France much easier – even if you visit the capital Paris.
Statistics estimates recently that less than 2/5’s of the French popular, about 39%, speak English to at least some degree. Finding fluent English speakers will be much more difficult however. The majority of that 39% will only be able to speak basic English in France.
Because of that, France is a country that really requires you to speak at least some French. In fact, the French locals will react much nicer to you if you try to speak French, even if they speak English! You simply cannot rely on your English in France, especially outside the capital city.
Speaking English in Paris should be ok
If you’re visiting Paris, English speakers generally get by ok. English is much more common in the capital than anywhere else. In particular, visiting tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Élysées or somewhere similar, you can speak English and they will understand and reply in English.
Paris is ranked among one of the top 3 places to visit, with over 20 million visitors and tourists each year – most of them being English speakers
Paris, and other popular tourist cities in France, are well prepared for English speakers, expats, Brits and Americans. Most places in the capital will have English speak staff members, and tourist offices will usually have leaflets in English. Restaurants and hotels will usually have guides and signs in English also.
Major hotels and restaurants in Paris will speak English, with a lot of staff members (particularly younger staff members) being able to speak English in France.
Outside of the capital, you will find it harder to speak English in France
Once you leave Paris, or any of the other larger cities, you’re going to start hitting problems. English is far less common in smaller areas of France, and drops well below the 39% average we quoted area.
Older ones in France tend to know less English than younger ones. Many of the over 50’s were not taught English at school, so may not know much English at all. Younger ones however are taught English at schools, and usually will have a basic knowledge of English. However they also tend to be a little more hesitant to use it.
Strangely, despite English speakers being relatively low, English is still the second most common language in France. Spanish and German are also spoken, probably because of the open borders between the countries.
English is not compulsory as a second language in France – it is optional. Younger ones speak English, but their ability is usually somewhat basic, and in comparison to other countries it remains quite low.
French culture is quite different to English also. Most TV shows and movies that are English are dubbed into French by voice actors. So don’t be surprised if you turn on Friends and hear completely different voices for your favourite characters!
Because of this, people in France are not engrossed in the English language. This makes them less proficient than countries such as Portugal, where most of their American TV shows and movies are not dubbed.
The facts get a little blurry however because many people in France are able to speak English, but they prefer not to. In fact, it is quite widely considered to be rude if you just start speaking English to them and assume they will speak English back. You should at least try and speak some French with them before resorting to your natural language.
That makes sense. Imagine if a French tourist visited your restaurant, and just started speaking French at you, without even trying to speak some English first. Even if you speak French, you’d consider them to be quite ignorant. The same goes for tourists in France.
French people may pretend they can’t speak English if you don’t try and speak French – as they think it’s rude for you to not even try and speak the local language.
There are some who disagree with this, and say that the reason French people don’t speak English straight away is because they are not confident in their ability. They don’t want to start speaking in English and not be able to understand, so they simply resort back to French.
In reality, the truth likely sits somewhere between the two. Whatever their reason for not speaking English, it can make things more difficult for people to speak English in France.
It’s so important to learn at least some basic French phrases to be able to get by in France. It will make approaching French people much easier, and allows you to speak and converse with them to a basic enough degree to get by.
By speaking basic French to start a conversation, staying polite, you are much more likely to have a French people then start speaking English with you.
How many speak English in French Cities
Each city in France is different, but we’ve narrowed down the English speaking abilities a little further, but listing out the experiences that have been reported by English speaking visitors to these cities:
English in Paris
Shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and attractions speak English well. Most locations in the capital will have English speakers, and you will be able to get by speaking English. You can speak English in Paris, but you should learn some basic phrases in French.
English in Toulouse
In general, staff in hotels speak some English. Toulouse is home to many international companies, as well as international studies, which means that there are more English speakers in Toulouse than you might think. You can speak English in Toulouse, and Google Translate is your friend here, especially if you can’t speak a word of French!
English in Strasbourg
Sitting right on the German border, this city has a lot of international companies and studies here. English is spoken reasonably, however German is also spoken here and is more common because its location. Younger ones normally can speak English, so you can speak English in Strasbourg, but you should learn some basic French to get by.
English in Bordeaux
As above, hotel staff should be able to speak enough English to communicate with you. In the main tourist attractions, English will also be spoken. If you know a few basic French phrases, you should be able to get by here. You will get by speaking English in Bordeaux, but before speaking English, ask them if they speak it (in French).
English in Marseille
Staff members and those who speak with tourists regularly will be able to speak English. Major attractions, hotels and restaurants are among those who speak some English. English in Marseilla is possible. Having some basic French phrases is useful, as places outside of the above are less likely to speak English.
English in Lyon
Larger restaurants and shopping centres in the main tourist locations will speak a good level of English. Elsewhere, English is not particularly common. If you’re planning to visit here, get yourself a good French phrase book. English in Lyon is not possible unless you are in the main tourist areas. If you plan to stay long term, you’ll need to improve your French language skills to be able to integrate.
English in Loire Valley
This area is quite rural, so English is not spoken much here. If you’re staying in a Bed and Breakfast, or camping in the Loire, you’ll need to learn some French. You will not be able to get by just speaking English in Loire Valley – it is too remote.
English in Lille
English is not spoken much here. The locals tend to be a little older, and so will mainly speak French. Although a major stop on the Eurostar from London, you’ll need to learn some basic French to get by. Speaking English in Lille is not common. Because of its train connections however, there are likely to be more English speakers in restaurants and other public areas.
English in Nice
Located on the Mediterranean coast, English is common in Nice. It is a popular city for tourists. Outside of the hotels, restaurants and bars however, English is not so common. Younger ones tend to be able to speak at least some basic English. If you are in the main areas, you can speak English in Nice. It’s reported that you can live in Nice without knowing much French, as long as you stick to the main areas.
Learning some Basic French
Throughout this article, we’ve made mention of the need to know at least some basic French phrases. This is essential to help you get by. French is often considered quite a romantic language. Lots of letters are dropped off the end of words, and words slur together into each other. So don’t try and read the words like you would in English. Rather, try to understand when and where the French drop letters.
The change in pronunciation can be difficult to learn at first, but it can be done with some practice! Be prepared to ask someone to repeat SLOWLY, as the French speak very fast, making it difficult to understand them. This is especially true when they have a strong accent and slur their words together.
Here’s a list of some of the more common phrases you should learn:
English: Bonjour – French: Hello – Pronounced: Bon-joor
English: Hello (informal) – French: Salut – Pronounced: Saloo
English: How are you? – French: Comment ca va? – Pronounced: Comm-on sa-va?
English: Good evening – French: Bonsoir – Pronounced: Bon-swaah
English: Sir – French: Monsieur – Pronounced: Mur-si-urh
English: Madam – French: Madame – Pronounced: ma-damm
English: Goodbye – French: Au revoir – Pronounced: Aah rev-wah
English: See you the following day – French: A demain – Pronounced: A der-ma
English: Sorry – French: Pardon – Pronounced: Par-dohn
English: Excuse me – French: Exusez moi – Pronounced: Es-skew zay moi
English: Yes – French: Oui – Pronounced: Wee
English: No – French: Non – Pronounced: Non
English: Please – French: S’il vous plait – Pronounced: Sih-voo-play
English: Thank you – French: Merci – Pronounced: Mer-cee
English: You’re welcome – French: De rien – Pronounced: Duh-ree-an
English: Do you talk English? – French: Parlez vous anglais? – Pronounced: Parley voo arn-glay?
English: I don’t speak French – French: Je ne parle pas francais – Pronounced: Je nay parley pas frarn-say
English: I don’t understand – French: Je ne comprends pas – Pronounced: Je nay compron pah
English: Where is….? – French: Où est……? – Pronounced: Ooh eh……?
English: The bill please? – French: l’addition s’il vous plait – Pronounced: La-dission sih voo play
English: Where is the bathroom? – French: Où sont les toilettes? – Pronounced – Ooh son leh twoylett?
Just like we mentioned in our article about English in Italy, and is the case with many other latin languages, it is much better to know a little bit of French than to not know any. French people, including those who speak English, will appreciate you making at least some effort. Often, they will switch to English once they see you trying in French. (They’ll hear your English accent even if you think you’re speaking fluently!).
There is a common concern that the French simply brush off tourist who just speak English at them without trying – considering them to be quite rude. This is somewhat true, particularly in the capital cities. Forums online give mixed stories on this however, with some simply saying that they’re just not confident to speak English.
There is also an argument that it’s simply a different in culture. The French can sometimes come across as “rude” to English speakers, but in reality, they simply have a different culture – and it’s actually more considered as rude to not try and speak French!
It seems an almost unanimous view on the internet however, that English speakers need two main things to survive in France: You should learn some basic French phrases, and you need to be polite.
Loud, ‘lads-holiday’ tourists in France do not go down well. Those who go to France expecting everyone to speak English at them will not get welcomed with open arms. It’s important to be aware of differences in culture and to stay respectful and polite when asking for help (which is the same everywhere!).
How to speak English in France
Many who live in France long-term confirm that some of the French stereotypes are true. Some people like things done a particular way, and can come across a little bit ‘cold’ if you try and do something different to their French culture.
Because of this, the French can come across a little more sensitive than places like Spain and Portugal. When asking for help. It’s very important to d out in a way that is polite and not brash.
Need some tips? Here’s a few simple suggestions to speaking English in France:
- Try and speak some French first, even if it’s very basic. The locals will be far more receptive if you’re making the effort to speak their language, rather than assuming they will speak yours.
- Always remain polite when asking questions
- Even if you get frustrated, don’t be arrogant, blunt or rude.
- If they don’t understand, the natural tendency is to speak louder… They won’t understand any clearer because your volume rises!
- Simply repeat clearly, and slowly if they don’t fully understand.
- Don’t make a scene, or speak loudly when you approach them.