Now here is a commonplace. I believe I have heard this a million times.

The French are terrible, they won't ever speak to you in English or any other language and if you address them in English, they'll be very unpolite and unfriendly.

I have been thinking about this a lot, and I thought I'd share with you the fruit of my thinking. Trying to un-common the commonplace.

Any French person who's studied as far as the baccalaureate has had at least 7[1] years of classes in a foreign language and possibly 2 to 5 years in another. Now make that studied until they were 15 (not as far as high school), that's still 3 years in a language. The statistics are amazing. In 2006 [2], 99% of French students in the secondary education are learning a language,

The French educational system introduces the first foreign language (première langue vivante) at the beginning of the secondary cycle (classe de sixième - around 11/12 years old). The first language learned is English 92%, followed by German, 7.5%. A second language is then introduced two years later (classe de quatrième - 13/14 years old). Spanish mostly (70%), then German (14%).

So how come the French won't ever speak to you in another language?

Well here is my theory.

French is a language which, if you don't speak it properly, is difficult to understand. Structure being so important and all. So French speakers are afraid, when they don't master a foreign language, that they won't be understood. That's the first reason, I think.

Then comes the "proud" factor. The French educational system, while not being the worst, is definitely not the best when it comes to languages. French students are usually really good at grammar, but can't say a word, because they are rarely taught in a conversational way. And the French are convinced that they are really bad at languages (a stereotype that sticks). So when you go to a French person in the street and ask, in English:

Hi, do you speak English?

You're bound to get the answer:


And that's it. So try this. Next time you're wandering French streets and are lost, find someone and tell them, in the worst French you can master:

Bonjour, je suis désolé(e) je ne parle pas français, est-ce que vous parlez anglais ? (Hi, I'm sorry, I don't speak French, do you speak English?)

I bet you that the French will then answer, in a broken, accent-ridden, but totally bearable English

Yes, a little bit.

The thing is, if you put yourself at the level of knowledge the French think they're at when it comes to speaking a foreign language (ie. me no speak), you're showing them that you are as bad as they (think they) are in a foreign language. Doing this, you break the barrier and show them that you are willing to admit that you're the one who does not speak their language in the first place and that if they speak to you in English, however wrong their grammar or accent is, they won't be utterly ridiculous.

It's all about putting yourself on the same level, to avoid any kind of hierarchy that would hinder the communication channel.


[1] [edit 22 May 2009], it's 7, not 8, as was written here previously

[2] See the file: Etude des langues vivantes dans le second degré