When visiting the country of love, you might wonder if communicating with affection is sufficient to have a good trip. Will you need to learn to speak French to get around France?
Only some people speak English in France. According to the 2012 Eurobarometer report, approximately 38% of French people know how to speak English. More people know how to speak English in the large cities compared to the rural areas of France.
If you want to know more about the English proficiency levels of the French and whether you can navigate France easily, keep reading.
Do French People Speak English?
Only some French people speak English – about one-third of the French population – but the 2020 EF English Proficiency Index places France at the 28th position out of 100 countries. Therefore, if you find an English-speaking Frenchman, they’ll likely be fluent enough to answer your questions.
Why the French Are Reluctant To Speak English
In France, it’s common for the French to reply with a simple ‘non’ when asked if they know how to speak English, despite any English knowledge they may or may not have.
According to Frenchman Benjamin Houy, there are many reasons the French are reluctant to speak English with tourists, even if they can. But the main reasons are pride and fear.
French People Don’t Speak English Out of Fear
In French culture, people do not like to claim they know how to do something unless they’re very good at it.
So even if they understand what you’re saying and can converse in basic English, a French person will likely tell you they don’t speak English at all.
This fear is further encouraged because English isn’t widely used within French culture, making them uncomfortable using it.
Additionally, L’Academie Francaise, a well-respected language institution in France, actively discourages the use of English in any context in the casual French language. In 2019, Culture Minister Franck Riester even condemned the excessive use of English in advertising.
Therefore, societal efforts to preserve their culture and prevent any exposure to English has resulted in the French missing out on opportunities to use any knowledge of it they have.
French People May Avoid Speaking English Out of Pride
The French are proud of their culture. And going to any foreign country as a tourist and expecting the natives to cater to your needs without taking the time to learn about their culture or language is self-entitled.
French locals understand that you can’t speak their language, and that’s completely fine. However, not making an effort to learn some basic French words or phrases comes across as discourteous. French people may not speak with you if you’re coming off as rude.
Can You Get By in France Without Speaking English?
You can get by in France without speaking English in larger cities like Paris. However, getting into smaller towns to visit vineyards without a tour guide will be difficult as few people will speak English there. If traveling to France, it’s important to carry a phrasebook or learn some French.
If you plan to stick to large cities like Paris or Strasbourg, you’ll be able to get around just fine.
Besides the hospitality staff who speak English, these cities have many international students and youths with some understanding of basic English.
Here’s a short video of Parisians speaking English:
In addition to this, most restaurants and cafes have their menu translated into English to improve patronage in these tourist areas.
However, beyond the large cities, navigating smaller cities or going to rural France gets tricky because most people don’t speak any English.
For example, going to Chateau Gaudrelle, one of France’s best vineyards located in Loire valley, would be difficult because most of the inhabitants of Loire don’t speak English.
Therefore, you should learn some French. Even if you plan to buy a mobile plan that has unlimited data so you can use Google translate to grease the way for you, it’s still more polite to learn basic French phrases.
Here are some French phrases you should memorize before your trip to France:
As English is composed of a hybrid of Romance languages, including French, you should be able to pick these basic phrases up in no time.
English Use in Major Cities in France
Paris – Paris is the capital of France, and has a population of around 2 million people. It is ranked the second most visited city in the world. Paris is often referred to as ‘the city of love’, due to its language, cuisine and landmarks, making it a popular destination for romantic trips. People visit from all over the world to have a photo with the famous Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and to visit the world famous Louvre art gallery. You will have no trouble speaking English around the popular tourist hotspots, and you will equally find restaurants whose waiters speak fluent English and have menus in both languages.
Marseille – Marseille is France’s second largest city, and is known as the ‘oldest city in France’. The city was founded in 600BC and quickly became an important port for the Ancient Greeks, continuing to be a vital port in France today. This has led to Marseille becoming a hub of migration, bringing with it a plethora of cultures and languages. In recent years Marseille has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, due its more southerly location and warmer climate. English is not as widely spoken in Marseille as the more popular tourist destinations of Paris and Lyon, however, you will find those who speak English in the tourist areas.
Lyon – Lyon is the third largest city in France, with a population of 1.7 million. In the 17th century, Lyon became the silk manufacturing capital of Europe, placing it firmly on the map as a vital European city. Lyon continues to be an important city in the textile industry and the most important educational center outside Paris. Lyon has a large historic centre, and has the largest ensemble of Renaissance buildings in Europe, making it a UNESCO world heritage site. Lyon is the second most visited tourist destination in France, which is reflected in how widely English is spoken in the city, especially tourist spots, such as museums, restaurants and bars.
Toulouse – ‘La Ville Rose’, the pink city, is an affectionate name given to Toulouse due to its pink brick buildings. The city is known for its medieval heritage and is more recently famous due to its world-class aerospace industry. Toulouse is known for its vibrant cultural scene, making it a popular destination, for visitors and students, giving it a youthful atmosphere. Basic English is spoken in tourist areas of the city, as well as increasingly amongst the younger university population.
Lille – Lille is an important hub between Paris, Brussels and London, due to its rail links. Lille was well known as the industrial capital of France, however, Lille is more recently being viewed as the cultural capital of Northern France. Basic English is spoken around areas close to the main train station and tourist restaurants and cafes.
Bordeaux – Bordeaux is infamous for its wine region, which is only a short drive from the city center. With it’s beautiful buildings, river walks, elegant restaurants and rich culture, Bordeaux is a beautiful city to visit. English is spoken throughout Bordeaux, especially in it’s hotels, wineries, restaurants and many shops.
Nice – Nice is a popular tourist destination due to its seaside location and warm climate. It is easy to get lost in the winding streets, promenade along the seafront and enjoy the plethora of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating. Nice is accustomed to an influx of tourists in the summer months, and consequently English is spoken in many tourist spots and by staff in bars, restaurants and hotels.
What Languages are Spoken in France?
French – French is the official language of France, so it is unsurprising that for 88% of the population of France, French is their first language. French is the fifth most spoken language in the world, with French being spoken in Monaco, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and many African, Caribbean and Oceanic nations.
English – English is the second most spoken language in France, predominantly as a second language and due to a number of British, Irish, American and Australian migrants. Speaking English is seen as a key skill in France, given the popularity of France as a tourism destination.
Spanish – A significant number of people in France speak Spanish, due to its shared border, and a long history of immigration from Spain to France. In recent years, there has been an increase in Spanish immigration due to high unemployment in Spain.
German – Germany, similarly to Spain shares a border with France, and is the 4th most common language in France. This is largely due to the Northern area of Alsace-Lorraine on the German border, which has a large German speaking population.
Teaching English in France
France is a popular destination for English teachers. Paris is the most popular destination for English teachers, making it very competitive. Therefore, it is worth keeping in mind some of the other more popular cities to teach in: Nice, Montpellier, Nantes, Strasbourg, Lyon, Toulouse and Bordeaux.
France has high standards when hiring English teachers, and will expect a bachelor’s degree, as well as at least one year teaching experience. Schools in France also have longer work days than you might be used to, however, this means that many schools can have a day off mid-week for students to engage in extracurricular activities. Trained teachers working in an international school, can expect to make around $2000 USD a month. Working in international schools is a popular option, due to the high pay grade.
Why do the French refuse to speak English?
It is a common perception that the French are reluctant to speak English. English is the dominant foreign language taught in schools in France, and has been for many years. Therefore, it is unlikely that the majority of French people do not have a basic grasp of English.
The French may refuse to speak English due to a pride in their own language and culture, and believing that tourists should make the effort to learn basic French. There is also the argument that a refusal to speak English, is a way to continue the dominance of the French language and highlight the value in learning it as a foreign language.
Can You Survive in France With English?
As a tourist in France, you will be able to get by with English in all major tourist areas, especially in the larger cities. The more rural you travel the more difficult it will become to survive with just English, so having a repertoire of simple French phrases will make a big difference.
By learning key phrases you will be more flexible with your travel and have the opportunity to immerse further into French culture. If you’re choosing to stay in France longer term, it will be necessary to develop your French to at least a basic level. Developing conversational French during your time abroad, will help to enrich your experience of living in France.
Is France a Good Country to Live In?
France is a beautiful country, with a rich culture and heritage. From its sunny beaches to snowy alps, France has a variety of landscapes to meet any lifestyle. There is a reason France is one of the most visited countries in the world! France has often been named as one of the top countries to live in globally.
With its exceptional education, world class health care system and maternity services, and high standard of living, it is easy to see why France is a desirable country to move to. And most importantly, we should not forget to mention the high class food and wine available throughout France.
So, that is about everything I have to say about people speaking English in France. France is great place to visit and you should in theory be able to get by in the major cities. If you venture into the countryside you will find that a little bit of the local language goes a long way.
There are many good reasons for learning a 2nd language, so why not choose French. Especially if you are planning to spend a few months in the country.