Q: I had always heard that the French resent foreigners who don’t speak their language, so when I moved to Paris two years ago, I enrolled in a class almost before I had finished unpacking. My skills are pretty good now, so it really annoys me that many people here answer me in English as soon as I open my mouth. Not only does it deprive me of the chance to improve, but also it feels like a putdown. Do you have a good comeback to suggest to me the next time this happens?
A: You are definitely not alone in your frustration. Anglophones just off the boat, so to speak, eager to exercise their college French, as well as those of us who have been wielding the language for decades often receive a reply in English the minute our accent is detected. Some people are relieved at not having to struggle further, but others, like yourself, are disappointed because having made efforts, they are really eager for the opportunity to use their new skills. Still others are deeply offended that, after years of living among the French and feeling strongly acculturated, they are still somehow pointed to as being different.
As background to this phenomenon, you need to know that until about 15 years ago, the vast majority of French people seldom ventured beyond their borders for more than cursory vacation trips, and rare were the youngsters who studied or worked abroad. Foreign language teaching – prizing grammar and literature – gave short shrift to conversational ability and in those days, a frequent complaint among travelers was that in France, almost no one outside the luxury establishments spoke English.
The situation has changed radically. Today English words have invaded the French language. Foreign travel is enjoyed by much of the population, study-abroad programs abound, and teaching English is a booming industry, especially in Paris. Proud of their linguistic accomplishments, the French are as eager to display them and to practice as you are, and in most cases probably think they’re extending you a courtesy by using your language. In a curious variation on the theme of cultural misunderstandings, each party, in attempting to reach out to the other, interprets the resulting reaction as a rebuff.
Longtime residents of France should probably try to put their egos on the back burner and be generous when such efforts are directed their way. Although in our own view, we have successfully adapted to the local culture and just want to fit in, to the French, we are different. Often our interlocutor will quickly reach his or her limits in English, and will backtrack. In your case, try thanking those concerned for their willingness to express themselves in your tongue, but explain to them that as you are on their territory temporarily, it’s important to you to take advantage of the opportunity of speaking to them, in order to make progress. Then, with a big smile, ask: “vous êtes d’accord?” – I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this approach!