Saturday, June 8, 2013

Surviving in Paris without speaking French

So you want to go to Paris, but you don't speak French?  One thing I've heard a lot from people who are considering visiting us here is that they're concerned about the fact that they don't speak french.  And while you can get by solely with english, there's a middle-ground that I've found works well to improve communication, and very importantly, to not make the locals angry.

Honestly, the best thing to do is learn, but that takes a great deal of time.  So in addition to what I outline below, I recommend a good phrase-book.  Dictionaries are great for vocabulary, but a phrasebook is more useful day-to-day.  I really like the one from Lonely Planet.  It's a little geared towards the younger crowd, but it has fantastic sections on getting around and restaurants.

Ok, so what's the secret to getting by without speaking french?  Learn and use the most important french words, be as polite as you can be, and politely fall back to english.

The most important words?

  1. bonjour (hello)
  2. au revoir (good-bye)
  3. s'il vous plaît  (please)
  4. merci (thank you)
  5. oui (yes)
  6. non (no)
  7. parlez-vous anglais?  (do you speak english?)
  8. je ne parle pas français? (I don't speak french)
Close to the magic words in english, but there's a reason I put bonjour first.  It's the first word you use, and you use it a lot.


In France, if you walk into a store, the very first thing you do is look at the proprietor, and say "Bonjour", they'll do the same back to you.  Don't worry about mangling it, just say it.  Doing anything else is rude.  If you come in, ignore the shopkeeper, and then ask (especially in english) about something, it's very, very rude.

A smile and a bonjour, and suddenly the Parisians go from cold and off-putting to very warm, and sometimes even friendly.  Oh, and an adorable blonde toddler that also says bonjour as you walk in together certain gets you a lot of bonus points with the staff.

Bonjour does a few things.  It recognizes them as another person.  Your mangled pronunciation tells them that you speak little to no french.    Which is good, because in Paris, if your shopkeeper has decent english, they'll switch to it and save you both a lot of greif.

If there's a line (like at the fromagerie (cheese shop) I went to this evening), then it seems customary to wait until someone frees up, and then you each say bonjour to each other.

A side note.  I've said shopkeeper/proprieter, and for good reason.  By and large, the small stores which are simply everywhere in Paris are worked by the owner, and/or their family.  They probably live behind/above the store.  Walking into a store is Paris is very much akin to walking into the front room at someone's house.  This is thought to be one reason why everyone in a supermarket is on edge, the normal etiquette doesn't work, and the result doesn't feel right to anyone.

Speaking English

In the areas that are well-traveled by tourists, english is omnipresent.  Everyone seems to speak it.  But assuming that is rude.  So you want to be as polite as you can be about switching to english.  I've found that a pained look, a deep sigh, and a hopeful "parlez-vous anglais?" will help me tremendously.


They probably have minimal english, and so speaking slowly and clearly is helpful (for them).  Rattling off a bunch of high-speed questions in english isn't much better than you getting a barrage of questions in french.

As I've learned more french, more of my interactions are purely in french.  But sometimes it's just out of my small realm of knowledge, and french numbers are extra fun for english speakers.  In those cases, a polite request if they speak english, and proceeding careful makes things go fairly smoothly.


Please, thank you, yes and no are all pretty obvious when to use.  But don't forget to say au-revoir when leaving.  For the same reason that you say bonjour, you say au revoir.  You're politely ending the exchange.

Also, in the evening, you'll hear bon soir (bo-swa).  This is good evening.  And you match it with bon soiré (bo-swa-ray) when you leave.

More reading

I must admit that I did not magically stumble upon or derive this knowledge.  I found it among an excellent set of books that we read (or re-read) before moving here.  They have been excellent windows into french culture.  I highly recommend them if you have the time, and are wanting more insight into the French and french culture.

Bringing up Bébé
French Women Don't get Fat

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