One Big Problem I Encountered as a French Language Student in Paris

Paris is a wonderful city and it completely captured my heart while I was living there, but, just like any city in the world, it has its fair share of negatives, both for the Parisian and the foreigner. Us languages students are kind of in the middle of the two – not a Parisian and not entirely a tourist – which presents its own set of problems, however there is one main issue that I had while I was in Paris, and I know without a doubt that there will be a resounding “hear hear” from my fellow French-speaking/studying Paris placement students when they hear it.

This enormous, massive, colossal, mammoth problem is being spoken back to in English when you have spoken in perfect (or near perfect) French. It happened all the time, from the day I arrived until the day I left, and it was the most infuriating thing. Now, it was annoying to walk through the touristy areas and be bombarded by people selling things to you (“one euro, one euro” and “wine beer beer wine” being the most frequent, amirite? Looking at you, fellow Paris students), but this was excusable. After all, they were tourist areas, and they were speaking first. But when you sit down in a restaurant, bar, bistro or café and give your order perfectly fine in French, you don’t expect the waiter or waitress to reply in English. I would often turn around to my friend and ask “I’m sorry, what language was I speaking? They just spoke to me in English, but I thought I was speaking in French.” (entirely sarcastic, of course.) It drove me absolutely insane and often made me angry. I was making an effort to speak their language, I hadn’t once spoken to them in English, nor had I made any mistakes (it’s just ordering food, and I’m pretty well practiced in that), so why do they feel the need to respond in English?

Some people would argue that they’re just being kind, that they want to help, or that maybe they want to practice their English the same way that I want to practice my French. All of those points I completely understand, but that doesn’t change my stance on it. I used to work in a supermarket in a student area and would often serve French and Spanish international students. Even if I heard them speaking in their language before they came to the till, even if they had an identifiable accent, even if they were speaking in their language to themself while they were actually at the till, I would never speak to them in Spanish/French without them actually asking to, or me asking their permission. It would have been disrespectful and disregarding of their efforts to speak English, even if my intentions were good.

There were many waiters/waitresses that I had to repeatedly speak to in French before they would stop speaking English to me and speak to me in French, and some wouldn’t switch back to French unless I explicitly told them that I could speak French (in French, of course). I can count on one hand the amount of times I was spoken to entirely in French in a restaurant. Five times (or possibly not even that many) in six months. Poor show, Paris.

Now I understand that Paris is the most visited city in the entire world, and with nearly 15.5 million foreign visitors in 2013 (with the biggest nationality groups being British and American) I can understand the need for the Parisians working in the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors to speak English. (In fact, I applaud their foreign language skills. If a Frenchman were to visit London and speak French to the waiter in a restaurant he would be met with a blank stare.) I also understand that I might have a slight English accent when speaking French and I understand that I sometimes make mistakes. What I can’t understand is the Parisians’ need to speak English to foreigners even when you’re willingly and happily speaking French, because, to me, it’s quite frankly rude and insulting.

It’s a topic that gets me a little riled up, so I may have voiced my opinion quite strongly! Have you ever visited Paris and encountered this situation before? Fellow French-speaking non-French people, what’s your take on this issue? Let me know in a comment on this post or send me a tweet at @hlou14.

Until next time,

H x

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1 Comment

  1. 04/11/2015 / 4:03 pm

    YES YES YES! People always speak back to me in English even when I say something completely correct and comprehensible. If I take too long deciding what to eat, they ask me if I want an English menu when really I’m being slow because I’m indecisive, not because I don’t understand French. Ergh.

    Laura @ What’s Hot?

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