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If I plan on visiting Paris, but not really the rest of France, is it still important for me to learn at least enough French to get by? Are people in Paris going to be willing to speak English if they know it, or is it more like they want to see you at least trying?

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Check this question: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/349/… –  asalamon74 Jun 29 '11 at 14:57
    
Sounds like you should listen to Pimsleur on the flight (assuming you're flying there) over and learn some basics. This isn't what you're asking, but learning some of the language will make the experience so much richer. –  Adam Oct 3 '11 at 2:04

6 Answers 6

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I never found the stereotypical rude Parisian I was warned about. Several people went far out of their way to help me in ways I wouldn't expect in my own city.

I did not find a great number of people outside the tourism industry in Paris that spoke English.

I did always use the French words and phrases I knew "excusez moi", "salut", "merci", and if I could struggle by with those I wouldn't even ask "parlez vous anglaise" I got the impression people appreciated that. Using single words goes far, French or English, if you can't form a sentence. If you manage to form a broken sentence people will often help out by correcting your mistakes! More people know more English vocabulary that you know French vocabulary but may not be able to make or parse English sentences.

Be patient. Smile a lot. Never act rude or arrogant. Don't talk loud when people don't understand.

When you get to your hotel or tourist information people will be able to speak English.

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+1, exactly my experience as well. Most people in Paris were friendly even though I spoke English. That said, I did throw in bonjour and merci, to the best of my ability, and it probably helped. I think using local language for greetings and thank yous is generally a good idea, not just in France. –  Jonik Sep 12 '11 at 22:18
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Also consider this: Paris is the number one most visited city in the world. It would be very strange indeed if you couldn't get by without French (most foreign visitors surely don't speak it). –  Jonik Sep 12 '11 at 22:20
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As a french I totally agree on this one. Also the myth that frenchies don't know english is wrong. More and more young people speak english. Knowing a very little french will make people interested because you tried. Everyone know you are not supposed to speak french. –  Spir Feb 7 '13 at 16:46

You can get by. Millions of Japanese do it every year. For an English speaker, French is one of the most similar. It is amazing how much communication can be accomplished without a common spoken language. For an English speaker, though, French is loaded with cognates. Out of respect and courtesy, do not assume that the French speak English. This is a good rule of thumb anywhere, but especially in France where English is viewed as a rival culture and language. The French are proud of their global cultural and linguistic influence. There is a unique sensitivity in France to English proliferation. This contrasts with much of northwestern Europe and Scandinavia, where people view English proficiency as sophisticated. Icelanders, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Dutch, and even Germans do not view English as a language and culture that competes with theirs. The French do. Most of the northwestern countries have populations smaller than NYC; their languages were never linguae francae as French was and remains. Flemish Belgians and Eastern Europeans see English as liberation from long-time domination by French, German and Russian respectively.

The French in my experience definitely respect good-faith efforts at French, particularly from Anglophones. The French are more reserved, icy and distant than Anglo-Saxons. As long as you respect someone's time, a polite "excuse me" then your question usually gets a helpful reaction even in London and esp Manhattan. Parisians will help, but not as eagerly, particularly when they're worried about a language barrier making helping an out-of-towner a drawn-out hassle. Respect their space and anonymity. Don't ask in a way that draws attention to the interaction. Respecting the anonymity-bubble is key.

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+1 for a new light on the discussion. –  kmonsoor Feb 18 '13 at 5:44

The first thing you need to know is that French education is standardized, meaning that a Parisian is not more (or less) likely to have studied English than people out in the "boondocks." (This is in contrast to most other countries, and comes as a surprise to most people. The second thing is that MOST French people know at least a little English.

Even so, it helps to know a few common expressions such as où est (where is).

As in où est le restaurant, où est le theatre, où est la pharmacie, etc. Note that the actual places in question are spelled similarly in French and English (although pronounced differently), meaning that a French person would understand you if you wrote them out.

But it helps to use the "où est" expression as an icebreaker. Similarly with common greetings: Bonjour (good day), bonsoir (good evening), monsieur (sir), and madame (madam). Plus s'il vous plait (please), and merci, thank you.

Knowing "not a lot" of French is a good bit better than knowing NONE at all.

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While education is standardized, there is a much larger proportion of people in large cities (and in touristy places) who are more proficient in English because they have used it in their job, not just learned it at school and then promptly forgotten. –  Gilles Oct 2 '11 at 18:50
    
@gilles: OK, changed my comment to a Parisian is not more likely to have STUDIED English. But of course, you're right; a Parisian IS more likely to know English "informally." –  Tom Au Oct 3 '11 at 14:17
    
As a french I never met anyone my age (30) who never learn english. The only place where you can probably meet someone that never had a lesson of english is on the very east where they have the choice between german and english. –  Spir Feb 7 '13 at 16:51

You would be surprised how many parisians speak English (and German btw). When I lived in Paris for two years, I volunteered to help in teaching English. Often I noticed that the level of English understanding was quite well. In my opinion, the stereotype of "parisian arrogance", should actually be called insecurity on their proficiency in English.

Like millions of other non-french speaking tourists, I think you can easily have a great time in Paris.

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I speak enough French to be able to read road signs, order food, and buy things. I can read almost anything and figure it out, given a little time. (I'm Canadian.) In Paris, the street vendors who are all around the Eiffel Tower accosted us every time we went by. Umbrellas, mini towers etc etc. "Non, merci" I said every time. They would melt away and leave me be. One particular time I was tired and accidentally said "no, thankyou" instead. Wow, what a difference! I got a continued aggressive sales pitch and was by no means left alone.

Learn please, thankyou, excuse me, good morning and the like. It can have unexpected benefits. And carry something to help you understand instructions on machines (such as ticket machines in train stations), signs, and menus.

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s'il vous plait, merci, excusez-moi (or pardon), bonjour. And most ticket machines in train stations have little flags for selecting language, but this is not the case for all machines. –  mouviciel Jul 7 '11 at 19:15

Firstly I'd suggest you look an an earlier answer to a very similar question: How to overcome the language barrier when visiting France and Spain?

Thinking of Paris specifically, you should find a lot of people who do speak at least some English, generally higher than in more rural parts of France. However, you'll also come across a lot more people who've got fed up of tourists who've not bothered to learn a single word of French...

So, I'd suggest you follow the advice in this answer, and learn some basic French! With even a few words you should find things go much easier. Without that, you'll mostly be fine, but may experience some hostility once or twice.

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Yes I agree it's easier to find English speakers in Paris than in most of France but it's harder to find English speakers in Paris than in many other large European cities. –  hippietrail Jun 29 '11 at 15:41

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