Oh, It’s Okay, Everybody Speaks English Anyway


I’m an American living in Paris. I know, I know, that’s a niche we haven’t heard enough about. “Please, tell us, how crusty is your croissant? How jaunty is the angle of your beret?” I get that there are so many stereotypes out there about this country, this city, that it’s easy to forget that it is an actual place. We can slip into thinking of it, and other big tourist cities like it, as extensions of EPCOT and not the geographically-qualified collection of humans that they are.

But Paris is just that – a city. It is as good, bad, interesting, dull, beautiful, and dreary as any other city. Sure, there is breathtaking architecture and exquisite food, but there are also worker’s strikes and loud street sweepers and problems with the metro and every other issue that is a part of city life. And when you live here, you get to understand on a day-to-day basis just how much the city is bound to fail when living up to its image. That image of Paris as a black-and-white postcard, a moving Doisneau photo, has just never really existed.

Yet it kills me to see the way most foreigners who come to live here now will describe this city. There is an entire industry that seems to run on the novelty factor of laughing at how rude, unaccommodating, and flippant Parisians can be. Books upon blogs upon word-of-mouth anecdotes are built around the hilarity of failure to communicate and poking fun at the Frogs and their love of pretension. Most are willing to do this, it should be noted, speaking not a word of French. No, this conclusion of the French’s generally negative and mean-spirited demeanor was reached entirely in broken English. And while France gets the worst of the international mockery, it would be untrue to say that it’s the only country to which English-speakers feel free to travel without taking even a moment to learn the language.

My grandmother is French Canadian, and made it a point to help me with my French. She was always there for a phone call, an email, an encouraging card in French – but it was never spoken in my home. 90 percent of the grunt work of learning and eventually becoming fluent in French was done on my own. In the classroom, at home watching French movies, at French-speaking meetup groups in my city; I made it a point not to waste the time I dedicated to learning my second language. I did not, under any circumstances, want to be one of those people you meet who majored in a language in college and, ten years later, can barely eke out a coherent sentence. It just seemed like such a waste. And beyond that, I knew that I wanted to live in France some day, and it was of the utmost importance to me that I speak the language of the country I was so sure I’d fall in love with.

There is a persistent rumor in America that in going to Western Europe, we don’t need to learn the language of the country we’re visiting. And while it’s true that a tourist can get by for a week or so with a few key phrases from his book, there are many people (some I know personally) who see fit to go live in a country for months, even years at a time, without even attempting to learn the language. Yes, most young people here have a sufficient level of English to communicate in a basic way, and some are much more proficient. But amongst the older generations, you’d be very lucky to find one out of five who could hold a decent conversation. And even within the younger generation, there are many people whose English is so rudimentary that they are simply not themselves in our language.

Many of my dearest friends here, I simply would not have made if I didn’t speak their language. They are uncomfortable, hesitant, and not at all the funny, charming people they really are when they speak English. And it is no fault of theirs, they don’t work in industries where it’s required and, quite frankly, language is not their strong point. They will gamely fumble through a conversation if need be, but there is no way I would have gotten to know them if I couldn’t speak to them on their own terms.

As for the older generations, some of the most interesting, curious, hilarious people I’ve met in France have been my grandmother’s age. And one of the things that makes conversation with them so fascinating is that, for many, I’m one of the few Americans they’ve ever really been able to speak with. They are able to explain their viewpoints and their impressions on my country, one that at once seems to them so omnipresent and yet so unattainable. We’re on their televisions, on their radio, yet speaking a language they don’t understand. Without my knowledge of French, I would have never learned any of it.

Even the impression we have that Europeans somehow have a near-robotic system of learning English, one that leaves every student with a level so proficient that it renders conversation with them in their own language unnecessary, is completely false. Yes, there are parts of Europe (Northern leaps to mind) that have a language-learning system that is to be envied, but that is certainly not the case everywhere. Throughout France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere–the system is as flawed and inconsistent as it is in America. There are students here who excel in their English studies, as well as students who flounder and never quite master it. It is, like it is in the States, a matter of choice with the individual.

I only know French, and have only lived in France, so I can only base my opinions on the tiny slice of this problem that I see. I know that there are exceptions to this rule. But it becomes grating when nearly every piece of writing you see about the country you live in is being written not only in a derisive, disdainful tone, but written by someone who hasn’t even bothered to learn the language of the country they feel they deserve to inhabit. The sheer arrogance of the idea is staggering; the concept of coming to these people’s doorsteps and expecting them to communicate with you so smacks of entitlement that it’s hard to believe anyone does it. It’s playing an away game and wanting to wear the home jersey. It has become commonplace, even mundane, to complain about how rude the French are. But how well can you know a people to whom you’ve never truly spoken, whose culture and language and history you are all too confident in overlooking? Imagine the embarrassment, the frustration, a French person must feel when they are forced to speak a language they barely understand because the visitors couldn’t be bothered to learn a few words.

For the record, I have very, very rarely met someone who was outright rude to me. No more than, say, in New York or Washington, DC. Nearly without fail, every person I speak to is quick to inquire about my country, why I speak their language, and what brought me to France. They are complimentary and flattering about my mastery of their mother tongue, and always eager to help and teach me new expressions or slang terms I might not know. They are patient when explaining a complex turn of phrase, and warmly curious about what I have to say. For many of them, it’s very disarming to speak to an American in such a way. They talk about the strangeness of so many Anglophones living in their country who do not speak their language and, even for years on end, will be having (more or less) the “tourist experience” – only seeing a limited slice of the country. A friend once told me he felt like a zoo animal. Because of his very limited knowledge of English, he is able to be only a photo-op, an extra in a story to be told later on as someone who can barely say “merci” talks about the “time she lived in France.”

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image – Jason Cartwright