Do You Really Need to Speak French?

The most obvious answer is yes, it is a good idea to speak the official language of the country you are in, which in France is French. This is the language people speak in school, at work, in restaurants, at the gym, in government, and during cultural events, so learning it is very important if you are going to spend time in France.

In Paris...

It’s true that in Paris you can get through your day without speaking French, but even if you speak English, which is considered a lingua franca by many people in the world, you will still only know half of what is going on and the frustration of only knowing half of what is going on is higher than the frustration that comes with learning a new language. Besides, frustration is only one stage in learning a language and this passes when you do end up being able to communicate effectively in a foreign language. In the former case, the frustration remains a constant annoyance.

If You Are Not In Paris...

Also, what if you are not in Paris? Paris is a great city, but let’s face it – from early January through the end of March that whole region – northern France, the Low Countries, the UK, Ireland – is as depressing as an Ingmar Bergman film. The sky isn’t just cloudy and overcast, it’s so constantly grey for days – or weeks – on end, that you might forget the city has any color until everything suddenly blooms in spring. There’s a reason why airfare to Paris shoots up in April. It’s such a relief to actually witness sunlight that people will just appear on terraces at five in the afternoon, ordering beer, regardless of what their normal schedules are like.

So to keep from falling into the depression of Seasonal Affective Disorder – rightly referred to by the acronym SAD – why not take the TGV down to Marseille or Nice or somewhere nice – get it? (actually, that was not intentional at all) – where you can see the light of day and speak to people who have the time to chat with you and are not always running off to the next thing, through the drizzle, head down, as the Parisians do.

But in order to have a nice chat with random people in France, you will need to speak French. Sure, there are plenty of people in all parts of France who are excited to practice English, but unless their everyday activities really involve a lot of English, conversation will be limited. And if English is not your everyday language, but another language you are learning, why choose a francophone country as a place to practice it?

If You Are a Tourist...

If you are a tourist, then I understand that your priority may not be to master the French language, but to have a nice vacation. In this case, it is good to learn a few useful words: “Bonjour”, “Au revoir”, “Merci”, and “Pardon” are all useful things to know. Phrases such as “J’aimerais un café, s’il vous plaît” and “Est-ce que vous auriez l’heure?” are also useful and yes, these are polite forms of the questions, which is something the French appreciate, as the general culture tends to be a bit more on the formal side of things. Erring on the side of formality is at worst cute, but generally charming, as is making an effort to speak French, even if your French is rudimentary.

If You Are a Student...

If you are a student, then make learning French a priority. There are so many things that are specific to the French university system and educational system in general that it will help guide you to know how to enroll in class (which is a nightmare, even for the French), what materials to use, and what is expected of you in terms of completing assignments. Also, there are always moments when you need information about a missed class, an upcoming presentation, or a schedule change from your peers and it is likely that they speak French.

If You Are Working in France...

If you are working in France, it is better to know what is going on in the workplace, which also involves knowing quite a bit of French. Concentrating on work-specific vocabulary is fine. It’s always better to be au courant at work, isn’t it? And socializing – which involves communication, which uses language – is also a large part of the work environment, although at times we might prefer to keep some things personal.

In this case, your position as a learner of French might help you, since you will be focusing much more on words and phrases linked to your professional life than your personal life, and that is a great excuse to keep the focus on work. If you are working in France temporarily, exposure to the language and culture in France will only help you professionally.

If you want to order things in restaurants, get familiar with food items on the menu, since food – and what people even consider edible – is very specific to region. Unless you don’t mind putting anything that walks, flies, or crawls in your mouth, it’s a good idea to know food-related vocabulary and to be able to order correctly. I personally love escargots, but would not touch horsemeat with a ten-foot pole. Some people might think the opposite. This may seem completely arbitrary, and it probably is.

In any case, it is only the server’s job to bring you your order, although describing it is also part of the deal, but this again involves language. Some gestures might help, but although many servers in places like Los Angeles and New York are moonlighting actors, servers in places like Paris tend to stay at their jobs for longer and might not have developed mime skills along the way.

There are also actors who try to act French in French restaurants, though it's safe to assume they're not speaking real French. Enjoy this clip if you haven't yet.

It is important to remember that doctors and other health professionals, including the pharmacists who are readily available in neighborhood pharmacies, also use very specific French terminology, and knowing certain key French terms when dealing with anything medical is extremely useful.

Hopefully you will remain healthy throughout your stay in France, but it’s good to be able to pick up a bottle of sunscreen with a high SPF (or IPS) that will give you plenty of UV protection for those long summer days that come from being at a relatively high latitude. You definitely wouldn’t want to get that mixed up with tanning oil. Then you might really need to see a doctor.


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