Wanderlusty Wednesday: (Attempt to) Speak the Language

When I tell people I lived in France, a frequent question I get is…

“Aren’t French people mean to Americans?”

And when I respond, “No, not in general,” the next comment is often, “Well, that’s probably because you speak the language.”

Which, to an extent, is true.

But French people weren’t generally nice to me because I spoke proficient French.

They were nice to me because I didn’t automatically expect them to speak English.

And this isn’t specific to French people.

Let me explain.

I was on a train to Normandy years ago, chatting with a very nice American girl I’d just met. We got off the train together, and before I could say anything, she went up to the nearest train station employee and blurted, “Can you tell me how to get to the beaches?”

No BonjourNo fumbling Parlez-vous anglais. Just a straight-up question in English in a country where English is not the official language.

When I (nicely) pointed this out, her response was, “Well, you know they understand us!”

Firstly, no, we do not know that; not all people who work at transit stations are required to speak English (even though this one did, and was actually quite helpful.) Secondly, even if you do think someone understands English, it’s common respect to at first address them in the language of the country in which you are.

“But that’s easy for you! You speak French!”

This is true. But I have also traveled through Hungary, Greece, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Italy–all countries where I’ve never studied a word of the language. And I still don’t go around blurting out questions to people in English. What I do is this:

Look up a few choice phrases in each language. For me, these typically include: hello, please, thank you, I don’t speak [language], do you speak English? Where are the toilets? How much? Does this have meat in it? I’m a vegetarian. 

I write these down in the correct spelling of the language, and then write it out phonetically. Nowadays there are also apps that can do this for you (though I recommend not relying too heavily on wifi.) And then when you arrive in the country, you’re at least attempting to speak to people in the language they understand.

This will not only help you and them–you will also find that people are “nicer” to you. Because you’re not being an ethnocentric American; you’re acknowledging the fact that you’re in their country and are doing your best to help them help you.

So if you’re traveling to any non-English-speaking countries anytime soon, I beg you to please at least attempt this. As French people are likely tired of the “mean French person” stereotype, I am tired of the “rude American person” one. So please, help me change it!


3 thoughts on “Wanderlusty Wednesday: (Attempt to) Speak the Language

  1. I agree, people seem to appreciate even the most rudimentary efforts to speak the language when Americans travel. I spent a little time in France and I always made some attempt to speak French. Typically once I started the person took pity on me and admitted to speaking some English. I had many half French/half English conversations that were great fun. Another good phrase to learn is “I’m sorry”, very helpful in lots of situations.


  2. Definitely can relate to this anecdote, as I’m an American who lives and works in France. I do agree with you that it’s the fault of the Americans who expect others to speak English to them, wherever they travel, and that that is not a very good impression of the United States and its people. However, I do have to *partly* disagree with you on the discussion of French people being mean, because they deal with ethnocentric Americans. While that’s true, I have also, from personal experience, met many French people who were not very polite…period. Even when I spoke French. I think that they were just being jerks, and also, me being of non-white background, it was another factor that made me lose my respect for the French- just a little bit. The topic of race is a whole other thing that I won’t get too deep into, but generally speaking, I think a mutual understanding of languages (I.e. trying to know at least a few expressions in a non-native country) is good and very helpful to establishing rapport with locals- but it isn’t guaranteed one hundred percent. Thanks for your thoughts, and making me think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I agree 100% that learning foreign phrases is by no means foolproof. And I definitely met a handful of rude French people as well (mostly waiters and anyone in any administrative capacity), but it was far from the majority, especially outside of Paris. For the most part I found people very helpful and welcoming. That makes me wonder about your race comments. It really upsets me if that’s a factor in why you and I had different experiences–as a blond, white girl I am not visibly non-French. So sorry you’re going through that over there. Thanks for commenting and making me think as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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