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If you are traveling to Paris, you must have been warned about the stereotypical arrogance the French possess for their language and how they scrunch up their noses at anyone speaking English.
But what do you do if your fluency in French ends at ‘Bonjour!”? Of course, you can not take a year of French lessons before you pack your bags for a memorable trip to the City of Lights. So, can you get by with just English?
In the course of this article, we shall discuss whether you can get by with just English when traveling to Paris.
De rien. We mean you are welcome!
If you travel to Paris, can you get by with just English?
As far as Hollywood movies go, if they are based around Paris, you are most likely to notice three things that are common in almost all of them: the posh French dressing, the luscious meals, and the Parisian arrogance.
However, a number of English-speaking travelers claim that they have never been subject to (or come across) rude Parisian behavior. In fact, myriad travelers tell tales of how several French people went out of their ways to help them get by in their city.
So, if you were expecting some grunts, looks of annoyance, and eye rolls whenever you tried to interact with a random Parisian, you should not be surprised if you are given a warm welcome instead.
As a matter of fact, a number of people that were not involved in the tourism industry speak English as well. Although it would not be very fluent (just like your French), you would be able to get by in Paris if you know a few phrases and are able to convey the gist of your inquiry in your ‘broken’ French.
Most often, the native people would give you a ten on ten for your efforts while also correcting your mistakes and helping you learn and improve your French vocabulary if that is what you want.
If you are staying in a neighborhood surrounded by students, it would be even easier for you to communicate and interact since a significant portion of these students shall speak amateur to moderate English and be on their feet to help you get by.
On a major note, if you do not wish to be subject to grunts and impolite behavior (which is rare), it is important to understand that not every French person you meet shall understand English (even the most common phrases). Therefore, it’s always safe to lead the conversation with a simple and straightforward “parlez vous anglais?” which translates to “can you speak English?” If the light goes green, great, go ahead and say or ask what you wanted to, or give them a bright smile, mouth an “excusez moi,” and move on to the next person.
In short, yes, you can absolutely get by with just English in Paris; however, out of respect and ease of communication, it is advisable to learn a few common French phrases. Apart from this, be patient, keep that smile on, respect the people’s anonymity and space, and don’t talk loud when the person you are interacting with doesn’t understand you.
Is it a myth that the French don’t speak English?
According to statistical reports, only 20% of French people have fluency in speaking English, while 40% are able to have a conventional conversation.
Now, the numbers may sound disappointing if you do not know much French yourself and are looking to get by with just English (which you still can). However, when you flip the tables, you will know that only 15% of the English population is able to speak a foreign language, and it goes without saying that the French are still doing much better on that ground.
It is important to note that in Paris, English is not the second or third language, and therefore not important to learn. However, as a tourist attraction, a large portion of Parisians will know English, given the volume of interaction they do with English-speaking tourists on a quotidian basis.
If you come across students in Paris, they are more likely to know English since they are still learning the language (or have learned) the language in university.
Thus, all in all, it would be safe to say that it is partly a myth that the French don’t speak English (at all) since the stats are evident proof of how a little less than half of the French population knows English, while a part of the population is also fluent in it.
Is it rude to speak English in Paris?
Since when is speaking in your mother tongue, or a language that you know in a place where the language is not as popular rude? To answer the question: No, it is not rude to speak English in Paris.
However, expecting every other French person you meet to speak English is rude. If you do not want to be welcomed with a cold reaction or stare from a French stranger while speaking in English, it is wise to first ask them if they know English and then proceed with the conversation.
As far as we have observed, approaching a French person and first asking them if they speak English (in French, of course) is considered an impressive gesture and is more welcoming since you are respecting the language barrier, if any.
Will hotels and hostels have English-speaking staff?
Depending on the locale in Paris where you are trying to book a hotel, the answer can vary wildly. In general, if you are booking a hotel or a hostel in the staple cities, the hotels and the hostels are most likely to have English-speaking staff. If not fluent, the staff will most likely have conversational English, one that is enough to sell you a room and show you to it.
Most French staff in hotels in Paris, Strasbourg, Metz, and Reims, etc., speak moderate to conversational English, which again means that you can thankfully get by with knowing just English on your trip to Paris. Even places like Normandy and D-Day beaches have English-speaking French staff. To be sure whether you will be able to strike a conversation with the hotel staff when inquiring in English, try asking them if they know English. Besides, your safest bet is to book a hotel in the touristic destinations in Paris, apart from booking with at least a ‘decent’ hotel known for its communicative services and amenities.
If you visit the countryside parts of Paris, it is likely that you will not be welcomed with the usual ‘welcome’ and instead be greeted in French, since the staff and the people are not equipped to carry out English conversations. This may be applicable for Bed & Breakfasts, countryside inns, as well as small motels.
Thus, in short, assuming that you are planning to wander around the big cities, you will get by just fine with speaking only English, even when it comes to hotel bookings and accommodations.
The same may not be the case with countryside inns which may unknowingly necessitate the speaking of French in order to use their services and book with them (or it is possible that both you and the hotel staff may end up scratching your heads in perplexion).
Is an English menu available in restaurants in Paris?
French restaurants in Paris usually have English menus, more so if you are dining in the tourist attractions. Non-touristy restaurants and authentic restaurants will likely be limited to French and will not provide you the added convenience of coming in English.
English translations of the menus are not always a hit. On a lot of occasions, they will translate into words that don’t have any meaning in English. A restaurant might translate “croque monsieur” to “crunchy sir,” while a native would call it a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. If you find yourself in this situation, you will have to do your best.
Most tourist restaurants have English translations on their menu to make it more feasible for tourists who need to polish their French. Many of the translations will be misleading.
English translations are not likely to be on the menu in less-touristy places.
On the other hand, menus in less touristic places will not likely have English translations. You should be familiar with the words and delicacies enlisted below, just in case.
Common French meals and what they really are
It is okay if you choose to go to a typical countryside French restaurant, hoping to let your taste buds savor the original, unfiltered French food that everyone keeps talking about. The only problem is that the menu is in French and you do not know a lot about the French delicacies in general.
To help you out, here is a list of common and equally iconic French meals and what they really mean:
Tartare de boeuf
This, in all simplicity and glory, is the beef tartare, made using raw beef chopped patty stuck together and sometimes served with a raw egg on top.
Translating to beef burgundy, boeuf bourguignon is a stew made of beef and vegetables with a small amount of flour and wine added to it for texture and flavor.
This usually keeps the French name it has; however, the food is actually fat duck liver. A very common delicacy around Christmas and New Year, Foie gras is the quintessential appetizer that comes raw, half-cooked or fully-cooked. It is either a mix of livers from multiple animals or the solid liver of a farm-fed duck.
We are pretty sure you have heard of crepes before, and they are nothing but small pancakes made with a thin layer of pancake batter spread over a wide and flat pan. Crepes can be layered with a number of condiments and sides, such as syrups, Nutella, butter, jelly, etc.
Magret de canard
Translating to duck filet in English, this southwestern meal is a slightly more luxurious alternative to beef for people who are picky about the kind of meat they eat. Just look for the word ‘Margret’ on the menu, and you already know it’s the scrumptious duck filet.
It is a small savory pancake that is made with egg, ham and cheese.
Imagine whipped chocolate, only that it is warm and melted. This cake-like dessert reigns the heart of native French people and travelers alike.
Meaning cream burn, a chef heat torches the top of this creamy dessert to burn the cream and therefore the name, Crème brûlée, with brulée translating to ‘burn.’ It is a short dish that holds a thick layer of burnt cream on it and is savored by the French.
The upside-down pastry (because, of course, it was a mistake) contains apples and sometimes some other fruits that are caramelized before being baked.
Next, the dish is served with ice cream or, as the French like to call it, crème anglaise.
Blanquette de Veau
It is a form of stew that is thickened using a roux and is usually creamy veal with a generous amount of butter, cream, and carrots, typically served with rice.
Soupe à L’oignon (French onion soup)
Simply put, Soupe à L’oignon is a French onion soup made using meat stock and browned onions. The soup is flavorsome and very filling – practically the best choice for a hearty lunch. It is garnished with gratineed croutons, and on top of it all goes cheese.
A traditional rustic fish soup made with at least three different types of fish and infused with saffron, bouillabaisse is served with rouille, which translates to garlic and cayenne mayonnaise spread over garlic bread or croutons.
If you wish to enjoy a delicious meal in a restaurant near a fishing village, bouillabaisse is a dish that you will not only adore but also drool over. If you are unable to recognize the dish by the name, always remember that It comes with chunks of fish and seafood in it.
Coq au Vin
Chicken braised in red wine with bacon, butter, mushrooms, and beef stock, an authentic Coq au Vin is not your regular chicken casserole. It is often served with creamed potatoes and buttered French beans.
Do French tourist attractions have English audio and paper guides?
Every tourist attraction you will visit is likely to have an English paper guide. You may run into cases where there is only audio in French, but this is not always the case.
If you visit a small castle between two major cities, the staff will only give guided tours so you won’t be able to get an English audio guide. Even if the English translation is not perfect, most informational boards have an English translation.
If no English guides are available and you can not get help from the locals either, it is time to switch back to paper maps for navigation, and to your relief, almost every attraction in Paris will have a paper map (most of the time in English).
Common French phrases to help you get by in Paris
Alright, you have already packed your bags for the city of love and light, and you are hoping to get the most out of your trip speaking just one language – English. That is all right, but it is highly recommended to know some of the common French phrases so you make your stay easier for both yourself and the locals (who you would ask for help).
Below we have enlisted some of the most common French phrases that shall make it a lot easier for you to converse with the Parisians without being given a condescending glare of oblivious annoyance.
- Bonjour! (Good morning, hello)
- Bienvenue. (Welcome.)
- Pardon, excusez-moi. (Pardon, excuse moi.)
- Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?)
- Je ne parle pas français. (I do not speak French.)
- Merci/Merci beaucoup. (Thank you/Thank you very much.)
- Au revoir! (Goodbye!)
- De rien. (You’re welcome.)
- Pourriez-vous m’aider? (Can you help me?)
- Je ne comprends pas. (I do not understand.)
- Répétez, s’il vous plaît. (Repeat, please.)
- Où est la plage/le centre-ville? (Where is the beach/city center?)
- Je cherche le métro/la gare/l’aéroport. (I am searching for the metro/train station/airport.)
- Est-ce que c’est loin/proche? (Is it far/close?)
- Je voudrais réserver un billet. (I would like to reserve a ticket.)
- À quelle heure faut-il arriver? (What time should it arrive?)
- Quelles chambres avez-vous de disponible? (What rooms do you have available?)
- Je voudrais annuler ma réservation. (I would like to cancel my reservation.)
- À quelle heure est-ce qu’il faut régler la note? (At what time should we check out?)
- Combien ça coûte? (How much does it cost?)
- C’est trop cher! (It’s too expensive!)
- La carte/le menu, s’il vous plaît. (The menu/fixed-price menu, please.)
- Je voudrais un café. (I would like a coffee.)
- Je voudrais de l’eau. (I would like some water.)
- L’addition, s’il vous plaît. (The bill, please.)