Why Do French People Respond in English When I Speak French?

Why Do French People Respond in English When I Speak French?

It’s a frustrating, but common occurrence for expats in France — You ask a question in French and the response comes in English. You try again in French. Still English. But don’t freak out, French people (most likely) aren’t doing this because they’re rude or hate you.

Even if your French is good, a native speaker almost certainly knows you aren’t French as soon as you open your mouth from your accent. How they decide to answer probably has less to do with them judging you (which I used to think) and more to do with trying to make the conversation work. Here are a few motivations:

They are trying to be helpful

This is especially true if you are in a shop of some kind. Almost all the employees in clothing stores do this to me. Since English is the language of tourism in France, many if not most shop employees speak English. It is their job to make your shopping experience good, so they switch to English out of courtesy to you.

The same concept applies to people on the street you may speak to in French. If they think you are a foreigner, they will switch to English if they can in an effort to be helpful.

They think it is easier

If you speak French to someone and they speak English well, they may just assume it is easier to speak English together. This especially applies if they can tell your French isn’t great and they know their English is better. It is not out of rudeness, just out of ease of understanding, which is the whole point of a conversation.

They want to practice their English

Just as you may be trying to improve your French by using it in public, French people may notice your accent and hear an opportunity to practice their English. I’ve had this happen a few times (I know because they told me).

English is becoming more and more important for work, travel and daily life in Europe and they may not have a million opportunities to converse with a native speaker. Voilà, they speak English with you!

They don’t want to hear your bad French

Yes, the French love their language and don’t enjoy hearing it butchered. There are also some people who are just mean, like everywhere else in the world. So there will inevitably be times you run into people who just don’t have the patience or desire to hear you speak French with your accent.

This isn’t that common though. In the nine months I’ve lived here, only once has someone said “just speak English” to me. Shake it off.

So what should I do?

This is why living in Paris makes it harder to practice your French in public. The more French people speak English, the more common this will be.

My strategy is to just continue to speak in French, even if they still respond in English. This works fine and no one gets upset. Sometimes they will switch back if they see that your French is fine and you prefer it.

If it is someone you consider a friend or speak to on a regular basis (from your bakery or cheese shop, etc.), you can tell them you prefer to speak in French for whatever reason. As frustrating as it can be, French people aren’t trying to be rude and the better your French becomes the less it will happen!

Has this happened to you? What is your strategy for dealing with it? Leave a comment and share your experience!

14 thoughts on “Why Do French People Respond in English When I Speak French?”

  • I do love hearing that this happens in France now. Thirty years ago, I did not luck out with such helpfulness. But then again, I was sadly not trying their language at all. Bad me. But I like that the intent is more often good than not! XO

  • My strategy is always to continue speaking French, even if the whole conversation continues with the Parisian speaking English and the American speaking French. Then, when I am in New York, if a French tourist asks for directions in English, I speak right back in French. Touche! Seriously though, I think they answer questions posed in French with English because they are trying to be helpful.

  • Same thing happens to me in Quebec. I start to speak French, in my own inimitable way, and they immediately begin speaking in English. I joke that the torture of listening to my French is unbearable but I expect the real reason is more basic. Quebecois are just really nice people and like to be friendly. Same for the poor Colombians when I try to speak Spanish. Cheers.

  • This drives me crazy.
    I love France and the French language and even went so far as to do a degree in French which involved living there for a year. My French is not the best but with a degree in the language, neither is it terrible and typically, with a little patience on the other person’s part when I can’t find the vocabulary, we can generally communicate perfectly well in French.
    However, more often than not, when I start speaking French, the other person insists on replying in English, often at a level I wouldn’t judge to be much if any better than my French.
    This drove me crazy as a student living in France and at times knocked my confidence in speaking to people in French.
    My strategy is to continue speaking in French but quite often they continue answering in English which I find rude considering I’ve not spoken a word of English to them.
    I know my English accent is sure to come through but I’m certainly not one of those who resolutely speaks with a strong English accent and do my best to form French sounds so the whole thing makes me frustrated and feeling annoyed at the other person. After all, if someone spoke to me in English, even with a thick French accent, it would strike me as extremely rude to reply in French.
    Occasionally I have had conversations where we each speak in the other person’s language but it feels strange and it seems a little rude to me and sometimes I find myself just rolling over and speaking English.
    Oh well, rant over now, still it’s good to know it’s not just me who experiences this.

    Out of interests do French people experience this in English speaking countries?

    • I don’t think there are nearly as many French speakers in English speaking countries…but I’m sure it happens in other non-English native cities as well.

      I will say it gets better the more your French improves. It still happens to me, but not as much as it used to!

    • I understand your pain!

      I will say that where I come from (English speaking country), there are many French spread across the country, but they usually already speak English fluently, else they would not likely come. So, I doubt that they get the same issue that we have in France, especially since few people in my country speak fluent French enough to switch.

      What I have seen are French people being misunderstood and being asked to repeat several times while speaking English, due to their heavy French accent. Their facial expressions have been a lot like mine when someone switches to English while I am speaking French!

    • Salut Ross
      I found your “rant” really helpful as I have similar experiences and you are right it does knock your confidence. It doesn’t happen all the time but one incident last night has upset me. We are on holiday and ordered food in French but the waiter kept replying in English. I asked him in a very kindly manner to continue in French but he didn’t. I do find this rude and we have put in effort and money to get to France in order to show respect and use French. It is frustrating but the worse thing is that it leaves you feeling hopeless!! Bon courage. Carmel

  • When I was new to living in France, I used to have this same problem. That said, this did not happen frequently, because I did not live in Paris, but elsewhere in the country where most people could not speak English (they only spoke French). Thus, if they weren’t understanding my French, then it was a good exercise for me to try and use other words/means of communication/work on my accent.

    In the beginning of my stay, the times that I was in a situation where a French person COULD speak English and chose to switch, I was extremely grateful. As time passed and my language skills improved, I became annoyed although they were trying to be helpful, because I got the impression that they understood me, they just preferred to speak English.

    Now, it rarely occurs that I have a French person switch to English when speaking with me. I still live in the countryside,, so that helps.

    One thing that I don’t understand are the people who don’t want to hear you speak French with your “bad” accent. Not only is that rude, but extremely self-centered. Most of us don’t go through life hearing ONLY people who sound just like us … that would be far too easy. Where I come from, people are grateful that you made the effort to speak our language at all and we feel that it is our duty to meet you half way and at least TRY to understand. While I have met some French people like that, I find this sentiment much more rare in France.

    • Hi Jade, yes I agree… this happens to me less now as my French has improved, but also being in Paris means I am able to fall back on English more than in most places in France. A blessing and a curse for French learners!

  • My go-to strategy is to pretend that I’m from a non-English speaking country, and therefore don’t speak English as well I do French.
    The Frenchy I’m talking to therefore has no choice but to continue the conversation in French, seeing they most certainly can’t speak the language of the non-English speaking country they think I’m from.
    Also, since I am ethnically Asian, this usually tends to work out pretty well for me.

  • You know what works? Pretend that you don’t speak English.. Then they are forced to carry on with you in French. It’s the best way to get them to stop the arrogant nonsense.

  • Today, I went into a CBD store to buy some pain relief for someone.
    The saleswoman said: bonjour. Then I replied bonjour. I’ve been living here for 4 years! I teach in french.

    Turns out my accent while saying bonjour was enough for her to give a very french sounding “velkome” and continue in English. Why?!? She only heard me say one word.

    Yes. Perhaps she meant to be helpful. But there is a lot of assumption. I’m not even from an English speaking country! My two languages are Spanish and German.

    Anyways! I completely understood the frustration that goes with speaking french and being replied to in English.

    Mind you. Their accent also can grate on ones ear.

    Rant over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *