Speaking French?

Many posts on expat forums claim that although the writer is seeking an English speaker they can speak French. Today I read this on another forum;
'Does anyone know if there is anyone at … who speaks English, as although I can speak French I don’t think that my French is good enough to be understood properly!'
Does anybody else think that that is a contradiction?

1 Like


I heartily agree with you David…

It seems to me that many folk are too timid. Honestly, if you can speak any sort of French… you should forge ahead and not fall back too readily on the crutch of an English speaker…

It can be hard work, going over and over something to be sure that the main stuff is understood…and I would suggest that nothing is signed until the person is sure they understand what they are signing… but it is better to make verbal mistakes and perhaps risk feeling a fool… than never to be brave enough to have a go.

All the folk I have met, prefer to hear me speak (maul) their language … and I have gradually got better… it has been hard work, but worth it.


I will always give it a go in French if in person - but I have to admit using the phone is a little daunting and at times I revert to email with the help of Google Translate.

I do hope to get better at French - and with time I am sure it will come but only with practice of actually speaking to French people.

I have to say I find people enormously tolerant of my poor French (with the odd exception) - I think far more tolerant than an English person would be in England if a foreigner was making such a hash of the language.


I too try and speak French in situations I am not comfortable in and in my work field the necesary vocabulary was soon learnt even if the grammar around them is not always right. The one exception I have made is with a doctor at this point. It would be easy to go and say I had a broken arm, but coming up with a past medical history when he needs to know things would be beyond many French speaking English. For instance. Who can tell me what Retro-peritinael lymph node dissection is without looking it up if asked by your doctor when you didn’t know you would need that information? I may have a complicated medical history compared to some but I would rather he understood exactly what I meant rather than muddling through when it comes to health. As times go on I am learning various medical terms but it will be some time I suspect before a French speaking only doctor becomes something I can be comfortable with.


Hi Dave… medical matters are very important…I agree… very useful to find a Doc who has at least some English…

We now converse in French with ours… but sometimes we fall back into English… or he asks… what so and so… would be in English… to help him talk with folk who have less French than we do.

Incidentally… someone told me that English is now the language in the Teaching Hospitals… along with French… so that gives us all hope…

I would agree, that it is sometimes daunting and can be a matter of confidence, and when dealing face to face, I will always have a go, but I’m afraid that conversations on the phone are a different matter !!

1 Like


I agree, phone calls can be a nightmare…I have difficulty with numbers… down a crackly line…

Anyway, one useful phrase, when the caller is selling something or doing a survey or whatever: Je fais rien au téléphone, envoyez-moi un courrier, au revoir ! …
then I put the phone down. I can spit that phrase out very quickly, I’ve had a lot of practice. :grin:

My French is not magnificent… but I can get my meaning over to them… :wink:

1 Like

If I’m being honest, that particular comment really gets my goat. I suppose it depends how you interpret “I can speak French” but to me, if someone says they speak French then it implies a certain level of competence, and you shouldn’t say you “speak French” if you can’t make yourself understood. It’s like saying ‘I can drive but I don’t think I could get the car from A to B safely.’ Being able to say “Bonjour comment ça va” is speaking in French, which is not the same as speaking French. So either be honest and say “My French isn’t up to it” if that’s the case, or if you claim you speak French, then prove it. Medical matters are an exception of course but my MT once explained to me that since so many medical papers are written in English, most French doctors know the medical terms in English, it’s the non-technical bits in between that they may not be as comfortable with: so if you hold the conversation in French, they will help you with the specialist terms.


I think that at least in part, the problem is that many people feel intimidated when they are ‘verbally machine gunned’ by a french speaker who is talking so quickly that comprehension becomes impossible. I find that the answer is to ask them to speak more slowly. I just tell them that at 64, my ears don’t work that fast anymore, which usually brings a smile and a recognition that if they actually leave spaces between their words, then I can understand the majority of what they are saying.
The important thing is to have a go, and not to be too embarrassed about making mistakes.
For pre-arranged important meetings, such as medical matters, I find it helpful to type up (in French) the basic things that I wish to tell the other person, together with the questions that I have for them, and then to simply hand them the typed paper to read at the start of the meeting. Usually the other person will appreciate that this saves their time as well as preventing confusion, and it helps to foster a spirit of co-operation between the parties.

1 Like


I like the list idea Robert… it’s so annoying (at any sort of meeting) to later think: oh drat… I forgot to say/ask such and such…

Speaking a foreign language is scary, mostly because you are putting yourself out there, will almost certainly feel a fool and it’s a job never finished. Just when you think you’re making progress - bang! you find yourself in a situation with masses of new vocabulary and references to things you’ve never heard of.
Living in another country is enriching but destabilising - am I the only one who occasionally thinks it might all be a bit too much? Then I can come to a forum like this, have a natter, pick myself up and start again. After all I’m not ready to crawl back to a safe mono-lingual little corner and hide from the rest of the world.

1 Like


I’ve never regretted making the move and plunging in the ensuing chaos…but being able to laugh at myself and my mistakes… is essential…and there is always a good side… a silver lining…

For example… these last couple of weeks I have been involved in a very sad, very tiring happening… but, on the good side… I have learnt to do SMS at last… :grinning: though it took me a few days to figure out how to delete errors in my spelling… :blush:

In my experience ‘putting yourself out there’ is a great way to learn a language. Having a few lessons, listening to a few CDs and reading books is OK but not enough for many, especially if they are immersed in English language conversations and TV for the majority of the time.

1 Like

This thread, like almost all the rest on SF, is enormously reassuring. My French has significantly improved over the last eighteen months of living in Normandy. What I’ve noticed is that it has stopped sounding like a foreign langauge! It just sounds like people talking. I wonder if others have had the same experience?

I quite often get spoken to by French people while waiting in supermarket queues, or in the doctor’s waiting room. Mainly by people of my own age, I think age lessens inhibitions, and a lot of older people just seem to need to chat. I recall two elderly ladies in the doctor’s salle d’attente women warning me of dog poo on the floor of the otherwise impeccably clean tiled floor. It turned into quite an interesting conversation about dogs, their owners, and life in general.

I’ve also heeded the advice of the fellow Brummie who sold us his house here in Normandy, a home he dearly loved and hated having to sell. He said, “Steer clear of the anglais; they can’t be trusted”. He said he had been cheated and swindled by his fellow-countrymen. He seemed to us to be a thoroughly decent man, a builder and carpenter, who loved French life. He had tried to buy a business in the town but had not been able to raise the neessary funds. He also didn’t speak French, but was much liked by our French neighbours. He also told us, “Never tell the English where you live”. I’ve heard this advice repeated often here. It’s disappointing to hear it, and I feel bad repeating it here, but I’m inclined to heed it, because the first question they always ask is, “Where do you live?” I also don’t like the way my fellow-countrymen and women congregate in an English bar and gossip, nor does my wife. Nor do they greet strangers as do the French: the English way seems to be to avert one’s gaze, not to make eye contact. Is such English behaviour commonplace elsewhere in France?



It is a wonderful moment, when you realize you can understand, without deliberately translating in your mind…

I now think in French first… English second. Often I will work through in my mind, what I am going to say, especially if I shall be talking over the phone… I practice my phrases…

Sometimes, it suddenly clicks… that I shall be phoning the UK and able to speak to my agent (or whoever) in English…so why am I struggling to find just the right French phrases…:roll_eyes:

1 Like

Just wrote a text to a friend in the UK and started by typing “Is it that…” Apparently my brain now thinks sentences start as Est-ce-que in English. :slight_smile:

1 Like

It’s beginning to happen in me Stella, and Im much more confident about speaking ‘off the cuff’ without having to plan ahead what I want to say. Today I went to the local Pole d’Animation place in town which seem to be the one-stop-shop for all administrative questions. They’re very helpful and friendly perhaps because they never seem tremendously busy and must get bored straightening paper clips!

I was having problems logging on to my on-line ameli account and the office lady was very friendly and jolly, we shared chuckles about my surname and its similarity to the French words for swallowing oysters and for cardboard cups. At least that’s what I think it was about. What pleased me most was that in mid-sentence I used ‘lui’ instead of ‘elle’ and without dropping a beat in the conversation she corrected it/me, I took that as a great compliment.

Like you, I often have difficulties catching telephone numbers in recorded messages, but I always persevere, even if it means listening up to dozen times and writing each bit down (“quatre-vingts-dix-sept, soixante-quatorze…”) rather than have it defeat me! It gets a bit easier each time. It’s the same at the caisse, I hate straining my neck to see the till display showing the total to pay, but local operatives are very kind and jolly, and help me out. All good fun…:slight_smile:

One thing that we have noticed is that one’s ability to converse in French is often affected by which region of the country you happen to be in at the time. Here in Vendee there seems to be a considerable overhang of the old Patois into modern day French, and in addition to that, the Vendeene habit of speaking from the throat in gutteral tones (especially the older men) doesn’t exactly help our ability to understand what is said. What we have noticed is that when we are in Paris, or in the Basque region of the south west, then it is much easier to understand what is said as the words are pronounced more clearly and with gaps between them.
Upon reflection though, it must be just as difficult for a foreigner who learns English in Tyne & Wear and then ends up having to move to rural Somerset.

All in all I reckon it’s just a matter of taking the plunge and getting involved with French folks, whether that may be in the local bar, or by joining an Association or Club of particular interest being the choice of the individual of course. Perseverance is the key, and then eventually it starts to click into place and we start surprising ourselves.
Good luck to all.

I’m guessing there are regional dialects eveywhere. Here in New Orleans we have American tourists who often can’t understand us! To Mr. Peter Goble re; numbers: Long ago I learned Navajo. A very difficult language, it was in fact used during WW2 by the code talkers and the Japanese could never break it. The numbers are very hard. I went to a local Native American feast and bought a bracelet from a Navajo artisan, very proud that I could manage the entire transaction in Navajo. The vendor gave me a price, I paid him then about 20 minutes later realized that I had not gotten the number he quoted me right. I had in fact overpaid by a lot. I went back to him, he was smiling wide in the sun. He said he’d been waiting for me and that he was not refunding the extra $30 as it would teach me to learn the numbers better or at least ask for clarification. I laughed as he was entirely right. Our big concern is that our French is nearly non-existent but we are working on it and we don’t want to get stuck in a group of folks who only speak English We very much want to assimilate so I guess we’ll just deep dive and pray and I’ll double check the price tags on the bracelets or wine bottles. LOL

1 Like

Perhaps there is a ‘Franglais’ Association near you to help you out ? If so, then I’m confident that you will find the folks there to be very friendly and welcoming.