When English speakers start turning what French they have in their heads into actual spoken words they struggle to have a French speaker actually speak to them in French. I encountered this BEAUCOUP when I first moved to France and was finding my feet.
In this post and the accompanying YouTube video, we’re going to look at why that might be (hint: it’s not JUST because you speak slowly), and thus why you should not let it affect your confidence. Ensuite, we’re going to talk about four key phrases that drastically increase the chances of your conversation continuing in French and not switching back to English.
Finalement, we’re going to briefly talk about the impact of speaking French (a minute, an hour, or a day) increases your self-confidence, and therefore, makes you a better version of yourself. If all that sounds interesting, keep reading!
Part 1: Why do francophones talk to English speakers in English?
So, you’re in France ready to practice.
Maybe you get your first few words out in French or first few sentences.
Then the other person switches to English. Game over! Right?
We’ll see in the second half of the article how we can combat this but first of all, if you resonate with this situation, I want to show you a more complete picture, in case you have a tendency to blame only your lack of French as the cause. There are, in fact, a variety of reasons.
- The person simply doesn’t want to waste their time. They want things to go as smoothly as possible for them.
- Perhaps accuracy is crucial to this interaction.
- Young people especially now love to speak English because of movies, music, TV…
- Your level is too low for the other person to want to speak to you in French.
- They want to help you out and make you feel comfortable.
I’m sure that if a friend asked you why it was happening to them, you could list of these possible reasons, and maybe a few more (the comments section is a great place for that by the way!).
1. They simply don’t want to waste their time
This is extremely true in the case of a professional or more formal interaction. A lot of people now do speak English, and they would rather use their broken or imperfect English to help you in the conversation and the exchange, rather than wait for you, patiently, while you think and get your words out. Imagine being in a long line in the bank or the supermarket. It may well hurt your confidence to hear English come back at you, but in this case it might well be for the best. This doesn’t mean give up on French in these situations. But do take into consideration the other person’s situation where appropriate.
2. Perhaps accuracy is crucial to this interaction
Perhaps you’re discussing something financial, like when opening a bank account. It’s important to have understood everything in such an interaction. If this went to English, I’d much prefer knowing that I knew what I was walking into rather than risking that nodding along and pretending I understood for fear of admitting I wasn’t understanding everything. Of course, your situation might be different. You might understand everything and your speaking level betrays you. So they speak in English.
3. Young people especially now love to speak English because of movies, music, TV…
Young people (and not so young) have English all around them now as it’s in the media, movies (that are subtitled rather than dubbed into French much more often now), TV, posters, music is in English and so they actually enjoy it. It’s nothing to do with your level of French being poor. They are individuals themselves, and they want to speak to you in English. When someone enthusiastically speaks English to you, it’s up to you how you react. More on that in a minute.
4. Your level is too low for the other person to want to speak to you in French
Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that, yes, our level is maybe too low for the other person to want to speak to you in French. That’s just quite logical. We all have to start somewhere, and we can’t expect people to put up with us and our low level. Some will be more patient, whilst others won’t be. They are in their world, and the moment you walk out of the door their busy day that has nothing to do with talking to French learners, continues.
5. They want to help you out and make you feel comfortable
As crazy as it may seem, and as much as you want to practice French, many people consider it uncomfortable and sad to see someone struggling with the language, and want to help. Whilst some may nudge you along with French, many will speak to you in English so that you can relax and get on with what you came to do! We can’t control what other people do, but we can think more clearly about why they’re doing it. And then take steps to get our French practice in regardless.
Part 2: How to keep your French conversations in French
All of these things will happen outside of a language learning environment (au travail, à la banque, dans la rue, avec un ami…), and sometimes within a language learning environment (tutor session, language exchange, class).
There is one constant. You control what language you use to speak.
Now, some learners already possess the character and determination to continue speaking in French, even when the person to whom they’re speaking starts talking back in English.
I find these people are usually from a non-English speaking country, and I think they have this ability because they have developed in their mind growing up that they will someday have to learn another language, probably English, to further their career prospects or to achieve some of their goals in life.
A massively underrated skill as a language learner, and a test of character, is to train yourself to get your practice in no matter what, whenever you can.
This doesn’t mean be rude, just not give in at the slightest chance to go back to English.
The more minutes you speak, the more they add up to tangible progress.
Every time you allow the conversation to stay in English, is on you.
Growing up in an English-speaking country, we just simply don’t have this quality naturally because we think everyone speaks our language. That pays dividends here in France for those from non-anglophone countries in that they’ve already got this tough character to push through and get them back in the conversation. English speakers, like you and I, tend to need to practice, practice, practice to develop that character and to develop that confidence with the language.
1. Those small phrases you say a lot as a learner? Learn them in French
We have a tendency to talk to ourselves or the other person in the middle of an interaction when we get stuck, and we tend to say these things in English because we don’t think about it. Par exemple “ah how do we say…?”. As soon as you do this, you increase the chances of getting a sympathetic French person speaking to you in English. You should, therefore, learn these phrases in French. Some are as follows:
|Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire [+ word] ? – Langage courant||What does [word] mean? – Standard language|
|Ça veut dire quoi [+ word] ? – Langage familier||What does [word] mean? – Informal language|
|Je n’ai pas compris. / J’ai pas compris. – Langage courant||I don’t understand. – Standard language|
|Est-ce que tu peux répéter s’il te plaît ? – Langage courant||Can you please repeat (that)? – Standard question, informal language to one person (tu)|
|Tu peux répéter s’il te plaît ? – Langage familier||Can you please repeat (that)? – Informal question, informal language to one person (tu)|
|Est-ce que vous pouvez répéter s’il vous plaît ? – Langage courant||Can you please repeat (that)? – Standard question, formal (vous) or to more than one person.|
|Vous pouvez répéter s’il vous plaît ? – Langage familier||Can you please repeat (that)? – Informal question, formal (vous) or to more than one person.|
|(Est-ce que) ça te dérange si… ? – (Langage courant) Langage familier||Do you mind if…? – (Standard) & informal questions, to one person (tu)|
|(Est-ce que) ça vous dérange si… ? – (Langage courant) Langage familier||Do you mind if…? – (Standard) & informal questions, to one person with formal language or to more than one person (vous)|
So, as a rule, the more French you speak, the more French will come back to you. Scary? Maybe. Better for you, yes! And if you need English, that’s fine. You’re still learning, and so you’ll need it sometimes in certain situations. Just assess to yourself: should I push myself to stay in French now, even though it’s hard, or does it make more sense to use English?
2. Tell them!
Depending on who the person is (bank worker, supermarket clerk, friend, language exchange partner), it can seem strange to say such a statement, because you’re an adult going about your life. However, you are an adult language learner, and as such, this sort of sentence should become normal. Your ego needs to be able to take speaking slowly and letting people know that you’re doing your best and would like some help. Because, again, if they don’t switch to English, you have one less reason to switch too.
- J’apprends encore le français et je voudrais pratiquer, même si je parle lentement.
- Est-ce on peut passer au français s’il te/vous plaît ?
The more you speak French, the better. It needs to become a habit.
If a French person speaks English to you it’s not the end of the world. You can’t blame them. It’s how you react that’s important. Not on a one-off basis, but every time. The little things count. Big time. Learn how to say those little phrases you say all the time as a learner, but learn them in French. Also, learn to be ok asking permission to go back to French.
Watch the video!
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Now go and have more French conversations!
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