France, and in particular Paris, is a massively popular tourist destination, but how widely spoken in English there? Is it possible to get by with English or is it preferable to learn some French before visiting?
In general, English is not very widely spoken overall in France, with recent surveys estimating that around 39% or just under two-fifths of the French population are able to speak English to some degree. Not many of these can speak it fluently though, and many of this percentage will only be able to converse in very basic English at best.
On a more positive note for tourists, English is quite widely spoken in the tourist areas of Paris specifically, and also in major hotels in Paris and other large cities. Elsewhere in the country the prevalence of English is far lower and having some basic French phrases will make conversing with French people a lot easier.
Therefore France really is one of the countries where it pays to learn some basic French before you go, since you cannot count on it being widely spoken and even where it is, French people much prefer it when tourists at least make an effort to converse in French when asking for help. Let’s look at the issue in more detail.
In Paris You Should Be Fine
English speakers who have visited Paris tend to report the prevalence of English is much higher there and you will have no problems using it in the main tourist destinations like the Eiffel Tower. This is hardly surprising since Paris ranks consistently among the top 3 most visited cities in the world, with around 20 million tourists visiting there every year, a large number of them English speakers.
Therefore these destinations are prepared for English speaking Americans and Brits and will have staff who can speak it as well as leaflets, guide and signs in English as well as other languages.
In major hotels and restaurants in Paris you should also be fine, as there will be plenty of staff who can speak English to handle the huge number of American and British tourists who visit the city each year.
Elsewhere in France You May Struggle
As soon as you move outside Paris and the other large cities and tourist destinations, you will find the prevalence of English drops much below the 39% quoted average for the entire country. In more rural and remote areas you may find hotel staff can speak a little but the general population will be far less proficient.
Similarly, older French people will also struggle to converse in English, since many of them over the age of 50 will not have been taught in schools. The younger generation have been more exposed to English, with some learning it as a second language in school, so you will have more luck conversing with people under 40 especially.
Despite the fairly low prevalence, English is actually the most common second language in France, closely followed by German and Spanish. English is only optional though and is not compulsory in France as it is in other European countries so the level of proficiency has improved over the generations but still remains behind other countries.
English is not very prevalent in the French culture as well. For example, most TV shows and movies on TV there are dubbed into French rather than played in English with French subtitles, so people do not get so much chance to absorb English in contrast to other countries like Portugal which take in a lot of undubbed American TV shows.
The picture is also somewhat muddled by the fact that many French people may be able to speak English, but will consider it rude if a tourist just expects them to be able to speak English without even trying to converse in French at first. They may pretend they can’t speak English when they actually can if they feel a foreigner is approaching them in a rude or entitled way that takes the prevalence of English for granted.
Some people disagree with this and argue that French people can be reticent to engage in English not so much because of snobbishness but because they are self conscious about their English skills and do not like to engage in something they don’t believe they have proficiency in.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Whatever the motivation for this reluctance, it can make it difficult for tourists to get by in France if the natives don’t understand English and you don’t understand French.
This is why it is very important for English speaking tourists to approach French people in a very specific and tactful way to make sure you are using basic French to initiate conversations and always remaining polite, respectful and non intrusive. See our section below on this.
The Prevalence of English in Major French Cities
However, lets be more specific and narrow down the reported prevalence of French from tourists and expats in some of the more commonly visited cities. We have summarized the most common general experience by people who visit or live in each city on various forums.
Paris – English very widely spoken anywhere in the tourism industry – shops, hotels, restaurants, attractions. Have some basic phrases if venturing outside the main tourist areas.
Toulouse – Hotel staff are usually reported to speak some English. Also plenty of international software and aerospace companies around these days as well as students which has improved the levels of English in the area. Whenever the locals don’t speak English, Google Translate and sign language always gets people through.
Strasbourg – Plenty of international students and companies here, so English prevalence reasonable. German also quite widely spoken. Having some French phrases to open conversations should help, and from there can often use English with younger people especially.
Marseille – People who deal with tourists will speak English – hotels, restaurants, attractions and places like the Vieux Port, Cours Julien and La Canebière. Elsewhere English proficiency tends to be more basic so having some French phrases will really help here.
Bordeaux – Hotel staff usually speak English, as do people in the main tourist areas. Not massively common elsewhere. Having a few key French phrases seems to get people by fine. Always useful to ask in French if English is spoken first – “parlez vouz Anglais?”
Loire Valley – More rural so English less common here. Will need some French if camping or staying in remote B&Bs.
Lyon – A decent level of English in big restaurants and shopping centers in tourist areas. Very low level of English elsewhere. Younger people under 45 is your best bet for English speakers. Tourists will ideally need some basic French phrases for holidays; longer term visitors will need more in depth French skills to integrate there effectively.
Lille – English not widely reported to be spoken here, French is dominant among the locals, especially among older people. Will really help to have some basic French when visiting. Lille is a major stop on the Eurostar from London and other high speed railway lines, so close to the stations you may find a little more English spoken in bars, restaurants, etc.
Nice – Quite a popular tourist city so English widely spoken in the main bars, hotels and restaurants. Elsewhere, English coverage is patchy, though younger people may speak a few words. Expats can live there without learning any French though. Opening conversations in French with “bonjour monsieur/madame” always helps however.
Learning Some Basic French
We have listed some of the more basic French phrases below to help tourists get by, as well as a short video for people who prefer learning this way. You will notice from the list and the video that French is one of the softer Romance languages in terms of pronunciation, with a lot of letters simply dropped at the end of words especially.
This can make it harder to learn initially as the words will seem to blend into one. It can be relatively easy to speak but very hard to understand at first, but this improves over time.
|How are you?||Comment ca va?||Comm-on sa-va?|
|Goodbye||Au revoir||Aah rev-wah|
|See you tomorrow||A demain||A der-man|
|Excuse me||Exusez moi||Es-skew zay moi|
|Please||S'il vous plait||Sih-voo-play|
|You're welcome||De rien||Duh-ree-an|
|Do you speak English?||Parlez vous anglais?||Parley voo arn-glay?|
|I don't speak French||Je ne parle pas francais||Je nay parley pas frarn-say|
|I don't understand||Je ne comprends pas||Je nay compron pah|
|Where is....?||où est......?||Ooh eh......?|
|The bill please?||L'addition s'il vous plait||La-dission sih voo play|
|Where is the bathroom?||Où sont les toilettes?||Ooh son leh twoylett?|
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As we stated with our Italian article and many other languages, it is far better to know at least a little bit of basic French than none at all. The French people perhaps more than anyone appreciate foreigners making an effort and are often more willing to switch to English once you make an effort to use some basic French phrases, however imperfectly.
There is the stereotype of the French native who brushes off tourists as they are sick of them all arrogantly expecting them to speak English. There are mixed stories across the various forums as to how much this holds true in real life. Some people have encountered an aloofness and unhelpfulness in French people; others have found them willing to help.
However, a pretty much unanimous view across all the boards and forums we looked on was that two things are essential for English speakers to get by more easily in France – having some basic French phrases and being polite and discreet when asking for help.
Loud, boisterous and entitled tourists who expect everyone they meet to speak English will not get a very welcome reception in France so it is important to be aware of cultural differences and be tactful and respectful when asking for help.
Tips For Conversing With French People
Many people who have lived in France longer term confirm that some of the stereotypes of French people do hold true. They can be a very particular kind of people who like things done in a certain way and can be “off” with people who do things which are different to the French customs they are used to.
In this way they can be more sensitive than some other nationalities like the Spanish or Portuguese and if you do need to ask for help, it becomes important to do it in a certain way that does not come across to them as rude or overbearing. Here are some general pointers for conversing with French people:
- Always try to open with some French, however basic eg. parlez vous anglais? – Do you speak English? Never just assume they will speak English.
- Be patient in asking questions.
- Always be polite and smile.
- Never be rude or arrogant or blunt.
- Don’t talk louder if they don’t understand you the first time. Repeat clearly and slowly, but quietly.
- Be discreet about the way you approach them and do not be loud or make a scene.
Language & Travel Essentials For Visiting France
NB. Some links are affiliate links
- See here and here on Amazon for some popular travel guides for visiting France.
- See here for a pocket French phrases book to take round with you.
- If you prefer verb based learning, check out our Michel Thomas course page – there are beginner, intermediate and advanced courses in French using the Michel Thomas method.
- If you are looking for cheaper accommodation, click here to check out the excellent Hostelworld booking tool, with thousands of budget accommodation options (hostels, B&Bs, budget hotels, guesthouses) in over 170 countries, with loads of options all over France.
- Travel Insurance – Click here to view travel insurance policies for visiting France and get a quote online.