Oh, It’s Okay, Everybody Speaks English Anyway

I’m an American living in Paris. I know, I know, that’s a niche we haven’t heard enough about. “Please, tell us, how crusty is your croissant? How jaunty is the angle of your beret?” I get that there are so many stereotypes out there about this country, this city, that it’s easy to forget that it is an actual place. We can slip into thinking of it, and other big tourist cities like it, as extensions of EPCOT and not the geographically-qualified collection of humans that they are.

But Paris is just that – a city. It is as good, bad, interesting, dull, beautiful, and dreary as any other city. Sure, there is breathtaking architecture and exquisite food, but there are also worker’s strikes and loud street sweepers and problems with the metro and every other issue that is a part of city life. And when you live here, you get to understand on a day-to-day basis just how much the city is bound to fail when living up to its image. That image of Paris as a black-and-white postcard, a moving Doisneau photo, has just never really existed.

Yet it kills me to see the way most foreigners who come to live here now will describe this city. There is an entire industry that seems to run on the novelty factor of laughing at how rude, unaccommodating, and flippant Parisians can be. Books upon blogs upon word-of-mouth anecdotes are built around the hilarity of failure to communicate and poking fun at the Frogs and their love of pretension. Most are willing to do this, it should be noted, speaking not a word of French. No, this conclusion of the French’s generally negative and mean-spirited demeanor was reached entirely in broken English. And while France gets the worst of the international mockery, it would be untrue to say that it’s the only country to which English-speakers feel free to travel without taking even a moment to learn the language.

My grandmother is French Canadian, and made it a point to help me with my French. She was always there for a phone call, an email, an encouraging card in French – but it was never spoken in my home. 90 percent of the grunt work of learning and eventually becoming fluent in French was done on my own. In the classroom, at home watching French movies, at French-speaking meetup groups in my city; I made it a point not to waste the time I dedicated to learning my second language. I did not, under any circumstances, want to be one of those people you meet who majored in a language in college and, ten years later, can barely eke out a coherent sentence. It just seemed like such a waste. And beyond that, I knew that I wanted to live in France some day, and it was of the utmost importance to me that I speak the language of the country I was so sure I’d fall in love with.

There is a persistent rumor in America that in going to Western Europe, we don’t need to learn the language of the country we’re visiting. And while it’s true that a tourist can get by for a week or so with a few key phrases from his book, there are many people (some I know personally) who see fit to go live in a country for months, even years at a time, without even attempting to learn the language. Yes, most young people here have a sufficient level of English to communicate in a basic way, and some are much more proficient. But amongst the older generations, you’d be very lucky to find one out of five who could hold a decent conversation. And even within the younger generation, there are many people whose English is so rudimentary that they are simply not themselves in our language.

Many of my dearest friends here, I simply would not have made if I didn’t speak their language. They are uncomfortable, hesitant, and not at all the funny, charming people they really are when they speak English. And it is no fault of theirs, they don’t work in industries where it’s required and, quite frankly, language is not their strong point. They will gamely fumble through a conversation if need be, but there is no way I would have gotten to know them if I couldn’t speak to them on their own terms.

As for the older generations, some of the most interesting, curious, hilarious people I’ve met in France have been my grandmother’s age. And one of the things that makes conversation with them so fascinating is that, for many, I’m one of the few Americans they’ve ever really been able to speak with. They are able to explain their viewpoints and their impressions on my country, one that at once seems to them so omnipresent and yet so unattainable. We’re on their televisions, on their radio, yet speaking a language they don’t understand. Without my knowledge of French, I would have never learned any of it.

Even the impression we have that Europeans somehow have a near-robotic system of learning English, one that leaves every student with a level so proficient that it renders conversation with them in their own language unnecessary, is completely false. Yes, there are parts of Europe (Northern leaps to mind) that have a language-learning system that is to be envied, but that is certainly not the case everywhere. Throughout France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere–the system is as flawed and inconsistent as it is in America. There are students here who excel in their English studies, as well as students who flounder and never quite master it. It is, like it is in the States, a matter of choice with the individual.

I only know French, and have only lived in France, so I can only base my opinions on the tiny slice of this problem that I see. I know that there are exceptions to this rule. But it becomes grating when nearly every piece of writing you see about the country you live in is being written not only in a derisive, disdainful tone, but written by someone who hasn’t even bothered to learn the language of the country they feel they deserve to inhabit. The sheer arrogance of the idea is staggering; the concept of coming to these people’s doorsteps and expecting them to communicate with you so smacks of entitlement that it’s hard to believe anyone does it. It’s playing an away game and wanting to wear the home jersey. It has become commonplace, even mundane, to complain about how rude the French are. But how well can you know a people to whom you’ve never truly spoken, whose culture and language and history you are all too confident in overlooking? Imagine the embarrassment, the frustration, a French person must feel when they are forced to speak a language they barely understand because the visitors couldn’t be bothered to learn a few words.

For the record, I have very, very rarely met someone who was outright rude to me. No more than, say, in New York or Washington, DC. Nearly without fail, every person I speak to is quick to inquire about my country, why I speak their language, and what brought me to France. They are complimentary and flattering about my mastery of their mother tongue, and always eager to help and teach me new expressions or slang terms I might not know. They are patient when explaining a complex turn of phrase, and warmly curious about what I have to say. For many of them, it’s very disarming to speak to an American in such a way. They talk about the strangeness of so many Anglophones living in their country who do not speak their language and, even for years on end, will be having (more or less) the “tourist experience” – only seeing a limited slice of the country. A friend once told me he felt like a zoo animal. Because of his very limited knowledge of English, he is able to be only a photo-op, an extra in a story to be told later on as someone who can barely say “merci” talks about the “time she lived in France.” TC mark

image – Jason Cartwright

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.


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  • jc

    Very well done. I’m  a Canadian chick living in Annecy, close to the Swiss border, and its just as bad down here. I teach English to some of the most interesting, motivated and funny people I have met anywhere in the world. There’s no way i’ll ever learn all of the expressions, or manage to rid myself completely of my accent, but the effort I put in is noticed almost every day. Sadly, when it comes to North American girls in France, our respect and sincerity is few and far between. I like being the exception to the rule and have found myself thinking: Putain, fait cheir ces touristes! 

  • EuroGirl

    D’accord mais beacoup des personnes parlent l’anglais que le français…Paris est une cité internationale…donc, c’est pas seulement “les américaines” que ne peuvent pas parlent en français–les filles de Londre, par exemple. Je pense que la langue de français est belle mais de plus en plus moins utile. 

    • londonienne

      Je te réponds en tant que “fille de Londre” (sic) qui habite à Paris. Je confirme que pour les Parisiens, c’est surtout les Américains qui ne parlent pas un mot de français.
      Par contre je suis tout à fait d’accord avec l’auteur qu’on peut pas vraiment apprécier la culture d’un pays si on fait pas un effort d’apprendre la langue du pays.

      Great article. Such a shame learning languages seems to be sliding down the scale of things worth doing for most English-speakers. As evidenced by comments such as “the french language is becoming less and less useful” (well I assume that’s what Eurogirl was trying to say).

  • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

    Wait, wait, wait, wait. You’re telling me that French people have their own language?! How arrogant of them. 

  • Guest

    Nicely done! I completely agree. I lived in Italy for a month last summer and brushed up on my Italian before leaving. I was shocked to see how many of the people I traveled with would order gelato in English! I mean, come on — you’re ordering the damn stuff several times a day so just learn to say “Vorrei un cono/una coppa di (insert flavor here), per favore.” It can be embarrassing to fumble through a language that you do not speak regularly, but if you just go out of your comfort zone, you’ll find that you have so many more interesting experiences that will be worth more to you than a cheap figurine of Michelangelo’s David.

  • birth contol pills

    If you insist upon writing your stories of ” a niche we haven’t heard enough about”, write about
    La Poste and their inability to function above a level ‘Maternelle’. Or how Parisian streets are covered in dog shit and piss because people don’t give a fuck at all about anyone. Maybe the whole process of incorporating you into French culture, y’know in order to obtain your titre de sejour. All those classes you had to attend in Barbès where you were forced to sit in a room with 24 other people, all men 30+ years of age and listen to lectures about how “your extra wives in your home countries weren’t allowed to come and if you genitally mutilate your daughter you will be sent back.” France is corrupt, backwards, and you got it… not at all like a postcard. That should be what your next piece is about. Thanks for learning French, Chelsea. It helps us American girls living in Paris who also speak French look better. No doubt.

    Also. Parisians despise French Canadians. Hopefully you don’t speak with that accent.

    English is the International Language. The more languages you learn, the better.


    • Guest

      I don’t mean to go out on a limb here…but someone seems a little bitter…am I reading that right? 

      • Charles Reinhardt

        I almost took the bait and started talking about what a Third World hellhole New York is.

  • http://twitter.com/Acccent Robin V

    I’m french, this article is heartwarming.
    It should also be noted that in museums, you always find english explanations, sometimes above the french ones; the opposite wasn’t true for most of the museums I visited in english-speaking countries.

    • Stefan

      Well that English isn’t just for English-as-a-first-language people: it’s the easiest way to get information to as wide a range of people, people for whom English is a second or third or so language . Say all you want about cultural imperialism and so on, but I really don’t think that should be a sore point only for the sake of itself.

      But! perhaps museums in English-speaking countries should have more that just English, and maybe sometimes they do? I’m not sure? But I’m not sure the two are entirely comparable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rosselliot Ross Frazier


    Wonderfully written post! I’m an American living in Belgium, not but an hour or so (via thalys, bien sur) from Paris! I live in Flanders, so I’ve had the opportunity to learn a bit of flemish (also fluent in English and French) while I’m here getting my maters, despite the fact that my program is in English. 

    But I’ve traveled to France on many occasions; I have a lot of friends in Paris and will actually be moving there in October. One of my favorite memories with Parisien locals was once while my parents were shopping in the Galleries and I decided to forego that 7th level of Hell, so I sat a coffeeshop a few blocks away and had brunch and coffee. Two girls came and sat beside me (on their coffee break from the Galleries, ironically). Somehow a random conversation began and we just talked for about 20 minutes and finally they asked if I was from Canada (seeing as I spoke French, but clearly not with a true French accent). They were shocked when I told them I was American! It was refreshing for them to see an American who had taken such a vested interest in learning their language. I believe I’ve been to Paris maybe…8 times so far? NEVER had a bad experience…This assumed image of what the French are like is very disturbing to me. I try my best to be an ambassador for America while I’m here and an ambassador for Europe when I return to the states. 

    I believe the best way to travel is to blend in. I have a pretty good record of being asked for directions when I travel, which I find hilarious since I’m usually as lost as the person inquiring! hahaha But in almost every major city I’ve visited, I really have been asked for directions – I don’t carry a camera around my neck, I leave the fanny-pack at home, I download maps to my phone so I’m not struggling to fold maps every two blocks, and I learn necessary phrases in the language of the locals…you get so much more out of it when you seem and act like a local. You’re more respected when you show an interest in the culture and you get to “experience” the area and not just travel through it. 

    Don’t travel, experience. 

    – Ross

    • Anonymous

      I got asked for directions in Australia. I guess the couple who asked didn’t realize that I had an American English accent.

  • Mr Shankly

    Please, be more condescending. I mean really, Paris is just a normal city, just like back home? Who fucking knew. I always assumed it was comprised of old windmills and beret clad women with baguette shaped vibrators. I’d like to think that the majority of the thoughtcatalog reader demographic aren’t so naive and culturally inept that this comes as any sort of revelation. 

    What makes it worse is your apparent superiority complex over all the other American immigrants simply because you learnt the language. I mean of course, it’s impressive and I admire you for it, but don’t think of yourself as anything more than the lowest benchmark for what should be attained before moving to another country. Your disdain for the romanticised preconceptions of Paris, is well placed, yet it’s clear you oh so adore referring to yourself as an american living in Paris, and you see fit to assume your experience is applicable to Europe as a whole, at least in some respects. You should note, too, that not everyone on thoughtcatalog is american, so please stop writing as if this is the case.

    Look, I can see the point you’re trying to make, and I appreciate its grave importance. The arrogance and linguistic incompetence of the vast majority of native english speakers is and should be a cause for shame and embarrassment, particularly when abroad. Still, I think you’re mistaken if you think this is something which everyone is oblivious to, and your misconceived idea that your ability to speak the language of the country in which you live should provide you with some sort of sense of entitlement for having made the effort is just as damaging as thinking it unnecessary to bother at all. 

    • Guesty

      OMG.  I want a baguette-shaped vibrator.

    • Anonymous

      I absolutely agree with you that learning a language is the lowest benchmark–hence my frustration with the hordes of people who see fit not to do it. The fact that many of them come from my country is, to say the least, embarrassing (if not greatly saddening).

      I know very well that not everyone on Thought Catalog is American, and I did say Anglophones throughout. The problem is usually a general English-speaker one. 

      And you mock people not thinking that Paris is a real city, but you’d be shocked at how many people come here expecting some magical fairy tale where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt and, more importantly, nothing had really changed since the war. A lot of them don’t realize they expect it until they get here and see that it’s quite far from being the case.


      Shit is ridiculous.

      • Stefan

        But “Paris Syndrome” is not just something applicable to Paris! I mean, isn’t it kind of arrogant that they think they deserve the entire syndrome to be named after them?

        Also, let’s just say this: arrogantly making observations that rational, considerate people should have already made, and justifying it with the explanation that there are, in fact, other people (!) who have not made this observation (which is an observation that everyone you’re preaching has probably also already made) is really, actually ridiculous (in the truest sense of the word.)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

        haha, yeah.

        sounds like the generic symptoms of culture shock to me.

      • Guest

        “Japanese visitors are observed to be especially susceptible.[1][2] It was first noted in Nervure, the French journal of psychiatry in 2004.[3] From the estimated six million yearly visitors, the number of reported cases is significant: according to an administrator at the Japanese embassy in France, around twenty Japanese tourists a year are affected by the syndrome.[4] The susceptilibity of Japanese people may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealized image of Paris prevalent in Japanese advertising, which does not correspond to reality.”Whoa.  Whoa, now.  This is actually a thing?  

  • Jo

    I’m French, living in Paris, a big part of my friends are from english speaking countries therefore, as a matter of fact, i speak english when with them (they speak very little french).
    From my pont of view, the french should put more affort at learning english, I mean, the real English. Scholar English ain’t enough…especially in Paris, the most “international” place in France…

  • guest

    love how accusatory this is of english speaking arrogance, yet comes across as smug as hell

  • Emily

    Having lived overseas and here in the US – I don’t expect any TOURIST to learn but a few key phrases if that – however, anyone who MOVES to another country where another language is spoken – even for a temporary period of time – and doesn’t learn the language, they are just idiots.  That also goes for the spanish speaking immigrants who live in the US for YEARS and expect everything to be in spanish to accommodate them. 

    • Mr Shankly

      I think emigrating in order to find work and escape poverty is hardly comparable with what’s being talked about here. There’s a difference between not learning a language because of a lack of educational and financial resources to do so, and not doing so out of pure insolence.

      • Yana

        Really Mr Shankly?   So when my parents emigrated to the US from Russia (only 15 years ago) where they were escaping poverty and came to the US to find work, no one would have HIRED them had they not learned English.  There is not a valid excuse for moving to another country and living there for years without learning the language. 

      • Mr Shankly

        I’m not excusing it, I’m saying that it’s less of a black and white issue than emily implied it was.  In any case, there’s certainly less incentive, and less potential to pick up a new language quickly when immigrants tend to be limited to communities resembling ghettos where most people speak their language and not all that many are willing to teach for an affordable amount.

  • GuestNumber8

    Hi Chelsea,

    I like your writing style and I agree that anyone visiting anywhere should learn a little of the language for their own sake and that anyone living in a foreign country should most definitely learn that language.

    BUT your smugness is even harder to swallow that the Parisians’ (yes, I lived in Paris and I speak French).  Puh-lease girl.  And what an overly milked topic this is.  Did Thought Catalog run out of interesting thoughts?

  • Ahlk825

    I agree with what you’re trying to say, just not the way you said it.

    八婆, 如果你能夠學了漢語,我就可以接受你的優越感…… 

    • cathy

      cant help but feel superior that I actually understood that.

    • cathy

      cant help but feel superior that I actually understood that.

  • heehee

    You probs should have thrown something in their that made it more obvious that you were responding to the “Don’t Quit Your Corporate Job..” article, which I think you are doing (kind of. but also just writing this to write this because it’s like HELLO PEOPLE?!)
    Anyway you are quickly becoming my favorite writer here on TC. These are difficult times for language

  • jay em

    this whole post is so stereotypical.  the only thing MORE stereotypical would be if you were in your early 20s and taught english or nannied in france.

    • Stefan


  • http://twitter.com/ShinyAndrea alkthatcher

    Admittedly I don’t read much about expats in France, but I do enjoy French culture quite a bit so I probably read more about the country and it’s tourism than the average American. I really can’t say I find this caricaturization or derision of the French to be so prevalent as you seem to, nor do I think anyone really believes a city to be like a postcard in real life. My husband (who is by no means a Francophile) and I found the people of Paris to be some of the most pleasant and accommodating we’ve encountered in Europe. I really don’t think the Thought Catalog audience needs to be educated on this issue. If anything I think the caricature of the Ugly American is by far the more pervasive than the “rude Frenchman.” The piece comes off as if you think your audience has never considered that Americans might not always make the best impression overseas, when obviously that is very known. If anything I think other cultures have much more animosity towards us (based on more real issues) than we have for foreigners in their own countries not speaking English. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KH3GZIAOMSNNRBD5QXFCI3U6RQ Diane Siriani

    Great Information! I just launched my own expatriate tax return service for expatriates at http://www.expatriatetaxreturns.com

  • http://twitter.com/liesinspiloos Lisette Nijboer

    As to your impression of continental Europeans barely speaking English; false.
    I am Dutch born and raised, so my Dutch is fluent.
    I do speak English, but I find my Dutch accent terrible, and I’d kill to get rid of it. In my almost nineteen years of life, I have been in England three times; accumulated my time spent there is no more than two weeks. In those two weeks, I have received several compliments on how good my English was after I told people I was, in fact, not a native speaker, which they were not always too eager to believe in the first place.

    My German, learned in school, is far from perfect. That is the reason I will be spending a year in Germany; to perfect my German grammar and extend my vocabulary. The German people I have talked to in the last few months asked me what there was to learn for me, since my language skills seemed perfect to them.

    Then there is my French, which is terrible. Truly terrible. Still, I can have a conversation in French, providing the other person doesn’t talk too fast/have a major accent. I can talk about contemporary art, the town I grew up in and my opinion about the world and politics.

    I admire the fact that you actually learned French before you moved to France, but there is no reason to be so smug about it. It is not that weird for someone to actually know a language that is not their own.

    • Silvie

      Was she being smug?
      Because I think the one being smug in her overstatement of language skills might be you.

      Anyway, good for you, that you know so many languages well, and that you are fortunate enough to be able to travel to other countries and learn, but you must know that not all western europeans have that luxury and that the language level really is as the author explained in her post.

      And I say this as a person living in Portugal, and having been educated in the portuguese school system.

      And also having lived in France and Germany and let me tell you that the level of english speaking inthose countries is exactly as in Portugal and as the author described, some good, but only on their own merits, as the educational system is very lacking in that regard. Not to mention the older generations.

      Seriously, take a good unbiased look around and you will see it.

      • Guest

        Yes, the author’s being smug.

  • Comic Insult

    Stick to articles about hangovers.

  • vamos

    You love commas!

  • Stefan

    Was it you, though, who wrote somewhere (here or on your tumblr) about how you were out with American friends and you ordered in French and the waiter was nice but then he heard you speak English and the service became terrible and they even tried to overcharge you for some watered-down wine?

    Also, does it make a difference how good your French is? Like, sometimes people are rude and if you try to speak in their language but do it poorly or with an obvious foreign accent they’ll switch to English?

    But mostly I just think you’re insufferable.

  • Lcdoe13

    You ever think about how many people move to the United States without knowing English? It’s the same thing going on here.

  • Guest


    I love your ability to stir up some controversy, and your smugness is always appreciated :) In other news, go on with your bad self!

  • Mandi

    I lived in Lille, France for five months and I completely agree–if you work to learn the language, the French are wonderful! I was invited into some of my French friends homes and cannot believe the level of hospitality. It’s important to remember that here in America we don’t treat those who don’t speak English well. Overall, nice article! You have me itching to go back to France!

  • http://imlikecocaine.wordpress.com/ Ana

    believe it or not, here, in Bucharest, Romania, I speak as much English as Romanian(Romglish, they say). actually, here people have a problem when you know a foreign language and use it all the time. all my friends know English more than okay, we’ve all passed Cambridge exams and we’re pretty much adopting English like a native language.
    well, my country is francophone, and I do know French people are very proud with their language and heritage (let’s put it this way: nationalism) so they usually reject English. 
    then again, you can never generalize. and yes, it’s optional to know a foreign language on a higher level. that doesn’t stop me(or most of my friends) to think sometimes in English and watch movies easily without subtitles.

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