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Apr 14, 2010 09:42 AM

Speaking French in Paris restaurants?

I can speak elementary French, though it's been a long time, and I'm afraid I'll be making plenty of mistakes. I prefer to try to speak the language when I travel, but I admit to being intimidated by the Parisian's reputation for insisting that their language be spoken correctly, and the speed with which people speak. I *think* it's better to go into a restaurant and try to speak French, and do my best, rather than resorting to "parlez-vous Anglais." Do you agree?

Also, while I'm asking, is "un carafe d'eau" sufficient to ask for tap water, or does one have to say "eau du robinet"?

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  1. I speak almost no French, and in 3 visits to Paris I can remember only one incident where somebody didn't appreciate a few words of bad French. I think Parisian "snobiness' is overrated.

    Un carafe d'eau worked just fine. for us


    8 Replies
    1. re: Liz K

      Liz K,

      I agree with you. It seems to me, that in most countries, foreign to US English, the attempt is met with warmth, and understanding. Most service personnel appreciate the attempt, and will be both helpful and merciful. "Do you really mean that you want a toilet seat with your wine?"

      Spent a month throughout Mexico for our honeymoon. Most of this was off the "beaten path." I had high school Spanish, and a few college classes, but was anything but fluent. We managed on almost everything, except needing nail-clippers in Guadalajara. Did not know that word, and the pantomimes just did not work. Now, I have to admit that because my young wife was a black-haired, olive-skinned lovely, with a crucifix around her neck, all service people spoke to her. As she knew about 3 words in Spanish, I did all the attempts at talking. I felt like Senior Wences with the puppet. I'd order, and they'd ask her a question. I would answer, and they'd keep talking to her. Still, they helped us get through very well.

      Same thing in Paris. Give it a try, and be very gracious with a smile, and you should never have an issue.

      Travel safely,


      PS - wife speaks fairly good French, but when it comes to the wines, I have to struggle through. She snickers, and winks at the servers, who do their best to help me - maybe it's the Mississippi accent?

      1. re: Bill Hunt

        I also agree with Liz K...we were there a long time ago ... 1998...brought all 3 sons who were then 18, 16 and 14...we told them to AT LEAST say Si vous plez and merci and gave them a few other basic phrases-- there was only one bartender who threw my son's change at him right in front of us. It's just good manners to at least speak a few phrases in the language of the country you are visiting--giving it a try is *usually* appreciated.

        1. re: Val

          S'il vous plait.

          Good practice, though!

          1. re: Lizard

            Merci, Lizard! (I knew I'd butchered it and am better at pronouncing it than spelling it!)

            1. re: Val

              And I'm sure they appreciated that your sons said "vous" instead of "tu" which I have heard and it made me cringe! Even if the waiter was in his or her early 20's.

              1. re: southernitalian

                We made so many friends during that visit which also included Amsterdam and Germany...the French were so gracious with that one exception and he certainly did not represent all Parisians, we all knew that. Our sons all would love to return to Europe and have many happy memories of that trip.

          2. re: Val


            Along with the " marks, a big BOLD would have been in order - usually. There are exceptions all over the place. As visitors, I would hope that we could overlook those. My wife, who oversees 10,000 employees and a million+ patients per year, maintains that "some people are genetically surly, and there is nothing that we can do about that." Let us always hope that those folk will always be in the great minority, and on a good day, we'll never encounter any of them.

            Being "multi-lingual," I try to be gracious and welcoming. In my case, I am from Mississippi, so English is my second language. I speak some Spanish, enough to get me by for a month in the interior of Mexico, and a few phrases in French - when it comes to ordering my wines. OK, for most people, that would NOT constitute "multi-lingual," but I do my best, smile a lot and say "please," and "thank you," to the best of my abilities, in whatever the language is. I welcome each server, and try to ask "how are you doing?" of each. I only hope that they reciprocate to some degree, though have to admit that if they do not, it is very likely to go over my pointed little head. Only after we have left, and are walking back to the flat, along some cobbled avenue, will my wife confide, "she was making fun of you tonight. Did you know that?" The answer is always, "No. I hadn't noticed. We did get our orders correctly, and the wines too, didn't we?"

            Smile, try a few phrases, with heartfelt intent, and throw oneself on the mercy of the servers.



            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Well said, Bill Hunt...thanks very much!

      2. <Parisian's reputation for insisting that their language be spoken correctly,>

        Have you experienced that? I never have. Speak French. It's almost unbelievable how fast most French folks will start speaking to you in English!

        Un carafe d'eau is fine.

        5 Replies
        1. re: ChefJune

          Alors, je parlerai francais.

          I haven't been to Paris in many years, so whatever I experienced when speaking French back then has been transformed by the vagaries of my memory. I'm sure it's just groundless anxiety. I do recall that one very sweet waiter corrected me when I said something was "delicieuse." He put his index finger and thumb together and said, very softly, "delicieux." But that was actually pleasant for me, he was so nice.

          Thanks for your responses.

          1. re: visciole

            He was flirting with you. Which many people mistake for rudeness and agressivity.

          2. re: ChefJune

            <Speak French. It's almost unbelievable how fast most French folks will start speaking to you in English!>

            Seconded. My French is abominable, but I give it the ol' college try (note that I failed French in college). Et voila! I get a gracious response in English.

            1. re: ChefJune

              < "Parisian's reputation for insisting that their language be spoken correctly, Have you experienced that? I never have. Speak French. It's almost unbelievable how fast most French folks will start speaking to you in English.>

              Chef June, the swift shift to English is precisely the way these Parisians may be upholding that reputation. They'll go for English rather than keep that particularly conversation going along in French.

              But that said, I say speak French. I also agree that it's far more appreciated to see one attempt to speak the language than force English on the situation.

            2. "I *think* it's better to go into a restaurant and try to speak French, and do my best, rather than resorting to "parlez-vous Anglais." Do you agree?"

              Me too Visiole and thank you for speaking up. As others have said word of French rudeness is vastly over-rated, it's rude, boastful and insular Americans I have trouble with. Someone who politely stammers to ask directions in rudimentary French I find charming. There are times when I've been asked to help translate a carte, usually for our friends from Asia, but I've found French waiters to be most sympa and flexible to figuring out your wants.

              John Talbott's Paris

              1. I read this book by Polly Platt called French or Foe, and apparently if you begin any request with "excusez-moi de vous deranger, mais j'ai un probleme", you should have no problems at all

                1. When I was traveling in France, all my efforts to speak in French were rewarded with people paying attention, helping me with what I needed and kindly correcting me, so I would learn.
                  Now, I do speak French fairly well having attending a French Immersion Elementary school, but my French was especially rusty the first few days there.

                  As long as you are humble, don't speak louder when people can't understand you and don't get frustrated, most people will really appreciate the effort you put it. French love their language and with good reason, it truly is beautiful.

                  Just don't tell anyone "J'aime le langue Francaise" as I did. That literally means, I like French tongue.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: wonderflosity

                    "don't speak louder when people can't understand you"

                    Love that line. "It's not that I am deaf, it is that you do not speak French well enough for me to understand... "