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Speaking French in Paris restaurants?

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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

    ~Liz

    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,

      Hunt

      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

            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.

            Enjoy,

            Hunt

            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.

            1. re: souphie

              I'm in love retroactively.

          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... "

                    Hunt

                  2. Thank you all for reassuring me. I really would like to speak French, so I'm not going to let my anxiety stop me! I find trying to communicate in the country's language one of the most enjoyable parts of travel; yet I am shy and timid in a foreign tongue rather than gregarious and fearless as I would desire... But I do know the food words!

                    1. I would rarely expect someone in a foreign country to speak English. In exactly the same way, that I doubt whether any of my local restaurants would be able to speak French to a visiting tourist.

                      Of course, it would be different in, say, a tourist area of Spain, such as Mallorca, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of English speakers every year. There are also some countries where the national language is not widely spoken outside of the borders - for example, people in the Flemish areas of Belgium tend to speak good English as few non-nationals speak Dutch. It'll also be different in "tourist restaurants" in Paris - the sort of place that regularly gets mentioned in the English language guide books (or, indeed, internet discussion boards).

                      I travel to France usually yearly and to the more rural areas. I rely on my school French and a knowledge of "restaurant French" which is built up over the years of visiting. It's necessity as English is not generally spoken in the places I go to. It's rare that I have a difficulty - my pronounciation may not be all that good and, like the OP, I sometimes struggle to understand what's said back to me if it's spoken quickly. But I get round this by apologising for my poor French and aks them to please repeat more slowly. Occasionally, it remains a challenge - I was in a small village restaurant last year. Everything was going well until I order the main course. It quickly became clear that the item was off the menu that night and I was being offered recommended an alternative. I tried to understand what it was, without success, but ordered it anyway. Was delicious.

                      So, yes, it is always better to try to speak French as asking "parlez-vous Anglais" may well get you the response "Non". "Un carafe d'eau" will indeed get you the water - and, unlike in a number of European countries, restaurants cannot refuse to serve tap water.

                      1. I honestly do not know how the French have acquired the bad reputation about language. I have never been on the receiving end of this rudeness in France. Most people have exquisite manners, greeting your entrance to their store or other place of business with "Bon jour, Madame" and bidding you "Au revoir, Madame" when you leave.

                        Many years ago, I lived in France, going to school. My French was extremely limited at the beginning. Never was I made to feel inferior, nor did I encounter the 'tude that so many people reference. Rather, I found people very willing to help me make myself understood. Did we occassionally use franglais? Bien sur! Hand gestures? Mais oui. I made a stunning mistake at the butcher when I requested a "gigolo" instead of a "gigot" but everyone enjoyed that. I was never made to feel like a dunce.

                        Have I experienced poor manners and bad behavior in France? Yes, I have. But I am pained to report that, in each instance, it was an American tourist who showed the boorish behavior. Once, in a department store, after assisting an American man with his purchases, he clapped me on the back and said "you shore do talk gud English fer a frog, honey".

                        I would much rather be an English-speaking tourist in France than a French-speaking tourist in the US.

                        Assume the best intentions, try to meet halfway and I predict that your trip will be a wonderful experience. A willing heart and kindness will go a very long way on your travels.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Sherri

                          Sherri, I agree with your comment on manners in France.

                          I lived in Paris but I am a hopeless linguist, however I master the hellos, pleases and thank yous. In my years living there I experienced very little rudeness (apart from the memorable experience of trying to change a train ticket). However, I did see a lot of waiters and bar staff be quite rude to tourists. The common thread was that the tourist would march up to the bar or restaurant and start speaking loudly in English without even the courtesy of a polite "bonjour".

                          Good manners are reciprocated in all countries, and in France so are bad manners. Smile, use good manners, be polite, try a little French, and the whole experience should be fine.

                          1. re: PhilD

                            My experiences exactly. I try, the waitstaff laughs, my wife saves me, and all is great. Smiles all around and great food and service.

                            My wife usually covers my gaffs by telling the servers, "that is not his good ear," but in French. Again, they smile and we are always welcomed.

                            Hunt

                        2. I also never encountered the attitude that some speak of when I was in Paris. When I travel, I never assume English is a given and attempt to speak the native language when possible.

                          While my French is rudimentary at best, I still managed to garble my through ordering and navigating around the city. I was almost treated with kindness and professionalism. I never sensed any condescension. I even remember walking on the island near the Berthillon ice cream shop and having a French speaker ask me for directions. Between a mix of charades and rudimentary French I pointed him to the nearest Metro.

                          The only time I ever encountered less than friendly behaviour was not by native Parisians, but by the tourists who very loudly lamented that their waiter did not speak English.

                          I'd have to agree with previous posters. A willingness to speak French combined with humility and an open spirit, gets you the respect that you treat others with.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: daeira

                            Yep, that was my experience too. I have very basic high school French and my husband even less. But we found that just the experience of *trying* to speak French (in my husband's case that meant just a handful of words and greetings followed by lots of hand gestures) and following some of the polite rules (like the "Bonjour" when entering small shops) really went a long way in making people sympathetic and helpful.

                          2. I always preface my attempts at another language with heartfelt apologies for butchering the language. This approach has worked for me for 50 years, in more countries than I can count. And remember to smile.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: pikawicca

                              I understand that completely. I think that I can say, " I cannot speak your beautiful language, but will try, as I respect you and wish to dine well," in 14 different languages.

                              After that intro, I can see the pain that I am causing, but try anyway. If I have delivered that first line well enough, I usually do not end up with a toilet seat in a red wine sauce.

                              Hunt

                            2. I echo the various sentiments that my efforts to speak French in Paris have always been met graciously. Indeed, one of my favorite memories from my first trip to Paris many moons ago involved making reservations over the phone in French for dinner. I had studied French in both HS and college, so my knowledge of the language is more than rudimentary but I am by no means fluent, and my accent, while not horrible, would not be mistaken for a native speaker's. When we arrived at the restaurant, the Maitre d' greeted us, in French, inquiring as to whether it was I who had made the reservation with the "accent charmant"?

                              1. Before my first trip to France, I was given some great advice by a friend. She told me to always acknowledge the shopkeeper, waiter, etc. first by saying by saying hello or good morning (in French if you can) BEFORE making a request or (as they may see it, a demand). I took her advice and always started with a greeting and a smile and found that the people I met were lovely. I was always forgiven my somewhat mangled French and treated graciously.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: chefbeth

                                  I find greeting someone in a shop, restaurant or wherever with a "hello" or whatever to be just part of my normal life. It's common politeness. The difference I find in France is that "bonjour" isnt enough - French people will always greet you with "bonjour monsieur (or madame)" - it's the extra politeness that's a mark of French society.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    The impression I got when talking to my well-traveled friend was that easiest way to earn an "ugly American" label was when people walked up to a counter and placed an order or asked a question without a greeting. I understand that the American may have been a normally polite person who is nervous about speaking a language that they are uncomfortable with. I also understand that the person on the other side of the transaction feels diminished by not being politely acknowledged. But I agree with you, Harters. I find that greeting some one always pays off - in France, New York or at the corner store.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      Very good comments. Though it is deviating from food, per se, I find that doing so, and caring about the service person, goes a long way.

                                      When greeted with the "how are you doing this day?" I usually reply, "Fine, and how are YOU doing today?" Most often, there is a pause, and then a smile, before, "I am doing well too. Thank you for asking." I like happy servers, whether it's in a retail clothing store, or a restaurant. Most patrons never get beyond themselves, and most severs never feel like the patron even notices them.

                                      For me, they can make, or break, a meal (or retail experience). I care about them too, and always try to convey that.

                                      Hunt

                                  2. Not in Paris, but I remember a restaurant in Rouen where I spoke no French and the waiter no English. But the one thing we seemed to share was an enthusiasm for the food, and I somehow managed to convince him to serve me a special dish that was usually made only for two, and he seemed to understand perfectly. Hunger and the love of food is so basic that it transcends languages.

                                    1. I often find myself teaching English as a Second Language to little kids. There is NOTHING I love more than hearing them experiment with new words and phrases. Well... actually I love it when I talk to them a year or two later and their English is amazing. I don't think it matters if it's a French restaurant or a Japanese office... everyone appreciates it when you attempt to speak the local language and everyone is happy to do their best to understand you. I've spent about three of the last seven years in countries where the local language was foreign to me, and nobody EVER implied that my language abilities were something to be ashamed of.

                                      8 Replies
                                      1. re: Jetgirly

                                        Good philosophy on communications.

                                        I took an advanced class on Spanish Language. All of my classmates were from south of the US borders, and most were from "foreign service" families. I was so far out of my element, that I cannot describe. I think that I got a B, just because I tried every class, and usually "brought the house down," when it came time for me to read, or recite. Talk about pressure! Still, I tried, and was just so very heavily outclassed, that my professor took pity on me - same with some of the servers, who I have encountered. I hope that I made their evenings, but I swear that they never batted an eye. I think that we got our orders, and the wines WERE correct, so all is good.

                                        Thanks for sharing,

                                        Hunt

                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                          I'm just wondering, for everyone here, is it really that reprehensible for a tourist to not even attempt to speak your language?

                                          I'm from Hong Kong and I have encountered many tourists who make no attempt at speaking Chinese. In fact many expats who have been living here for 10+ years make no attempt at learning the language either. I always thought that was the norm, and never realized how this type of behavior may actually be rude and disrespectful.

                                          I understand there's a cultural difference, but I'm getting the impression that not attempting to speak the language as a tourist should be frowned upon, how universal is this rule?

                                          1. re: Inkou

                                            It's a personal thing, but my opinion is (unless you're only going to be somewhere for a very short period of time) that one ought to at least learn how to say: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me, I'm sorry, I don't speak language X, do you speak language Y? That seems a reasonable amount to learn and at least you can then be polite to someone who can't speak your language.

                                            That being said, languages in different alphabets than the one you're accustomed to can be quite a challenge.

                                            Someone living in a country for 10 years with no knowledge of the native language seems like an awful waste to me. But then again I enjoy learning languages.

                                            1. re: Inkou

                                              It depends on the country and how the population views the English language.

                                              HK was governed by Britain until 1997 and I understood English was the official language, certainly road signs, government forms etc all have English translations. And isn't English taught at all the schools? I know HK is changing, especisally with the influx of "mainland" Chinese, many of whom don't speak English (or Cantonese). So English was the second language of the majority of people and is fine to use, in-fact shop assistants and waiters will generally greet you in English.

                                              France, is very proud of the French language and they even develop new words to replace English ones that creep into the language. Although I think the recent news stories are April fools jokes i.e. the new word for "chat" is "éblabla" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/world...). So even though most French will do English at school, and will need to pass English exams to enter university, they will still expect people to show respect and try a little French. So not to do so can give offence.

                                              But each country is different, someone mentioned The Netherlands, the Dutch are generally multilingual and most speak good English. They know they are a small country and few people speak Dutch.

                                              I believe it is always good to learn a few words in the language of the country you are visiting. In some countries you need a little more to be polite, in others you need more to survive, and and in a few English is practically a second language for most, especially the younger generation.

                                              1. re: PhilD

                                                "But each country is different, someone mentioned The Netherlands, the Dutch are generally multilingual and most speak good English. They know they are a small country and few people speak Dutch."

                                                As I mentioned upthread, same applies in the Dutch speaking areas of Belgium. The country is officially bi-lingual but I'd suggest that you'd find Flemish folk are more comfortable speaking English than French. Of course, politics plays its part there.

                                                1. re: Harters

                                                  Good advice on Flanders. Assuming you don't speak Dutch, much wiser to go straight to English, rather than offend by speaking French.

                                              2. re: Inkou

                                                I cannot answer that. Have not traveled to the Orient, where I would know hardly a word. With the romance languages, I can poke around a bit and through brute force, offer up a few similar words.

                                                The closest that I have come has been in Hawai`i, when approached by Asian tourists, who spoke zero words of English. We communicated by sign language, and pointing out things on a map, or a brochure with pictures (as I read no Asian languages), and they seemed to be happy with my pointing and gesturing. I only hope that I helped them. I assume that they were looking for the Ferragamo store, and not the airport... ?

                                                Hunt

                                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                  I'm all for pointing to make up a lack of language. When I travel, I try to carry a phrase book, knowing that if I butcher the pronunciation, I can point to the phrase. Mostly, I get a patient correct repatition of the phrase.

                                          2. I haven't had any problems with French "snobbishness" in many years. When I first visited Paris, though, back in 1975 - oh yes, it did indeed exist. I had had five years of high school French and still couldn't get a waiter to bring me a glass of water by asking for "un verre de l'eau."

                                            Though to be fair, in those days his attitude may easily have been aimed as much at my long hair and jeans as at my (slight, I like to believe) American accent.