On This Day – French Language Issues

The prospect of travel seems as distant as ever. In the meantime I am trawling my archives. On 17th April 2007 I was in the delightful French City of La Rochelle…

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making them understand their own language.”, Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’

It was still very warm when we walked back into the town and found the restaurant that had taken our eye earlier. It was called Les Camediens and was situated in an inviting little side street running back from the harbour and behind all of the expensive front rank eating places.

Now, the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and this place was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us. It is a feature of French Restaurants that waiters often think that some customers (especially English customers) don’t actually want to be served at all and this place was no exception.

The wine list was interesting because in France there is massive in-built prejudice in favour of French products. We were presented with a list of about twenty pages of wines – all French except for three, listed under a section generously entitled “wines from the rest of the world”.

The French are proud of their culture and especially their language of course and their reluctance to communicate in or even simply acknowledge English gives me the opportunity on holiday to demonstrate my fluency in everyday essentials and I had to use all of that knowledge here:

‘Vin blanc sil vous plait’; ‘Vin rouge sil vous plait’;’ bier grande sil vous plait’;‘bier grande vite’ and so on and so on.

Actually I would try harder but language is an area where the French are really quite rude.

The paradox that they have created for themselves is that whilst they would like visitors to speak French and visitors would like to speak French they stop them doing so because they mercilessly take the piss out of us when we make a mistake – so it’s hardly surprising that rather than be subjected to ridicule we stick to pointing and shouting.

I remember an incident in a hotel when I was trying to communicate in French. The receptionist quickly lost patience, looked down her nose at me, sneered and said “Shall I speak English, it is easier”.

It was easier I concede but I was trying, I really was trying. In Spain and Italy and Portugal and Germany they never behave like that.

Sorry but I am going to say it. The French consider themselves superior in almost every respect. They assume, routinely, that given the chance, everyone would live in France, be French, eat French food, eat stinky French cheese, drink French wine, watch impenetrable French films, visit the French Riviera and enjoy the Tour de France.

It gets worse the further south you go which is why when I go to France I generally stay in the north,

When he finally condescended to take our order I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight and I had been really looking forward to mussels.

We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments. He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them one by one in what little French we knew while he kept up a bulwark against improving international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us. We progressed past salt and pepper but got stuck in a cul-de-sac over vinegar. Now the French for vinegar is vinaigre which most people would agree isn’t too dissimilar but he was determined to make this difficult. He totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments one at a time but never any vinegar. I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying seeing us struggle.

We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip (Mon Cul, as the French would say) and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again that week and left with a single backward ‘You should have been more helpful” sort of glance.

55 responses to “On This Day – French Language Issues

  1. Never been to France, but I had similar experiences in Germany.

    As luck would have it, I have no plans for foreign travel . . . but if I ever go to France, I will make sure to misunderstand the amount of whatever bill I have to pay . . . by about half.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your experience of France and the French is quite different from mine, Andrew.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree the French can sometimes make life difficult, but with honourable exceptions (you’re clearly one) there are too many English who think the road to comprehension lies in talking English LOUDER. And I definitely don’t agree about the south, where we lived, where people definitely appreciated our efforts. But your waiter certainly makes for a good story!.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Of course, you have French all over your English so figure it out lol! thanks to the Normans of course…As I speak several languages and visited/lived in several countries I can say the same of many it depends the individual you meet!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. And “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making them understand their own language.”, Mark Twain –” THE reason was that his French was so bad could not be understood it happens to a lot who claim speaks the language but they massacre it lol!!! I see many here including the expats lol!

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  6. A touchy subject, Andrew 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think if you make an effort with the language and you can keep a smile on your face, it usually works out OK wherever you go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. In Spain try to speak Spanish and they encourage you, same in Italy and Germany. Greek and Portuguese are impossible anyway. In France they expect you to speak perfect French and if you don’t they will look down their noses at you. No real incentive to try I find.

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  8. An unfortunate experience but I tend to agree with the earlier comment that it’s probably more to do with the individual than the race. Not least because I found the people in Marseille and Nice among the friendliest and most engaging city dwellers anywhere!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. We visited La Rochelle in 2012: https://geriatrixcorner.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/october-17th18th-la-rochelle/
    with our French friends, so language didn’t matter for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have never, ever experienced this in France or indeed in any other European country. My husband speaks excellent French albeit with an obvious English accent so occasionally we have the situation where our server speaks English to him and French to me. Tips are not necessary in France as all prices include service. You might leave a little something by rounding up the bill or a little more if the service were exceptional.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think in the UK we’re all quite interested to hear another language and we often attempt to strike up friendly conversations, well, outside of London anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. My Canadian French got me nowhere in France but I didn´t notice much rudeness. When a French waiter in Paris was a bit rude, my French friend got angry with him and said, “It´s people like you that give us French a bad name!” My British in-laws are constantly correcting my (Canadian) English. I love this quote from P. G. Wodehouse “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” from The Luck of the Bodkins. The British have the best sense of humour!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have to say I have had a few issues in Paris, where they deliberately fail to understand a word if I don’t get my vowels right. And I have been told I would like a Belgian! But I have to say I love the southerners. I’m a regular visitor and never suffer any rudeness. In fact their own pronunciation of vowels down south would get Parisian criticism too 😀

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  14. My husband and I had a few similar experiences when we used to tour a lot, I especially remember one place where we’d stayed overnight, had dinner + breakfast, and then asked reception if they would connect us to the ferry port (we wanted to change our departure). We merely wanted him to get us through to the right department and we would take it from there but his reply was (paraphrase) “I am not a post office” and he flatly refused. It sticks in my mind because that was the day we got a speeding ticket as we pulled away from traffic light, following about six French cars: none of us were speeding. On the spot fine to two smirking gendarmes who tried to further rip us off by getting the exchange rate wrong. We had to pay up or stay overnight in jail as it was Sunday. We chose to pay up and go home! Apparently at that time this was a regular occurance on Sundays.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. It seems you struck some exposed nerves.

    I suppose experiences can vary from individual to individual, but my experience in Germany (and Switzerland) was uniform and unequivocal; they were jerks. On one occasion, “not understanding” their own written language (I had a book of phrases, English to German and vice-versa, and was trying to order eggs for breakfast). As I recall, you had no issues and loved it.

    We, on the other hand, wowed to never visit Germany again . . . and the consensus seems to be the French are worse (although, for a few years, we had French neighbors and they were great; we still correspond during holidays).

    Side note: in the 80s, we were close friends with a number of engineers from England that had moved to Detroit to work in the Auto Industry (still friends with a number of them), but when we got together, and they conversed in their “regional dialects”, their English morphed into something different, making it impossible to follow. That’s in addition to the British tendency to ‘soften’ the spoken volume and trail off at the end of sentences (why I have subtitles on when I watch British shows). Dialects are also an issue in Italy, where even more pronounced dialects have little bearing with the Italian language itself. But, in Italy, nearly everyone wanted to show off their English, so I hardly ever needed to fall back on my native Italian.

    Being charitable, perhaps waiters all speak obscure versions of their native tongue. Perhaps that’s why they get hired in the first place.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I have heard this from so many people but in all my many travels in France, the only bad experiences were with a British money exchange person who tried to scam people, and Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, food and service, in Versailles. Had young French people at the subway in Paris volunteer to help me with getting my luggage down the stairs when I was struggling, etc. I found most folks helpful. Not sure why the different experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I had this in Paris…
    My French was excellent, honed on twenty years of life there, so that was not an issue.
    I asked for water while I studied the bill and he turned up with mineral water…which would have to be paid for. I pointed out that I had asked for tap water and had a whole rigmarole about the importance of the marriage of beverages and food, replied appropriately, He claimed that in France the waiter was respected… I replied that that depended on his competence and off we went on the French value of equality, sacred since the Revolution, so I pointed out that servants and waiters had been excluded from those entitled to vote under said Revolution.
    Exhilarating to have a slanging match with a waiter, but I took my custom elsewhere where the Algerian waiters were delightful.
    I enjoyed living in France, but the arrogance re language and the ignorance of any culture other than their own was startling.
    A French friend said it all sprang from education…everything French was best, and there was not only one possible answer to every question, but only one possible question to be answered!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Very entertaining to read this – and the comments. Thinking back over our years of travel, I would say we have encountered few examples of really rude service, but of those we did a high proportion have been French.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Got folks a little excited, eh, Andrew. 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I must admit I find quite the opposite. It’s only really Parisians who behave like that. The further away from Paris you go, the more they appreciate you trying your language skills.

    I’m amused by the wine list though. I used to buy the odd occasional bottle of Australian red from the local SuperU during the years I was living in France, just to see the reaction of the cashiers…

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: On This Day – French Language Issues – Eduardo Silva✓

  22. I don’t recall encountering much rudeness in France when I was there (haven’t been since 2014). But it should be noted that I have a deceptively non-American accent when speaking French and I am terrified of making mistakes with my poor vocabulary and grammar, so I do not attempt any more conversation than necessary. A shame because attempting conversation is the only way to actually improve, hence why my French is so poor.
    This was an amusing episode to read, but I can see how it was not amusing to experience at the time.

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  23. I’ve never really wanted to go to France but the French people I’ve met (fortunately very few) have been arrogant, ignorant and downright rude. Maybe your story is an exception rather than the rule but if it’s a typical example of French behaviour then it’s confirmed why I have no wish to go. Now Italy on the other hand…I love it, and it’s people 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Therapeutically, you can travel within yourself with the Ganzfeld Effect Toolkit from whjonline.com. It’s a good way to continue to keep being creative.

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