Do French people speak English or should expats learn French?

If you're wondering whether French people speak English or can you live with only English, read to learn about breaking the language barrier in France.


5 minute read
Updated on 28 Dec 2023

When expats move to France for work, education, or retirement, they naturally wonder about the language barrier. Do you need to speak French? Or can you live in France by speaking English only?

The truth is that English proficiency in France is one of the lowest in Western Europe. So while you may come across some French people who know basic or good English, the number of French people who know and are willing to talk in English and the areas where you’ll hear English are limited. So if you want to integrate into French society easily, it’s better to speak French or at least try.

Do French speak English?

Yes, people do speak English in France. While English is indeed spoken in France, the true answer to this question is more nuanced.

There’s a stereotype about the French people that they either don’t know or don’t like speaking in English. This is partially true: the older generation and people from smaller towns don’t know English well, and those who do, are reluctant to talk. But the younger generation and people in touristy cities speak English to some degree, even if they aren’t fluent.

How well they speak English also changes depending on the region. Higher number of people speak English in more international areas of France such as Paris Île-de-France, Pays-de-la-Loire, and Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes. While the northmost region of France The Hauts-de-France has the lowest number of English speakers.

In general, France has barely made it to the high proficiency English list this year, falling behind other Western European countries like The Netherlands and Germany and ranks in 31st place globally. To give context, Spain ranks 33rd on this list, another country where the number of people speaking English is known to be limited.

Can I live in France without speaking French?

Realistically speaking, you should learn French if you’re considering living here for a long time. It will help you not feel lost or excluded when talking to French people who don’t know or don’t like to speak in English.

But, if you live in bigger cities like Paris, work in an international company where the business language is English, or study in an English-taught program, you can live in France without speaking French. Especially those who’ll live in France for a short time won’t struggle.

Why you should learn French when living in France

Are you wondering why are the French so reluctant to learn English and frankly aren't the best at it? Here’re 3 reasons why:

The French education system isn’t the best when it comes to learning English. In fact, only 39% of the population in France say that they can speak English. The older generation didn’t need to learn English at school and the newer generation is rather self-conscious as teachers are strict and focus more on grammar than speaking. So once students leave school, they lose touch with what they have learned.

There’s little exposure to English as foreign content is dubbed. Given that French is the 5th most spoken language in the world and is the official language of 29 countries, including Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland, there’s a high demand for entertainment to be dubbed.

The French are just too proud of their language and go to extreme lengths to protect it. In fact, the Académie Française puts a lot of effort in preventing the Anglicization of the French language. For instance, they’ve tried to change the popular wifi to L'accès sans fil a internet, but that didn’t become popular with the population.

So naturally, your life will become much easier in France if you learn French. Here’re some reasons how learning French will improve your life in France:

  1. It’s a requirement for some resident permits

Learning French to at least A2 level is an important requirement for getting your French resident card (Carte de Résident). So if you plan to stay here a while, better start learning!

  1. Integrating into society and making local friends

One of the main reasons you should learn French when living in France is to integrate into society and make friends with locals. French people value it when foreigners try to speak their language and see it as a sign of respect. They’ll appreciate your desire to learn, and you’ll feel more welcome and at home in France.

  1. Benefiting from low tuition fees

Tuition is low in public higher education institutions in France where most programs are in French. So by speaking French, you can not only study at top-notch universities at lower prices but also pick from much more courses.

  1. Saving money

If you know a bit of French, you can save money when you bargain at shops or need something to be fixed. After all, it’ll be hard for someone to think you’re a tourist and trick you into the hefty price tags.

  1. Finding a job easier and making more money

There’re some job opportunities for English-speaking expats in big cities like Paris. But make no mistake, it still isn't easy to find a job in France without French. Many companies prefer people who speak at least conversational French. And because you'll have more job opportunities and choices if you speak French, chances are, companies will be willing to pay you more to lure you in.

  1. Administrative things will be easier

In France, there’re laws stating that all administrative processes, important communications, and commercial contracts must be in French, from filing tax and opening a bank account to finding a health insurance company and understanding your rental contract. By speaking French, you’ll get things done faster and easier and avoid the cost of hiring a translator.

The 9 ways to break the language barrier in France

  1. Greeting upon entry into a shop or restaurant

It’s very common in France to greet and say bye to people when you enter or leave somewhere. So you can get the sympathy of locals by learning a few greetings like saying Bonjour or Bonne nuit.

  1. Always try to open with some French

It can be as basic as, “Excusez-moi. Bonjour, Parlez- vous anglais?” (Excuse me, Hello, can you speak English?)

  1. Practice conversational sentences

One of the most common mistakes everyone makes when learning a new language is trying to form complex sentences. But Rome wasn’t built in a day: learning a language takes time. So start with basics and learn a few conversational sentences to motivate yourself.

  1. Make local friends

While learning French is beneficial for making local friends, making local friends is excellent for learning French. So they’re two sides of the same coin. Having a local friend is a great way to practice your French and overcome the language barrier.

  1. Dive deep into French culture

Researching and finding exciting books, shows, and movies will increase your interest and motivate you to learn French even more. You can watch movies with subtitles, translate books and listen to French music. Also, giving a reference from something French people are very familiar with is a great conversation starter.

  1. Sign up for language courses

Signing up for language classes is a popular way to learn a new language and overcome the language barrier. You’ll find many language courses, from low effort to intensive French classes. And if you don’t want to commit fully to language courses yet, just start with free YouTube videos teaching French.

  1. Just attempt to speak French

There’s a saying: say it enough, and they'll believe it. It’s a bit like the illusory truth effect; the French hear so many times that they can’t speak English, that even those who do are very shy to talk in English. Because they're afraid of making mistakes or looking foolish, they avoid speaking in English, to begin with.

  1. Be patient

Don’t talk louder if they don’t understand you the first time. Repeat clearly and slowly but quietly.

  1. Don’t just assume they must speak English

As we said, the French are very proud of their language. And they won’t like it if you assume everyone must speak English. They’ll be more welcoming and helpful if you show your respect by being polite and saying a few words in French.

Bonne chance!

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