How Common is Spoken English In France? (Explained)


In 2019, close to 2 million Americans made the journey to France from the United States, making it one of Americans’ most popular destinations. However, since only 17% of bilingual Americans speak fluent French, many American tourists, expats, and exchange students are concerned about the language barrier. How common is spoken English in France?

Overall, about 25% of the French population claim to understand English to the degree that they can follow news on radio or television. Yet, 38% claim to be able to speak some English. With most English-speaking French citizens residing near the bigger tourist cities like Paris, location in France makes a difference.

For many travelers, students, and expats, trying their hand at the native language is part of the experience. However, in busy tourist areas, for example, when visiting the Eiffel Tower, English speakers who are not well versed in French will fare better simply speaking English.

Where In France Is English More Commonly Spoken?

Since most American tourists speak very little if any French, many wonder if they can communicate effectively speaking English when visiting in the country. Can a tourist get by if they only speak English? 

What about those moving there for business or to study? How will they fare if their French is not up to par? Are there places where English can be expected to be usable?

It is evident that it is more commercially beneficial for French natives to learn to speak English to a reasonable level in tourist heavy areas. These areas are sometimes in the countryside, but generally they will be located in city centers or at least in close proximity to them.

The populations of these areas are also noticeably higher and many times much more diverse. English speakers may be able to find French natives as well as those from other countries that have some level of English proficiency.

With Americans overwhelmingly choosing France as a travel destination and Paris baring the brunt of this interest, it is understandable that English would become noticeably used there. Some estimates claim that in Paris, over 60% of the population speaks some English. Although, ‘some’ English usually translates to ‘not much’.

Yet, along with Paris where specifically can a concentration of English usage be found in France?

  • Paris – population 12.3 million – Ile de France
    • Palace of Versailles
    • Louvre Museum
    • Eiffel Tower
    • Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
    • English can be used in several parts of the city. If the main tourist spots are adhered to, there shouldn’t be much trouble getting around fairly comfortably with English alone. There is a large Expat community here where it is actually possible to live and not learn French at all.
  • Lyon – population 2.2 million – Rhône- Alpes
    • Musée des Beaux Arts
    • Old Town – Quartier Saint-Jean / Quartier Saint-Georges
    • Abbaye Saint-Martin d’Ainay
    • Lyon is the second most populated city in France. With that designation one would think that English could be used relatively easily. Yet, like the rest of France the usage of English outside of Paris takes a notable drop in popularity. In Lyon one can find some English speakers in the popular tourist spots, near the the Université de Lyon, restaurants, and hotels, but outside of those it may be tougher going. It is better than smaller towns, but it is not the metropolitan, international city that Paris is.
  • The French RivieraProvence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
    • Marseille – population 1.7 million
    • Nice – population 1 million
    • Toulon – population 611,000
    • Cannes – population 74,000
    • Since this is a semi-rural area with medium sized to small towns dotting this famous Southern French coastline, it is understandable that the English use will be spotty and difficult to predict. In Marseille and Nice around the tourist spots one can expect some English, but out from those and especially in the smaller towns it is rare to have English spoken with much fluency, if at all.
  • Toulouse – population 1.2 million – Midi-Pyrénées
    • Basilique Saint-Sernin
    • Place du Capitole
    • Musée des Augustins
    • When we compare Toulouse with some of the other cities mentioned above, we notice that we are now looking at a rather small city. One redeeming trait here for the English only speaker is the Université de Toulouse. Most universities will have a higher concentration of English due to the affinity for English many students have and the use of English in most academic areas of study.
  • Bordeaux – population 1.1 million – Aquitaine
    • Cathédrale Saint-André
    • Le Grand Théâtre
    • Place de la Bourse
    • Here English only speakers will definitely need some survival French phrases and English conversations will be hard to come by.
  • Nantes – population 897,000 – Pays de la Loire
    • Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul
    • Château des Ducs de Bretagne
    • Musée d’Arts de Nantes
    • Here again, your best bets for English will be found around the university, tourist spots, and hotels. Nantes is getting into the town vs city population category. Towns in France are not good places to find English speakers in general.
  • Strasbourg – population 454,000 – Alsace
    • Quartier des Tanneurs (La Petite France)
    • Maison Kammerzell
    • Palais Rohan
    • The influence of university students and the German speaking population could make English a bit easier to find. (Most German speakers will tend to have a good handle on the English language.) Yet, the reality is in Strasbourg moving around with English only could be a challenge.

To learn much more about the tourist destinations of France where most of the English speaking populace can be found visit the very well done site dedicated to travel the world over.

If you would like to get started learning French and up your chances at actually communicating in France, check out my recommended tools page to get started learning within minutes.

How Common Is English In France Compared With Other Countries in Europe?

Surprising to some, in Western Europe France has one of the lowest percentages of English speaking citizens, with 38% of the residents of France identifying as English speakers of any level.

When compared to other European countries, France is consistently below average. Here is a comparison of several European nations and the percentage of English speakers who reside in each country:

  • Austria 62%
  • Belgium 61%
  • Denmark 71%
  • France: 38%
  • Germany 62%
  • Netherlands 72%
  • Poland 62%
  • Portugal: 27%
  • Spain: 30%

The percentage of English speakers in France may seem surprising to many Americans. Still, from a cultural perspective, many French citizens have not recognized the value of learning the English language. There are several reasons for this, many of which have a cultural foundation.

Why Is the English Speaking So Uncommon in France

With the use of English not as common in France as in other countries in Europe and even around the world, a reasonable question arises. What is the reason that so many French citizen feel adverse to learning English as a second language?

This happens to be a much more complicated question than some like to admit. The simple answers commonly thrown around are actually quite absurd.

We have all heard that it is because the French are rude, arrogant, or aloof. If we set aside the rhetoric and look at the reality, the answer actually becomes much more interesting than the fiction.

Historical Language Barriers to Common English Usage in France

There are various reasons why France lags behind many of their European counterparts in terms of speaking fluent English. Here are some of the main historical reasons why the French have been resistant to speaking English:

  • National Pride – France is an incredibly proud nation where their culture and heritage is concerned. Many citizens believe that preserving French culture, both professionally and socially, is extremely important. Part of maintaining the integrity of the country is speaking in the native tongue. 
    • They are not wrong that language and culture are inextricably linked, though it is also true that learning a second language does little to affect a native populace’s identity.
  • Social Standing – As early as the 13th Century, French was considered the language of wealth and prestige. In the following centuries, people chose to learn French, hoping to achieve a higher social status, as the language was considered one of sophistication.
    • This even made its mark on British culture as France wrested control of England for over a century. It was the tradition of the English court even generations after the occupation ended to speak French in polite and educated society.
  • World Politics – From the mid-16th Century, as France began to gain more and more power on the world’s stage, the French language also increased in popularity. By the 17th Century, it was recognized as the official language of diplomacy throughout the world. Speaking English wasn’t necessary, but for many world leaders, speaking French was.
    • French is even today one of the official languages of the U.N. and its partners. It is also one of the top 5 most spoken languages in the world. English is also in both of those lists which makes it a de facto competitor in the minds of many of the French.
  • Historical Anti-British Sentiment – As early as the middle ages, there was recorded conflict between Britain and France. As such, the French were loath to adopt any part of English culture, including the language. While the anti-British sentiment has certainly faded with time, the impact on language still exists today.
    • The notable conflicts even date back to the time of England’s King Richard ‘the Lion Heart’ who lived himself in the Burgundy region of today’s French north.
    • A little known Fact: Though King Richard the King of England was in constant conflict with Philip II of France, he spoke mainly French himself and reportedly only spent a few months of his life on English soil after age 11.
  • Recent Anti-American Sentiment – The ups and downs of the American political and even entertainment scene makes headlines around the world. This also breeds strong opinions from people of other cultures and countries.
    • The French, since the Cultural Revolution have been a markedly liberal society. With the religious and conservative portions of the United States becoming more and more pronounced since its decline in the mid 20th century, French sentiment towards the U.S. has cooled with its rise.

In an article published by The Local, a French news source produced in English, Adeline Prevost, from the Paris office of Education First commented on the reason the French are so hesitant to speak English. She notes that it mainly stems from a desire to protect the French culture through its language.

Modern Language Barriers For Common English Usage in France

In addition to the French language’s historical importance, there are additional cultural and educational reasons why French citizens are hesitant to speak English.

While the youngest generations in France are reaping the benefits of recent cultural shifts relative to the English language, even as recent as 20 years ago, many French citizens weren’t afforded the same opportunities that exist today.

  • Teaching Methods – As recently as 20 years ago, France’s primary teaching method was based on the written word. As such, pupils learned the language’s basic grammar rules, but were not provided much opportunity to speak, or even learn, conversational English in school.
  • Modern French Culture – Even today, the French show themselves to be both proud and reserved. Many professionals who have been recruited to teach English in France cite the general French culture as a potential barrier when teaching English. What is often interpreted as arrogance is simply a quiet reservation that exists among the French. Most French natives are insecure about their ability to speak English and are reluctant to do so.
  • Entertainment – While many countries have enjoyed English speaking movies and television for decades, it is a relatively new phenomenon in France. France has its own rich history in the Entertainment industry, both in TV and movies. Watching American and British shows or other English speaking media has only recently become popular in France now that streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, have become available.

In an extensive collective research study with findings published in the book Attitudes Towards English In Europe, the French were noted as having very little problem with English being spoken in technical fields, but a significant reluctance in accepting it in other areas of their lives.

In this chart, reproduced from some of the research presented in the book, the sentiment of the French toward English language usage in their culture is fairly evident. The use of English words and phrases in French society is noted as Anglicisms.

Purpose Of English Use In France% Of French Populace AGAINST It
Technical / Specialized Professional Language14%
Product Packaging 68%
Advertisements69%
Television / Radio61%

Another interesting observation from this data is that only 33% of the French population is adverse to hearing others use English in their country. The resistance doesn’t seem to be to others using English and visiting their country. They just don’t seem to be inclined to use it themselves in their daily lives.

What should English speakers take away from this?

The French are fine with you speaking English. They are even fine with you visiting and living among them speaking English. What they don’t like is English being expected of them or showing up in their news, entertainment, or products.

Challenges in Learning Spoken English

It is no secret that the English language is very difficult to learn. However, many European countries seem to struggle more than others, and France is less proficient than the vast majority of European countries in spoken English.

According to the French education organization Education First, France has the lowest English proficiency in Europe. This is not speaking of the likelihood of whether someone speaks English or not. This is talking about the proficiency level of those who do.

Aside from historical and cultural reasons, there are also barriers based on the language itself.

  • Vocabulary – The English words themselves can be a challenge. English is a Germanic language, while French is a Romantic one based on Latin. Therefore, the roots and origins of the words are quite different. It is easier, for example, for a French speaker to learn another Romantic language, such as Italian, than it is to learn English
  • Pronunciation – Several sounds are common in English that simply don’t exist in the French language, the most notable being the “th” sound. This sound is a common one in English; the French struggle mightily with the pronunciation. Additionally, short and long vowel sounds can be confusing, as they don’t exist in the French language. Vowel sounds in the English language can often change the meaning of a word, and for the French, this can be extremely confusing.
  • Grammar – While not unique to French learners, the English language has a ton of confusing grammar rules, which are daunting for anyone attempting to learn the language. In general, verbal tenses seem to be a challenge to many English language students, including French learners. This is coupled with the fact that many rules in the English language are breakable.

It is true that there are many cognates shared by English and French. The problem seems less about difficulty in learning the language and more about motivation.

There has to be a will, for there to be a way.

The Commonality of English for the Traveler In France

Admittedly, due to the vast differences in the languages, for Americans or British travelers to France, the language barriers can be quite daunting. However, in major tourist areas, particularly throughout Paris, travelers should find English speaking French natives quite easily.

How To Deal With Speaking French Instead Of English In France

As French people are a polite culture who adhere to specific social guidelines, it is almost universally appreciated when tourists at least try to speak even the most rudimentary French. Many times if you try to speak the language of their culture, they will begin to forgive your lack of proficiency and help you along with the little English they possess.

By the same token, however, some bilingual French natives will not suffer through a traveler’s clumsy attempt at speaking their native tongue, so visitors to Paris should not be surprised if their attempts at speaking French are met with a quick switch to the English language. Those that have put in the time to learn English will also want to try out their skills on a native.

Either way, a polite attempt, or even a simple “merci” or “bonjour,” will be at least mildly appreciated by most French citizens.

Learn some important phrases with one of the world’s foremost polyglots, Benny Lewis.

Here are a list of common phrases to help you show that you appreciate the French culture…

FrenchEnglish
BonjourHello
BienvenueWelcome
S’il vous plaîtPlease
Parlez-vous anglais? Do you speak English?
Comment vous appelez-vous?What’s your name?
Je ne parle pas français. I do not speak French.
Oui“Yes”
NonNo
À tout à l’heure! See you later.
Comment allez-vous?How are you?
Au revoir!Goodbye!
Je voudrais parler françaisI would like to speak French
Excusez-moiExcuse me
PardonSorry
De rien.You’re welcome.
Pourriez-vous m’aider?Can you help me?
Je ne comprends pasI don’t understand
Où sommes-nous? Where are we?
Que veut dire ça?What does that mean?
Où sont les magasins?Where are the shops?
Où est la plage?Where is the beach?
Où est le centre-ville? Where is the city center?
Plus lentementMore slowly
Comment dit-on __ en français?How do you say __ in French?
Est-ce que c’est loin?Is it far?
Comment ça s’écrit?How do you spell that?
Où est…?Where is…?
Où se trouve la station de métro la plus proche?Where is the closest metro station?
Je voudrais acheter un billetI would like to buy a ticket
C’est combien?How much is it?
Où sont les toilettes?Where are the toilets?
À quelle heure est-ce qu’il faut régler la note?What time is check out?
La carte/le menu, s’il vous plaît.The menu, if you please.
Je ne peux pas manger…I can’t eat…
Nous voudrions commander maintenant.We would like to place an order now.
L’addition, s’il vous plaît.The bill, if you please
Merci beaucoupThank you very much
Je t’aimeI love you
Thanks to FluentIn3Months for the inspiration for this list.

How To Find English Help In A French City

There are some places that you are more likely to find English than others. If you are backpacking through the countryside, this list may be of little help. The locals where you are will more than likely not speak a word of English. Yet, if you are near a populated area, this list is for you.

My top tip: Most universities have a much higher concentration of English speakers. This is due to foreign students and the favorable view of learning English among college students. English is not only culturally appealing, but it tends to be the common language in academia among most countries.

Here are some places to find English that may help you get around. If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory and need to find some help in English, these are some of the more likely places you will find it.

  • University areas
  • Museums
  • Old Towns
  • City Centers
  • Designated Tourist Zones
  • Monuments
  • Palaces
  • Cathedrals and Churches
  • Shopping Districts
  • Zoos
  • Sports Arenas
  • Some Government Buildings
  • Tourist Centers / Offices

You can also approach police in these and other areas. They may not understand what you want immediately, but they are trained to help you find someone who will.

Increasing English Fluency in France

In recent years, the push to increase overall English fluency in France has increased. Particularly in the business world, English is the most commonly accepted language throughout the world.

Additionally, France is situated near several countries with high English fluency. This fact, along with increased accessibility and interest in American and British pop culture, has borne a desire for many to learn the language. 

Changes in teaching methods, including language immersion, focusing more on conversational language than the written form, have shown some initial success compared to past methods.

As the internet, social media, and entertainment streaming services continue to draw people closer, the opportunity for French natives to be exposed to the English language continues to increase. As such, don’t be surprised if English fluency in France continues to grow in the coming years.

The Uncommon Spoken English In France Takeaway…

How common is it to find a fluent English speaker in France?

  • In a moderate to large city, it is unlikely, but possible. If you search in the right places it may even rise to likely.
  • In smaller towns and villages, it is highly unlikely no matter how much effort you put into it. It can be done, but it will take a bit of dedication.

Keep in mind, if you are in France looking for English speakers, you are in their home and in a sense asking them to conform to you. It would be odd for a French native to become frustrated as they walked through the National Mall in Washington D.C. because they couldn’t find a native French speaker.

That being said, Europe in general will have a much higher concentration of bilingual and even trilingual citizens. Though, France seems to be one of the countries at the bottom of the list if the language you seek is English.

If you would like to start your journey learning French in order to connect with the unique culture of France, see my recommended tools page and you can be learning within minutes.

Thanks! — Merci beaucoup!

References:

https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf

https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4OYxCgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA27&dq=english+in+france&ots=VC6toYp895&sig=XEJcOKn8O5LK6jbxnNwj2gCxkaE#v=onepage&q=english%20in%20france&f=false

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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