You Speakin’ in English?

Learning French, Living Abroad

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.


16 thoughts on “You Speakin’ in English?

  1. I agree it’s nice to hear English unexpectedly from some locals, but I hate visiting Paris for that exact reason – everyone responds to you in English no matter how many times you reply in French!

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean! It was funny – I was just visiting Orange yesterday and at a cafe got the same treatment from the waiter…was speaking in French but only got English back…probably just trying to be nice though!! 🙂

  2. Story time: every morning for a week, my German-speaking Swiss pal and I would speak in English as we bought our breakfast pain au chocolats in a small suburban train station in Paris. The last morning, the young girl shyly said, “Tank you.” SO sweet!

  3. I have noticed that when I am with anglophone friends, people lean in close and try to listen to our conversations. Then they talk in French about their own English levels…

    I get a lot of “Hello! Do you want to kiss me?” when I am walking in the street, which is not so cute!

  4. This reminds me of lunch with an American friend in Aix a few weeks ago, the waiter came to the table and we both proceeded to speak in French to him, and then he, hearing our accents started speaking to us in English! Then we got totally confused, our French got worse, and we ended up abandoning it for English, and looked completely stupid! Total fail.

  5. I loved this post! I’m living in a part of China where there is literally nobody that speaks more than a few words of English. The difference here is that even if I’m walking by myself people will shout Hello! to me because I stand out like a sore thumb with my blonde hair and blue eyes. In the beginning I would think of these people as my saviors because I was usually lost and cannot read any of the signs on storefronts or streets. I quickly realized though that not a one of them knew more than “Hello.” Now I just smile and say Hello back because it’s nice to at least feel normal for that one second it takes for the exchange.

    1. COOL! I have gone on two trips to China and love it – can’t wait to check out your blog! Haha – oh yes, I can only imagine the reactions you get having a fair complexion in a small town. I remember a lot of funny incidents with my fair friends on my journeys. Oh, and I totally know what you mean about having that little moment of familiarity, even if you know it isn’t quite genuine! Thanks for reading and I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Oh my goodness, NK! Reading your blog has consumed a better part of my workday today (don’t tell my boss). I love all of your experiences and insights. And your writing is so funny and clever! This blog needs to be turned into a book then a movie script a la Julie & Julia stat. I’m totally bummed that I forgot to reach out to you when we were in France for our honeymoon. I would have loved to have heard these tales in person with the appropriate facial expressions.

    1. Hello! Thanks so much!! Ha – I crack myself up when I write a lot of it…(such a nerd). Next time y’all are France-side make sure to let me know – y’all should do a trip before the Nola relocation! 🙂

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