• France's news in English
The ten places where you really need to speak French
Photo: Lily A./Flickr

The ten places where you really need to speak French

The Local · 25 Jul 2016, 17:47

Published: 25 Jul 2016 17:47 GMT+02:00
Updated: 25 Jul 2016 17:47 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Most French people in the hospitality industry — hotels, restaurants, bars— speak English, so you can usually get food and accommodation without speaking a word of French. 

You can even work in France without needing much French—  such as a bartender or an English teacher for example — and get by with speaking the bare minimum of the language.

But there are some places in France where knowing French is absolutely essential. Here’s a roundup of the nine places or situations where you’re going to need it most.

Any office of French administration

Photo: AFP

It could be the Prefecture, the Pole Emploi (employment center), the CAF (housing assistance), the Prefecture de Police , the CPAM office to get your carte vitale… A visit to any of these administrative centers in France strikes fear into the heart of most foreigners, who consider going to these places about as much fun as doing taxes, stepping in dog poo on the sidewalk, or using a computer with a slow Wi-Fi connection. 
Renewing visas, exchanging driver’s licenses, incomplete "dossiers", hours of waiting… it’s the stuff of nightmares. Administrative workers tend to be the least sympathetic toward those who don't speak French, mainly because there’s the sentiment that those wanting to settle in France should be able to speak the language pretty well. 
Having at least a conversational level is crucial, or else you’ll need to bring a French friend along to help out. And ask and ask again. Even if it minds driving them mad.
The cheese/wine/meat shop
One French learner we know know well has refused to go into any fromagerie out of fear for what will happen in there. The same goes for the boucherie (butchers) and the wine merchants.

Sure, it’s easy enough to just point out your trusty old Brie or Camembert or the slab of beef or pick up any old bottle of red, but if you want to know what your buying or want advice for what cheese to get or what wine to go with what cheese then you'll need to learn the lingo and some specific vocab.

But if you actually want to know what differentiates certain cheeses, get recommendations based on your taste and be sure to get a cheese you like (even if it’s one you haven’t tasted before) you need to be able to converse with the fromager

They’re always more than happy to share their priceless cheese wisdom if you can speak a little French. 

ALSO: How to be on your best briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette

The doctor’s surgery

Photo: AFP

While some English-speaking doctors can be found in Paris, expats living elsewhere in France can never bet on it.

Ideally when going to the doctor’s office, you should be able to explain your symptoms and perfectly understand the instructions your doctor gives you for treatment.

It could spell disaster if your doctor gets the wrong idea of what's wrong with you (or at least lead to embarrassment). 

Another person The Local France knows very well says he ended up naked in one consultation with a French doc even though he only went in with a sore throat. He reckons cupping his hands to stress how big his tonsils felt might have been the problem.

Best learn the vocab before you go. And just point.

The bank

Going to the bank in France can be a stressful experience for foreigners. Just to open a simple checking account requires navigating reams of paperwork, providing proof of housing and a work contract or proof of school enrollment, and promising your first-born child.

And tasks such as international wire transfers or setting up automated payments that require specific French vocabulary can’t always be done online as some foreigners might be used to in their home countries. 

And just wait until something goes wrong and you have to go in and explain they have charged you too much.

To make your life a bit easier, here are our five key tips to opening a bank account in France

The dinner party

Photo: AFP
A French dinner party is one place where you’ll really feel out of place if you don’t speak French.
Sure someone might be polite enough to speak English with you at first. But once the French get going on their lively debates, you can either sit in silence and lose all will to live, or have a high enough level of French to join in. 
Reaching dinner party level French is tough, but until you're there you are at least guaranteed good food and good wine.
The post office

Sending letters and packages home to family members and friends is just another part of expat life. But it can be tricky if you don’t even know how to say “expedited” in French (no, it’s not “expédié”) or “It needs to get there in three days or my sister will think I forgot her birthday.”

You also don’t want to find yourself uncomprehendingly agreeing to some super fast, heavily-insured delivery plan and paying 14 euros to send a greeting card.

The hair salon
Photo: Adam Sacco/Flickr
Sure, getting a bad haircut isn’t quite as serious as mixing up medications (although some might dispute that statement), but the hair salon is still a place where a certain level of French knowledge is necessary. 
You can show the hairdresser all the celebrity haircut photos you want, but if you can’t explain exactly what you want done to your hair, there are sure to be misunderstandings and you’ll walk out of a French salon de coiffeur much sadder and and worse-coiffed than you walked in.
On the phone
Story continues below…
If you’ve even managed to dial the right phone number (curse those tricky French numbers), you’ll soon learn that rudimentary French won’t get you through most phone calls. 
Speaking and understanding French becomes a thousand times more difficult when you can’t see the face of the person with whom you’re speaking.
You get no context clues from facial expressions or gestures and you can’t mime actions for words you don’t know how to say. 
You just have to be able to communicate well in French, plain and simple. 
The real estate office 

Photo: Simon/Flickr

When finding a place to live in France, knowing all the renting and buying lingo such as caution (deposit), alimentation (water/electricity supply) and charges comprises (utilities included) is absolutely essential.

Otherwise you might find yourself living in a closet-sized (and closet-less) studio apartment with no windows, no bathroom, and barely room enough to stretch out your arms. Oh wait, that’s just normal life for renters in Paris…

When you're in trouble with the law

Not stamped your train ticket and want to get out of paying a fine? Gone through a red light in your car or even on your bike? Been caught for speeding? Been a little too raucous in the street? Yes, you know trying to come up with an excuse in French was impossible and the whole "I don't speak French" thing just doesn't work.

The same goes for if you are victim of a crime. In short if you want to converse with the French cops, learn their language.

READ ALSO: Thirteen free and easy ways to learn French

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
How speaking French can really mess up your English
Photo: CollegeDegree360/Flickr

So you've mastered French, but now it's time to learn English all over again.

French claims that Jungle camp is empty are rubbished
Photo: AFP

Reports from the scene say scores of migrants are still in the area of the Jungle despite French authorities claiming "mission fulfilled."

Kidnapped Riviera millionaire left tied up in car boot in Nice
Photo: AFP

Head of luxury Cannes hotel has been found alive after being kidnapped in Nice on Monday.

Paris landlords still charging illegally high rents
Photo: Panoramas/Flickr

... and it's tenants in the smaller apartments that get hit the hardest. Could you be paying too much?

France takes baby steps to make life simpler
Photo: AFP

... including extending the ridiculously short time limit for registering a new baby.

IN PICTURES: Calais Jungle camp goes up in flames
All Photos: AFP

Migrants leave behind a scorched camp as they are moved to locations across France.

French expats in UK suffer Brexit abuse
French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP

French nationals no longer feel at home in the UK, ambassador says. But Brits in France have been greeted with sympathy since the referendum.

Six to go on trial in France over topless Kate photos
Photo: AFP

The topless pics sparked fury among the royals.

France sees biggest drop in jobless rate for 20 years
Photo: AFP

Good news at last. But it's unlikely to keep President François Hollande in his job.

Calais migrants given mixed reception in French towns
Photo: AFP

Some in France have shown solidarity with their new guests, while others have made it clear they are not welcome.

The annoying questions only a half French, half Brit can answer
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Forget Brangelina's chateau - here are nine others you've got to see
The must-see French films of the millennium - Part One
How life for expats in France has changed over the years
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
jobs available