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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

How you can live happily in Paris without speaking French

Writer Charli James, who has recently set up home in Paris, testifies to the fact you can lead a rich and happy life in the French capital even if you can't communicate with the locals in their own lingo. Here's how.

How you can live happily in Paris without speaking French
Photo: Charli James/Instagram

I barely speak French but I didn’t let this stop me from moving to Paris. And I do know I’m far from alone.

Now I’m not advocating remaining French illiterate, especially if you plan to live here long term, and I am working hard to improve my own French, but soon after moving here, I realized you don’t actually have to speak the language very well to have a full life in Paris.

Now this may sound implausible, but I promise there are a truckload of people doing this in Paris.

The majority of students in my first language class after moving to Paris had lived in France for over a year – some as long as six years–and their French was still beginner level. They stay for the lifestyle, culture and beauty of the city and have carved out a nice little life for themselves 95% in English, Spanish, Arabic or whatever native tongue they arrived speaking.

If you live with a partner who speaks your language, work in your language and have friends who speak your language, you can get by relatively easily day to day with just “restaurant French.” 

That’s not to say life will always be peaches and cream living in a francophone country with your kindergarten French. But if you have little interest in seriously studying French, here are some things you’ll need to get used to and some early decisions that can make your life much easier.

1. SPEAK ENGLISH

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In Paris you may speak your native tongue at home, at work and with your friends, but if you don’t speak French, you definitely need to speak English. The chances that the shopkeeper on the corner speaks Japanese or Russian are slim to none. However most will be able to muddle through the transaction with you in at least basic, and sometimes very good, English. This is because English is the standard language of tourism in Europe. So when Germans, Swedes, Ukrainians, and other foreign nationals visit France, they generally speak English with the locals as well.

If English isn’t your native language, brush up before boarding the plane. And remember even if you are a native speaker to talk slowly and clearly (but not condescendingly).

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2. ACCEPT THAT EVERYTHING WON’T BE PERFECT

If you can’t explain yourself in detail, that means you’re sometimes going to end up with a result that isn’t exactly to your liking. “Order what you want, eat what you get” is your new motto. Get used to it, and don’t be too picky. You may discover something new you never would have tried otherwise, or you may hate what you end up with, but this is the price you pay for not speaking the language.

And speaking of price, budget in that you’re not going to always be able to bargain hunt. Your life and mental state will be better if you have a little bit of monetary padding so you don’t feel guilty buying that toilet plunger that is a little overpriced to save yourself a major headache.

3. CHOOSE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD WISELY

The first time I lived in Paris, my apartment was over in the 15th arrondissment. A beautiful and clean neighborhood with a view of the Eiffel Tower….and very boring for a young foreigner. Because it is not traditionally a touristy area, the surrounding shops were not used to dealing with English speakers and my bad French was sometimes met with blank stares or annoyance.

My crappy French was obviously not their problem, but if you intend to keep your French crappy, may I suggest a more tourist-hospitable neighborhood such as the Marais, Montmartre or Saint Germain where shopkeepers are used to dealing with a more international clientele.

4. YOU GOTTA SAY “BONJOUR”

A little bit of “bonjour” goes a long way in Paris. Just launching into English with a French person is a surefire way to get bad service. It drives French people crazy when someone stops them on the street and immediately speaks English at them. Imagine how jarring it would be if someone came up to you and started asking for directions in Chinese expecting you to respond smoothly.

Enter a store and give a big hearty “bonjour!” before proceeding with your request in English. Or if you’re on the street and have a question, first say “pardon, parlez-vous anglais?” when you stop someone. Speak slowly and show a little deference. You are in their country and asking them a favor after all. French people aren’t all rude, but they also aren’t all bit players in your Paris fantasy here to make your stay wonderful.

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This is by far the most important word in French

5. RENT-A-FRENCH

There are “relocation agencies” here that you can pay to help you settle into Paris. They can guide you through the process of navigating the immigration system, finding an apartment, translate government forms for you, go with you to the bank to open an account and other difficult to impossible tasks for non-French speakers.

I haven’t used any myself since my husband is my personal relocation guide, but Entree ParisSavoir Faire Paris, and Feel Parisien are a few you can check out if you need assistance. Or you can always find yourself a French lover to help, as long as they also speak your native language of course.

Charli James is the writer behind the blog Am I French Yet. To read the original blog post CLICK HERE and to read more from her you can visit her blog by CLICKING HERE.

How to Live in Paris without Speaking French

 

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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