“Parlez-vous anglais?” “No, I speak que dalle(*)!

(*) que dalle: Zilch! Nada! 

Louis de Funès (Le Gendarme à New York)
La leçon d’anglais (the English lesson) 

Last week, I instructed my France travel workshops in the Seattle area. During the (sold out) morning class, “Survival French for the Traveler,” thirty brave souls stayed with me for three hours and alternately laughed, frowned, cried, as they struggled with the basics of la langue de Molière (French.) Even though I taught participants many simple words and expressions that would enable them to ask and answer basic questions in French, we all knew the following would come in handy at some point:
Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?) 
So do they? Do the French speak English? You would think so, but If you ask, you are likely to elicit any of the following reactions:
– “Pfffff… [insert infamous French shrug.]
– “I speak que dalle!” (see above)
– “I speak English comme une vache espagnole! [like a Spanish cow]” (Don’t ask!) 
… Or even a straightforward, adamant, “Non!
What seems to be the problem? The problem is that the French have convinced themselves they are not good at foreign languages. When your teachers (and your parents) spend years drilling into your head the necessity to speak the French language just so; when you spend countless hours learning complicated grammar and spelling rules; when your biggest fear is to make a mistake; you simply can’t take the risk to do this all over again in a foreign language. Oublie. Fuggedaboutit. What adult wants to look like a perfect idiot, an incompetent fool, even if stranded American tourists need his help? And don’t even think about waving a picture of that guy in their face! Who does he think he is? Their old French teacher (minus the sense of style?!)

It’s not the Frenchmen’s fault, really. Teaching methods in France’s English classrooms have often been described as antiquated. Part of the problem was that unfortunate students had to learn by heart perfectly useless expressions. The most famous one: “My tailor is rich.” Let it sink in. My tailor is richHave you ever tried using this casually in an informal conversation?
–  A Seattle local, to French Girl in Seattle, circa 1996: “You know, French Girl, here in Seattle, we wear fleece year round; none of those chi-chi fabrics you brought with you from Paris.”  
French Girl:Thank you for letting me know. I will remember to adjust my expectations – and my wardrobe – to my new life. It is a really good thing my tailor is rich. Or he will be, when he is done lining up all my clothes with fleece…” 
How creative. 

The inadequacies of foreign language instruction in my homeland are showcased in Le Gendarme à New York, a movie in the popular Gendarme series, starring France’s acting legend Louis de Funès. In this specific scene, Maréchal des Logis Cruchot (Sergeant Cruchot) bullies his men into learning a few handy English expressions before they all fly to the United States to attend a gendarme convention. Cruchot is his usual twitchy, impatient, and unfair self, as he berates his men and showers lavish praise on his boss, Adjudant Gerber (Sergeant Major Gerber,) who can do no wrong. One can only imagine how long the poor gendarmes will survive in rough New York neighborhoods (this was 1965!) using the expressions on the blackboard…

Even if educational methods have improved, the stigma remains: The French are not good at foreign languages, especially English. Why would the average Frenchman feel bad about it? Isn’t the example supposed to come from above? Watch Le French Prez’ François Hollande as he attempts to speak English (a few seconds will suffice.) Oh, la, la…

Then again, former American President Barack Obama does not do much better on an official visit to France.  Watch him fumble through the French motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité…”  Oh, la, la…

Obama is a smart guy. Why didn’t he ask bilingual actor Bradley Cooper to prep him for the speech? Mystère… Let us cut Barack some slack. After all, foreign languages are not taught at all in most American secondary schools.
British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard demonstrates that antiquated teaching methods are widespread. If you are a student of the French language and have ever wondered if you would be able to use the material taught in class in real life, you will enjoy this…

So what is the answer? We can’t expect locals to speak our language (they are too embarrassed.)  Our own communication efforts have to be limited to asinine and useless expressions (thank you, foreign language teachers of our youth.) How utterly depressing. Should we just use hand signals and grotesque faces à la Louis de Funès? Maybe not. There is still hope. A new generation of teachers, materials, and students has emerged. Watch this heartwarming video of two adorable French kids, learning English at home on mom’s computer. Bravo, les enfants. That’s the spirit (What do you think, Bradley?)

A bientôt.

Dear readers:

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)


  • What great videos and they totally prove your point. What I did not know is that the French are afraid of making a mistake – wow! So tell me, when an American makes a heartfelt, mostly educated effort to communicate in French, what is the general reaction (or thoughts). When a native French-speaker tells me in either language that they do not speak English very well, I find that for the most part they underestimate their abilities. I do enjoy a conversation with mixed French and English which makes neither party feel intimidated.

    I adore the French children speaking English.


    • Bonsoir Genie. And now you know why the French often underestimate their abilities. They speak a lot better than they give themselves credit for. I speak from experience when I tell you that a Frenchman (or a Spaniard, or a German…) is always grateful when a foreign visitor makes an effort to approach them in the local language. Even if it is just a greeting… Who wouldn’t? As for conversations “50-50,” they are the best. They show people can really communicate if they want to, if everyone tries…

    • I’d never thought of this but it makes perfect sense. The French so value their wonderful language and speaking it properly that it makes sense they might be scared of speaking English and getting it wrong. This explains a lot. I have French friends who try sometimes and give up and then go back to French. I can see I need to be more encouraing.They put up with my terrible French, after all! Thanks Veronique and Genie x

  • Oh that Eddie Izzard clip is classic! And I understood all of his French!

    When we’ve traveled to France, we’ve been really impressed with how well people speak and understand English. (Much better than my French.) The kids are adorable.

  • After a heartfelt BONJOUR, I always move to , “Parlez vous anglais?” I usually get, “Yes” or sometimes a timid, “A little”. I”m so very grateful!!! I go on to tell them how bad my French is. I think they underestimate their skills as well. I will blame the Parisian’s English for my pitiful French as they enable me. I will add when I have tried a little French they are always gracious even if my Southern accent makes it unintelligible!

    • How could they not want to help you, V? You love Paris more than the Parisians do, as reflected in your beautiful photography! As I said above, they are always grateful when visitors take the trouble of engaging them in French. It does not really matter that it is only one word. By the way, good for you for knowing that “Bonjour” is the magical word in every French conversation. Some people are not aware of it, and they pay the price for it 🙂

  • Here’s the thing: why make fun of Hollande or Obama’s accent? At least they tried, right? I appreciate anyone making an effort to converse in another language. Dealing with accents and mispronunciations is all part of the learning curve. I am more apt to try if I know I won’t be mocked (not saying you are one of the mockers).

    • Dear Anonymous– Nobody is making fun of Hollande or Obama here. I would only make fun of “ugly tourists,” a breed unfortunately found in every country as soon as people go abroad in large groups, or when they expect the world to revolve around them… I have met many while I lived in Paris. I will confess I did enjoy watching Parisians kick them to the curb on occasion 🙂

      I am a French language instructor specializing in travel preparation. We discuss the French language and culture in all my classes. My students know what to expect and most have excellent experiences when they travel to France, as reflected in the feedback they send me after their trip. I always tell them that perfection is not important and that what matters is to open the door; to engage people with a few words in the local language. After that, “c’est du gâteau” (it’s a piece a cake…)

  • What a delightful post Veronique! Some people are gifted for foreign languages, others have a hard time. I always take three months of classes when I visit a foreign country. The only time I didn’t was when we went to the Azores (Portugal). Thank God some people understood english, others french or spanish but we felt like fools not even knowing how to pronounce names of villages. Shame on us!
    I am glad the younger french generation has better methods to learn english at their disposal. France should use the same methods Scandinavia uses.

    • Merci beaucoup, Nadège. I agree that France has a lot to learn from Scandinavian countries, or even Holland. I have always been fascinated by how well they all speak English! You are very brave (and astute) to study local languages before traveling. It certainly makes for a more authentic experience…

  • “My tailor is rich” is actually a very accurate phrase to teach because at the prices they charge, it is the TRUTH. 😉

    It seems I have something in common with the French. I’m completely daunted by learning a foreign language. The closest I ever came to knowing one was Spanish, because I took it sixth grade through senior year of college. And guess what, I barely remember one word. You’re right though, it really has a lot to do with how it is taught. Growing up, my teachers used memorization rather than actually teaching the language itself. And my teachers never had us interact in the language. It was all book work. I remember in high school, I tried ordering in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant and the waitress laughed so hard, after she took our orders, she went over to two other waiters and said something in Spanish and pointed at me and they all started laughing. I was mortified. I never attempted to speak the language to anyone ever again.

    I wish I lived by you and I could take your class. I bet it is a lot of fun. Just from being your friend, I know you’re incredibly inspiring (and motivating!). And you’re the type of person who makes everything so much more interesting. Those are the qualities of the best kind of teacher.

    Rian is actually going to take a French class at a community college here while he’s home from grad school this summer. Maybe if it isn’t too expensive, I could take it with him! 🙂

    Oh, and I love these videos. I thought the clip of the French man teaching English to those guys was pretty funny!

    Anyway, I hope you’re having a great week!

    • Welcome, Jenny, and thank you for the long comment.

      I am sorry you had such a bad experience when you tried to speak Spanish in public. I’d say that waitress was not very bright, or polite, for laughing at you like that… When somebody tries to speak your language, however imperfectly, the least you can do is to encourage them!

      This reminds me I have sometimes seen French people correcting foreigners when they “butchered” the French language, but I still think, that deep down, the culture-proud French were tickled pink that a foreigner would try and communicate with them en français…

      Thank you for your kind comments about my teaching skills. I have always enjoyed teaching/training (my 13-year old would probably say I do it too much…) It’s been one of the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I guess that’s why I am still at it. I certainly wish you were closer so you could take one of my classes, but since you can’t, do try to join Rian. I bet you will enjoy the challenge (just have a strong drink before they explain numbers… 🙂

      Take care, dear girl, and thank you for always making me laugh on FB. 🙂

  • This is a most fascinating topic! I had never thought that the hesitancy in speaking English by French people could have been due to lack of confidence – but it shines a very different light on the situation. I have always found though, that if I tried to speak my completely appalling French, then a French person was subsequently quite happy to speak to me in English. (Either taking pity or possibly happy that I had made an attempt, not sure which!)

    One thing though that is a particular bugbear of mine, is that here in Australia our education system makes it far too easy to drop learning a second language. Pleased that my bullying has resulted in my eldest two children now studying French at university – but my youngest can’t wait to drop it at school level sadly. xx

    • Bienvenue and thank you for your comment. Not all French people feel bad about speaking in a foreign language. In fact, you will find quite a few (like me, when I still lived in France,) who will enthusiastically demonstrate their language skills when prompted. That’s probably more noticeable in the younger generations. They don’t seem as inhibited as their parents or grand-parents…

      Good for you for encouraging your kids to pursue their French studies. It’s amazing how much bigger and fascinating the world seems once one realizes other languages are spoken/other experiences lived/other beliefs shared…

  • Veronique, for the forthcoming exhibition, I decided to write my bio in French but to show it also in English as the Fete du Citron will be on and there will surely be English-speaking tourists. I mentioned this to a French friend, Agnes – you met her, my lovely neighbour – that perhaps I should translate it into Italian too. She said, ‘No, the Italians prefer to speak English – it’s more ‘classe’ than French’ That surprised me!

    So I wrote it in English and Agnes corrected the French version – as you know she corrects all the French on my blog, bless her.

    Your classes sound the best fun and a great idea.

    • Ah, my friend Jilly is back. I missed you.

      So the Italians think English is “plus classe” than French, eh? I would certainly agree it is easier to learn and can reach more people. Most people in Europe speak at least two languages: Theirs and English, so the Italians’ take on the whole thing makes sense.

      Good thing you have Agnes to help you. Maybe I will meet her next time I visit… Take care my friend, and good luck for the Expo!

  • That Eddie Izzard clip is great. I learned just those phrases at school. Never did find a monkey in a tree to be able to show off my French.
    You are spot on about the French not daring to speak because of the imperfections, I have a lot of students like that. What I do find also is that because French is more rigorous it is not as forgiving. In English if you mispronounce something people are more likely to understand you than if you do the same in French.

    • Bonsoir Kerry (or bonjour, for you, in la Belle France!)

      Ha! I can’t believe you actually learned the same expressions as Eddie. That monkey thing must have been a killer; a lot harder to place than the rich tailor, certainly 🙂

      We have all met these students who are shy about speaking in a foreign language. Adults, in particular, tend to feel more self-conscious than kids. They also take themselves more seriously, so they balk at coming across as “gauche,” don’t you think? Fortunately, a good laugh and some humor always helps relax students.

      I am glad we are colleagues of sorts!

    • Thank you so much for posting this here, Kerry. I had seen this video years ago but had forgotten how good Ken Robinson’s speech was. What a smart, funny, articulate man. Sadly, I don’t know if things have changed that much in most of the world’s education systems since then…

  • Oh I thought had met Agnes but of course I now remember you didn’t and that was entirely my fault. After tiyr vusut she told me how much she’d wanted to meet you. Next time! I always think of French as ‘THE’ language so it surprised me to think the Italians didn’t. I just adore the poetry in French.

  • Terrifically fun (and informative) post, Veronique! Congrats on your class, sounds wonderful! My son is bi-lingual French-English, his petite ami was French-Italian and also spoke English. And her parents are longtime France residents from Italy that speak both languages. We all went to dinner on the Ile St. Louis. My son spoke English to me, French to his girl, who spoke Italian to her parents that spoke French to me. I had a headache back at the hotel, where the mouse was beneath the table 😉

    BTW once in Paris I had a group of Americans approach me and one very carefully enunciated ‘Ex..cuse me Madame, how to we get to Saint Chapelle?’ I was highly complimented that they mistook me for French!

    Thank you and Happy Valentine’s Day!

    • Bonjour Suzanne. That dinner experience on Ile St Louis would have exhausted anyone except, maybe, a professional interpreter!

      And you were mistaken for a French person too? You must not be walking around smiling, like a lot of Americans! — Kidding! 🙂

  • Great post, Veronique! I loved the Eddie Izzard routine with the monkey is on the branch…that made me laugh over my morning tea!
    Where were you when I lived in France – I struggled to find a good French teacher!

  • Ne me lance pas sur le sujet de l’enseignement en France, c’est un truc qui me met en transe , et pas que sur l’anglais! perso, je n’ai jamais eu de probleme avec les langues, j’adore même ça. Mais ça s’est fait presque CONTRE les profs!et ce que j’ai vu avec mes enfants prouve que les choses n’ont pas changé, helas. Tant qu’on n’aura pas compris qu’il faut laisser les enfants parler , même s’ils font des fautes, et ne pas systematiquement les punir chaque fois qu’ils en font, ça n’avancera pas.Mais chacun sait qu’il est impossible de reformer le mammouth..
    je me demande ce que vont penser tes visiteurs americains de notre Cruchot national?!On a enormement parlé de de Funes dernierement, parce que c’etait le 30eme anniversaire de sa disparition;J’aime bien l’idée que ce petit bonhomme soit devenu une icône nationale! :o)
    allez, bisous!

    • Amen, amen! Je sais que tu fais partie de ces Français qui n’ont pas peur des langues étrangères, au contraire.

      Pour l’instant pas de commentaires sur Cruchot (ou le clip news sur les élections que je trouve hilarant…) Ma réplique de gendarme préférée: “Vos fleurs, elles sont tartes!” — ha! ha! DeFunès, la petite teigne et la mauvaise foi personnifiée, mais quel talent!


  • I smiled while reading this post. No one in France can be as slow as I am learning French. I’ve been scared by my teachers and my father who spoke perfect French which I could never emulate. The French have been extremely patient with my poor language skills – I try to speak French but often have plain garbage coming out of my mouth. Bisous

    • See, another scared student! That is so sad, really. Truth is, some people learn foreign languages faster and better than other; it’s a bit like music or math… Nothing to be ashamed of as long as you get the message across, n’est-ce-pas?

  • What a wonderful post! The Eddie Izzard clip really made me laugh out loud – hilarious and ‘la souris est sous la table’ – we have all seen these phrases in our text books! Incidentally when I saw your title and ‘que dalle’ it took me back to my year spent in France when a French friend taught me French slang! I’m sure your students love your fun classes.

  • This was LAUGH OUT LOUD funny, Véro. When my father took English lessons in the 40s (prior to meeting my bilingual mother), the first sentence he learned was — “My tailor is rich.”

    Although he eventually spoke excellent English, he always had trouble with the “th” sound. It either came out as a “d” or a “z.” Naturally, my brother and I teased him mercilessly, as kids will do with their parents the moment they find they can do something better.

    That said, however, I do believe that in the last 10 years or so, you will find more Parisians speaking very good English than when I was a child, despite their aversion to not being perfect at something for fear of criticism.

    • Merci M-T. Ah, your poor dad and the TH sound. Didn’t you just love our gendarmes trying to pronounce it? Cruchot ridicules them, but when his boss butchers it just as much, of course, he LOVES it! 🙂

      I have many French friends who speak excellent English, here or in France. Things have definitely improved.

      A bientôt. Bisou à Dan.

  • My experience with speaking, or hearing another language spoken, is to answer in a slow, precise voice without using any slang. This validates the other person’s limited knowledge and gives them confidence to continue. I’ve been in many situations where this was helpful to all concerned, and respected everyone’s ego. It just comes down to showing kindness.

  • Oh but “Bonjour” is the magic word and if you leave it off, you might as well forgettaboutit.! At first I thought that they were acting as if they couldn’t understand my French but then I have been unable to understand their English at times due to their heavy accent. We all do the best we can. My friend Peter, who has lived there for 40 years says, “Virginia speaks a little anglais, a little française, with sign language and a lot of charm!” I think it’s my duty to turn up the charm to make up for slaughtering the most beautiful language in the world!

  • Bonjour! We have found the Parisians friendly and willing to speak English. In fact in many areas they would often say to me, ‘Just speak in English Madame.” Luckily after 5 months they no longer say that. They do love it when you speak French.

  • Laughed all the way Veronique. What a fantastic post! The topic rings the bell.
    The funny thing is that in officially bilingual Canada French in public schools outside Quebec is taught in de Funes way. As if teachers were thawed after spending life in ice age and all of a sudden appeared in front of bored bunch of students not knowing WHAT to do and WHY do they need it. That was an astonishing discovery for a Francophile me. I guess I overplayed tutoring my son as my firstborn left the nest to Montreal.
    The junior just hates La Grenouille -ballerina story they are chewing in class for three years now. It should be fun but it isn’t at all.

    Before going to Italy I learned an audio survival kit while driving. It was applicable and compatible therefore useful.
    It helped a lot. At least I’ve never heard the Pff.. On contrary, the strangers immediately jumped into 50/50 and we got along very friendly.

    And in Barcelona when I naively addressed in basic Spanish locals were offended because they proudly speak Catalan but with a puzzled tourist had no problem to switch to basic English.

    What was a huge surprise that even young children in Amsterdam are fluent in English. There were several families on our flight with 3-4 children each, from toddlers to pre teens. The 7 year old instructed me on sightseeing.

    Actually French and English have so much in common, it shouldn’t be such a problem, the latter is much easier.
    I wish I could attend your class Veronique, I’m sure it’s down to earth and enjoyable, no mouse and monkies.

    • Thank you for the wonderful comment, Natalie.

      Your poor son. La Grenouille sounds plain awful. There are so many great textbooks and French language methods out there for kids. Why would they still use a bad one?

      What the examples in your note demonstrate is that where there is a will, there is a way. Catalan, French, English, Dutch. People always manage to understand each other when they really try to communicate. And, yes, children are amazing little creatures. We have many things to learn from them…

  • Dearest Véronique,
    About wearing fleece year round; that was a very tacky remark in 1996. Obviously that stuck with you forever (almost)… We one time tried to live in American fleece clothes, we got ourselves some jogging suits. But no, I gave mine away (it was not even fleece but velours) and also Pieter’s as we are not born for wearing street pajamas. When traveling ONCE in them, thinking that Americans were smarter so we ought to try them out, we got checked everywhere and they opened our luggage. The street pajamas got given away and we dress the way we were used to.
    Obama had literally NO clue how to put the accents on the words; proves that he is a poor history student too. Not very flattering for a US President facing the rest of the world.
    One has to love languages and than you go for it; it opens a new window to the world!
    Hugs to you – have to get back to our flooded basement… Too much rain yesterday!

    • Dear Mariette. I made up the story about the fleece thing, and also made up several other things in this post 🙂

      I would stay away from velours at all cost, travel or not, and would not leave the house in my PJs ever (Coco Chanel would not approve…) — What were you thinking?

      I won’t blame Obama. At least he tried to look into the culture and history of the country he was visiting, which is more than a lot of people do when they visit France and Europe…

      Good luck with the flooded basement. You would expect this to happen in Seattle, not Atlanta. Remember when Georgia had no rain at all for almost a whole year some time ago?

  • Oh lala! that was the best 20 minutes ever! I had to make myself a cup of tea at the beginning. I seem to have missed a few posts..loved all the memories of your childhood lollies, I remember a few of these too. I must say that I’ve never had a bad experience in Paris when trying to communicate, contrary to what I had heard and was expecting, I found the Parisians very helpful! And, and, and..OMG I am totally in love, I’ve always thought Bradley Cooper was gorgeous, but Bradley Cooper speaking fluent French…swoooon!! How I would love to speak my favourite language so fluently, I think it would take actually living in France for a few years, that would be very nice also!! Ahh! now I can go to sleep with this lovely image in my head..better not let P suspect haha!

    • Merci beaucoup Grace. Always fun to have you here. I trust all is well in Perth. You would not believe how many of my students return from France – and yes, even from Paris! – and tell me how helpful and friendly the French were. I guess my countrymen have a bad reputation (and the media love to hype it up.) Come to think of it, it is probably better to surprise people in a good way than to let them down once they meet you… 🙂 Bon weekend in the sun, my Austalian friend.

  • I find this interesting because I, an American student who has been learning French for 10 years, went to France to study abroad for a year and realized everything that had been taught to me in the classroom was utterly useless. I didn’t know how to say you are welcome or how to ask for a piece of cake. I was taught, “de rien” and “je voudrais….” instead of “je vous en prie” and “je vais vous prendre”. Simple things that could easily be changed. I’m currently taking a class called Eloquent French offered at my university. Its incredible how little I know of written French! The French taught to us Americans is this useless blend of written French and spoken French and makes absolutely no sense. Personally, I’m more intrigued by spoken French, but I realize the importance of being able to write as well. I feel like for the past ten years my teachers have been teaching me French for babies because they do not believe us capable of understanding all the grammar and nuances within the language.

  • I find this interesting because I, an American student who has been learning French for 10 years, went to France to study abroad for a year and realized everything that had been taught to me in the classroom was utterly useless. I didn’t know how to say you are welcome or how to ask for a piece of cake. I was taught, “de rien” and “je voudrais….” instead of “je vous en prie” and “je vais vous prendre”. Simple things that could easily be changed. I’m currently taking a class called Eloquent French offered at my university. Its incredible how little I know of written French! The French taught to us Americans is this useless blend of written French and spoken French and makes absolutely no sense. Personally, I’m more intrigued by spoken French, but I realize the importance of being able to write as well. I feel like for the past ten years my teachers have been teaching me French for babies because they do not believe us capable of understanding all the grammar and nuances within the language.

  • I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed reading and re-reading this post. I am currently doing Rosetta Stone because I’ll be going to Paris/Provence in May and Paris/Normandie in September. I took French in college but that was forever ago. I laughed so hard watching the British comedian that my husband had to come and watch it with me. Thanks for the very useful information about language and the French! Merci beaucoup!

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