Multilingualism in France


As part of my study abroad program, I signed a language pledge at the beginning, promising to only use French for the six weeks that we were in France. It was difficult to get used to, especially in the beginning, but it had to be done if I wanted to improve my French. Even though I spoke only in French when I went to restaurants or shops, more often than not, the staff spoke back in English. My accent was simply too noticeable. It didn’t bother me much–I would continue to speak in French, and sometimes they would switch as well.

The challenge of this, of course, came when people did speak back in French, assuming that I was fluent, even if they could still clearly hear my foreign accent. At the beginning of my study abroad, I often had to ask them to slow down or repeat themselves because they spoke far too fast for me to understand them. As my language skills grew, it became less likely for people  to switch into English because I didn’t understand what they said. Now that the program is almost over and I can see how much my language skills have improved, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come.

And yet, my progress has only highlighted to me something I noticed when I first arrived in France–French people are far more adept at English than I am in French. The reason for it is simple: French children start learning other languages at an age far younger than American children, and as a result they’re nearly all multilingual by the time they graduate high school. My host sister, for example, studied English and Italian at a far more intensive rate than my French classes.

The most striking example of this occurred last Saturday, when I decided to see the light show at Les Invalides. The narration was in French, but you could rent headsets with an English translation. Although I felt comfortable with my conversational French, I knew it wasn’t enough to understand the story, so I rented the headset. While in line, there was a boy no older than 10 and his mom behind me. The boy asked, in French (of course), why people had headsets, and his mom answered him, also in French. I was proud that I was able to understand their conversation, but when the cashier explained how to use my headset in English, the mom asked her son (again in French) whether he understood the man’s English. He replied in English, and they then proceeded to have an entire conversation in English. I was blown away at how good both of their English was, and it made me realize just how much of an advantage it is to start learning languages early.

Les Invalides, the French Army Museum, after the light show.

Compared to many Americans, I am already far above average in terms of knowing languages. My family continues to speak Cantonese Chinese, and while I can’t say I’m fluent in French yet, it’s enough for day-to-day life. And yet, compared to many people I’ve met in France, I’m far behind them. Of course, Europe’s closeness makes it more likely for people to pick up another language, but the fact that it’s not uncommon for people to speak French, English, and Spanish or another European language is simply staggering to me. Until this trip, I didn’t really appreciate just how helpful it can be to know other languages, and seeing kids at such young ages be better at English than I am at French was a humbling moment that motivates me to continue improving my French.