paris in 30 days

How Much French Do You Need to Speak to Live in Paris? As Much As ScarJo?

Photo: Splash News/Corbis

In recent months, Scarlett Johansson has not minced words about how rude and sidewalk-shoving she finds residents of Paris, where she moved recently to be with her fiancé, French journalist Romain Dauriac, with whom she is expecting her first child. She also admitted that she hasn’t learned French yet, and leans on Dauriac’s English for communication purposes.

ScarJo is not the first American to convey the impression that you can get by in Paris without speaking French; David Sedaris found plenty of material writing about his dread of learning French when he lived in Paris. He avoided the challenge largely by hiding away all day in theaters, watching English-language films. Director Wes Anderson loves his place in Paris, but freely admits he doesn’t speak the language — at least not well enough to understand queries at press conferences. Hence, the question: Can you actually live in Paris without speaking French? As someone married to a Frenchman, with whom I live in Paris a few months of every year, I’ll offer my quick answer: Yes. But if you can’t really talk to Parisians, you will never hit the beautiful, thoughtful, gentle sweet soft spot that lies behind their French shyness and lack of confidence — which presents itself as coldness or crankiness. Finding that sweet spot, via hours chatting with them in cafés and bars, allowed me to love Parisians after a long period of finding them completely impossible. If you are going to learn, the only way to go is total immersion. So:

1. Take lessons or hire a tutor to sit in a café and speak French with you as often as you can afford. (And given the number of well-educated, unemployed Paris youth seeking work, it’s not that expensive. David Lebovitz, he of the terrific Paris-expat food blog, has some leads for you.)

2. Insist that your French friends speak only French with you. This is painful and will send you home at the end of the day with an aching head. But you’ll also soon realize just how different everyday French is from the stilted, outdated French you learned in school. Only very formal or written cases call for beginning questions with “Est-ce que … ” or for using the nous form for we anymore. (On, as in on va au diner, has long replaced it. You can even say “Nous, on va au diner …”)  And lest you take offense when a Parisian replies to your French with her English, remember — it’s her chance to show off and practice her ESL. Parisians want you to know that they are far more likely to speak good English than French people outside of Paris, whose English mastery embarrassingly falls behind not just Northern Europe but Eastern Europe, and whose confidence levels about speaking English, accordingly, are also low. (For my life, I can’t figure out why my husband’s 11-year-old niece is learning German in school and not English, but that’s not so atypical in the French provinces.)

Also, don’t take offense if someone seems to be almost daring you to speak French. Says my friend Cindra Feuer, who has been living on and off in Paris for nearly two years with her French girlfriend: “Her father speaks good English, but he always talks to me in French. I thought it was a dis or a challenge until my girlfriend told me that he was just insecure about speaking less than perfect English around me.” And therein lies a big difference between Parisians and Americans, and our schooling systems. We were schooled and we live in a culture where it’s okay to stumble, to try and fail, to be less than perfect. The old, rote, didactic, shame-based French schooling system dies hard. French people are often afraid to speak English unless they can feel assured it’s impeccable. You, however, should cast shame aside. And if you don’t have time for a tutor, here’s a quick guide on how to fake it:

1. Always say bonjour when you walk in a shop … but never ça va? (“How are you?”) French people find it highly bizarre that Anglos ask How are you? of strangers when they don’t really care to know. When you leave, it’s a simple: “Merci, au revoir!

2. Got a question? Always start with “Excusez-moi, monsieur/madame/messieurs/mesdames … “ Even if your French falls apart after that, Parisians will soften a bit at your initial effort. (Try to sound as hesitant as possible; they warm to insecurity.) Also, note: Address young women as mademoiselle (“miss”), not madame (“ma’am”). In fact, do the same for older women. You’ll flatter and charm them.

3. As French people talk to you in French you can’t understand, nod your head sagely and murmur repeatedly, “Ah, ouais. (“Oh, I see.”) Pronounce it way, not wee. Ouais is the French equivalent of yeah — it’s cooler and more informal. Add a few d’accord, d’accord, je vois for good measure. (“Okay, okay, I see, I get it.”)

4. Complain like a Parisian. This really will put you in the spirit of the place. C’est chiant, ça! — which basically means “that sucks,” but is a great all-purpose bitch. Draw it out so it sounds almost Chinese — say shyannnn, sa! Also highly versatile: Putain! (Fuck! though literally it means whore.) Pronounce it poo-TAAAAAnh, while shaking the head and exhaling cigarette smoke.

5. Bof. This also captures the never-impressed Parisian mindset. If a friend asks how a meal was, say, “Bof.” This means “Fine … average … nothing special.” Pronounce it like boeuf, which is French for beef, and also refers to the kind of guy who here in New York we’d call a guido or a B&T guy. Follow up bof with a bored blowing of air upward out of the mouth, which sounds like (and, in French, is written as) pffffft. These are the daily monosyllables of Parisian ennui — they’re brief, but they convey everything.

6. Oh la la. It’s not a cliché. French people actually say this all the time. It’s the equivalent of clucking your tongue in a tsk-tsk when you’re lightly dismayed or overwhelmed by something. (You can even say it during sex the way you’d say, “Fuck yeah.”) A friend tells you her rent just went up €50? “Oh la la.” Someone shoves particularly hard on the métro? A more offended, vigorous, “Oh, la la!” In that instance, it takes on the judging but quasi-delighted tone of the New York “Oh, no she didn’t!” For more delightfully spot-on Paris-isms, read the hilarious but sadly defunct Stuff Parisians Like blog, written by a Parisian who, like most Parisians, hates other Parisians.

How Much French Do You Really Need in Paris?