For the first time since landing, they walk out of their Airbnb to go to the boulangerie for breakfast. They’ve been brushing up on their French and are determined to put it to use this time.

They walk through the door and are greeted by the smell of fresh bread and pastries. “Bonjour”, they eagerly say, only to be responded to immediately in English. To avoid embarrassment before the long line of people waiting behind them, they act cool, place their order in English and say “thank you”.

The pastries taste great, but they can’t help but leave with a slight bitter taste in their mouth. What exactly had just happened?

The switch

For avid learners and language enthusiasts, this all-too-common scenario can be disappointing and frustrating. The obvious solution is to just keep speaking in French or ask the person to stay in French. Though the courage to do so is commendable, it can feel a bit forced and awkward.

While the ability to speak the world’s lingua franca is mostly a gift and privilege, the price that anglophones (native or not) pay is perhaps the difficulty of finding opportunities for foreign language immersion. France, Canada, and Belgium are certainly not the only place where one will encounter the switch; anywhere whose students are required to take English classes as a part of public education (which is basically everywhere) will experience this phenomenon.

So why does this happen?

First and foremost, it should be said that the language switch is usually not done out of meanness, there are other reasons at play. The obvious condition is that the French person knows at least a bit of English, and…

…You don’t sound local + one of the following:

  • They want to practice English
  • They want to be accommodating or welcoming
  • They want you to know that they understand English and give you the option
  • They want to facilitate or accelerate the exchange. Since France is such a popular destination, the reality is that they have probably replied to tourists in French before, only to be met with a confused blank stare. So now they figure it is easier to just skip straight to English.

I love languages and have been learning French for many years. I’ve come to learn that accent occupies greater weight in the perception of fluency in the French language than it does in English. In other words, francophones may subconsciously discount someone’s fluency if they have a strong foreign accent, even though logically speaking one can be very fluent regardless of accent.

This could be because almost the entire world is forced to learn English, so native anglophones are very used to hearing their language spoken well but with other accents, whereas francophones have comparatively fewer opportunities to hear their language spoken with other accents. This is what a French colleague told me:

You will even notice in some documentaries or on the news, if they interview native French speakers from other regions or countries with a different regional accent (Quebec, Africa, even in the North of France) they will add French subtitles at the bottom of the screen while the person is speaking French.

As a result, even though accents have become a weak indicator of English proficiency, they remain a persistent factor for perceived French proficiency. Based on my observations and conversations with friends, I’ve created a simple matrix illustrating the likelihood of a French listener switching to English, as a function of the speaker’s fluency and accent in French:

language matrix

  • Thick – The speaker’s accent is heavy to the point of impeding understanding. Even at advanced fluency, the listener is likely to be distracted or lost.
  • Informed – The speaker knows how things are supposed to be pronounced but hasn’t made targeted efforts to train his/her tongue and mouth. While communication is usually not hindered, the listener is still acutely aware (and continually reminded) that the speaker is not from the same linguistic community.
  • Local – If a speaker has near-local or practiced pronunciation, the listener is much more likely to assume that the speaker has some sort of deeper connection to the linguistic community. So even at intermediate levels of fluency, one might be treated as just another native, if somewhat unusual, speaker.

Even though the above is represented as a 3×3 grid for simplicity, in reality it is a spectrum without hard lines. Most educational curricula prioritize fluency (i.e., grammar and syntax). But as you can see from the table, even reaching advanced fluency does not guarantee that one will be responded to in French if one’s way of speech (pronunciation, intonation, choice of vocabulary) is not also intentionally practiced.

How to avoid the switch

There are plenty of resources and textbooks out there for how to learn grammar and achieve fluency, but what can one do to improve his or her accent and avoid the switch? Besides explicitly asking your interlocutor to stay in French, unfortunately there are no silver bullet or overnight solution. It will take some time and effort, but it is feasible. Here are a few methods that have worked for me:

  • Regularly consume native media. Build a habit of watching and listening to content in the target language. This includes watching interesting movies, TV series, Youtube videos, and listening to podcasts. Listen to how native speakers talk, then try to repeat and reproduce what they say and how they say it. Even if you don’t understand everything, this exercise will help your mouth get used to forming the right shapes that are necessary to produce sounds more natively.
  • Observe how locals speak in various contexts. When I first came to France, I already had advanced fluency from years of schooling. But my essay writing and class presentations did nothing to prepare me for everyday situations such as ordering at a bakery. By deliberately observing locals, I now know, for example, that I can pass for French by walking in and simply saying “Bonjour. Alors, je vais prendre… s’il vous plaît” (Hello. So, I will take a… please). See our full article on how to pass as a local when dining out in France.
  • For motivated learners, consider learning the French IPA (international phonetic alphabet). Knowing the sounds that each weird looking symbol corresponds to will allow you to know exactly how every word in the dictionary is pronounced. This is much more effective than trying to approximate French with English letter combinations, which usually leads to the false impression that the same letters in different languages are pronounced the same way.

Many learners feel embarrassed and hesitant to imitate native speakers. Who are we as outsiders to try to talk like them? But observation and imitation are essential to language learning. If one wants to be treated like a local, the best thing one can aim for is to talk like a local.

The bottom line

Like the adage goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” And so while grammar and conjugation are important, remember that pronunciation and intonation also play a part, especially in French. Unfortunately there is no shortcut besides time and concerted effort.

Having said all this, there is still no reason to be ashamed of having an accent. Be proud of the progress you make. If people respond in English, proceed in whatever way makes you feel most comfortable and don’t let anything discourage you. Language learning is a journey not a destination so there is no need to wait until you get to a certain milestone to open your mouth. Whatever challenges happen along the way, always know that even just making the effort of learning someone else’s language is an inspiring and commendable gesture. Bon courage!


In February 2023 I moved from Vancouver to Paris. Adventures await.
En février 2023 j’ai déménagé de Vancouver à Paris. Des aventures m’attendent.

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