During my recent fall break trip, I decided to spend some time traveling around Spain (Córdoba, Sevilla, Madrid, and Barcelona). One of the driving forces that made me want to explore Spain was that I could practice some of the Spanish I learned during my last few semesters at Tulane.
Yes, I know that many people in these cities also speak English, but what’s the fun in that?!
I was with different friends in each place, but it turned out that I knew the most Spanish of anyone I travelled with at any point. Therefore, I quickly became the unofficial translator and communicator.
Throughout my experience trying to communicate in a language that I had a low-intermediate knowledge of, I was struck by how friendly and accommodating the Spanish people I interacted with were. Particularly, I found myself comparing this to the experience many of my expat friends in France have.
French in France
“Oui, je parle un peu de français,” Americans in France often say. Even when us foreigners have a solid grasp of the language, French people seem to frequently become frustrated by the slightest “Comment?” or “Quoi?” and revert back to English.
Parisians often face the stereotype of being “rude,” and though I will not speak to how true this assumption is at this time, I can understand how these frustrations and the preference to just speak English can come across in this way. My au pair friends with low levels of French report that some French people become disgruntled by attempting to understand their accent, and I have even seen French people tell my friends they are “wasting time” by trying to speak French and that it would just be easier for them to try to understand English.
Choosing to speak to us Americans in English, however, does not always originate from a state of frustration. After all, Paris is such an international city that many people speak English, and meeting an American is a great opportunity to practice with a native speaker.
This being said, whether my friends and I are here to study, teach, or au pair, we do genuinely want to learn French. I often say that I didn’t come here to speak English, I came here to speak French, so it can seem to defeat the purpose when I am asked to speak English instead.
Since moving to Paris just over three months ago, thankfully, I almost never get “Engish-ed.” My knowledge of the language and accent is good enough that even if I appear foreign, I can hold a good conversation that the other party can understand and feel content about. My friends, however, many of whom hold an A2/B1 level of French or below, do not get so lucky.
Overall, many foreigners commonly recount to me that they are not taken seriously by locals, automatically assumed to be tourists, and responded to in English even when they start the conversation in French.
This is about the same level as I have in Spanish; however, my experiences practicing the language while traveling in Spain were very different.
Spanish in Spain
No matter which city I visited in Spain, including the more touristy areas, I found that people were more than happy to listen to my Spanish and respond to me in Spanish. This included when it was clear that I was asking a question in Spanish to be polite but had no idea what the response translated to.
“Dónde está el baño?”
“Está abajo y a la derecha.”
“Gracias!” (No idea what that response meant but I will do some exploring and figure it out).
Speaking Spanish in Spain not only gave me a new appreciation for how willing the locals are to help me practice, despite any potential inconveniences or comprehension issues, but it also reminded me to be thankful for the level I do have in French and take advantage of it more.
Obviously, I was unable to communicate for our group in every circumstance, but it did help me see what I identify to be an interesting cultural difference between France and Spain. These are my own observations and conclusions, but I also recognize that things may be different depending on what part of the country you visit and who exactly you encounter along the way.
When I returned to Paris after my 10 days traveling around Spain, I was relieved to have the capacity to once again express whatever I wanted to say in the common language.
My French has clearly improved quite a bit since moving abroad… And dare I say it, after this experience and others, I think even my Spanish has improved as well!
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