The most useful phrase in French

Anita is becoming famous in some circles in Luxembourg for her French!

For months, she practiced one and only one phrase in French:
Je suis desolée. Je ne parle pas français.
What does it mean, in English? “I’m sorry. I don’t speak French.”

Anita’s pronunciation is so good (and effortless) that people don’t believe her. Usually, they switch to English (although sometimes with an intrigued look). Sometimes, they continue to talk to her in French! Once in a while, they switch to German, leaving her with no reply whatsoever.

Despite Anita’s quandaries, we recommend that everyone who plans to visit a French-speaking country take a few moments and learn this phrase. We’d like to think that it conveys a certain respect for others, moreso than “Parlez-vous anglais?”

That’s a polite way to ask someone to speak English, but it’s also a demand of sorts. It just seems a bit curt — imagine the following little skit, between an American grocery cashier and a French customer who knows little English.

Customer Marcel: Hello. I want to pay.

Shopkeeper Ned: Hello! That’s a great brand of ice cream you’ve got there. Did you see that we have it in chocolate and rocky road as well? My daughter loves the chocolate kind.

Customer Marcel: Do you speak French?

Marcel was a bit abrupt, don’t you think? I think Ned would be more inclined to try his high-school French if Marcel said, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak English. Do you speak French?” (Anita and I are thinking about skits a lot right now, since our French lessons are underway.)

We often need people to switch to English to accommodate us (or at least we need them to tolerate our bad French supplemented by charades). So we say “Parlez-vous anglais?” all the time, and we find that it works much better after we say the magic phrase.

To help you learn it, here’s a recording of Anita’s impeccable rendition:
Je suis desolée. Je ne parle pas français.

And, should you need it, her quite passable request:
Parlez-vous anglais?

5 Comments to “The most useful phrase in French”

  1. Katherine said...
    18 August 2009

    The one I practice a lot is: répétez plus lentement s’il vous plaît. “Repeat more slowly please.” If they speak really really really slow, I can understand them in French :)

  2. Will said...
    20 August 2009

    Katherine, I use that one too, but not as much as I should. I (lazily) assume that I won’t understand them the second time.

    Just this Tuesday, my tutor taught me an alternative to your phrase! She says that we’re using the imperatif, which is a bit of an overbearing verb form.

    An alternative, the one which a polite French person would use, is «Est-ce que vous pouvez répéter, s’il vous plaît?»

    Of course, one doesn’t expect «la politesse» from someone who speaks with as bad an accent as mine. So I’m off the hook.

  3. Jaime said...
    20 August 2009

    Remarkable pronunciation, Ms. Anita! My French is quite limited but even I could delight in the easy way the syllables rolled of your tongue. Brava!

    My own experience proves that if you use this phrase often and with complete humility, travels in French-speaking regions are mostly painless. I got along delightfully in Paris with absolutely no phrasebook and almost no understanding of the language (as stated above). For the most part, saying this phrase as a preface to any conversation with a local paved the way for a smooth and pleasant interaction.

  4. Sam Widge said...
    29 August 2009

    I had a delightfully smooth and pleasant interaction with French girl in Bayeux once. I suppose it helped that my French is really quite good, added to which and I have a sublimely enormous…sorry, there’s someone at the door.

  5. Vousetes Kuntz said...
    31 August 2009

    Hi, I live on the French side Franco-German border near Mulhouse. As you can see from my name I have mixed heritage which I cherish. I am lucky enough to speak three languages, so I appreciate your trials while settling in to a new culture. Your descriptions of life in Luxembourg are simply enthralling. I delighted in your simple example to illustrate how native French speakers might view the usual “parlez Anglais?” But rest assured that you worry too much, since nobody would really give a fuck.