(asked by E from the US)
I always ask (in French) if the person speaks English. I’ve noticed French people tend to give some sort of demure response about not speaking English well… or very little. Then they proceed to speak very good English. It doesn’t seem like false modesty, but perhaps an underestimation of their own abilities. Is this a cultural thing?
Head to Italy and it’s the opposite. I’ll ask if the person speaks English and they’ll give a confident affirmation. Typically, they’ll proceed to demonstrate that they have no idea what I’m saying, nor the ability to formulate a response. It’s not that I expect them to speak English in Italy. I do expect them to speak English if they say they do.
OK, let’s start with the Italians: I have no idea. But you know them Italians, always showing off about everything…
Now, the French.
I guess this response you get comes from several factors, mostly two:
First, you’re being too lenient with them. Most of the French can’t speak English properly. Yes, they’ll have a decent grammar, some decent vocabulary, but their pronunciation will simply be horrible. I cringe every single time I hear a random French person having a conversation in English. But let’s not blame them too much, as it’s all the French National Education’s fault. To make a long story short, French Education –unconsciously- adamantly believe that proper education can come from only one thing: books. It can work with many fields, but it doesn’t with the field of languages. And French kids will learn English (or another language) from age 10-11 til 18 at least, and still most of them will be totally unable to communicate in the most simple ways… but they’ll be able to teach English grammar to most Americans.
Then, it’s not as much “underestimation” as the fact that the French have a very special relationship with language. Most French people will apprehend language as an almost sacred thing, or at least something that you need skills to master, almost as if it was an art, and indeed, France is one in the countries in the world where literature is taken the most seriously. Just compare an American bookstore from a French one. In an American bookstore, Literature will be one or two sections, somewhere in the back of the store, almost hidden by the countless self-help bullshit books. Go to a French bookstore, and Literature will constitute more than half of the store; actually a well-respected bookstore will sell almost exclusively Literature. So the idea of “speaking well” (and I don’t mean foreign languages, I mean French) is a quite common and well accepted idea in France. It’s actually one of the many elements that factor into one’s social status. “Style” when one writes (and sometimes even speaks) is everything.
And indeed, this applies to foreign languages too.
Rare are the French who think they speak well a foreign language as long as they don’t speak it perfectly. Most French people think that way, because this is how they see languages and because they don’t know that most other countries (and especially English speaking countries) don’t have the same relationship with language. Most French think everyone in the world treats language the same way.
So, when a French person tells you that their English sucks, it does indeed suck in their frame of reference as the only way for it to not suck is if it was perfect, and they do genuinely think that you will think it sucks in your frame of references too.