(asked by Jennifer from the US)
I have been to Paris several times and I make an attempt to speak French whenever possible. Apparently, my pronunciation is very good; they are invariably surprised that I am American. However, I am terrible at comprehending anything beyond a simple response, for example “ça coûte 25€” or “les w.c. sont là.” So what happens is that I will say something, they will respond in rapid-fire French, and I freeze, because I’m not actually fluent. I will respond with something like, “désolé, mon français est terrible, est-ce que nous pouvons parler anglais?” Usually they will smile and switch to English but I wonder what they really think.
Should I not speak French at all if I can’t understand anything more than simple responses? If they answer in French and I don’t understand it, what should I say?
First of all, stop wondering what they really think, they most likely simply don’t care. People who want to communicate with you care about whether you’re both having an efficient communication, not what language you’re using and such things.
Now concerning being able to speak French (or any other language) and not understanding it.
Well, it really depends on where you are in your life (I mean, literally, whether you live in a French speaking country or not).
If you live in the US and just travel to France, my advice would be to take more French classes (depending on your actual level) and/or listen to as much French as you can, films, news on the web and anything else that you can get your hands on.
Understanding French, after the basics of the language have been acquired is a matter of habit, practice and only that. If your hear French only when you’re visiting France on vacation, you’ll never really be able to understand it, no matter how hard you try. If you hear it regularly (the best being daily obviously), it’ll get better and better with time.
If you live in France, well, stop hanging out with English speakers, make the effort to hang out with French people (preferably some that don’t speak English), you’ll suffer in the beginning, but it’s the best option to become bilingual on the long term.
I hope that helps.