The gentleman behind the car hire desk at Geneva airport had heard enough of my halting Melbourne high school French, so he asked me gently, ‘May I speak English with you?’

Not the usual ‘Do you speak English?’ but ‘May I speak English with you?’ He gave me a line I’ve used hundreds, if not thousands, of times since. At a hotel reception desk in Ystad, before getting into a taxi in Istanbul, when lost in a maze of Estonian alleyways, I now begin my chats with strangers with ‘May I speak English with you?’

Here’s why.

‘Do you speak English?’ carries with it the implied patronizing question ‘Are you lucky/clever/well-educated/well-travelled/tech-savvy enough to speak the world’s lingua franca? If not, maybe you’re a dumbcluck who dropped out of school.’

I’ve learned from bitter experience that when I ask someone ‘Do you speak English?’ those who aren’t confident with that tongue are immediately forced shamefacedly to admit it or brazenly to lie.

People who understand English perfectly well enough to deal with my problem sometimes answer ‘No’, just to avoid the embarrassing conversation that could ensue if they said, ‘Yes’ or ‘A little’ and my follow-up question was about Hungarian philosophers of the 18th century. (No, just point me to the toilets, please.)

‘Do you speak English?’ is a slight put-down for those who don’t, and leads the enquirer to feel awkward too.

On the other side of the coin, asking someone who does speak it well, ‘Do you speak English?’ can also be subtly insulting. ‘Sir, would I have this important job in a swish hotel, fancy restaurant, tourist bus or international trade centre if I didn’t speak English at least as well as you?’ they could answer.

‘Do you speak English?’ also encourages cocky cowboys who overrate their linguistic skills and who are trying to sell you a Persian carpet to say ‘Yes’, so as not to lose your custom.

Ask ‘Do you speak English?’ and you may discover, after directing a taxi for over an hour through the streets of Bahrain, that the ‘English-speaking’ driver has yet to master the meaning of the words ‘left’ and ‘right’. Yes, it’s a true story. No hard feelings, my friend; your English is certainly better than my Arabic, but if you’d said ‘No’ straight up it would have saved us both a lot of trouble.

I’ve found that ‘May I speak English with you?’ is a far better opening gambit in lands where I can’t manage the local dialect.

‘May I speak English with you?’ implies ‘I apologise in advance. I’m totally hopeless with Korean/Swahili/Swedish, so please have pity on me and do your best in English. Even if you find it difficult, I will be eternally grateful to you.’

If a non-native English speaker offers me ‘May I speak English with you?’ he or she is gently suggesting that the conversation may flow a little better if I can string together a few words in my native tongue and abandon my heroic attempt to show off what I learned on the plane from studying the phonetic pronunciation in the appendix of the travel guidebook.

I don’t recall how my chat with the Geneva car-hire gentleman proceeded, though I do remember that we did get a small vehicle and drive it away from Geneva Airport and into France with no major traumas.

Ever since our meeting, I’ve begun conversations with strangers in strange lands speaking strange tongues with ‘May I speak English with you?’

What do you think? Does it matter? Is ‘Do you speak English’ a slight insult?


Filed under Travel

24 responses to “PARDON MY FRENCH

  1. Karma. In the long run doesn’t it pay just to be nice to people? Good travel tip Richard. Thanks.

  2. Mjollnir

    I don’t think “Do you speak English?” is an insult but it’s certainly better if you can at least say that in the local lingo! Admittedly your version in certainly politer 😀

    • Yes indeed, ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ is a good start. Though it’s tougher to get it off pat in Bulgarian.

      • Mjollnir

        Well, yeah some places it’s very hard to get a handle on the lingo – Albania for instance was a linguistic disaster for me! Bulgarian: Говорите ли английски? (govorite li angliiski?). Yay for Google! 😀

  3. I haven’t had NY problems with “Do you speak English” yet. I do like your suggestion though and will definitely try it when I am back in Europe next week.

  4. A modest but brilliant suggestion, Richard. Thank you.

  5. I also think your version is so much more polite and definitely less patronising. I like it a lot.

  6. Jeannette

    Nice one Richard, but even “Do you speak English” is a lot better than the arrogance some Anglophones display by assuming the whole world speaks English. They don’t even ask!!

  7. I agree with you totally and will try to remember your version from now on. It would be nice, though, to hear whether you ever tested your French on the French and how they reacted. Pretended not to understand a single word…? No offence but that’s what has happened to me more than once I’m afraid.

    • Oh, TM, I’ve sometimes managed to do okay with my high school French, even in Paris, and simple, apologetic politeness usually goes a long way.

      It’s something of a myth that all French people are unfriendly to non-Francophones, though of course there are rude people to be found anywhere.

  8. That’s wonderful, Richard. I think I may have accidentally used that question more than once in Japan, where ‘Do you speak English?’ almost always gets a ‘No’, because – my impression is – people feel that unless they can speak it perfectly they would be lying to say ‘Yes’. In practice, most of teh no-sayers were perfectly able to handle our communication needs in English.

  9. Brilliant – one of the best travel tips that I have read!

  10. On the basis that it is always ‘easier to seek forgiveness than to ask permission’, why not begin with an apology: eg. “I’m so sorry I have to speak English with you, but……..”
    But I do like the way you question the assumption behind the usual opening gambit of “Do you speak English?”.

    • Frank, that sounds a little like Emo Phillips’ classic gag:

      “When I was a kid I asked God to give me a bike. Then I realised the Lord doesn’t work like that. So I stole a bike and asked him to forgive me.”

      Apologising in advance is a good idea, but remember to keep the sentence short and simple, just in case.

      • ….well, never heard of Emo Phillips, but it’s a great policy in the following scenario: you want to enter what seems to be private property, and curiosity gets the better of you. You know you shouldn’t enter and you know asking permission is a loser……so you enter……get caught, and you eat all the humble pie you can saying how truly sorry you are. It works wonders.

  11. excellent travel tip Richard. I remember in the past blurting out ‘do you speak English’ quite a few times. A far nicer suggestion…thank you.

  12. kevinmayne

    I like that. After a year of living Belgium my French still isn’t up to scratch, but compared to my three words of Dutch it is mother tongue.

    And it is a great line for all the other languages too, although I could never imagine saying it in Wales, I would be marched to the border.

    • Indeed Kevin, in Wales, Scotland and Ireland we may meet more than language difficulties.

      On my first trip to Ireland I was playing pool in a Connemara pub with a couple of guys. Finding their speech totally incomprehensible I asked, ‘Are you speaking English?’ The answer was a sort of grunt. I couldn’t tell whether it meant ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

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