The ten places where you really need to speak French

In many situations in France foreigners can get away with knowing only the very basic “Bonjour”, “s’il vous plait” and “merci” and can even rely on English if needs be. But there are some places where speaking French is absolutely crucial, writes Katie Warren.

The ten places where you really need to speak French
Photo: Lily A./Flickr

Most French people in the hospitality industry — hotels, restaurants, bars— speak English, so you can usually get food and accommodation without speaking a word of French. 

You can even work in France without needing much French—  such as a bartender or an English teacher for example — and get by with speaking the bare minimum of the language.

But there are some places in France where knowing French is absolutely essential. Here’s a roundup of the nine places or situations where you’re going to need it most.

Any office of French administration

Photo: AFP

It could be the Prefecture, the Pole Emploi (employment center), the CAF (housing assistance), the Prefecture de Police , the CPAM office to get your carte vitale… A visit to any of these administrative centers in France strikes fear into the heart of most foreigners, who consider going to these places about as much fun as doing taxes, stepping in dog poo on the sidewalk, or using a computer with a slow Wi-Fi connection. 
Renewing visas, exchanging driver’s licenses, incomplete “dossiers“, hours of waiting… it’s the stuff of nightmares. Administrative workers tend to be the least sympathetic toward those who don't speak French, mainly because there’s the sentiment that those wanting to settle in France should be able to speak the language pretty well. 
Having at least a conversational level is crucial, or else you’ll need to bring a French friend along to help out. And ask and ask again. Even if it minds driving them mad.
The cheese/wine/meat shop
One French learner we know know well has refused to go into any fromagerie out of fear for what will happen in there. The same goes for the boucherie (butchers) and the wine merchants.

Sure, it’s easy enough to just point out your trusty old Brie or Camembert or the slab of beef or pick up any old bottle of red, but if you want to know what your buying or want advice for what cheese to get or what wine to go with what cheese then you'll need to learn the lingo and some specific vocab.

But if you actually want to know what differentiates certain cheeses, get recommendations based on your taste and be sure to get a cheese you like (even if it’s one you haven’t tasted before) you need to be able to converse with the fromager

They’re always more than happy to share their priceless cheese wisdom if you can speak a little French. 

ALSO: How to be on your best briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette

The doctor’s surgery

Photo: AFP

While some English-speaking doctors can be found in Paris, expats living elsewhere in France can never bet on it.

Ideally when going to the doctor’s office, you should be able to explain your symptoms and perfectly understand the instructions your doctor gives you for treatment.

It could spell disaster if your doctor gets the wrong idea of what's wrong with you (or at least lead to embarrassment). 

Another person The Local France knows very well says he ended up naked in one consultation with a French doc even though he only went in with a sore throat. He reckons cupping his hands to stress how big his tonsils felt might have been the problem.

Best learn the vocab before you go. And just point.

The bank

Going to the bank in France can be a stressful experience for foreigners. Just to open a simple checking account requires navigating reams of paperwork, providing proof of housing and a work contract or proof of school enrollment, and promising your first-born child.

And tasks such as international wire transfers or setting up automated payments that require specific French vocabulary can’t always be done online as some foreigners might be used to in their home countries. 

And just wait until something goes wrong and you have to go in and explain they have charged you too much.

To make your life a bit easier, here are our five key tips to opening a bank account in France

The dinner party

Photo: AFP
A French dinner party is one place where you’ll really feel out of place if you don’t speak French.
Sure someone might be polite enough to speak English with you at first. But once the French get going on their lively debates, you can either sit in silence and lose all will to live, or have a high enough level of French to join in. 
Reaching dinner party level French is tough, but until you're there you are at least guaranteed good food and good wine.
The post office

Sending letters and packages home to family members and friends is just another part of expat life. But it can be tricky if you don’t even know how to say “expedited” in French (no, it’s not “expédié”) or “It needs to get there in three days or my sister will think I forgot her birthday.”

You also don’t want to find yourself uncomprehendingly agreeing to some super fast, heavily-insured delivery plan and paying 14 euros to send a greeting card.

The hair salon
Photo: Adam Sacco/Flickr
Sure, getting a bad haircut isn’t quite as serious as mixing up medications (although some might dispute that statement), but the hair salon is still a place where a certain level of French knowledge is necessary. 
You can show the hairdresser all the celebrity haircut photos you want, but if you can’t explain exactly what you want done to your hair, there are sure to be misunderstandings and you’ll walk out of a French salon de coiffeur much sadder and and worse-coiffed than you walked in.
On the phone
If you’ve even managed to dial the right phone number (curse those tricky French numbers), you’ll soon learn that rudimentary French won’t get you through most phone calls. 
Speaking and understanding French becomes a thousand times more difficult when you can’t see the face of the person with whom you’re speaking.
You get no context clues from facial expressions or gestures and you can’t mime actions for words you don’t know how to say. 
You just have to be able to communicate well in French, plain and simple. 
The real estate office 

Photo: Simon/Flickr

When finding a place to live in France, knowing all the renting and buying lingo such as caution (deposit), alimentation (water/electricity supply) and charges comprises (utilities included) is absolutely essential.

Otherwise you might find yourself living in a closet-sized (and closet-less) studio apartment with no windows, no bathroom, and barely room enough to stretch out your arms. Oh wait, that’s just normal life for renters in Paris…

When you're in trouble with the law

Not stamped your train ticket and want to get out of paying a fine? Gone through a red light in your car or even on your bike? Been caught for speeding? Been a little too raucous in the street? Yes, you know trying to come up with an excuse in French was impossible and the whole “I don't speak French” thing just doesn't work.

The same goes for if you are victim of a crime. In short if you want to converse with the French cops, learn their language.

READ ALSO: Thirteen free and easy ways to learn French

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Italian word of the day: ‘Inchiodare’

You'll nail this word in no time.

Italian word of the day: 'Inchiodare'

What do a carpenter, a detective, and a bank robber screeching to a halt in their getaway car all have in common?

In English, not much – but in Italian, they could all be said to inchiodare (eenk-ee-ohd-AHR-eh) in the course of their professional activities.

In its simplest form, inchiodare simply means ‘to nail’ (chiodo, ‘kee-OH-do’, is a nail) – a picture to a wall, or a leg to a table.

Ha trovato questo cartello inchiodato alla sua porta.
She found this notice nailed to her door.

Inchioderò la mensola al muro più tardi.
I’ll nail the shelf to the wall later.

But like ‘to nail’, inchiodare has more than one definition.

You can use it to describe someone or something being ‘pinned’ in place, without actually having been literally nailed there.

Mi ha inchiodato al muro.
He pinned me to the wall.

La mia gamba è inchiodata al terreno.
My leg is pinned to the ground.

You can be metaphorically inchiodato to a place in the sense of being stuck there, tied down, or trapped.

Dovrei essere in vacanza e invece sono inchiodata alla mia scrivenia.
I should be on holiday and instead I’m stuck at my desk.

Don'T Forger You'Re Here Forever GIF - The Simpsons Mr Burns Youre Here GIFs

Siamo inchiodati a questa scuola per altri tre anni.
We’re stuck at this school for another three years.

Sono stati inchiodati dal fuoco di armi.
They were trapped by gunfire.

Just like in English, you can inchiodare (‘nail’) someone in the sense of proving their guilt.

Chiunque sia stato, ha lasciato tracce di DNA che lo inchioderanno.
Whoever it was, they left traces of DNA that will take them down.

Ti inchioderò per questo omicidio.
I’m going to nail you for this murder.

Thomas Sadoski Tommy GIF by CBS

Senza la pistola non lo inchioderemo, perché non abbiamo altre prove.
Without the gun we’re not going to get him, because we have no other proof.

For reasons that are less clear, the word can also mean to slam on the brakes in a car.

Ha inchiodato e ha afferrato la pistola quando ha visto la volante bloccando la strada.
He slammed on the brakes and grabbed the gun when he saw the police car blocking the road.

Hanno inchiodato la macchina a pochi passi da noi.
They screeched to a halt in the car just a few feet away from us.

Those last two definitions mean that you’re very likely to encounter the word when watching mystery shows or listening to true crime podcasts. Look out for it the next time you watch a detective drama.

In the meantime, have a think about what (or who) you can inchiodare this week.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.