As I approached the Immigration officer at Logan airport in Boston, the officer - I think Boston Irish - was asking a young French man “how long will you be in the United States?”
The poor lad looked like a deer in the headlights - he hadn't the faintest idea what he was being asked. Being a bit impatient and ready to make my way back home, I turned to the young man and in my broken French, asked: “Quand est-il que vous retournez en France ?”
“Deux semain” he replied.
“Two weeks,” I said to Customs.
“OK” said the Irish officer ... and the young man .. a student, maybe ... was in.
I thought later: “Heaven help you, young man, if you think that as many people speak French in the US as speak English in France." They don't ... and, contray to popular beliefs (or wishfull thinking), they don't in France, either. If you are going to cling to your tour or your hotel in Paris, then you don't need to know French. If you want to venture further ... well, you don't need French, either. But there are rules, if you want to have a great time, meet lots of people, and not get lost for too long.
So here are the rules to survive:
Learn the following phrases:
Do not learn “J’ ne parle pas francaise” - It will be painfull obvious if you don’t. You could learn “desole” - [sorry] or “J’ne comprend pas” which they will likely already know. Actually, it is a bit of a contradiction to say (in French) that you don't speak French.
The French have a particularly interesting habit: If you ask a question in French, they respond in French; ask in English and they either shrug - that's French for "I don't understand you either" - or the respond in English. In other European countries, you might attempt a question in German, or Dutch (for the 0.0003% of you who would dare try) and what do they do? Respond in English. Actually, on several occasions, I have had a French clerk ask me - in French, of course - if I would prefer to speak English.
Now which is the more arrogant? The French that usually respond in French and only switch to English (if they can) if you request ... or the Northern European clerks (who no doubt, speak 5 languages) who automatically switch to English ... they don't even ask which of the 5 languages you speak. Somehow, they know magically know which one would suit you.