Si, si, I do speak French: Everyone in Nice keeps breaking into English, says Jane Marshall

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The Independent Online
CONSTERNATION. Everyone I speak to in Nice replies to me in English. Has my French really deteriorated so much since I was last in France?

I try to reassure myself. Maybe it only happens when some imaginative ice-cream flavour defeats me (English accompanied by reassuring smile), or I am deafened by the clatter in a take-away (English accompanied by impatient scowl). But I soon realise that I have only to utter a few words and everyone switches to English. My confidence plummets. I sheepishly reply in English.

I go up-country. The locals do not coerce me into speaking English. I quickly discover that my French is quite coherent after all, and fluency returns.

I turn off a country road and find myself in the tranquil walled garden of a convent school. Neither the old gardener nor the Asian nun looks at all uncomprehending as I explain in French why I have come. Nor do they make any attempt to deviate from French as they explain that I am not where I think I am, and must walk further uphill in the noonday heat. I somehow feel pleased that the timeless atmosphere of this corner of rural France has remained undisturbed by an alien tongue.

Back in Nice, with confidence restored that my French still works if given the chance, I now become irritated when people switch to English as soon as I open my mouth - or sometimes even before I open my mouth.

It is not as if the English imposed on me is always particularly helpful. I ask about a trip to a nearby island and the man at the ticket office starts talking about a bus. 'Bus?' - there is no traffic on the island. 'Bus,' he says firmly and on seeing my continuing puzzlement, shouts impatiently, 'Bus]' Some of the niceties of French pronunciation flit through my mind, and I hazard a guess. 'Path? Sentier?' He looks surprised. 'Yes] Bus]'

I am not suggesting that everyone who wants to brush up a rusty French vocabulary should hold up the queue behind them while consulting a phrase book. But even those who speak halting French can often understand carefully enunciated French more easily than distorted English. Sadly, the only alternative offered is usually French of the rapid-fire variety.

Nor do I deny that many tourists depend on English to get around. As the friendly assistant at the charcuterie explains when I ask why the Nicois seem bent on denying me the chance to speak French: 'There are so many Americans here. They prefer to speak English.'

Of course, many tourists find it handy to fall back on a lingua franca, just as they sometimes fall back on McDonald's. But no one forces them to use McDonald's - indeed, they are often positively encouraged to sample the local cuisine. Far from being encouraged to use the local language, they are often denied the option.

It is in a small perfume factory that I stumble on the obvious solution. I wander in to pass the time until the local bus is due. The woman in the deserted shop listens to my humble request and immediately asks: 'Do you speak English? I'll get someone for you.' Ignoring my muttered 'that won't be necessary', she swiftly summons a young lady to deal with me.

I finally rebel. When the young woman cheerfully tells me that we can speak in English, I simply ignore her and continue in French. We walk round the displays and discuss various scents until it suddenly dawns on her that we are conversing in two languages simultaneously - she in English, I in French. Absurd, really. She looks uncertain for a moment, then quietly reverts to French.

What surprises me about all this is the utter determination with which English is frequently foisted on me, even when unnecessary. Could there be some conspiracy afoot to reduce communication to a uniform package, like so much else in the tourist trade? If this were achieved, then any deviation from the norm, such as the wish to indulge in the quaint custom of conversing in the native tongue, could command an extra charge. 'You want to speak French? There will be a small supplement . . .'