English language in the Ariège landscape

Symbols of Englishness in the Ariège Pyrenees of France

I follow a few French Instagrammers as I love to see what others are doing in the Ariège mountains. Some of them post using English rather than French language.  I guess it’s to reach a wider audience. Now that’s interesting because in Ariège, English isn’t widely spoken. People tell me Spanish is taught in schools before English.

Signage in the public sphere is what we call the linguistic landscape. You don’t see written English very often in the Ariège public sphere, but below are some interesting observations from when I researched English migration to France.

At that time (2011) there were two British shops in Ariège, although they’ve both since closed down.  Both shops were advertised with signs using the Union Flag and related colours. Hardly any of the English incomers I spoke with admitted to using the shops, and when I was in them, I noticed that they both got their fair share of French customers who like to buy English tea. But it’s interesting how the English themselves mostly denied using the shops.

Generally, few people I spoke with wanted to admit to continuing to use English products, and it was as if they felt guilty for buying British branded goods.  Admittedly it was hard to understand why anyone would want to buy British jam in France, but other things are more difficult to replace with an alternative.

British shop in Saint-Girons, where Brits move to France. English in the linguistic landscape.

Others were more open about the level of adaptation.  One man said to me, ‘I don’t think you can just draw a line under 50 years of being in a country and expect to just change overnight’.

I once spotted an interesting ‘advertisement’ of Englishness on a building plot in the Ustou Valley.  Cycling past I saw two deckchairs that had a St George’s flag on one side and ‘England’ written on the other.  I passed by a year later when the house was finished and was sporting a cast iron English name plate.  The people building the house had been happy to talk to me and originally told me they’d deliberately avoided English hotspots such as Dordogneshire.  

Just a year later they were fed up and preparing to sell up to return to England.  The continuing importance of English in their landscape was symbolic of what they missed: the familiarity and ease of English culture, as well as friends and family.

English deckchair in France

The town of Mirepoix has perhaps the strongest reputation for being popular with the English in Ariège. At the time of my research the tourism website ariege.com referred to a creeping ‘Dordogne phenomenon’ there, although it no longer says that.  Perhaps many of the British have left? Or was it a little too honest for a tourism website?

Market in Mirepoix
Market day in Mirepoix
Mirepoix, popular with British people
Mirepoix architecture

Back when I last visited, the town still had an English-owned café in the square. It’s long been popular with English tourists and residents, selling cream teas, toasted teacakes and that kind of thing.  It gets other nationalities too, but it’s a home-from-home for some of the permanent English residents – a place to go if they feel like a bit of familiar culture. That’s a comfort when Mirepoix is cold and deserted during winter.

Some of the previous café owners were in the habit of writing an odd mix of Franglais on the menu chalkboard, listing a melange like Thon (tuna), Bread Pudding, Full English Breakfast, Assiette de charcuterie.  When I was researching I showed an image of the menu to the English incomers I met, to see their reactions. 

Almost everyone looked disdainful, describing it as ‘unnatural’, ‘a mess’ and even ‘a bit Torremolinos’. They mostly said they would never set foot in such a place. Yet when I explained which café it was, many of them nodded and described how they had visited it. 

Some might label this as hypocrisy, saying one thing and doing another.  But the idea of the Brit stereotype is so strong it can make people feel guilty for sticking with what they know and like. Even if it’s just an occasional treat. Even if it’s entirely natural to stick with what you know.

British people in Mirepoix, France

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2 thoughts on “English language in the Ariège landscape

  1. susan hodge

    As a Brit who has lived here for over 30 years, and the owner of the 2 shops mentioned, I found this particularly interesting. There was, and still is, a certain amount of snobbery considering how French we have all become. I myself, am as guilty of this as anyone else. We all feel the need to show integration, and certainly food plays a large part. We are, after all, here because it’s the place we most want to be, but I still think that everyone had a hankering for at least one British speciality.


    1. How nice to hear from you! Yes, it’s funny how sometimes British people don’t like to admit to eating the foods they’ve always grown up with, but it’s perhaps because we’re aware that others frown upon it. We have Polish/Chinese/Asian shops in the UK and I’m not aware that there’s the same kind of feeling with those – if anything it’s seen as keeping a tradition alive.


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