Just as all parents hear advice on raising children from people who don’t have them, all travelers can relate to people who “poo-poo” on where they are going without having been there themselves. I get so annoyed with the people who say: “I hear Rome is overrated.” “I hear India isn’t safe.” “I hear the French ask Americans to stop butchering their language when they speak French.”
This just wasn’t my experience in any of these places, but today I’m focusing on the last comment. I highly doubt the French from my Fluent City classes a year before was good enough for me to pass as something aside from an American, but no one seemed to mind that I wasn’t perfect. I’ve put together the bare minimum of French that you need to know in Paris. Most of your travel interactions will be covered with the few phrases below. If you want to have a full-on conversation or if there’s an issue, beginning with a French greeting is still the way to go. Switching to English after a certain point is okay as most people who live in Paris will be able and willing to respond in your language to help out.
When you walk into a store, a restaurant, or up to a ticket booth, begin with a greeting to the owner, maître d’, or attendant. It’s considered rude in France (and really, in general) to start speaking without first greeting the person.
If you know one word in French, it’s likely bonjour, which of course means hello/good morning/good day. Just say it like Belle does in Beauty and the Beast and you’ll be fine. If you use bonjour and the sun has already set, someone is going to (politely) correct you to use bonsoir (boh-swahr) instead, which means good evening.
The easiest way to ask how are you? is Ça va? The Ç or, as I call it, the C with a tail, has an “s” sound, so this is pronounced sah vah. It’s casual and essentially means how goes it? as a question but also means it goes as a response. So someone will likely respond Ça va, ça va? to which your response can also be Ça va. How easy is that?! If you’d like extra credit, try a Ça va bien (sah vah bi-ahn – but stop halfway through the n), which means it goes well.
To be more formal, address the person you’re speaking with as monsieur, madame, or mademoiselle (Mr. Mrs. or Miss, depending on the woman’s age). I use monsieur or madame for people who are obviously older than me but I don’t use anything if they are the same age or younger. I also was not in any seriously formal situations in Paris.
I would like…
This phrase for I would like is SO handy and can get you anything you need. Once you’ve said your greeting, use the phrase Je voudrais (juh voo-dre) and then whatever it is you’d like:
- A train ticket? Je voudrais un billet de train.
- A table for two? Je voudrais un table pour deux.
- A cappuccino and an almond croissant? Je voudrais un cappuccino et un croissant aux amandes. (You will use this every morning.)
- A red wine? Je voudrais du vin rouge. (do van rouge)
- The check? Je voudrais l’addition. (la dees yun)
- To buy this shirt? This souvenir? If you don’t know much vocabulary, just hold up the object or point with two fingers to what you want, as it’s considered less rude than one. The store owner will want to make the sale and shouldn’t be too annoyed that you don’t know the exact words.
Even if you’re just stopping someone on the street to ask where something is, make sure you use a greeting like we talked about (bonjour or bonsoir should be sufficient). To ask someone where something is, you just need to say Où est (oo eh) and where you want to go. Who you’re asking will likely switch to English or point you in the right direction, which might be enough for you to go on until you find the next person to ask.
Please, Thank You, & Peace Out
Add in s’il vous plaît (see voo play) when you request something and merci (mare see) once you’ve received it or when you say good-bye, au revoir (Oh rev-wah).
When you travel, don’t forget how useful hand motions can be. Need the time? Point to your wrist. Buying a red French beret from an old woman and want to let her know that you used to have one as a kid? Say it in English with motions indicating you when you were shorter. Don’t know the word for squid? Move your arms around like you are one. (Okay, maybe don’t do this one.) You know what is the most useful? A look that’s a combination of a smile and a slight note of exasperation, showing you mean well but you need help.