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So you're travelling to France, or another French-speaking country (or province). Is it true that English is all you need?
Regular readers of this site will know my answer: of course not!
Even if you'll only be spending a short time in the country, learning a few basic French phrases can be very rewarding and make a big difference to your trip.
Or maybe you'll be spending a long time in France, and want to learn the language well. You could start by studying grammar, and that's the approach that many language books and classes take. I'm not a fan of this approach, however.
My favourite type of book when I'm learning a new language is a phrasebook. I've long advocated that set phrases are the best thing for beginners to learn when starting out. After all, isn't the goal of language learning to communicate? How do you expect to communicate with anybody if the only thing you've learned so far is a verb table?
So whether you're planning to travel to Paris for a week or move to Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! for the rest of your life, here are 25 of the most important and useful French phrases for travel that you should learn A.S.A.P.
Oh, and if you want to a bit more French study before your trip, I recommend FrenchPod101. It's my favourite French podcast, and you'll learn a huge amount really quickly.
Now, onto those phrases:
1. Bonjour – “Hello”
There are many ways in French to say “hello”, but bonjour is undoubtedly the most well-known. It's universally polite and friendly, whether the situation is formal or informal.
Bonjour is a combination of the words bon (“good”) and jour (“day”). In the evening, you could also say bonsoir (“good evening”). A more casual way to greet people is salut, which can mean either “hi!” or “bye!”.
2. S'il vous plaît / s'il te plaît – “Please”
As a tourist, the last thing you want to be is rude. So when in France, remember what your mother taught you, and say s'il vous plaît (“please”) when making a request.
You can also say s'il te plaît. What's the difference? It's all about “you”:
In French there are two ways of saying “you”. Tu is what you'd use when addressing a friend. Vous is a more polite and formal version, best used when talking to a stranger or older person.
(Vous is also what you should use when addressing a group of people in any situation, similar to saying “you guys” or “you all” in English).
So s'il vous plaît and s'il te plaît both mean “please” (literally, “if it pleases you”), but s'il vous plait is the more polite version. If in doubt, use s'il vous plaît.
(Why is it s'il te plait and not s'il tu plait? It's a grammatical thing that you don't need to worry about as a beginner. Just learn the phrase as a whole for now, and things will become clear later.)
In fact, when asking for something in French – e.g. asking a stranger for directions or asking to see a menu in a restaurant, you should start with “Bonjour. S'il vous plaît...” It literally means “Hello, please…”, which would sound a bit strange in English, but it's the normal way to start a polite request in French.
3. Comment vous appelez-vous? / Comment t'appelles-tu? – “What’s your name?”
When meeting anyone, one of the first things you'll want to know is their name. In French, you can find it out by asking “Comment vous appelez-vous?” (formal) or “Comment t'appelles-tu?” (informal).
Literally, these questions mean “what do you call yourself?”. You could also ask “c'est quoi ton nom?” – which is a more literal translation of “what's your name?”
If you're on the receiving end of this question, answer with “Je m'appelle…” (“my name is”, literally “I call myself”) or a simple “Je suis…” (“I am…”).
4. Oui/Non/Si – “Yes/No”
Two essential words to learn in any language are “yes” and “no”. In French, “yes” is oui and “no” is non.
Informally, it's also common to say ouais or ouaip instead of oui – like saying “yeah” or “yep” in English.
Then you have si. This is a handy little word that has no direct equivalent in English. Use it to say “yes” when someone asks you a negatively phrased question.
To illustrate what I mean, imagine that someone asks you, in English, “haven't you been to Paris?”
If you reply “yes”, it's not exactly clear what you're saying. Do you mean “yes, I have been to Paris – contrary to your assertion” or “yes, you're correct: I haven't been to Paris”?
French avoids this confusion with the word si. It means “yes”, but more specifically it contradicts the assertion in the question. In the above example, if you say si, it clearly conveys that you have, in fact, been to Paris.
Si is one of many linguistic features that I sorely miss when I speak English.
5. Comment allez-vous? – “How are you?”
This is the polite way of saying “how are you?” in French. Note the use of the polite vous rather than the informal tu.
Another, more informal way to say “how are you?” is ça va? This phrase is extremely common – when in France you'll likely hear it several times per day.
If someone asks you “ça va?”, you can respond with a simple “ça va bien” – “it's going well”.
6. Je voudrais parler français – “I would like to speak French”
The French are famously protective of their language. Sometimes they can be a bit impatient with us anglophones, and reply in English to your imperfect French questions.
It's frustrating when this happens, but if you ever want to make progress in a foreign language, you absolutely must stop speaking English! Be polite but firm when someone tries to speak English with you – tell them “Je voudrais parler français” – “I'd like to speak French.”
Note that, unlike in English, names of languages are not written with a capital letter in French.
7. Excusez-moi – “Excuse me”
To get someone's attention, whether they're a waiter in a restaurant or a stranger on the street, say “excusez-moi”, “excuse me”.
This is also the polite way to ask someone to get out of your way. For example, if you're trying to exit a crowded train, a soft “excusez-moi” should (hopefully) be enough to make people step aside.
8. Pardon – “Sorry”
Once you've escaped that crowded train, be careful you don't bump into anyone as you walk through the crowded metro station. But if a collision does occur, it's fine. Just say pardon, “sorry”, and all will be forgiven.
“Pardon?” is also how you'd ask someone to repeat themselves if you didn't hear or understand what they said. In this case, you should say it with a rising tone to indicate that it's a question.
Another way to say this is “pourriez-vous répéter, s’il vous plaît?” – “could you repeat, please?”
9. Je ne comprends pas – “I don’t understand”
Sometimes pardon doesn't quite cut it. If you really can't figure out what the other person is saying, try telling them “je ne comprends pas” – “I don't understand.”
There's no shame in being a beginner! Just remember not to fall back to English when the going gets tough. If you don't understand something, persevere in French anyway – it's the only way you'll learn.
10. Que veut dire ça? – “What does that mean?”
Maybe the reason you didn't understand is because there was a specific word you didn't recognise. If that's the case, say “que veut dire X?” – “What does X mean?”
You can also phrase this as “ça veut dire quoi?” – “what does that mean?”
11. Plus lentement – “More slowly”
Sometimes, vocabulary isn’t the problem. You’d know the words if you could make them out, but you can't because the other person is talking too damn fast!
In this case, try saying plus lentement – “more slowly”. Better yet, say a full sentence: “Pourriez-vous parler plus lentement, s’il vous plaît?” – “Can you speak more slowly, please?”
12. Comment dit-on __ en français? – “How do you say __ in French?”
What if you need to say something in French, but the exact word escapes you? Just fill in the blank in the above sentence: “Comment dit-on X en français?” means “how do you say X in French”?
A side note: the pronoun on, seen above, is an interesting one. It’s a colloquial alternative to nous (“we”). However, on is also used to refer to an unspecified person or people in general, like the word “one” is sometimes used in formal English. (If you speak German, note that on in this sense is like the German word man.)
One doesn't use the word “one” very much in modern English – one finds it rather old-timey and stuffy. These days you normally use “you” when you're talking about people in general.
13. Comment ça s'écrit? – “How do you spell that?”
If you learn a new French word using the phrase above, you might want to write it down before you forget it.
Unfortunately, French spelling isn't the easiest. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is very complicated. Generally, it's easier to figure out a word's pronunciation from its spelling than it is to know its spelling from its pronunciation.
So if you're not sure, ask someone “comment ça s'ecrit?” – “how do you spell that”, literally “how does that write itself?”
Or if you don't trust your own transcription abilities, try asking them to write it for you: say est-ce que vous pouvez l'écrire? – “can you write it (down)?”
14. Où est…? – “Where is…?”
Struggling to find your way around? Not to worry. Just get a stranger's attention (remember, what phrase would you use to do this?) and ask “où est X” – “where is X?”
“X” could be many things: la Tour Eiffel, le Louvre, Notre Dame… or perhaps something less exotic, like le metro or un restaurant.
15. Où se trouve la station de métro la plus proche? – “Where is the closest metro station?”
Another way of saying “where is it?” is où se trouve, literally “where is (it) found”. Here's an example of où se trouve combined with another handy phrase to know: la station de métro la plus proche means “the closest metro station”.
One more piece of useful vocabulary: once you're in the the metro station, you might want to ask someone “où est le guichet?” = “Where is the ticket window?”
16. Je voudrais acheter un billet – “I would like to buy a ticket”
Now that you've found the guichet, you probably want to buy a billet – a ticket. But what type of ticket do you want?
- un billet aller simple – a one-way ticket
- un billet aller retour – a round-trip ticket
Make your decision, and tell the assistant “je voudrais un billet aller simple/retour pour X” – “I would like to buy a one-way/round-trip ticket to X”, where X is your destination.
17. C'est combien? – “How much is it?”
France isn't the cheapest of countries – so whether you're at the guichet or elsewhere, it doesn't hurt to be price-conscious.
To ask how much something costs, say “c'est combien?” – “how much is it?” You can also say “Combien ça coûte?” – literally, “how much does it cost?”
18. Où sont les toilettes? – “Where are the toilets?”
It's worth learning this phrase, because you might need it in a hurry! Où sont les toilettes means “where are the toilets?”
Although if you want to use a public toilet, you could be searching for a long time. They aren't very common in France – and if you do find one, you'll probably have to pay to use it. You're probably better off buying something in a café and using their toilets instead.
(Why is it “où sont“, when previously we used “où est“? Easy: sont means “are” while est means “is”. Since toilettes is plural, you must use sont, not est – “where are the toilets?”, rather than “where is the toilets”, which wouldn’t make sense.)
19. À quelle heure est-ce qu’il faut régler la note? – “What time is check out?”
If you're checking into a hotel in a French-speaking country, one useful thing to know the checkout time. One way to find this out is to ask “à quelle heure est-ce qu’il faut régler la note?” – “What time must we check out?”
Another equivalent expression is: “quelle est l'heure limite d'occupation?”
20. La carte/le menu, s’il vous plaît. – “The menu, please.”
France is famous for its food, so while you're there, you'll probably want to dine in a restaurant or two!
When dining out in any language, there are usually a few subtleties around how to order. Here I'll explain one of the more important things to know in French: the words for “menu”.
I say “words” because there are two main ways to say “menu” in French.
The general word is carte, which you may recognise from the expression à la carte.
A carte is what you typically think of when you hear the word “menu”. It's a list of individually-priced options; you pick and choose what you want, then add up the prices to get your total bill.
But you can also ask for a menu, which is usually called a “fixed-price menu” in English. When ordering from a menu, you pick an option for each course (starter, main course, etc.) and pay the same, fixed price no matter what you selected.
Whichever option you choose, inform the serveur/serveuse (waiter/waitress) by saying “la carte/le menu, s’il vous plaît” – “the menu/fixed-price menu, please.”
21. Je ne peux pas manger… – “I can’t eat…”
This doesn't apply to everybody, but for those to whom it does apply, it's very important: informing the waiter about your dietary restrictions.
The simplest way to do this is to say “je ne peux pas manger X” – “I can't eat X”. Here are some of the more common ways to fill in the blank:
- les cacahuètes – peanuts
- les noix – nuts
- le gluten – gluten
- les fruits de mer – shell fish
- les œufs – eggs
- le poisson – fish
- les produits laitiers – dairy products
- le soja – soy
- la viande – meat
If you're vegetarian, say so with “je suis végétarien” (for men) or “végétarienne” (for women.)
A vegan is a “végétalien(ne)“, although végan/végane is sometimes used too. You could also explain “je ne consomme pas de produits animaux.” – “I don't consume animal products”
22. Nous voudrions commander maintenant. – “We would like to place an order now.”
To “order” in French is commander, when you're talking about ordering something in a restaurant. Don't confuse this with ordonner, which is used in the sense of “to order a person to do something”, such as in the military.
After receiving the carte or the menu, and perhaps informing the waiter of your dietary restrictions, you may be given some time to make a decision. When you're ready, say “nous voudrions commander maintenant” – “we'd like to order now.” It’s also acceptable in nearly any restaurant to use on instead of nous for we, as I mentioned earlier: On voudrait commander maintenant.
Or if you're by yourself, say je voudrais (I'd like) instead of nous voudrions (we'd like).
23. L’addition, s’il vous plaît. – “The bill, please”
One final bit of restaurant-related vocabulary – the bill (or “check” if you're American) is l'addition. So when you're ready to leave, say l’addition, s’il vous plaît – “the bill, please”.
You’ll often hear la facture used in Quebec instead of l’addition – however both are perfectly understandable to waitstaff.
24. Merci beaucoup – “Thanks a lot”
And of course, don't forget to thank the waiter – or anyone else who deserves it, for that matter! The French word for “thank you” is merci – or you can make it stronger by saying merci beaucoup – “thanks very much”.
Use merci in all the same situations you'd say “thank you” in English.
25. Je t'aime – “I love you”
Finally, lets talk about love. They say that French is a romantic language, so maybe in your travels you'll find love on the road? Or maybe after you get home you'll want use your newfound French skills to woo that special someone.
So how do you say “I love you” in French?
The French word for “to love” is adorer – but you generally only use this word when talking about things rather than people, for example to say that you love a place, book, or song.
When talking to a person, say je t'aime. Aimer usually means “like”, but in this context it means “love” in the most romantic of senses. Use it wisely!
Over to You
Can you think of any other useful French phrases for tourists? What are the most important words and phrases for beginners to know? Let us know in the comments.