You’ve arrived in a French-speaking country, and you’re a beginner.
You’re probably a bit doe-eyed and confused.
While you know several English words that were borrowed from French, (plus some bizarre French words that you learned just for the heck of it), you quickly realize that you’re going to need to know more.
Maybe you have a thick phrase book that’s tough to sort through.
Maybe this is just the beginning of your French language learning adventure.
Either way, zip up your fanny pack, get out your tourist map and follow this guide for surviving in French.
25 Basic French Phrases You’ve Gotta Know to Survive
You’ve made it into the city. All the signs are in French, and you’re a bit lost—understandable. Now, while you could certainly start squawking in English at the people passing by, you won’t always get a response, and it’s more polite to speak French.
1. Excusez-moi, où est ___?
(Excuse me, where is ___?)
You can use this phrase for anything from hotels, attractions, metro stops, etc. It’s polite, straight forward and easy to remember because it translates directly from French to English. In response you’ll probably hear things like:
- C’est à gauche (It’s to the left).
- C’est à droite (It’s to the right).
- C’est à côté de ___ (It’s next to___).
- C’est près de ___ (It’s close to___).
- C’est loin de ___ (It’s far from___).
If all goes well, you’ll be on your way. But just in case, it’s best to have une carte (a map) handy.
2. Où se trouve la station de métro la plus proche?
(Where is the closest metro station?)
So you need to take the magic metro. In Paris, it’s easy to use once you find the entrance to down-below. If you’re having trouble, ask someone nearby for help.
Où se trouve… (Where does one find…) is another way to say Où est… (Where is…). If you know the name of the metro station you need because you’re a savvy traveler, replace “la plus proche” (the nearest) with the name of the station, and you’ll be on your way to the Parisian underground.
3. Un billet, s’il vous plaît.
(One ticket, please.)
But wait! You’re not going anywhere by metro or bus without a ticket. Just ask the ticket booth, le guichet, for un billet, s’il vous plaît, pay up, and continue on with your journey.
4. Quelle ligne va à ___?
(Which line goes to___?)
Okay so maybe the metro isn’t as easy as I let on. If you can’t figure out which train to take where, maybe it’s best to turn to your fellow French speakers and ask for advice. They’re usually very helpful on the metro; it’s like a competition between the locals to see who knows the routes best.
5. Je dois aller à ___.
(I need to go to___).
So you aren’t an underground traveler, or maybe you have way too much luggage to be struggling up and down the stairs. The answer: taxi time!
To tell the driver where you need to go, use “Je dois aller à___.” And you’ll be honking through the streets!
Ordering Food and Beverages
Bet you’re getting pretty hungry right about now, but you’re getting sweaty palms just thinking about having to order your food in French. But no worries, you’ll only need a few key phrases! And it’ll go a lot smoother than the fumbling and mumbling you’re imagining.
6. La carte, s’il vous plaît.
(The menu, please).
Sometimes they’ll bring you a menu right off the bat, but if you need one, flag down a waiter or go to the hostess stand and ask for “La carte, s’il vous plaît,” and they’ll fork it over.
If you’re a real beginner and aren’t completely confident in the differences between une boisson (a drink) and un poisson (a fish), then ask “Avez-vous une carte en anglais, s’il vous plaît?” (Do you have a menu is English, please?). Many places have them, but stick with the French menu if you want a legit immersion experience.
7. Nous voudrions commander maintenant.
(We would like to order now).
In case the waiter isn’t already on top of it, you may need to let them know you’re dying to order some food. If you’re traveling alone, change it to “Je voudrais commander maintenant” (I would like to order now).
The verb tense, the conditional, is a more polite tense to use when making statements like this, so don’t worry about having bad manners by asking.
8. Qu’est-ce que vous conseillez?
(What do you recommend?)
You’ve been looking the menu up and down and have no idea what to get. Maybe your French is a little weak and some of the ingredients are confusing, or maybe everything looks good and you can’t decide.
When your waiter comes around to ask you for the tenth time if you’re ready to order, ask them what they think is good. Some of the best meals are recommendations from the staff.
9. Je ne peux pas manger ___.
(I can’t eat ___).
On the opposite end of the spectrum from having a waiter choose your dish, there are food allergies and dietary restrictions. If it’s unclear on the menu for you, make sure you let the waiter know about any restrictions when you’re ordering.
Here are some common food allergies to know for your well-being in the Francophone world:
- le gluten (gluten)
- les produits laitiers (dairy products)
- le glutamate de sodium (MSG)
- le poisson (fish)
- les fruits de mer (shell fish)
- la viande (meat)
- les œufs (eggs)
- la viande rouge (red meat)
- le soja (soy)
10. Je voudrais___, s’il vous plaît.
(I would like____, please).
You’ve jumped through the necessary hoops, asked your questions and now you’re ready to order. Keep this phrase in mind down the road, as you’ll need it to order coffee, drinks at a bar and crêpes at a crêpe stand. It’s a cornerstone in French survival.
11. L’addition, s’il vous plaît.
(The check, please).
You’re properly stuffed with food, and you’re ready to return to the sites. Now some places, cafés mostly, will conveniently give you the check when they bring your drinks or food, but in other places you’ll need to ask. Don’t assume they’ll bring it to you just because your plates are empty and you’ve been chit-chatting for thirty minutes.
Coffee! Coffee! Coffee! All that French is exhausting. If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, head to one of those quaint little terraced cafés. The coffee culture in Francophone nations is a little bit different than in the States, concentrating more on espresso-based drinks than on filtered coffee.
We’ll go through the different espresso drinks so you can find a drink that’ll help get you through the day. Just remember: Je voudrais ____, s’il vous plaît. And you’ll be caffeinated in no time.
12. Coffee Basics:
du café (some espresso)
Now du, which you’ll see used often when ordering beverages, is a contraction between de and le. In this case, it is like saying “some.” Ordering du café (some espresso), will get you a little baby cup of espresso that comes with sugar on the side. It’s black so if you want milk or cream…
du café au lait (coffee with milk)
You’ve probably heard this name back home. In France you’ll get half espresso, half hot milk. Like a latte but with more coffee!
du café crème (coffee with hot milk).
If you don’t like your espresso black, then try this out. This is espresso with a little bit of hot milk, less milk than the café au lait.
13. Serious Coffee Business:
Another variation of coffee and dairy, is une noisette: espresso with a dollop of foam and a tiny bit of milk. If you’re familiar with the macchiato, then this is your guy.
du café allongé
This is a shot of espresso that is made “long,” meaning that there is more hot water in the drink than just a regular shot of espresso.
un café filtre
Back in the States, this is what you know as the good old cup of Joe. You may not find filtered coffee everywhere you go, but the café allongé is the closest cousin if you can’t get your hands on un café filtre.
14. Sur place ou à emporter?
(For here or to go?).
You will be asked this at some places, but at sit down cafés you are likely to get a porcelain cup without being asked if you’re leaving or staying. Sur place is for here, and à emporter is to go.
Now you’ll be buzzing around, language barriers notwithstanding.
So your trip is going nicely, then all of the sudden you trip on some cobblestones and bam!—you’re out of commission. Or, less dramatically, you’ve come down with a nasty cold and need medications to continue your trip ASAP.
Hopefully you can steer clear of these situations, but if you come across them it’s good to know basic phrases to get through the situation with grace.
15. Au secours!
If you’re in serious trouble and find yourself injured and unable to move (let’s hope this doesn’t happen), then you may need to yell this. Worst-case scenario kind of vocab.
16. J’ai besoin d’un médecin qui parle anglais.
(I need a doctor who speaks English).
If you’re really not feeling confident enough to deal with your injury or illness in French, then it may be best to say J’ai besoin d’un médecin qui parle anglais. There may or may not be one, but if there is, it’s best to deal with serious emergencies in your native tongue.
17. Où sont les urgences?
(Where is the emergency room?)
If there isn’t a doctor who speaks English, have no fear! Proceed on like the fighting French language learner you are. Où sont is the plural form of où est (from above) that you’ll need to ask for les urgences (the emergency room), which is plural in French.
If the problem is less dramatic and you just need some cold medicine or bandaids then ask: Où est la pharmacie? (Where is the pharmacy?) Pharmacies are also indicated on the street with a big green cross in France.
18. J’ai une douleur ici.
(I have a pain here).
Once you’ve done the waiting and get to speak with a doctor, you’ll likely be asked what’s wrong. Une douleur is French for pain. You can either point and say “J’ai une douleur ici” (I have a pain here), or you can tell them where it is if you know your French body parts.
19. Je suis tombé(e) ; je me suis coupé(e)/brûlé(e).
(I fell down; I cut/burned myself).
These are the short and sweet phrases to explain how you became injured. If all else fails, you can always do charades.
20. J’ai une assurance médicale.
(I have medical insurance).
Ah, so now it’s time to pay up. You’ll need this phrase at the front desk. Fork over your insurance card (if you have it), and they should know what to do.
Minding Your Manners
So you’ve gotten around, eaten lavish meals, gotten a coffee fix and even dealt with medical emergencies, all in French. If you want to sound like a model French citizen, then you’ll need to make sure you’re following the French rules for politeness.
One quick tip before we dive in: If you’re a little unfamiliar with the difference between tu and vous, then allow me to go over it quickly with you. If you don’t know someone, as many of the previously mentioned phrases indicate, then you use the subject pronoun vous when you speak with them. This goes for waiters, people on the street, ticket salesmen, anyone you don’t know, and anyone who is older than you. Only use tu with friends, family, or people who have given you permission to use it!
21. Pardon vs. Excusez-moi vs. Desolé(e)
So many different ways to say sorry!
Pardon is used primarily when apologizing for minor incidents, like stepping on someone’s foot, squeezing through crowds or expressing that you didn’t understand what the heck someone just said.
Excusez-moi is interchangeable with pardon, though pardon is more widely-used in France.
Desolé(e) is typically used in more serious situations. For example, if you bumped into a man balancing ten boxes of macaroons and they all went crashing down, then you would say something like “Je suis vraiment desolé(e)” (I am really sorry). Then you should either run or help the poor man!
22. Je vous en prie/De rien
(You’re welcome/It’s nothing).
In the event that someone thanks you for something, you can either say je vous en prie, or de rien. They are interchangeable, but the latter is more casual.
23. Merci/Merci beaucoup/Merci bien
Merci, as you may already be aware, means thank you. If you want to change it up a bit, you can respond with Merci beaucoup (thanks a lot) or Merci bien (thank you very much).
24. Excusez-moi de vous déranger.
(Sorry for disturbing you).
If you’re going to be a tourist bugging people for directions (not that there’s anything wrong with that), then you might need this to sprinkle in for a more polite encounter. It’s not necessary, but it may be a good idea if the person you’re asking seems to be in the middle of something.
25. À vos souhaits
While the French typically don’t say “bless you” after people sneeze, this non-religious phrase is what you would say if you have the uncontrollable urge to say something after someone sneezes. Saying it won’t get you weird looks, but you also won’t be failing in politeness if you say nothing at all.
Hopefully you’ve gained some confidence when it comes to the idea of interacting with French-speaking natives now, but if you’re still feeling a bit shaky, consider taking the Beginning Conversational French course from ed2go before you board that plane. It’ll give you a handle on conversational French for travel situations, and put more of a spring in your step for your first full French encounter.
So now you’re ready to conquer all, well most all. The Francophone world is nothing to fear, not with a few phrases and the fall back Vous parlez anglais? (Do you speak English?) if you have a weird question to ask. Most French people are happy to hear you try to speak French, so sprinkling in basic phrases is a great way to be welcomed into the club.
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