Want to get a warm welcome when you travel to France?
Word on the street is that French people are super rude.
Well, you’ve likely never heard their side of the story.
Imagine being a native Parisian, just trying to enjoy your day. Meanwhile, tourists are coming up to you left and right, asking you questions in a language you don’t understand!
They demand answers while neglecting the customary behaviors and polite phrases that you’d expect from your countrymen. Sometimes their rough French is just too shaky for you to get what they’re saying. They seem to know some simple French vocabulary, but the message isn’t quite getting across to you.
Just knowing a few key French words can make a huge difference in how you will interact with locals.
Speaking some basic travel French will make your experience much easier, and locals will be much happier to help you. Not to mention, these phrases will boost your ability to understand French dialogue, watch French television shows and take care of yourself while out enjoying French nightlife.
You don’t necessarily need to take a whole year of French to be able to communicate in France.
Have a little time before traveling? Then try to immerse yourself in French while at home, to give yourself a little practice. Pay a visit to FluentU’s French video library and familiarize yourself with the tones and sounds of French, as well as the vocabulary you’ll need to communicate smoothly while abroad. We’ve tracked down a great assortment of real-world French videos to help speed along your French language learning process.
For a quick but thorough guided experience in conversational French learning before you board your plane, try ed2go’s Beginning Conversational French to get a foothold on the language. This course covers French for practical scenarios, exactly the kind you’re bound to encounter while strolling around abroad.
If you’re already boarding a plane to Paris and aren’t sure where to start, take a look at our favorite French phrases for travel.
We’ve come up with a list that covers all the essentials for first-time travelers to France.
12 Must-know French Phrases for Savvy Travelers
1. Bonjour. S’il vous plaît… (Hello, please…)
This is a big one. Whenever you’re planning on asking anyone in France anything, from directions to how much something in a store costs to whether menus are available in English, always start with “Bonjour. S’il vous plaît…” The combination translates directly to “Hello, please…” but imagine it as just one phrase so that it’s always at the beginning of your sentences.
While saying “please” might seem like a no-brainer, “bonjour” is actually just as important in French culture.
The way that Americans are able to walk into a store and ask for something without saying hello first is astounding in France, though it doesn’t seem to bother many people Stateside. Neglecting to greet people is a surefire way to make the locals gruff and grumpy in their responses. Always remember this handy phrase. No matter how many mistakes you make further down the line while speaking, your interlocutor will be more willing to help or make the effort to understand.
All of the following sentences (aside from number two!) require this one as an opener; don’t forget!
2. Oui / Non (Yes / No)
Yes and no in French can be very useful when trying to attempt basic communication with a French person. Once they realize that you don’t have too much vocabulary to form your own sentences, they might make take charge of the interaction by asking you questions. Yes and no can always be useful to answer these questions and hopefully reach a helpful conclusion.
3. Parlez-vous anglais ? (Do you speak English?)
While it’s nice to be able to ask all of your questions in French, if you really need to speak English, this is the key to unlock that possibility. Most French people do speak basic English.
Tourists who report that nobody in France speaks English were probably some not-so-savvy travelers who ran up to the first people they saw and started babbling in English without even a bonjour. This is seen as very rude in French and rarely gets the desired response.
On the other hand, if you ask someone to use their English skills – nicely, politely and in French – even someone who knows just a handful of words in English will likely want to try them out. With the basic French you already know and their basic English, you’ll probably be able to communicate enough to get the job done.
4. Où est-ce que je peux trouver un plan de la ville ? (Where can I find a city map?)
One of the first things you should get your hands on when visiting a new city, if you haven’t brought one with you, is a map. You’ll find one at most tourist offices, but you can also buy them in shops.
This question will also help if you’re looking for a map posted within the city. You’ll find them fairly frequently in Paris. If you ask a local, they might be able to direct you to the nearest one. As these maps are usually only of the nearby area, they can be particularly helpful if you’re looking for directions to somewhere that you know is nearby but can’t seem to locate. You’ll be able to take a look at the smaller streets that might not appear on larger maps of the whole city.
5. Je cherche le bus/train/métro. Où est l’arrêt le plus près? (I am looking for the bus/train/subway. Where is the nearest stop?)
It can be tricky trying to move around in an unfamiliar city. Sometimes having a map just isn’t enough. It’s always good to be able to ask people how to get to important destinations. The best thing to do in most French cities, particularly in Paris, is to find the closest bus, train or metro stop. Not only will you be able to get to where you need to be much more easily, but most stops in France have a map posted outside of them. This will help you see where exactly you are in relation to where you need to go.
6. Où est…? (Where is…?)
If you’re looking for something else that isn’t a map or bus stop, use this phrase to ask “Where is…” Finish it with whatever you’re looking for: la Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, le Louvre, but also un café (a café), un restaurant (a restaurant), un parc (a park), un supermarché (a supermarket) or une pharmacie (a pharmacy).
If you’re looking for public toilets (les toilettes publiques), however, you’ll likely be out of luck. Public toilets can be very difficult to find in France, and your best bet is to order un café in un café and use their bathrooms. You’ll pay about a euro or two for the coffee, but the toilets will be clean.
7. Où est le guichet ? (Where is the ticket window?)
One of the first steps to visiting a tourist spot in France is buying a ticket. If you’re looking for the ticket window, ask for the guichet. You’ll soon be ready to visit the museum, gallery, landmark or other site.
This phrase will also be helpful if you’re buying any other sort of ticket, from a movie ticket to a train ticket to a metro ticket. Anywhere you need to purchase an entry or access pass of any kind will have a guichet, and you’ll need to find it to take full advantage.
8. Combien ça coûte? (How much does it cost?)
Here’s another very useful and multifaceted sentence. It can work nearly everywhere: in a store when you’d like to buy an item, on the bus or at the museum ticket window.
However, if you’re looking to pay your bill in French restaurants, stick with “L’addition, s’il vous plaît,” which will get you the bill, not a price. Food culture is so important in France that food idioms color the entire language. This is why it’s especially important to be aware of restaurant etiquette while in France.
Asking the price of a menu item is usually seen as rude, as prices are posted on the menu. There is some cultural context to restaurant price visibility. Prices will be posted when you’re meant to see them, and they will not be posted when you’re not meant to see them. For example, in fancy gourmet restaurants, menus with prices are not given to the ladies at the table.
9. Non, merci. Je regarde pour l’instant. (No thank you. I’m just looking for now.)
French service is not the same as American service. The overly friendly waiters you’ll find in American restaurants are nowhere to be found, but salespeople might seem a bit aggressive or over-eager to Americans visiting France.
The reason is simple: especially in fancier shops, salespeople are seen as experts. They want to help you find what you need. If you’re just browsing, the above sentence can come in handy. When you do need their help, be sure to let them know!
If you’re excited about getting into the French shopping scene, learn all the essential French phrases you’ll need to hit the boutiques.
10. Où est l’ambassade américaine? (Where is the American Embassy?)
If you run into trouble in France, one good address to have on hand is that of the American embassy. A stolen US passport or ID card can be replaced at the embassy, and you might need their help if there is ever a political problem in France and you need to exit the country quickly. That’s a rarity to be sure, but it’s better to be prepared while travelling!
11. J’ai une assurance voyageur. (I have traveler’s insurance.)
If you’re sick or injured and need to see a doctor, you might be asked about your insurance coverage. If you have a traveler’s insurance — as well you should! — this is how you can let someone know.
12. J’ai besoin d’aide. Je me sens menacé. (I need help. I feel threatened.)
If you feel scared for any reason, this sentence is sure to help. It’s vague enough that you can use it even if you just suspect you’re being followed or feel uneasy. It’s also grave enough that if you’ve been attacked or threatened, you can get the police to you very quickly. Go into the nearest open business and say this sentence. They’ll help you track down the emergency services you need.
*Bonus* Merci beaucoup ! (Thank you very much!)
Whenever you’re done with any interaction, be sure to thank the person for their help. This sentence makes sure that the interaction ends on a pleasant note.
And One More Thing…
If knowing just a few key phrases can help you to navigate the French-speaking world and come off so much more graciously, imagine how much really familiarizing yourself with the language can do for your vacation.
Now imagine it’s possible to skip the boring textbook part of learning French and get right to learning French as it’s actually spoken.
On board? Okay, let’s take a look at what FluentU can do for you.
FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks. Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience. Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
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