When traveling to a destination where you don’t speak the language, the most basic of activities can become a challenge. But don’t be discouraged. Speaking from experience, those moments of struggle can turn out to be your most treasured memories.
That said, I have spent a lot of time in France over the past decade. I even got married in Paris, so I can say with confidence that I know my way around that city and culture better than most. And throughout my travels, I have found that—specifically in France—it is a compliment to locals when they hear a foreigner attempting to speak the local language. Somehow it softens their exterior and prompts them to want to help.
So don’t be shy on your next trip! Learn my top 10 essential phrases for travelers headed to France.
1. “Bonjour / bonsoir / salut.” Say hi! In France, there are a variety of ways to say hello. Most common are bonjour (bown-jur) and bonsoir (bown-swahr), meaning “good day” and “good evening,” respectively.
As a more informal and friendly way to say hello to someone you have encountered on multiple occasions, say salut (salu). In place of bonjour and bonsoir, use salut with a hotel staff member or a local friend who you may have formed a familiarity with over the course of your trip.
2. “Merci” and “s’il vous plaît.” Don’t forget to mind your p’s and q’s! Say merci (mare-see) for “thank you” and s’il vous plaît (sil-voo-play) for “please.” The French are big on these basic polite phrases. Get comfortable with using them.
3. “Parlez-vous anglais?” That’s pronounced “par-lay-voo ah-glay” and it means, “Do you speak English?” You will find more and more locals speak a bit of English in France these days—especially the younger generations. All you need to do is ask.
4. “Où est / où sont ____?” This phrase can be used in many a pinch. Où est (oo-ay) means “where is” and où sont (oo-sown) means “where are.” To complete the phrase, you just fill in the blank with whatever it is you are seeking.
If you are looking for the bathroom, say: Où sont les toilettes? (Oo sown leh tuah-let.) This means, “Where are the toilets?”
Other places you might be in search of include the “train station” or la gare (lah gahr), the nearest “subway stop” or le métro (luh met-row), a “taxi stop” or un arrêt de taxi (uh ah-ret duh tah-see), and a “pharmacy” or la pharmacie (far-mah-see).
5. “Pouvez-vous prendre une photo de nous, s’il vous plaît?” This means, “Can you take a picture of us, please?” Here is how you pronounce it: pooh-vey voo prawn-dreh oon foto de noo sil voo play.
It may seem like a mouthful, but it is worth to learn as you’ll surely want your photo snapped in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or other stunning landmark while on your trip. But here’s a cheat. For short, you can just say un foto, s’il vous plaît. Just don’t forget to say it with a smile!
6. “Un café, s’il vous plaît.” No doubt you’ll want some coffee while in France. But sometimes it can be confusing just how to order your preferred cup of joe. If you simply ask for un café (uh cafeh), you’ll get an espresso.
For an American-style drip coffee, you’ll need to say, un filtré (uh feel-treh) or un café américain (uh cafeh ah-mer-ee-cahn). In France, they generally don’t pay much attention to the difference between how they prepare a cappuccino, a latte, or a coffee with milk. So as a default, simply ask for a café crème (un cafeh crem). If you want your coffee to go, follow your order with the words, á emporter (ah am-por-teh).
7. “Pouvez-vous me conseiller un bon restaurant à proximité?” This means, “Can you recommend a great restaurant nearby?” This is one of my favorite phrases to learn in any local language while traveling because it lets me connect with a local and get a recommendation likely not found in my guidebook. Here’s how you say it: pooh-vey voo meh cawn-say-yeh uh bown res-tah-ront ah prahx-im-ee-teh.
8. “Excusez-moi” or “pardon.” Using the phrases excusez-moi (ex-quse muah) or pardon (pahr-dawn) is a polite way to get someone’s attention. Once you have it, you’ll then need to follow up with your question or concern. Your intonation and the level of urgency in your voice can indicate how dire or casual the situation may be.
9. “J’ai mal ____.” If you are not feeling well and want to explain what’s going on, you can use the phrase j’ai mal (jey mawl) which translates literally to “I have bad.” Then, like the “où est” example above, you can fill in the rest of the sentence to illuminate what part of your body is not well.
J’ai mal au ventre (jey mawl oh von-treh) means you have a stomachache. J’ai mal à la tête (jey mawl ah lah tet) expresses that you have a headache. J’ai mal aux pieds (jey mawl oh pee-ay) means your feet hurt. Switch out “aux pieds” for “aux jambes” (oh je-amb) for hurting legs. Say j’ai mal a la gorge (jey mawl ah lah gor-je) for a sore throat. J’ai mal au dos (oh doh) means your back is in pain.
Hopefully you won’t have to use this phrase set!
10. “Au revoir / bonne nuit / à bientôt.” At the end of our list of 10 essential French phrases for travelers is where we say adieu!
Actually, the word adieu literally means “to God” and is only used if you intend to never see someone again. And in modern-day French it is interpreted as rather harsh to say it, even if you doubt you’ll ever cross paths again. In contrast, the most polite way to say goodbye is au revoir (oh-reh-voo-ar). This means “till we see each other again.”
In the evening, you may say bonne nuit (bown new-ee) for good night. And to sound like a local any time of the day, you can always say à bientôt (ah bee-an toe) for “see you soon.”
What foreign phrases do you find most important while traveling?