French for a Dummie
February 13, 2006 1:12 PM   Subscribe

ParisFilter: I am going to Paris France during the middle of March. I do not speak french, aside from knowing to say merci when people do anything nice for me. I have no misconceptions about the possibility of learning the entire french language in a months time. So what specific words and phrases do I need to know in order to get by in Paris?

Specifically, I am thinking bathroom, directional, and food related words and phrases are important. Please don't limit your answer to just those topics though. Any useful words or phrases (including curse words) that you can think of will be appreciated. Thanks.
posted by aburd to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (44 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Pardon (with a long "O" and no N): whenever you bump into anyone, or if you need someone's attention
posted by nprigoda at 1:19 PM on February 13, 2006

"Merci" - please
"Au revoir" - good bye
"Bon jour" - good day (greeting)
"Je voudrais un XXXX" - I would like a XXX
"Ou est le XXX?" - Where is the XXX?
posted by bshort at 1:24 PM on February 13, 2006

This this might be helpful. The most important phrase, however, is "Parlez-vous anglais?" ("Do you speak English?"). Good luck!

I must admit, these made me laugh, but are a little bit inappropriate for what you're looking for. :)
posted by itchie at 1:25 PM on February 13, 2006

Je ne parle pas français. ("I do not speak French.")
Very useful when people come up and start talking to you en français. Pronounced, more or less, like "Juh nuh parl pa fran-say" (with a soft "j" sound in "Je"; for bonus points barely prounounce the "ne").

"Je suis canadien" might come in handy, also, if you're an American.
posted by arco at 1:29 PM on February 13, 2006

France is the #1 tourist destination in the world. They can handle people who don't speak the lingo. Just be polite, smile, and shrug your shoulders.
posted by nixerman at 1:31 PM on February 13, 2006

I have been in France twice. The first time, I knew the assorted phrases that you're bound to get as answers to this thread. That's good but it's not enough; French attitudes / mannerisms are sufficiently different to American (assuming here) that you need an extra tip, passed on to me by a dutchman, but so accurate and helpful that it totally changed my second trip to France.

Tip: The French are very very formal. Any question you ask should be deferential, polite, and complete, not just a single word.

In public, they are not expecting to be accosted by random Americans. And they do not react well to a single word as a question, even if they understand you. So do not just say "Market?" or "Bathroom?" etc. Instead, take a deferential approach, even if it will take a lot more time / practice. "Pardon me Madam, but I have a small question and I am in need of help. I don't speak French... Do you know where the the XYZ is?" Even if your French is bad, this will get better answers and more smiles. Even if you ask in English, a longer, more polite question is better than a short one.

I've forgotten how to say the above... Sorry.

I don't speak French = "Je ne pa par-le fran-ce".

But seriously, be formal, polite, and deferential. You'll get a much better reception.
posted by zpousman at 1:32 PM on February 13, 2006

I found that a lot of french people spoke english. But, they seemed to really appreciate you attempting to communicate with them in french. Generally they would stop me after a couple of attempts and start speaking english.
posted by trbrts at 1:32 PM on February 13, 2006

Je vous en prie - you're welcome (literally, "I'm at your service")

Un table pour (une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq...), si'l vous plait - A table for (one, two, three, four, five...), please.

I was in Paris over the summer - for the most part, everyone is at least somewhat biligual. Say hello, and please and thank you in French, and they'll often reply in English, give you an English menu, etc. No one was rude at all, although I think they were mostly laughing too hard at the comedy hour my mother and I were providing, trying to order in French ;)
posted by kalimac at 1:35 PM on February 13, 2006

A friend visited Paris knowing only two phrases:

Je t'aime (I love you)
Petit dejuner (breakfast)

She made out just fine.
posted by ottereroticist at 1:38 PM on February 13, 2006

Pardon (pahr-DOHN) = Excuse me
Je voudrais (zhuh voo-DREY) = I would like...
D'accord (DACK-orr) = OK / Alright
Est-ce qu'il y a (ess keel ee yah) = Is there / Are there...

On preview, I spent too much time formatting!
posted by themadjuggler at 1:40 PM on February 13, 2006

I recommend buying an actual phrasebook. They may seem cheesy or less fun, but they are quite useful for this very state of affairs.
posted by redfoxtail at 1:43 PM on February 13, 2006

Yeah, get a phrase book for the basics.

Also, when you enter a store, say "Bonjour Madame" or "Bonjour Monsieur." Add madame or monsieur to your mercis as well. The French ARE formal and it's just polite to add a few politenesses. Always use "vous" instead of "tu" when in doubt.
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:55 PM on February 13, 2006

Buy the learn french CD by Michel Thomas he does some of the best introductory language instruction. You should be able to pick up the basics by the time you go.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:55 PM on February 13, 2006

For most tourists I think a phrasebook is a waste -- aburd has the right idea, just get the rudiments down pat. (Trouble with a phrasebook is hardly any native has the patience to listen, especially if you're flipping through the thing -- and most of the phrases are irrelevant. My favorite, from research before my first-ever Euro-jaunt: "Porter, please convey our luggage to the limosine.") Maybe photocopy the first few pages of a phrasebook at the library, if the postings here seem incomplete. Even better, borrow a French language tape, and copy the first few minutes, and then listen to that segment repeatedly.

And use arco's version of "I don't speak French," SVP.
posted by Rash at 2:12 PM on February 13, 2006

Here are a few links for some basic phrases:
From the BBC
French Expressions
Cliffnotes French Cheat Sheet

However, since you do have the better part of a month, I'd recommend buying a short learning French CD. (Pimsleur Quick and Simple French for English Speakers is good). If is still offering a free month, maybe download it from there and play it on your mp3 player or car stereo?
posted by jerryg99 at 2:15 PM on February 13, 2006

"Combien est ca?" ("cohm-bee-yen ess sa" plus a helpful point) = "How much is this?"

D'accord (DACK-orr) = OK / Alright

Yes, but "C'est bon" ("say boh") is "That's OK/That's alright". My French roommate let me screw this up for months before correcting me.

Je vous en prie - you're welcome (literally, "I'm at your service")

In day-to-day conversation, use "De rien" (duh reeyen), which is more common, less formal, and equivalent to "It's nothing".

"WC" ("doobluh vay-say", or just "vay-say") = toilet.

"Eau de tap" - Tap water, which is what you want at the restaurant. Skip the bottled.

The French also generally count starting with the thumb.

Also, if shopping at a product stand, it is considered very rude to pick your own fruit. A worker's wares are a source of pride- let them pick for you.
posted by mkultra at 2:22 PM on February 13, 2006

Others may differ, but in my experience Parisians won't like you anyway. Be prepared for sour faces, or worse, being outright ignored, if your pronounciation is anything short of perfect. The best way to experience the city is to have a local show you around. That way, you discover that Parisians can actually be quite jolly and warm, just not to tourists.
posted by ori at 2:31 PM on February 13, 2006

"Ou est la toilette c'il vous plait" (ooo ay lah twah-lette seal voo play) = Where is the bathroom? --> always a good one. And keep in mind that most public bathrooms charge you a few francs (er euro cents?).

I definitely concur with the polite hello in french "Bonjour madame, blah blah blah". They can tell if you don't speak French and will probably reply in English or at least try to help you, but are much more appreciative than if you just approach in English.
posted by radioamy at 2:54 PM on February 13, 2006

WRT phrases, at least try to pronounce things right; give it your best effort. Of course you will be way off but the effort is appreciated. In my experience there if you try to speak with correct accent/pronunciation they will be more friendly and often respond to you in English.
posted by jockc at 2:55 PM on February 13, 2006

I just spent the weekend in Paris, not having previously spoken a word of French. All of the advice above is good. I'd add that you should take care to learn how things are pronounced, as French phonemes are quite different from those in English, words often sound very different than they'll look to an English speaker, and some natives won't understand you even if you think what you're saying is a decent approximation.

Remember that it's polite to say hello and good-bye when entering and leaving a shop.

Also, the metro can be difficult.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:58 PM on February 13, 2006

It's been said above, but worth repeating: Always start with "Bonjour" or "Pardon".

Simply asking a question, requesting something, whatever, without either saying "hello" or "excuse me" first is very rude. This goes for anyone you meet on the street, a cabbie, someone in a shop, anyone. This is a major gaffe of tourists who come here.

Enjoy your trip! :)
posted by darkstar at 3:06 PM on February 13, 2006

When asking a question of a stranger, thank them in advance for their help.

Throw in "vous et tres gentile" (voo ay tray jaun-tee,) meaning you are very kind, when asking for anything.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:12 PM on February 13, 2006

pardonnez-moi madamoiselle/madame/monsieur, pour aller...
(pahr-doh-nay mwa mamzell/madahm/muh-syuh pour al-ay), excuse me miss/mrs/mr how do i get to...
this is a pretty standard formula, using the most polite method of address, but be careful who you call madamoiselle!

...à la cathédrale de Notre-Dame (ah lah cat-(h)ed-rahl duh noh-truh dahm) to Notre Dame cathedral musée du Louvre (oh moo-say do loo-vruh) to the Louvre museum.
...à l'île de la Cité (ah leel duh lah sit-ay) to the île de la Cité.
...aux Champs-Élysées (oh shahm-zel-ee-say) to the Champs-Élysées

if you know what gender of the thing you're aiming at is, the rule is au for masculine (le), à la (for feminine), a l' (for words that begin with vowels), and aux (for plural things).

Some answers you might get:
continuez toute droite (con-tin-you-ay toot dwrat) carry straight on ahead.
prenez la première à gauche (pruh-nay lah pruh-mi-air ah goh-sh) take the first left turning.
prenez la deuxieme à droit (pruh-nay lah duhs-ee-em ah dwa) take the second right turning.
posted by featherboa at 3:21 PM on February 13, 2006

May I (very politely) correct some of your errors?

zpousman, not sure where I don't speak French = "Je ne pa par-le-voo fran-ce" comes from but it means more or less I not speak you France. I think Je ne parle pas français is what you are looking for.

kalimac, it's une table, not un table

ottereroticist, it's petit déjeuner, not dejuner

mkultra , tap water is eau de robinet

radioamy, it's Où est la toilette s'il vous plaît. And yes I know that doesn't make a difference when you are speaking but the French are pedantic and so am I

As in any foreign language, knowing what to say is only part of it. If you don't understand the answer, vous êtes foutu (which means you're screwed). In short, don't ask a question if you are not going to understand the answer.

I concur with the politeness bit. Excusez-moi (Madame/Monsieur), s'il vous plaît is imperative.

Go for the younger (i.e. late teens/20s/30s) people who will almost certainly speak some English.

Bon voyage!
posted by TheRaven at 3:26 PM on February 13, 2006

Sure you can't learn the language in a few months time, but you should certainly do a bunch of work now to learn as much as you can about menu items. *Nothing* is more infuriating than being tired and hungry and then sitting down in a restuarant only to be confronted by a list of food that means absolutely nothing to you. This will happen to you several times a day, on a daily basis ;-)
posted by forallmankind at 3:32 PM on February 13, 2006

un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix
"un, dou, twah, cat(r), senk, sise, set, wheat, nuf, dise"

25 - vingt-cinq ("vent-senk")

30 - trente ("trent") (roll the 'r' slightly on the top of your mouth)

40 - quarante ('care-aunt') (same roll)

50 - cinquante ("senk-aunt")

60 - soixante ("soissant")

70 - soixante-dix ("soissant-dise" ie. 60+10)

80 - quatre-vingt ("cat-re-vent" ie. 4x20)

90 - quatre-vingt-dix ("cat-re-vent-dise" ie. 4x20+10)

100 - cent ("sant")

1000 - mille ("miyll")

premiere = first (all other numbers can be made relative by adding "ieme" ie. deuxieme, troisieme.. second, third, etc)
dernier "dernyay" = last
prochaine/suivant "pro-shen"/"swe-vent"= next

-It helps if you don't open your mouth so much when you speak, using your lips to enunciate.

-Forget about consistently pronouncing the French "r" correctly, it is still the bain of my existance.

-Double 'L' like city (ville) is like a 'Y' with a slight 'L' at the end.

-Wear nicer shoes than you would normally.
posted by dobie at 3:44 PM on February 13, 2006

When you walk into a shop or a restaurant, always say "Bonjour". When you leave, always say "Au revoir, merci." You'll find that people are looking to make eye contact with you for this exchange. Never just walk in or walk out.

It's a lot more important than it seems. If you can greet people properly, and always start by asking "Parlez-vous anglais?" instead of just launching into English, the French will treat you a lot better even if you don't speak any other words of the language.
posted by fuzz at 3:56 PM on February 13, 2006

Also, if you want to get someone's attention, say "s'il vous plaît?". The waiter is "Monsieur", never "garçon".
posted by fuzz at 3:59 PM on February 13, 2006

A couple seem to have been missed here...

At the start of the conversation, good to just formally introduce yourself:

"I am a tourist with a question for you"
Ihr Land ist schmutzig und durcheinandergebracht

If they say something you don't undertsand:

"Exuse me, my French is not so good"
Schneller, französischer Hund

But even with these, you'll often find the French argumentative and ready to take offense, don't worry it isn't just you.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:13 PM on February 13, 2006

As an afterthought, something that might prove invaluable is that the French pronouce Wi-Fi as Wee-Fee.
posted by forallmankind at 4:28 PM on February 13, 2006

Hehehehe I am laughing so much at Meatbomb's post!! Hilarious! (ahem. so yes - don't use those!!)

(sorry this comment wasn't an answer. I don't have much experience in what you need since I speak fluent French and mistakes have already been corrected...)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:56 PM on February 13, 2006

Some good swears:

"Puten de merde!" = shit whore (a general catch-all curse)

"Sallop" = slut (in French, anything can be a slut)

"laychey mey boulllll" = lick my balls

"Vousavay lair de qweey" = you are like balls

The only other ones that I know are quebecois and will result in puzzled bemusement.

Don't be put off by Parisien snobishness; revel in it.
posted by dobie at 5:12 PM on February 13, 2006

I second (or third) getting a phrasebook. I went to France with a large group of Americans who didn't speak any French. To my surprise, everyone was really nice to us and patient with our language difficulties. Just smile and give it your best shot and most people will respond kindly.
posted by emd3737 at 5:17 PM on February 13, 2006

Making an effort is the key to conversing freely with Parisians. I read this same advice beforehand and never really believed it, but having been several times now, I can confirm that if you at least start with "Pardon" or "Bonjour," most are willing to help you get through the rest in a very jovial manner, or if all else fails break into English. Short thrift is usually, and rightfully, reserved for those who jump in demanding stuff in English. Paris is swarming with Hank Hill lookalikes ordering JAMBAUN AND FROMAG BAGITS then complaining when they don't receive the service they get at the local Wendy's.
posted by fire&wings at 5:30 PM on February 13, 2006

Honestly, I'd shoot for learning the whole language in a month. Get a book on beginning conversational French. A text book with a CD of native speakers doing their thing. Zip through a chunk of it, grab a phrasebook, and go muddle through.

I spent six weeks in France in the summer of 2000. I spoke a great deal of French, and could deal with them relatively well. But my father spoke almost no French, except what he picked up in about two weeks of study, also did quite well. He did it mostly by being very nice to people, pointing a lot, and trying awfully damn hard.

It does help to have a translator on hand, though. Have any friends who speak French? Even a high schooler you know? Or, a college student? Take them along. They'll love it, and you'll have a better time.
posted by Netzapper at 5:39 PM on February 13, 2006

"Je m'appelle aburd. (Juh (soft J); ma pell)" - My name is aburd.

I second getting a Learn French Fast CD instead of, or in addition to a phrasebook, because French pronunciation is a bitch difficult to master for English speakers with no previous foreign language experience.

Also, you may want to talk to one of the Alliance Française chapters in Tennessee. Alliance Française is an American run organization whose mission is to "promote French language and francophone culture" and to "improve cross-cultural understanding and strengthen intercultural communication." They may even be able to hook you up with some French peeps.

Note: I have no experience with Alliance Française except for walking past their chapter in Chicago once a week for several months.
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:59 PM on February 13, 2006

Response by poster: Meatball: You have inspired me to only speak in german insults during my entire trip.

darkstar: I love that someone whose name (I am assuming) is referencing a Grateful Dead song told me to enjoy my trip. ;)

Thanks everyone for your help. I will be getting a phrase book. It can't hurt. I have a copy of Rosetta Stone French but wanted to just get my basics down before even thinking about types of food or other specifics. Again, all of your answers have been incredibly helpful. Thanks for the effort. And please don't stop if you have something else that is helpful or prankish or funny to add.
posted by aburd at 6:26 PM on February 13, 2006

Get a phrasebook like Lonely Planet or some similar one (LP's are decent), not so much for the phrases as for the fact that they offer food dictionaries and other useful word lists. You don't want to be cracking a huge dictionary when faced with a menu, so they narrow it down for you.
posted by anjamu at 6:39 PM on February 13, 2006

As only one (!) other poster has mentioned -- numbers, numbers, numbers.
posted by Aknaton at 7:17 PM on February 13, 2006

I heartyly second blue beetle - French with Michael Thomas
posted by Pressed Rat at 7:35 PM on February 13, 2006

These are all good, but TheRaven... while we're being pedantic, it would be, "Où sont les toilettes, s'il vous plaît?" :)

But yeah, that's nitpicking. Unless you're in a fancy restaurant or something, just ask for the WC (vay-say).
posted by ruby.aftermath at 9:18 PM on February 13, 2006

I second fuzz...and would like to add that if you go into a store, a smaller store, it's polite to say "bonjour madame" or "bonjour monsieur," making eye contact with the salesperson. A simple "bonjour" without eye contact is rude, and the extra "madame/monsieur" will definitely set you apart from the rest of the rude americans.
posted by chelseagirl at 9:52 PM on February 13, 2006

I said "je voudrais une carafe d'eau" when I wanted tap water, and "bon soir" when I left a restaurant in the evening. Medium rare is "a point" (don't remember the ascii for the diacritical).
The only place I had attitude was a Thai place near the Musee D'Orsay.
posted by brujita at 9:58 PM on February 13, 2006

Heh. I was in Paris for a week in 2001. I speak no French (well, I had it in seventh grade, a good nine years prior to the trip), and didn't bother with the phrase book (the only time I had to resort to one was after going back to Italy after Spain, as Italian and Spanish got all muddled for me). The only trouble I had at all was trying to pay for two people out of one bill at a subway. That's the only time that I was treated rudely, or that I needed a real command of any language, let alone French. (So maybe you should learn how to say "For both").
My recommendation on words to know? Well, "pardon," certainly. Use it everywhere. (It carries in Spain and Italy too). Learn your question words. Merci and si'l vous plait were in nearly every sentence I said. Aside from that, keep a sense of humor, be willing to eat what you order (for vegetarians, "sin carne" works across Latinate Europe, whether or not it's the native expression), and gesticulate wildly.
Oh, and the French don't smoke pot like Americans— they smoke hash, rolled in with tobacco. I was surprised. Maybe you won't be.
One more thing— The cuter the girl is, the more time she'll have for your fumbling attempts at bilingual pulling. I don't know why that is, but in France the hotter girls all seemed more sympathetic to whatever I was saying.
posted by klangklangston at 10:24 PM on February 13, 2006

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