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By Zoe Erotopoulos
By mastering the basics of conversation in French, you put yourself and the person you’re talking to at ease. Everyone should learn essential French conversational words and phrases before traveling to a French-speaking country. These words and expressions are sure to come up in most everyday conversations.
Being polite is important anywhere you go, here or abroad, because it shows respect for the person and the culture. The following words and phrases cover most of the pleasantries required for polite conversation. After all, learning to say the expressions of common courtesy in French is just good manners.
S’il te plaît. (Please. [informal])
S’il vous plaît. (Please. [formal])
Merci. (Thank you.)
Merci beaucoup. (Thank you very much.)
Je t’en prie. (You’re [informal] welcome.)
Je vous en prie. (You’re [formal] welcome.)
Il n’y a pas de quoi. (It’s nothing.)
Excusez-moi. (Excuse me.)
Once you’ve mastered the common pleasantries, the next important thing to learn is how to refer to people politely. When meeting people in French-speaking countries, be sure to use the appropriate formal title. A man would be called Monsieur, which is the same as Mr. or Sir. An older or married woman is called Madame and a young lady is called Mademoiselle.
Gender and personal pronouns
The next most common way we refer to people is by using personal pronouns. In French, the pronouns (you and they) are complicated by gender and formality. You’ll use slightly different variations of these words depending on who you are referring to and how well you know them.
Use j’ instead of je if the verb begins with a vowel or a mute h.
tu (you [singular/informal])
vous (you [singular/formal or plural])
ils (they [masculine or mixed group]); elles (they [feminine])
Use tu with people you know well, like members of your family, friends, children, and peers. Vous, on the other hand, is more formal and you’ll want to use that with people you don’t know well and with your superiors, like your boss, your teacher, or elders. Although vous can mean the plural of you, it can also refer to one person when used formally.
It is also helpful to know the correct vocabulary term for referring to people based on their age, gender, or relationship to you. The indefinite articles (a and an) in French are un (masculine) and une (feminine):
un homme (a man)
une femme (a woman)
un garçon (a boy)
une fille (a girl)
un enfant (M); une enfant (F) (a child)
un père (a father)
une mère (a mother)
un fils (a son)
une fille (a daughter)
un frère (a brother)
une sœur (a sister)
un mari (a husband)
un époux (a spouse) (M)
une femme (a wife)
une épouse (a spouse) (F)
un ami (a friend) (M)
une amie (a friend) (F)
Phrases for travelers
There are some phrases that are particularly helpful to international travelers. Below are several phrases that might come in handy during your stay in a French-speaking country.
Je ne comprends pas. (I don’t understand.)
Pouvez-vous répéter? (Can you repeat that?)
Répétez, s’il vous plaît. (Please repeat.)
Pouvez-vous parler plus lentement? (Could you speak slower?)
Je ne parle pas bien français. (I don’t speak French very well.)
Pouvez-vous traduire pour moi? (Can you translate for me?)
Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?)
Oui, je parle anglais. (Yes, I speak English.)
Est-ce que je peux vous aider? (May I help you?)
Oui, merci. (Yes, thank you.)
De quoi avez-vous besoin? (What do you need?)
J’ai besoin de renseignements. (I need some information.)
Je suis perdu. (I’m lost.)
Où est l’hôtel? (Where is the hotel?)
Où allez-vous? (Where are you going?)
Je ne sais pas. (I don’t know.)
Je voudrais du café. (I would like some coffee.)
Avec plaisir. (With pleasure.)
Quel temps fait-il? (What’s the weather like?)
Il fait chaud. (It’s hot.)
Je rentre. (I’m going home.)
Les toilettes sont à votre droite. (The restroom is on your right.)
Ces places-là sont prises. (Those seats are taken.)
Most of the people in French-speaking countries have learned at least a little English. When you travel to their country, they expect you to have done the same with their language. If you can demonstrate that you’ve learned basic words and phrases, most people will be more willing to help you.