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French for Travelers

This blog post was updated on October 11, 2018.

It can be intimidating to attempt to use some of your old high school (or perhaps college) French during your first trip to France. However, the French people you encounter will most likely appreciate your efforts. If you’re relatively new (or rusty) to the French language, here are some basic guidelines to help you along the way.

1)    Never underestimate the power of “bonjour.” When walking into any place of business, the French expect both client and vendor/host to exchange a polite “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur” (with eye contact). Though this may seem formal to many Americans, the French consider this simple, sincere exchange to be the pre-requisite for any transaction or conversation to follow.

2)    The French have two words that mean “you.”  The word “Tu” is used with relatives and close friends or co-workers, while “vous” is used more formally, with elders, strangers, and co-workers with whom you are not as familiar (it is also the plural “you” form). When in doubt, use “vous” especially when traveling, since you will most likely be meeting new people. You’ll notice that some phrases in your phrase book use “tu” and some use “vous.” Be sure to memorize the ones that use “vous.”

3)    Memorize key phrases. There are some phrases that will be more useful than others. Think ahead to situations in which you might find yourself during your trip and choose phrases to memorize accordingly. Of course, there are some phrases that are good to know in any situation. “Enchanté” (“nice to meet you”), for example, or, of course, “Où sont les toilettes?” (“Where are the bathrooms?”).

4)    Practice makes perfect. I recommend taking a class or hiring a private French tutor for a few lessons before your trip. French pronunciation can be especially tricky, particularly for English speakers. Working with a French instructor or tutor can help you understand the mechanics of the language and the pronunciation better than you would through self-study.

5)     Soyez courageux! (Be brave!) Chances are that if you step out of your comfort zone and try a bit of French while you’re in France, you’ll have a much richer and more satisfying visit than you would if you stay in your English comfort zone.


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