If you’ve ever spent a little time among the bright lights of Paris, Bordeaux’s rambling vineyards or the sunny French Riviera, you’ll know that even a little parle en français goes a long way.
Remembering a few essential French phrases not only helps you make the most of your trip, but you’ll also find that most locals appreciate the effort. Just don’t be too surprised if they answer in English.
With that in mind, we’ve pulled together some of the basic French words to learn, essential phrases and a few fun expressions to know for your next trip to France. Bon voyage!
Bonjour! Au revoir!
Hello and goodbye might be the most basic French words to learn, but along with please and thank you (more on those later), they’re the most important to commit to memory. There’s nothing like a smile and a warm greeting to kickstart a conversation with locals. “Salut” Is a more informal way to say “hi”, and “à bientôt” for “see you soon”.
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Comment vous appelez-vous?
For those times when you do strike up a conversation with a local, or perhaps a Trafalgar host, this is a polite way of asking someone’s name. Reply with “Je m’appelle…” (meaning “my name is…) or keep the conversation going by asking how they are. “Comment allez-vous?” is formal, and “ça va?” more friendly. You’ll probably hear the latter several times a day; it’s an essential French travel phrase.
S’il vous plaît and merci
Please and thank you – no matter what language you’re talking in, it’s good to have good manners. “S’il te plaîtI” is a less formal way to say please, but as a rule of thumb stick with the more formal “vous”, unless you’re speaking to a child. And if someone says “merci” be prepared to reply with “de rien” (you’re welcome).
This translation of “excuse me” is a great way to politely get someone’s attention, be it a waiter or someone to ask for directions. You’ll find it useful on public transport too, such as stepping off a metro train. If you bump into anyone, a “pardon” (sorry) should suffice.
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After pleasantries, “do you speak English?” is perhaps one of the most useful phrases to have in your back pocket. If you’re in an area popular with travellers, such as Paris or Bordeaux, the chances are that locals do. “Je ne comprends pas” (I don’t understand) might be useful in these situations too.
Meaning “where is…” this essential French phrase is the traveller’s best friend. At best, use it before the name of place you want to go – “Où est le musée du Louvre?”, for example – or at the very least say “Où est…” before pointing at a relevant map or picture.
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Où sont les toilettes?
Take note: asking for directions to the bathroom is a little different than the “Où est…” phrase. But it’s no less useful when you’re out exploring.
Où se trouve la station de métro la plus proche?
It’s one of the more tricky ones on our list, but “where is the nearest metro station?” is also among the most useful French phrases to learn before going to Paris. When you get there, try “je voudrais acheter un billet” (I would like to buy a ticket) and “c’est combien?” (how much is it?).
I would like… two words that come especially handy in a restaurant. If you don’t have a menu to read off, you might what to finish that phrase with “une bière” (a beer), “un verre de vin” (a glass of wine), “un café” (a coffee) or “eau” (water).
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Je ne peux pas manger…
If you or someone you’re travelling with has special dietary requirements, this phrase meaning “I can’t eat…” will come in handy. Some of the most common endings to that sentence are likely to be “le gluten” (gluten), “noix” (nuts), “la viande” (meat), “les fruits de mer” (shellfish) or “les produits laitiers” (dairy products). If you’re following a plant-based diet, remember “je suis végétalien”, meaning “I am vegan”.
L’addition, s’il vous plaît.
… and when you’ve finished enjoying your hearty dish coq au vin or crêpes Suzette, “L’addition, s’il vous plaît.” is a polite way of asking for the bill. Tipping in France isn’t required (you’ll often see a service charge or “service compris” on your bill), but if you do want to make a gesture of thanks, aim for €2 in a café or bar and between five and 10% of the bill in restaurants.
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If there are essential French words to learn before going to Paris, these ones – meaning “I love you” – are perhaps the most important. After all, this is the city of love and romance. They’re best used during walks along the River Seine, in the atmospheric Parc des Buttes Chaumont or a candlelit dinner for two in Montmartre.
Come on! Let’s go! Hurry up! There are a few different interpretations of this popular French word – a form of the verb “aller” which directly translates as “to go”. You might hear it if you’re dawdling in the Gare du Nord at rush hour, but a waiter might also say “allez-y” as in “go on, I’m ready to take your order”.
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C’est la vie
That’s life. When locals utter this iconic French phrase they’ll often accompany it with a smile a small shrug. Use it in those moments when things don’t quite go to plan, but you’re determined to look on the bright side anyway.
Have you learnt any handy French phrases on your travels? Leave them in the comments below…