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How to Use French while Traveling… no matter what your level

aix-en-provence
Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence

Greetings dear readers and friends. Well, I’m writing this post from a very chilly South of France. Even though the snow hasn’t reached us yet, many towns to the north have had more than a bit of a white-dusting.

Today’s post comes from a comment I received on the blog that really got me thinking about speaking French while traveling in Provence (or the rest of France for that matter). And although I don’t claim to be an expert, it’s true that by trial and error (a lot of error), I’ve come to feel more at ease using French and hope I can provide some positive feedback to future travelers.  Here is a snippet of the original comment as I think a lot of readers might have the same questions in mind:

“I am curious how the locals treat people who are not fluent in French. I took two years of French in college, but I am always hesitant to use it and mess up! Should I still try, or will it annoy people there? Will it annoy them more if I *don’t* try?”

Well, first of all, I say you absolutely should try – no matter what your level. And in my opinion, if you sprinkle around the 3 “magic words”- bonjour (bonsoir in the evening), s’il vous plait, and merci, you are sure to impress the French and most likely be treated a bit better. And hopefully you’ll have a more enriching travel experience.

Because, when it comes down to it, the one thing that the French value almost above all else is politeness. And the more polite you are, the more likely you are to receive the service you desire. That being said, *bad* service exists in France, but, in my opinion, it has nothing to do with speaking the language. It’s simply the people working / running the place.

In shops and boutiques, or even at the market, I used to wait for someone to say “bonjour” before I felt obligated to respond. Sometimes, the American in me, just wanted to get “in & out” with my purchases so I would make a beeline for what I needed and then quietly walk to the cash register. Well, over time, I learned that when you enter a shop, boutique, restaurant, or approach a market stand, etc, a greeting of “bonjour” is absolutely essential. I still have to remind myself, but now I make a point of saying Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur in my daily routine. You can think of “bonjour” as your proverbial “foot in the door” with French people, and from there the exchange is indeed usually very pleasant.

Pâtisserie Béchard in Aix-en-Provence, a friendly place to try out your French
Pâtisserie Béchard in Aix-en-Provence, a friendly place to try out your French

And if you don’t speak a lot of French, it doesn’t matter! Think of yourself walking into a bakery (I myself am thinking of lovely Pâtisserie Béchard in Aix-en-Provence) and you would like to sample some of their tasty breads or pastries. All you need is your “bonjour”, and then you ask for what you would like. Bonjour, une baguette s’il vous plait.  Hello, a baguette please.

Then you can add on the final touch, a nice “merci” at the end of the exchange and, equally important, a simple “au revoir” when leaving. Often, people will wish you a “bonne journée” (Have a good day) which is another easy way to be polite. Au revoir Madame / Monsieur, bonne journée. The most important thing here is that you’ve got to have the guts to do it! Believe me, it took me more than a few tries… but the result was well-worth it.

Of course, if you are a more advanced speaker of French, this may only serve as the start of a longer conversation, but these standard phrases are a perfect door-opener and also allow basic speakers to have simple, pleasant interactions on their travels.

Honestly, I feel like I spend half my day just using this few phrases. I’ll ask for something at the bakery, cheese shop, or the market, and then usually I’m on my way. Occasionally someone might ask where my accent is from or perhaps make a comment on what I’m buying, but generally this is as far as it goes. And I find I get treated much better than my previous “duck & cover” method.

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If you do want to go a bit further in your exchanges, here are a few more helpful phrases to use around town:

-Excusez-moi… Excuse me…

-C’est combien s’il vous plait?    How much is it please?

-Je voudrais deux (trois, quatre,…) s’il vous plait.     I’d like two (three, four, …) please.

-Vous prenez les cartes de crédit ?  Do you take credit cards?

-Un sac s’il vous plait.    A bag please.

-Avez-vous… ?   Do you have… a table for four, (un table pour quatre) a restroom (une toilette), a double room (une chambre double), etc.

-Comment allez vous? How are you (formal)?

-Bonne journée Have a good day.

-Bonne soirée Have a good evening.

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Of course there are many more French expressions that are helpful, more than I even have space to list, but I hope this will give you a good start… and a boost of confidence in your travels.

 

Have you used French while traveling? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

 

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14 thoughts on “How to Use French while Traveling… no matter what your level

  1. Great advice! My understanding is that many shops used to be part of people’s homes. Maybe it was a separate room for commerce, or maybe it was the entire ground floor and the family lived upstairs. But it meant that common courtesy called for saying “bonjour” when entering someone’s home, hence the French tradition. I always say it when entering a shop, even when there’s no staff in sight, and it really helps. You can never go wrong by being polite!

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment Keith. And I didn’t know that about French shops, but it makes complete sense. I’m sure there are still some places, thinking of local shops around our town, that have the owners living on-site or nearby. Always plays to be polite, and especially so in France!

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  2. Thank you for these tips. I’m going to Paris to celebrate my 60th birthday in July. Your tips will be very helpful. Would you be able to recommend some non touristy places to visit?
    Thank you!

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    1. I’m glad you that found the tips helpful Grandma Tammy! And your trip to Paris sounds lovely. Well, I’m not sure I know many non-touristy places to visit but one a bit “off the beaten track” is a visit to the gourmet section of Galleries Lafayette department store. You’ll find amazing Paris pastries, chocolates, wine, and specialty foods from all around France under one roof. They also have a wine bar and swanky seafood bar, not to mention a gourmet Italian restaurant, and a bunch of other foodie treasures. I could spend a fortune there! Anyway, here is a link to a post I wrote about a few travel tips for Paris: https://belleprovencetravels.com/2014/08/30/for-the-love-of-paris/

      Bon voyage, have a wonderful trip! Tuula

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  3. My level of French is moderate. Except for one person, everyone has smiled and accepted my attempts at the language. Granted, they occasionally ask if I’d rather speak in English, but when I say no, I need the practice, they’re willing to work with me.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Bill and sounds like you’ve had a lot of luck speaking French. I’ve found that the French have been generally very helpful during my attempts to speak their language… indeed a very pleasant surprise!

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  4. I can’t get enough of speaking French! I am almost on a high when I land at CDG and a large part of that is the opportunity/need to speak the language. I will strike up a conversation with anyone….at all!… in order to practice. Yes, many years ago on my first trips over after many, many years absence, I was hesitant. But positive reinforcement works! Well, I wont be there this year but hope for next year. Thanks for the post, Tuula!

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    1. Great comment Libby, thank you! And you are spot on. It’s so important to try, even if it can seem intimidating at first. I’ve always had the most positive experiences. Mainly I think French people are just so happy that you’re willing to try to speak their language. And in the end, like you said, it’s just a lot of fun! Bon-weekend Libby!

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    2. This is a great attitude towards learning any foreign languages, taking risks, not being afraid of making mistakes and also willing to learn from others. French people always appreciate if we make effort to speak a few words of French. Meeting locals is a very important aspect to get to know local cultures. Even better if you have a guide to facilitate this for you. 🙂

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  5. I completely agree about at least trying to speak some French and being polite (everyone should be anyway!). I get a little braver each time we go to France but have always found that greeting the shopkeeper, wait staff, whomever with the appropriate greeting followed by Madame/Monsieur goes a LONG way. Americans are not accustomed to being so formal, but I think it’s important to the French to indicate that you view everyone as equals and shows that you know what is customary. I also like to use pui j’avoir for “may i have” because although it’s French, they know you don’t REALLY speak French and encourage you for trying! Thank you for your excellent blog. Traveling to Provence for the first time soon, and am gaining lots of knowledge from you 🙂

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    1. Great comment Alisa, thank you. Yes, it’s totally all about the formality. And I agree that it takes a while for Americans to get used to – we are definitely much more informal in our greetings and speech. That said, I do miss a good, old-fashioned American hug when I see a friend, so sweet! I’m very happy to hear that the blog has been helpful and please keep me updated on your travels to Provence, bon voyage! Tuula

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