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Tips: Getting by in French

This is supplemental info included in Traveler’s French Cheat Sheet. Listings make up 95% of the Cheat Sheet, but tips like these round it out.



First word out of your mouth must always be bonjour  (“boan-jor,” hello). In the evening, instead say bonsoir (“boan-swahr,” good evening). Always add monsieur (“muh-syuh,” guy), madame (“mah-dahm,” woman), or mademoiselle (“mahd-mwah-zell,” girl).

Last words out of your mouth must always be au revoir (“o ruh-vwahr,” good-bye).

Requests: Anytime you ask anybody for anything, end your request with s’il vous plaît (“seel voo play,” please). After they respond, say merci beaucoup (“mair-see bo-koo,” thank you very much).

Context communicates half your message for you. If, for example, you’re at any ticket booth, the clerk has a pretty good idea of what you probably want. Just holding up two fingers communicates that you want two tickets.

Talk with your hands: Point at whatever you’re talking about: the train platform, the sweater, the menu item, the part of your body that hurts. Everyone understands pointing. Pantomime everything, with or without words. You’ll get by half the time by just pointing at something and shrugging your shoulders with your palms up and your eyebrows arched.

Try French first. If that fails, ask politely if the other person speaks a little English (parlez vous un peu aingles? “par-lay  voo  uhn  puh  ahn-glay?”).

Write it down: Write numbers and prices (or ask the other person to), unless you’re sure. Some Europeans write 1 as   and 7 as  7.
       The symbol for euros is €. Whereas Americans would write €1,234.56, most Europeans would write the same price either €1.234,56 or with a space: €1 234,56.
       Also ask them to write down other key info for you, like the Metro line you must take, which stop to get off at, streets to take, etc. Show that note to people later as a way of asking whether you’re going the right way.

Key words only: Instead of trying to say a complete correct sentence like “Is this the right way to the Louvre?” just point in the direction you think it is and ask “Louvre?” Instead of asking “Where does the train to Avignon leave from?” just look confused and ask “Avignon?”

Most versatile word: Point at anything and say ça (“sah,” that or this). It will mean whatever your gestures and the context suggest. As a question, ça? can mean things like “What is that?” or “Can I have that?” As a statement, ça can mean “I’ll take that one,” “That’s the one,” etc.

OK: Whatever the situation, when in doubt, point and say ça va (“sah vah,” OK). Use it thirty times a day. As with ça, it can mean whatever your gestures and the context suggest. As a question, ça va? can mean “Is what I’m doing OK?” “Is this enough money?” “Does this work?” “How are you?” or whatever else the situation requires. Holding up a credit card and saying ça va? means “Do you accept credit cards?” As a statement, it can mean “It’s OK,” “That’s fine,” “That’s plenty,” “I’m fine,” and so on.

Negations: To make something negative, add pas (“pah,” not) after the verb. Example: je veux (I want); je veux pas (I don’t want). Proper written French also puts the word ne before the key word: je ne veux pas (I don’t want). But it’s OK to leave off ne when speaking.

Pronunciation: You’ll never pronounce French words right without years of immersion or practice. Just imitate the way French-speakers tend to end words. Ham it up. Settle for close enough. If people get the drift of what you’re trying to say, mission accomplished.

Little words before nouns: As in English, nearly every French noun is preceded by some little word, usually l’, la, or le (the). Here they are:

a = un, une

the = l’, la, le, les

my = mon, ma, mes

your = ton, ta, tes / votre, vos

our = notre, nos

of the = de la, de l’, du, des

You’ll never get them right without lots of study, so don’t sweat it. If you use le (“luh”) all the time, people will understand, even when it’s not the correct word.

Written French: Many French words are spelled almost like English: connection and connexion; pharmacy and pharmacie; dangerous and dangereux. But they are not pronounced like similar English words.
       Ignore the little marks above letters, which matter only to French-speakers.
       The first half of any given French word is probably pronounced more or less the way it is spelled; the second half of that word probably sounds nothing like its spelling. But try to sound it out. You’ll probably pronounce it wrong, but people will know what you meant and appreciate that you tried.

Plurals are silent. Written French adds a silent s at the end to make a word plural. So singular and plural are pronounced the same. For example, adulte and adultes (adult, adults) are both pronounced “ah-doolt.” If a noun is plural, its article and adjective will also be plural. Example: les chaussures rouges (the red shoes).

Gender: Every French noun is either masculine or feminine. The article and adjective that go with it match its gender. Don’t bother guessing which words should be which gender. Just know that an e at the end of a French noun can make that word feminine: A good apricot is un bon abricot; a good peach is une bonne pêche.

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