Essential French for Conscientious Travelers: The Basics

I am excited to invite you to track with me through this new series, Essential French for Conscientious Travelers, which — you guessed it! — will focus specifically on vital French words and phrases AND the ever-interesting social contexts in which it’s appropriate to use them.

My inspiration for writing? The handful of friends and family members who will (starting this coming weekend!) be joining Chris and me and Gay Paris and who, save for one or two, have never engaged with the French language in their life. I thought I’d offer them a hand! Of course, I realize that not everyone is planning a trip to France anytime soon (although I genuinely hope that my account of life here in Paris has inspired some of you!). But, this series could serve as a good template for the kinds of words you should learn in a language before embarking on any international travel experience.

This is all well and good. But, before we jump in, I need to convince you properly that this is even a worthwhile pursuit, that your attempt to learn some French — or Spanish, or Japanese, or any language for that matter — will make your travel experience better.

Now, I am definitely not talking about language fluency here. Far from it! But, I think often times, we get overwhelmed and excuse ourselves from putting in the work on the basis that anything short of mastery is not worth the time and effort  — especially for a whirlwind vacation. This, coupled with the assumption that “everybody speaks English anyway, so why bother,” makes learning even the basics of a language look pointless. Friend, I totally get it! And, I’ll be the first person in line to say that language learning is hard. But, I sincerely believe that there is much to be gleaned from making an honest effort to engage with a culture in this way, even if it’s just being able to say hello and thank you to the woman who sells you your croissant in the morning.

What’s to be gleaned, you ask?

Well, I am kicking-off this series by attempting to answer that very question: namely, how does approaching your trip with some knowledge of the language lend itself to a more safe, fulfilling, and culturally conscious travel experience? Here are just a few ways:

1. Basic language skills increase your comfort and safety.

If nothing else, learning a bit of the language is practical and, in my opinion, responsible. Being able to ask simple questions, read signs (or get the gist, at the very least), and communicate about any illnesses or allergies you have prepares you to deal with any emergencies or sticky situations that might arise during your trip… or, you might be able to prevent those sticky situations from happening in the first place! Est-ce que ce plat est sans gluten ?

2. Basic language skills open the door for you to experience the culture more completely.

Generally, I resist the “tourist versus traveler” dichotomy, but I think there is some truth there. When we sample the food and visit the attractions and marvel at the architecture, but fail to experiment with the language, we leave a gaping hole in our overall cultural experience. Not only do we cheat ourselves out of visiting those restaurants and attractions on “the road less traveled” (where English might not be as effective), but we also forgo any opportunities to genuinely connect with locals — arguably the best part of any travel experience. Which brings me to my final point…

3. Basic language skills are a gesture of respect.

I’m no linguist, but I think it’s clear that the language spoken in a particular place is deeply embedded in the cultural identity of its people. When we go out of our way to communicate in the native language, a lot more is spoken than just the words themselves. The gesture says to them, “I have respect for you and your culture. I’m not just going to assume my ignorance on you and expect you to cater to me. I am not just a consumer of culture. I savor it. I value it. I want to tap into it.” You might just be surprised how quickly the barriers come down and how much respect you’ll receive from people in return.

Have I convinced you? If I have, I hope you’ll stick around!

To close out this first installment, I have for you the bare bones basics of conversational French with both French phonetic pronunciation and (an attempt at) English phonetic pronunciation. These words may be simple, but they are mighty; you’ll probably say “please” and “thank you” more than you say anything else. Happy language learning!

Oui [wi; wee] | Yes

Non [nɔ̃; no] | No

S’il vous plait [sil vu plɛ; seel voo play] | Please

Merci (beaucoup) [mɛʁsi (boku); mairsee (bowcoo)] | Thank you (very much)

De rien [də ʁjɛ̃; duh ree-eh] | You’re Welcome (Literally, it’s nothing)

Parlez vous anglais? [paʁle vuz-ɑ̃ɡlɛ?; parlay vooz anglay?] | Do you speak English?

Je ne parle pas français. [ʒə nə paʁlə pa fʁɑ̃sɛ; jeh nah parl pa fransay] | I don’t speak French.

Ready to move on? Check out the next installment of the series here!

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5 Comments

    1. Haha! Absolutely!! This is a work in progress and it’ll definitely be incorporated into a post in the future 😉

  1. While it’s nice to be able to ask all of your questions in French, if you really need to speak English, this is the key to unlock that possibility. Most French people do speak basic English.

    1. This is absolutely true! Most of the people I’ve interacted with here in Paris know at least basic English and can easily get the gist of what you’re asking for if French fails you. BUT, I’m a proponent of giving their native language a shot–out of respect for them if nothing else! Plus, not everyone will be as skilled in English as you might think. I was in the ice cream shop and tourist hot-spot, Berthillon, the other day when I overheard an English-speaking visitor ask the flustered server 3 times for “another” bowl of ice cream before she got her message across!

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