Seven Deadly Phrases: French

Posted: February 16, 2012 in Local Lingo
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The stereotype that the French cannot speak English is only as true as the anglophones’ inability to speak passable French.  Offended for a millennium by butchered accents and the bewildering pronunciation of silent letters [protip: every letter in the French alphabet is silent], it’s no surprise that the most common lingua franca of France and England for the past 1000 years has been war.  France is the first country on my trip around the world with a relatively low proportion of English-speakers, and from this point on, I’ll be needing to rely on the local lingo to communicate effectively.   Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in France, the fifth country on my trip around the world.


1. Hello/Hi.     “Bonjour/Salut.”     [bon-zhoor/sa-lew.]

Be sure to greet a sales clerk upon entering a store (see Notable Customs).

2. Yes/No.     “Oui/Non.”     [wee/non.]

The subject of countless jokes during my more younger and more vulnerable years, an enthusiastic “oui oui” is still good for a laugh.

3. Do you speak English?     “Parlez-vous anglais?”     [par-ley-voo ong-gley?]

Try it.  Don’t be ashamed.  At least begin the conversation with this softball to lessen the blow on the Frenchman’s ears.

4. Where is…?     “Où est…?”     [oo es…?]

Ever-useful for directing oneself on the streets.

5. How much?    “C’est combien?”     [sey com-byun?]

Ask for the prices of food before ordering food, if possible.

6. Delcious!    Délicieux!”     [day-lee-shee-uh!]

If you’re eating French food, you might be pulling this one out a lot.

7. Thank you.    “Merci.”     [mair-see.]

You’ve just been helped and/or fed. Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized. If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, offer one to your new friend.


Notable customs:

  • When entering a store in France, it’s customary to greet the owner or attendant.  Many stores are considered a private space, so think of it as entering into someone’s home–a casual “Bonjour” to the sales clerk will likely score you a Good Citizenship Award, redeemable for one free Sizzling Entree at all participating Applebee’s restaurants. 


You are a paragon of compassion and stand as a beacon of humanity.  Enjoy your skillet fajitas.


Honorable mentions:

Where can I find gay nightclubs?      “Où son les boîtes gaies?”     [oo son ley bwat gey?]

Could you prepare a meal without cheese?     “Pouvez-vous préparer un repas sans fromage?”     [poo-vey-voo prey-pa-rey un re-pa son froh-mahzh?]


  1. Very nice! I am currently an Australian in France, and can tell you the bonjour (not salut – it’s very informal) is a courteous gesture as you go into a shop. I am hoping you know how to speak french?? You will find that many people in France speak english, and if you try to speak French they wont have aproblem helping you. However your problem is that if you don’t speak French and you learn these phrases, how will you understand the replies if they choose to reply to you in French? I speak a little french, and when i say a little, I have been studying it is as part of my degree for 2 years at uni. When i ask a question in French, half of the time they answer me in english, So I think trying these phrases is a fantastic idea! especially the bonjour and merci, but i think your most valuable one there (assuming you only speak a little french/ or for those readign who do) is ‘est-ce que parlez-vouz anglais?’
    I hope you have an amazing time in France!!

    • Rev. Josh says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. I was actually relying on everything I’ve heard about the Parisians replying in English if they detect an accent. Good that you can back this up–there may be hope yet. I’ve been learning a handful of basic phrases in every country so far, and since I can’t understand the replies in some 40 languages until Japan, the charade basically amounts to an international goodwill gesture. Something along the lines of “here I am, I can’t speak your language, but do I win some sympathy for being really drunk and trying?”

      I never studied any French, at all, ever. Je suis dans la merde.

      • No worries, I think you will find that many people do speak English and if you are just hitting up Paris, many many people speak english there. However your best bet is always someone in a shop than someone on the street, just jump into the least busy and closest shop when you are looking for directions and whatnot. And if you have to ask someone just say “ou est *instert place here*” (ooh ay *place*) then look at their hand gestures as they speak the slowest french or possibly english, then get a far as you can on that before you need to ask someone else. And i hate to be biased, but stear clear of old people – they are less likely to know as much english to be comfortable to use it and can be most resistant to foreigners

    • Rev. Josh says:

      Also, what are you studying in France? And is it frustrating for you to be answered in English if you’re attempting French, or are you just kind of laissez-faire about the whole thing? I remember that I used to be when I was learning other languages, but kind of got over it. Curious.

      • I am studying French 🙂 I am doing a double degree at my university in Sydney and as part of that degree i pick a foreign language and do 1 year of study abroad. Yes it is so very frustrating! Sometimes I can completely udnerstand; like when I am trying to say something complex and everyone conversing gives up and uses english. However other times simple questions that i know i am saying correctly get replied with in english it’s so disheartening because i studied for a while now and wonder how horrible my accent must still be! With everything else i’m pretty laissez-faire. And hey you know alot of french for someone who doesn’t know french. Further protip – Google translate is your best friend for 3 or less words, more than that, you’re probably getting a word for word translation in a sentance structure that makes it illegible. When is your big trip!?

    • Rev. Josh says:

      Hmm. Yep, I’ve done that trick where you turn the corner and ask a new person if you didn’t understand. Pretty effective. And the older generation will be ignored and maybe even pushed down flights of stairs, should the need arise.

      The big trip has been going on since the end of January, starting in Iceland and ending in Japan, using no airplanes to get there (except across the Atlantic). Planning it as I go along; right now I’ve got until the 23rd in Paris. Trying to figure out how exactly to spend my time. Catacombs?

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