Top Ten: Best and Worst Phrases to Use In France

Getting a phrase book (my favorite would be Lonely Planet for guide books/phrase books just because knowing the translation for “slow down tiger” is hysterical) is something a lot of people do before they travel abroad, just to make sure they know the essentials like “where is the restroom” and “can you help me find my hotel.” Thankfully, knowing a decent amount of the language already puts me ahead of the game. With some of the cultural ideas and “false cognates” out of the way, there are still some phrases that require a little demystifying. Here are a few phrases that I plan to use or stay away from (depending on ranking and meaning, you be the judge) once I get to France.


10. “Désolée, je suis américaine.” (Sorry, I’m American.)
This one is pretty self-explanatory. No matter where you go, your nationality is NOT a disability, nor does it give you permission to essentially be a bull in a china shop. If I’m having trouble understanding someone, and I’ve asked them to repeat themselves multiple times, I might say something like, “I’m so sorry, I’m an idiot” or “French isn’t my first language, can you hear my accent?” or “I’m not from here” but I’m never going to say “I’m an American, that’s why I can’t understand you.” If nothing else, I think I’ve made it clear in other posts on this blog that I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m an American to anyone who doesn’t already know it (like my Sweet Briar classmates) to save myself some grief from the few people in France (and there really are only few) that look poorly on Americans, or pickpockets who may think that I’m not paying attention to my belongings. Also, not a lot of French people will speak English, and if they do, they will have learned it with a UK accent. If you ever have to speak English in France, they might have trouble understanding you because of your American accent (if you have one). If it’s going to be hard for you to learn French, it might behoove you to at least learn how to speak English in a British accent. From what I’ve heard, it’ll get you more women back on American turf anyway… I call this Harry Potter/Dr. Who Syndrome.

9. ANYTHING Verlan.
Verlan is a French form of slang where syllables of common words get reversed. I’ve linked to that Informal French page in my Inspiration and Instruction post in the last edit, and it has much more information than just Verlan, so check it out! Verlan is something that I wanted on my radar so that I knew what someone was talking about if I heard it, but I don’t want to use it around anyone. As it is, I might seem a bit out of place to a local in the area. The last thing I want to do is start reversing syllables like a crazy person and make it more obvious. Let me try to construct a sentence in Verlan and show you what it looks like.

English: “I was out walking with my mom and we came across a shady guy, so we called a cop.”
“Proper” French: “J’ai éte me promener avec ma mère, et nous avons rencontré un mec louche, donc nous avons appelé un flic.”
Verlan, Changes in bold: “J’ai éte me promener avec ma reum, et nous avons rencontré un keum chelou, donc nous avons appelé un keuf.

Well… At least I know what it means… I definitely don’t want to start speaking it…

8. “Je n’aime pas/Je ne mange pas __________” (I don’t like/I don’t eat _________)
Of all people, I should be the expert on this one. If you fill in that blank with things like the following:

haricots verts – green beans
alimentaire vert – green food (anything green)
salade Niçoise

You will not be taken seriously, and you won’t be heard. Nor should you be, in my opinion. Diane from OuiinFrance tells us that the myth that there are no “fat people” in France is false, but if you compare obesity statistics between the two countries, 30.6% of America is obese, while only 9.4% of France is. I’m willing to bet that this has something to do with the ever-picky American eater. I’m sure French parents at least tell their children to try the evil green things on their plates, if not tell them to eat them even if they didn’t like them, and they don’t have to go hiding vegetables in cupcakes. French people don’t tolerate picky eaters. Vegetarians, vegans, anything that’s “by choice” isn’t usually taken lightly in France. When you’re like me, and you say “Je ne peut pas manger _______.” (I can’t eat _______) people start listening, usually. I wear a Medic Alert bracelet that says I’m allergic to things, and I have a medical diagnosis that says I can’t have something. Look at it this way: I don’t really like carrots, but if someone serves them to me, and I refuse to eat them, I look like a jerk. I am unable to eat gluten because it will make me sick, so if someone serves it to me, and I refuse to eat it and apologize because I’ll get sick if I do eat it, the person that served it to me knowing I have that problem looks like the jerk. Of course, if you are a vegetarian, for example, and you have been for a very long time, your body physically will not be able to process meat, and if you eat it (willingly or not), you will probably be stuck in the bathroom in a less than pleasant situation for the rest of your night. It would be best for you to say that you can’t eat meat instead of “I don’t like meat.” If you’re one of those people that doesn’t like green beans… leave your picky eating in the USA, and at least try them! If you still don’t like them, politely explain that they’re not your favorite. That’s what I may have to do with carrots. Who knows? My host family might have a really good carrot recipe, and I may fall in love with them while I’m there!

7. When saying goodbye, don’t pull a dramatic movie ending and say “Adieu.” That’s an insult! Err on the side of caution, and say “Au revoir.” Each type of “goodbye” you’ve heard in French has it’s own specific meaning. Met someone for coffee and you know you’re going to see them later (say tomorrow, because they’re your coworker or your classmate?) Say “À bientôt” or “à tout à l’heure.” The first means “I’ll see you soon,” and the second can mean anything from “I’ll see you later” to “I’ll see you at the top of the hour.” When I say goodbye to my French professors (before the last class of the year), I always say “à bientôt.” “Au revoir” encompasses the most types of goodbyes, whether you’re a woman and you read into things, or you’re… not, and/or you don’t… It literally means “until we see each other again.” You can use it after that coffee date, after a first date, saying goodbye to your family in America, or your family in France, wherever! It’s arguably the safest way to part ways, as there’s no hidden meaning that can be held against you. Now, why are we not supposed to use “Adieu?” It means “à dieu.” or “to God.” Use it wrong, and you’re saying you never want to see that person again… or you never want to see that person alive again. Never a good thing to say, and it could be used as motive for murder in a very poorly written Film Noir. So, Dear Readers. Unless you are Grace Kelly, remove adieu from your vocabulary right. now.

6. “Non, merci. Je n’ai plus faim.” (No thank you, I’m not hungry anymore/I couldn’t eat another bite.)
French meals have a lot of courses, and the usual etiquette for a hostess is to keep bringing out food until someone uses the above phrase. It’s usually a little crass to say something to the effect of “maybe I should have another notch put in my belt/I’m going to have to put another notch in my belt” after a meal, but if you’re satisfied after having cleared your plate (or five), just say so politely, and you won’t be served anymore. That way, you won’t be expected to eat anymore, and when you DON’T eat anymore, you won’t be considered rude.

5. When you need to get past someone on the Metro (to disembark, perhaps), always say “Pardon” instead of “Excuse moi.” The idea of “Excuse moi” is more along the lines of “I need to ask you a question,” not necessarily, “please allow me to pass by.”

4. “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur, excuse moi de vous déranger…” (Hello m’am/sir, sorry to bother you…)
Saying “Excuse moi” isn’t enough. Properly greet whomever you’re speaking to if you’re going to ask for directions (je suis perdu, pouvez-vous m’aidez?), ask them to take your picture (prendrez-vous notre/ma photo, s’il vous plait?), or complement his or her fashion sense (J’ADORE CETTE ROBE!). Also keep in mind that the proper greeting is important EVERYWHERE in France. Bonjour is the key to getting you service in a restaurant as opposed to snubbed. Throw on a Madame or a Monsieur (don’t mix them up, of course), and you’re golden. One more thing on greetings, when greeting a child, say “Coucou” instead of “Bonjour.”

3. “Non, merci, je ne fume pas.” (No thanks, I don’t smoke.)
I heard from a friend that studied abroad last year that she said this one almost every day. A lot of people in France smoke, so those that smoke often assume that everyone else does. The merci is key here. You don’t want to offend the person offering you something, but if you don’t smoke, you probably don’t want to start yourself on that horrible spiral of addiction and destroying your lungs just to be polite. You’re not going to want to get into the conversation of “why do you/don’t you” either. I’m hoping a simple “je ne l’aime pas” (I don’t like it) will suffice. If I personally have to explain myself, I can, but…

2. “Qu’est-ce que le truc/chose…” (What’s the thing…)
If there’s one key tip that I can leave you with and have you remember about speaking French (any language, really, including your native one), you never have to remember every single word in the language. All you need to do is play charades! I was thinking about this the other night as I was getting ready to go to bed. I was using acne wipes to take off my makeup, and remembered that I probably shouldn’t take a whole container of them with me, but a partial container, or a Ziploc bag of them would work. Paris Unraveled (site is currently down, I’ll come back and fix the link soon) has a great list of things to NOT pack when you get ready to study abroad because you can find those things in France, and you’d be using up room in your luggage if you tried to bring them along. That being said, when I get to France, I’ll need to explain to my family that I need to take a trip to a pharmacie for a few things, one of them being… I don’t know the term for “acne wipes.”

“Euh… qu’est-ce que le truc pour nettoyer le visage et la prévention des boutons?”

That would be the cue for my French family to say, “Oh! Lignettes acné.” Yes I did just Google Translate that, and yes I feel really dumb. Needless to say, I do this charades thing all the time, even in English. It’s a good thing to do when you’ve had a massive brain fart and the poor fool a mile away can smell it, no matter where you are, and what the national language is. If you need to be a little less clever about it, you can always say “Comment dit-on _______ en français?” (How do you say _____ in French?) You’ll definitely get a lot more brownie points for trying to describe (or act out) what you want in the other language than if you say “it’s BLAH in English” since playing charades shows you have a better grasp of the language… or you have more courage, if nothing else.

1. “Merci beaucoup/S’il vous plait.” (Thank you very much/please.)
I couldn’t have been the only person raised by a mother who said “Say ‘please and thank you.'” all the time, but with the way some people act in this day and age, I feel like it’s a dying art. People in France definitely keep to themselves a lot more than Americans do, take this post from SimplyMarlena, she said “bless you” to someone in a crowded store when he sneezed, and he said “thank you,” but he was definitely surprised when it happened. (By the way, “bless you” is “à tes souhaits” in French, and it has no religious context. There’s no “god” there.) Obviously, the two phrases listed in this tip don’t apply to strangers. They apply to places where you become a customer, when you’re a guest in someone’s home, general politeness. I figure it’s better to be polite and be forgotten than to be impolite and be called a jerk behind your back. Really, how hard is it to say “merci” as you pick up the box of macarons you’ve just paid for? I’m glad my mom has engrained this whole “polite” thing in my brain so well, it’s become second nature. I can have a splitting headache, and still smile and say my please and thank you’s.

Je me suis souvent repenti d’avoir parlé, mais jamais d’être tu. – De Commynes

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