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Learning to speak passing French before my trip

Before my visit to Italy I learned a smattering of common Italian expressions. Same with Spanish before my trip to Spain. That coupled with leaning on Google Translate came in handy held me in good stead.

Will that suffice for France? I am told from that the French are more insistent that you speak their language. I hear that in some places the assistance you get is a function of how much you try to embrace their language. Is that true? Should I invest in more than a cursory learning.

Pimsleur's French lessons are pretty good but pricey!

Posted by
7981 posts

I have a undergraduate degree in French and have been to France about 10 times since 2002.
I think the French in the travel and hospitality industries, the majority of the people you will come in contact with are not more insistent that you speak their language. However they will give you more credit if you say Bonjour first and then asking them Parlez vous l'anglais (Do you speak English?) before just blurting out in English.

Hopefully you have a public library nearby they usually have that language learning stuff to check out free.

Posted by
6788 posts

You are waaaaaaaaay overthinking this.

You do not need to speak any French to get by as a tourist. None.

Is it considered polite to memorize a few words and short phrases ("the polite words")? Sure. You can do that on the flight over.

Something to consider: Rick Steves brags that he doesn't speak any foreign languages - at all. He seems to do OK.

Cross this off your list of things to worry about.

Posted by
874 posts

Rick has an hour long beginning French class hosted here on the site:
https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/travel-talks/french-language

The French are much more about the ritual so expect to exchange pleasantries everytime you enter and exit a shop even if you're just wanted to look at something. So you should absolutely know the basics of "Hello" and "How are you" and "Good Day" because they are used ritualistically in France.

Don't worry they'll instantly know you're not a French speaker from your pronunciation and will switch the English - if they know it - automatically or as soon you reach the end of your French. In Paris at least hospitality English is pretty widely spoken while off season in the south of France it is a very different story.

I've been doing the Rosettastone thing because I'm going to Lyon and Provence as well and wanted to be better at it. I do not have the gift for languages unfortunately but I've been studying. I find the French number system difficult which is unfortunate given how many small transactions you can get by without resorting to English if you can easily understand numbers.

You will probably get attitude from someone at some point for not knowing enough French but giving other people - even other French people - attitude is a way of life in Paris. Don't take it personally and remind yourself that in New York they would be way ruder.

Have a great trip!
=Tod

Posted by
899 posts

Some basic polite words is enough - Bonjour, oui, merci, sil ous plait, etc will go far. It's very important when you walk into a shop or up to a counter to greet the person with bon jour with the appropriate title ( madam, monsieur). As was explained to me, not greeting the person first before asking for what you want is considered extremely rude. I follow that rule and get by very well with about a dozen words of french.

If you want a cheap and easy course, try the app Duolingo. It's a bit cutesy ( kids will enjoy) but you actually learn alot. Takes about 5 mins day on your smartphone or tablet. Lots of different languages available. Am currently doing German - guten nacht.

Posted by
78 posts

I have Pimsleur French and what I realized is that if I didn’t have basic French grammar lessons, it would have been very hard to understand. I took 2 years of French and I find the Pimsleur audio a very good supplement. However, if it was my only source of French lessons, I would have been struggling by mid Level 1.

I don’t know what your background is or what time frame you have before your trip, but I would suggest the RS 3-in-1 French/Italian/German Phrase Book and/or the French Phrase Book and Dictionary that I find very helpful (I have both for our trip in June!).

Posted by
9429 posts

“giving other people - even other French people - attitude is a way of life in Paris.”

This is completely untrue in my experience (grew up there, lived in Paris as an adult, visit often for a month or more at a time). You might encounter a grouch here or there, like you would anywhere, but most Parisians are very nice and very helpful.

The French are very formal, and it’s a big city, so no, they’re not smiling at you and treating you like family, but if you follow their etiquette of always saying Bonjour/Bonsoir Monsieur/Madame before you speak to anyone, as posters above have said, and liberally add in Merçi Monsieur/Madame when appropriate, you’ll be fine.
And yes, “Parlez vous Anglais” (no “L” before Anglais) is very useful and polite.

Edit: most recent example, the whole month of June 2017 in Paris, i never once encountered any French person that was unpleasant in any way. Every person i interacted with was very nice. In fact, there were at least 2-3 people every day that were extremely friendly and nice. Can’t say that here in SF.

Posted by
2573 posts

Being polite and considerate of others has nothing to do with your French vocabulary. If you want useful assistance from others, it is far more important that you begin any interaction by saying hello or bonjour. It seems simple but we naturally do this far less than do the French.

In many places you'll find that what interests the French is an opportunity to practice their English.

Posted by
165 posts

Have you tried your library for the pimsleur for french. I agree that you don't need to speak french, but as you have probably discovered since you have learned a bit of other languages, it is much better and more fun if you know a bit. I have learned some good tourist italian and french with Pimsleur and I got them from the public library. Good luck. sue

Posted by
32244 posts

Sri,

I agree with the suggestion in the previous reply to check your local library for Pimsleur or other French courses. That should help you to get by with the "basics". I really like the Pimsleur method as it worked well for me when learning Italian.

If you have time prior to your trip, you could also check your local college or other schools for night school courses.

You could also pack along one of these - https://store.ricksteves.com/shop/p/french-phrase-book .

Bon voyage!

Posted by
14157 posts

I’m useless at foreign language, just don’t have the required chip in my brain. I love Paris and do fine with the basic phrases. I find people very helpful and willing to assist me. In general if I start out in my “French” they will switch to English to prevent them from hearing me butcher their language. Most service people can immediately ID me as an American but I try never to start in English.

I was at Notre Dame last Friday for a service presenting the relic of the Crown of Thorns. A lady sat down next to me, said something and I replied “pas de Francais” wherein she said “I speak a little English I will tell you what is going on”. Then she insisted I go with her after the service was over to see the Crown placed at the chapel in the back. I didn’t really need to go back to that chapel but she was so insistent and kind I couldn’t NOT go with her!

I did Duolingo for about 4 months (from Thanksgiving) and it didn’t really help. I had French in Jr High many years ago and remembered enough grammar that it was bugging me they were teaching the “Tu” form instead of Vous without explanation of the informal.

Go. Have fun. Don’t worry!

Posted by
15644 posts

On my last trip to Paris, I tried to speak French . . . almost invariably the Parisians responded in English. In small towns that don't get a lot of UK or North American tourists, you won't have a lot of trouble getting what you want, but you won't be able to chat.

Recently I was on the French Riviera - most people dealing with tourists spoke good English, many are not native Frenchmen and their English is at least as good as their French.

Posted by
14580 posts

Good that you are putting thish efort into learning/reviewing as much of the language as you can. I do likewise in France. The more you know in French, the better it is...keeping plugging away at it.

How you do this is a matter of personal preference and individual learning style, basically which ever method or a combinations works most effectively for you, I'm old school on this preferring a grammar book and using the tedious "drill and kill" method.

Use the language whenever you can, don't lapse into what I call "linguistic laziness" by allowing "them" to speak English to you.

Is there an advantage, ie, better service, etc., maybe a humourous response, if you can effectively speak the language?

Yes, from what I have observed at times. When I am with a native speaker in France who knows the particular cultural cues, you do get quicker attention, better service, maybe a break from the regional train controller, ie letting you "slide" with a piece of advice instead of charging you, that sort of thing. That sort of thing I've seen happen.

Posted by
14580 posts

"giving... attitude is a way of life in Paris." Only if you want to believe in such a fairy tale. That type of fairy tale I totally reject.

Talking French you'll be a lot more effective dealing with the locals, not having to depend on the interlocutor's certain level of English just to accommodate you linguistically.

Posted by
4574 posts

I will admit to falling into the linguistically lazy on the road when it comes to verbal communication, but how are you with written word? As a solo DIY traveler, I find it helps to have some comfort reading a language, particularly as I use apartments and shop in the 'hoods.
Consider how you used your Italian and when in Italy, did you wish you understood signs or menus better? Keep that in mind as well as audio language. I found Pimsleur for Swahili was great and the first time I learned and retained a language without a written guide from the start, but for other languages, I might have wanted to start with both.

Posted by
557 posts

Consider how you used your Italian and when in Italy, did you wish you
understood signs or menus better?

I really like this point that Maria brought up, particularly on menus. If you are an adventurous eater or anticipate getting a little bit off the beaten track, it can be helpful to brush up on your French menu vocabulary, which in some ways is like a mini-code of its own.

Many places will have English translations of the menu, especially in Paris or large tourist cities; but this isn't guaranteed, not to mention the fact that the English sometimes (understandably) leaves something to be desired. One big help can be to get the Google Translate app on your phone -- there is a camera function where you can hold your phone over the text and it will translate.

However, aside from the fact that Google Translate is definitely not perfect, a lot of restaurants will hand-write their menu items on chalkboards (à l'ardoise) that they change fairly frequently -- which can be (but isn't always of course) a good sign, since a changing menu can indicate that the restaurant places a high value on fresh, seasonal produce and meat. In these cases it can be helpful to have a good base of French menu vocab so you can read the handwritten menu items and get a sense of what's on offer.

Posted by
8586 posts

I listened to the Pimsleur CDs while commuting in my car for a few months before our trip. They were not expensive and I did OK. My observation was that yes the French (and Germans) are more formal and don't like the instant friendly familiarity that Americans assume is normal. They value good manners and respectful behavior more than smiling. If you try some French, they assume you want to be corrected so as to learn better. As said before, they are very helpful and welcoming as long as you know some of the polite words and the social customs. I came across many folks in non-tourist service jobs who did not (or would not) speak English, so it was worth it to me to learn even un peu. More is better (especially to help reading signs), but I dont think you need to invest in more than what you've described unless you have the time and energy.

Posted by
884 posts

Berlitz makes a series of single CD language courses called "For Your Trip" - as in "French For Your Trip", etc. This is a very basic tutorial with a short printed guide. Your local library may have these.....mine does, and I prep for my travels by using them. It has been my experience (limited though it is) that attempting local language in France receives more reward than anywhere I have been.

Posted by
2916 posts

I am told from that the French are more insistent that you speak their language. I hear that in some places the assistance you get is a function of how much you try to embrace their language.

No, and no. What you don't want to do, though, is greet someone in a shop or restaurant by blurting out something in English. If your French is poor, simply saying "Bonjour" followed by "Parlez-vous anglais" is a good start. If they do, that's great. If not, you'll know, and deal with it how you can. I speak very mediocre French, and one time I was returning a car to a hotel because they were standing in for the closed agency. I had a somewhat complicated matter to discuss, so I asked the person at the desk if he spoke English. He said no, but then pointed to the man next to him and said that he does. That man was very polite and helpful.
So I would say that the assistance you get is not related to how much you try to speak French, but merely the fact that you are polite and just make a stab at it.

Posted by
8165 posts

I don't know where the myths about the French start. They don't 'expect' foreigners to speak French. They do appreciate the acknowledgement that the defect is yours not theirs that comes from learning a few politeness phrases and they do expect to be greeted and for politeness words to be used in interactions. There are dozens of French phrase videos on line where you can learn and to pronounce the basic phrases you need. I remember traveling in Italy 40 years ago and using a casette by Barons labeled 'getting by in Italian' -- we were staying in rural areas where literally no one spoke English and we were able to 'get by' with the phrases and attitude taught in that old tape. It doesn't take a lot to function and be polite. Don't worry about it, just bone up on a dozen useful phrases and off you go.

Posted by
8293 posts

And try not to be too discombobulated when your effort in French elicits a reply in a torrent of French, perhaps in a regional accent you have never heard.

Posted by
7392 posts

“ I hear that in some places the assistance you get is a function of how much you try to embrace their language. Is that true?”

People have already commented on beginning with the formal French greeting.” Then I will also add that the level of assistance you get is also a function of your attitude. When I was going to be in Paris for a week, I asked a coworker who had lived in Paris to share French expectations. He first mentioned the required French greeting. Then he said the French are very formal, so have a humble attitude.

My first full day, I couldn’t find an ATM in my neighborhood. I stepped into a nice hotel, greeted a man and humbly said I couldn’t find an ATM. He walked with me down the street to show me where one was located and even walked a different direction to show me a second one, if I liked it better!

I should also mention that I was wearing a dress. I have noticed that “entitled attitude plus casual clothing” can determine responses you will receive. I’ve watched it in France and Italy while dining alone in a normal restaurant and seeing who was given a table and who was told the restaurant was full. By the end of the meals, I could guess with 100 percent accuracy!

Posted by
9429 posts

“I should also mention that I was wearing a dress.”

I don’t understand why this is relevant.
I never wear dresses and am always treated well.

We asked a mêtro employee at a ticket window in the mêtro where a street level bike rental shop we were looking for was but couldn’t find, one of the two mêtro employees stopped what they were doing, walked with us up to the street, walked a block with us and pointed out where it was. Incredibly nice. And i wasn’t wearing a dress.
I could give 100s of examples of incredibly nice Parisians.

Posted by
14580 posts

"...many folks in non-tourist service jobs who did not (or would not) speak English...." True and my experience in both France and Germany over the years! But then the question is, why should they? Just to make it easy for me to communicate in France. I am the one who has the language problem, they don't.

In Germany absolutely no problem, even when I went to the police station a few years ago in a small town to file a report, in the end sign the document in German regarding the cell phone presumably stolen on the the ICE train. Upon showing them (the officer questioning me and her younger assistant) my US passport, I assumed automatically that one of them would starting talking English...absolutely not. Since they just continued in German, so did I.

Posted by
9429 posts

What Fred said is absolutely right if a French person is not able to speak English.

I don’t believe for 1 sec that a French person, who is able to speak English but refuses, would do that unless the other person was rude to them.

Approaching a French person that you don’t know, not saying Bonjour/Bonsoir Monsieur/Madame first, just launching in in English from the get go, is considered rude.

If you want to be treated well, you must follow their etiquette. The “French are rude” myth comes from Americans that were the rude ones. And i’ve seen a lot of rude Americans in Paris/France.

Posted by
8165 posts

I am amused by the idea that everyone speaks English but they just refuse to do so to make us miserable. I have several times encountered people who have gone well out of their way to assist us although they spoke not a word of English and our French is pathetic at best. One very elderly woman walked us about 3 blocks to get us on the right path to our destination in Sceaux (we were following the really awful directions given by Simms in her otherwise excellent book An Hour from Paris -- you would think if the first thing you needed to do on leaving the station was climb a long set of stairs up a hill that that might be indicated). We encounter no more rude French people as we lumber around the country than we do rude Americans in similar US trips. 99% of the bus drivers in Chicago are terrific and especially gentle and helpful to tourists; then there is that one guy. Happens in France too. We got that waiter at Comez chez Mamon; this may be a great place, but this rude jerk who wouldn't even call a cab for our friends (there are no cabs tonight) assures that we will never return nor recommend it. In dozens of restaurant meals in France, this was the first time we got the stereotypical French jerk as a waiter. (and yes we know the rules of politeness, that was not it).

Posted by
8586 posts

Fred - einverstanden.

janet, yes, I agree that people might not respond in English depending on your attitude, not necessarily out of rudeness. But sometimes might not want to help because they might not be confident in English, impatient, or just not interested in helping. Or if you look suspicious. I do recall reading an article suggesting that if you need help in France, its best to say "I have a problem - j'ai une probleme (sp)" and your more likely to get a response. I don't know if that's true or not, but certainly ramps up the politeness.

Posted by
9429 posts

I hear you janet, and i know you would be polite. There are jerks in France for sure, i just don’t run into very many.

Posted by
3521 posts

I have not run into any issues in France as long as I remember to start with "Bon jour" and use the polite French words whenever I can. Most English speaking French people I have run into in France actually want to try their English. And you will be surprised by how many speak English with a perfect Southern California TV show accent. Much better than how I speak French for sure.

Posted by
2122 posts

Years ago, when we were preparing to go to France on a Rick Steves' tour, we took an evening class at a local school re: the culture and language of France, and we also read a lot, too.

One of the key things that stuck with me is: Above all, the French love to be entertained...even in small ways. I found that oftentimes, just my TRYING to speak French, followed by a "I hope I said that correctly?" caused a flow of smiles and then their attempts (which were pretty darn good, even after saying they did not really speak English.

Some of our best memories were times we would look for words in the French/English RS Phrase book, pointing out what we were trying to say, then the person would see they could do the reverse, pointing out translations from French to English. We carried on a 30+ minute conversation with a French family on a train, all having a jolly good time with the back and forth. Same with a gentleman in the Rue Cler market, when my husband was trying to figure out what something was....turned out it was an unhusked almond.....he enjoyed our learning...we had never seen one still in its shell before.

The pleasant greetings (in French, even if not pronounced correctly) will win your instant welcome............and this is pretty much the same in any country to which one travels.

Posted by
227 posts

I have been listening to "The Earful Tower" podcasts for a few weeks now since we are going to France in September. The subjects and guests range widely but I have learned many interesting things about Paris specifically and France generally and they are also very entertaining. I just listened to one of them this morning about learning French. Check out Frenchtoday.com
I have not explored the website yet or priced the audio books but the author seems to have a great method of teaching French so I am considering looking into it. My husband took lots of French through college, enough to be considered a minor so he is listening to the Pimsleur lessons off and on and he is very good at the pronunciation already from before. I was figuring that one of us will be good enough, but I think it would be nice to have a clue just for my comfort level.
Anyway, I recommend "The Earful Tower" podcasts for anyone going to Paris. I discovered them through "Frenchfrye in Paris" the YouTube guy, Corey Frye who does the tours all over Paris. He is a frequent guest on the podcast.

Posted by
4010 posts

I am told from that the French are more insistent that you speak their
language. I hear that in some places the assistance you get is a
function of how much you try to embrace their language. Is that true?
Should I invest in more than a cursory learning.

I always wonder about the sources of where people "hear" things. No one is going to insist on anything but it's nice to be able to try and speak the local language of wherever you travel. Make an effort; you don't need to "invest" anything except your time; take out Berlitz or any other language study materials from your local library.

Posted by
387 posts

Pimsleur's French lessons are pretty good but pricey!

Often you can borrow them from a local library. A good substitute, and what I'd recomend starting with anyway, is the Michel Thomas introductory course "Total French Foundation Course" or perhaps even better "Learn French with Paul Noble" since it has some roleplaying (eg. "you are at the market, you want to..."). These two have perhaps less vocabulary than Pimsleur but are good for explaining the basic structure you need to use.

In my experience how much French you need depends on where you go. In Paris use the polite phrases in French to start and you'll be fine, most people speak enough English to get by after that. I've been in smaller towns in Brittany, Normandy, Alsace, etc. where people in shops and restaurants did not speak English so it had to be in French or nothing. Fortunately context helps a lot so you don't need a lot of French; when you show up at the door of a restaurant its likely you want to be seated for a meal and aren't dropping by to ask if they know the score of the soccer match so (in French) "Hello, sir. A table for two, please?" is enough to get you seated.

Posted by
728 posts

I really enjoy learning a little of the language before I go, but I agree with those here who say that just a few phrases are fine if you don't enjoy going further. For Italian and Spanish, I really liked the Collins lessons by Paul Noble available on Audible. They helped me with basic language on recent trips to Italy and Mexico. I'm using their Next Steps in French to review French, which I studied long ago. Google Learn French with Paul Noble: you can start with volume 1, and if you like it, continue to volumes 2 and 3.

Posted by
14580 posts

@ Stan...Genau !

@ Susan..."...must follow their etiquette." Mais bien sur....absolutement! That's what I call the cultural ques. Both count, both are important...(1) mastery of the language along (2) with the cultural ques.

Posted by
3293 posts

I took French in high school and college. I didn't really need any French to navigate successfully in Paris, Normandy, Alsace and Provence. The French educational system is much better at teaching English than we are at teaching French.

But, after getting the most virulent case of food poisoning I've ever had after eating at the Cafe Central in Paris, I needed to communicate with the maids the next morning. From somewhere in my brain, I remembered how to say "Je suis malade! Je voudrais plus de papier de toilette!. [I'm sick!. I would like more toilet paper]. The maids stuck a roll of toilet paper on a broom stick through the door, which I gratefully accepted.

Don't worry - you'll be fine.

Posted by
1806 posts

You can get Pimsleur at your local library and not spend a penny. But putting that aside, while nice you show willingness to try to learn more in advance, you really don't need more than the same smattering of common phrases you had conquered prior to your other trips to different countries. Those and general politeness/manners will go a long way with the French. The generalizations that get perpetuated about the French (and New Yorkers) having attitude or being rude is such a load of crap.

As far as whether the level of assistance you get is impacted by how much you try to embrace their language, it's really more about your approach. I have personally seen some French service industry workers screw with people from time to time and act like they couldn't understand English, but can you blame them? The English-only speakers I witnessed gave them zero greeting, not in French, not even in their own language - just "Give me a..." and no "please" or "thank you". Does this happen every single time? No. But it's just rude.

I do get what Jean was trying to convey about "casual clothing", "wearing a dress" and getting treated a bit better. But this isn't a "French" thing at all. It's simply a city thing. Like it or not, there are some restaurants and stores that do treat people differently based on what they are wearing. Show up to one of these places dressed like you are about to go mow your lawn and you might find they are "fully booked" or you get seated at a table in the back near the kitchen or bathroom and those empty tables you pass are suddenly "reserved". Do you have to look like you just stepped out of the pages of Vogue? No, but don't look like you just rolled out of bed either.

Same with stores - it happens here in the U.S. I've walked into some ritzy boutiques in my own city at various times and there is a distinct difference in the level of service I get when I wander in from my office wearing a really nice dress and heels vs. some Saturday when I am just out running errands in yoga pants, a ratty tee shirt, sneakers, no make up and my hair pulled into some messy ponytail or bun.

Posted by
14580 posts

Who is the XXXX nationality of tourists? "XXXX" is a military symbol too.

"...but can you blame them?" I don't blame them at all.