Speaking French and greeting people

My husband and I are taking a trip to France in June and I am trying to brush up on my high school French so that I can have at least a limited vocabulary to help us get around. How much French do I need to be able to speak? Should I really hit the books or will a few phrases be enough? Also, I am wondering about greeting aquaintences with a hug or the double cheek air kiss. I don't want to embarrass myself when meeting people. Thanks!

Posted by Bets
Bloomington
1964 posts

Forty years is a four-kiss situation! My Parisian husband does four, I do two especially if there are a lot of people in the room to kiss, my sister-in-law is a three-kisser, but a forty year relationship as a pen pal deserves four! You'll probably kiss the whole family and just follow their lead. The American hug with the little back pat is rarely done though. Enjoy this very special occasion.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
10846 posts

In France, it is good manners to greet in French and that include shop keepers etc. After that they will recognize by your accent how terrible your French is, appreciate your attempt at French, and shift to English. Since the hug and cheek kissing is not part of the Am culture, I not sure what the French expect. Since it is not nature for you to do that, I would not. I think the most important phrases are the greeting, good-by and general politeness as thank you, no thank you, etc.

Posted by pat
victoria, Canada
7820 posts

Shawn, for the hug kiss thing, its regional, I have relatives and friends who do double or triples, even some who do it four times, but these are relatives and long time friends, for a casual acquaintance it would not be expected. Do you know people there already? For French its like anywhere you go, the more you speak the easier things are, BUT you only need a minimum to get by... As far as I am concerned that would be mean the ability to greet people politely ( and this is important, do it EVERY time you start ANY verbal interaction, buying a train ticket, asking for three croissants at the bakery, etc) .. Always start with a simple "Bonjour madame/monsieur" then proceed with whatever mixture of pointing, gesturing, English or French you can manage.Of course any request for help should have the "si vous plait" and "merci beaucoup" in there. What is helpful to know is some numbers , the time, and how to interpret some directions ( for instance you may ask someone for directions, they may understand you , since you may be saying something they recoginize like "La Louvre" but they may not be able to answer you well in English, so knowing left, right, straight , beside and behind etc are helpful to me anyways. In a store remember they start counting with the thumb, so if you hold up your index for one , it may confuse them , to you it means one , to them its two.. so hold up your thumb for one.

Posted by Dick
Olympia, WA, USA
659 posts

What Frank said. I'd forego the hugging and air kissing unless they are good friends or family, or initiate the contact. I remember having lunch at a communal restaurant table and everybody shaking hands as they sat down or left, all strangers at least to me. But shopkeepers and such don't expect that. When entering a store, it's common to greet the proprietor behind the counter, "bonjour, monsieur" or "madame," even if you're just browsing or don't need help finding something. Same when you leave, even without buying, "au revoir." Generally the French are more formal than we are, they say "bonjour" or "excusez-moi" before asking a question on the street, they don't appreciate being directly addressed without some kind of preliminary like that. I think their reputation for "rudeness" is based mostly on that expectation of formality, which our culture doesn't have. Like people anywhere, French people appreciate an effort to speak their language, and they may not speak English as readily as those in Netherlands, central Europe, or other smaller countries where English is nore common because the local language is spoken by so few. They are also proud of their beautiful language and likely to correct your mispronunciation, meaning to be helpful. Learn some basic phrases and vocabulary and bring along a good phrasebook, like RS or Berlitz or Lonely Planet, to help you with signs and such. Don't assume that anyone speaks English, though many will, perhaps as badly as you speak French and therefore embarrassed to try. But between hand gestures, pointing to phrases in the book, showing numbers on a pad or hand calculator, and general goodwill, you'll find you can communicate. And a lot of the high school stuff will come back to you!

Posted by shawn
north canton, ohio, usa
48 posts

I will be meeting my high school French pen pal for the first time. We have been communicating back and forth for almost 40 years. She and her husband would be the only ones I would possibly greet with a hug and possible cheek kissing. I guess I will let her take the lead on that. Thanks everyone for the tips on conversing and speaking with shop keepers. I had read in several of the travel books that saying bonjour and au revoir was expected polite behavior and had planned to make sure to do that.
I too feel that just the fact that you are trying to speak the language will go a long way.

Posted by Chani
Tel Aviv
3498 posts

I found it useful to go over the lexicon that's often at the back of a guide book, not for conversation, but it does help in reading the signs, menus, etc., and asking for directions, information, shopping.

Posted by Ray
Portland, Oregon, USA
1333 posts

hi, i always try to speak some of the local language no matter where i go. I see it as showing some respect to the host country and the locals. In france i had NO problem what so ever trying to make my point. I would ALWAYS do the following 1. greet by saying: Bonjour Monsieur if it was a male. for a femaled, i would skip the Madam or Mademoiselle since i was told its not polite to mix Miss or Mrs. 2. Then if i wanted to ask them if they spoke english , i would ask them in French. They would either say , Yes, non, or gesture or say "little". 3. I would say "merci beacoup" and the race was on. as far as i could tell, no one was unhappy with my attempts. also, i always said my Au revior - a bientôt. for what it worth (fwiw) i like to try to learn some of each language no matter where i go. since i work with may different people im trying to learn something everyday from any of them i come across on my daily routine. happy trails.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17728 posts

Shawn, What Frank said. If you brush up on the usual "pleasantries" (Bonjour, Bonsoir, Au Revoir, etc.), you should be fine in most situations. Regarding the "double cheek kiss", I'd let the locals take the lead on that one. I'm sure they understand that's not the usual custom for those of us in this part of the world, so not something we would likely initiate. As you've know your Pen Pal for 40 years, that's likely something they will want to do. I've received the "double cheek kiss" from people I know in Italy, but it's not something I ever initiate (I don't understand the custom, so don't want to commit a faux pas). Happy travels!

Posted by John
Van Nuys, CA, USA
154 posts

A few phrases are enough, carry a phrase book should you need more. You should greet a shopkeeper when entering, and say goodbye when leaving the shop. Similarly greet anyone employee (waiter, barista, clerk at cash register, etc). Even though I don't speak a foreign language I've found its not hard to learn enough sentences to do basic transactions entirely in the language of the country I'm visiting. A few situations will probably occur daily; you may get a cup of coffee, ask to sit inside or outside, ask where is the restroom, ask for a croissant or baguette, ask for the bill in a restaurant, ask to buy a ticket, etc. But a few sentences cover these cases and aren't hard to learn. "Hello, Sir. 2 coffees, and 2 croisants, please. The bill, please." covers the whole light breakfast routine. Knowing how to tell time in French and the numbers can be useful too. But that's about it to get started. Directions I found to be problematic; even if someone understands you, any answer other longer than 3 or 4 words is likely to have words you don't understand. One book I found useful (but didn't have everything I wanted) is "Perfect Phrases in French for Confident Travel". There are many other phrase books such as the RS one, Lonely Planet (which I preferred), etc. Fundamentally, though, I found things to fall into 2 categories. Simple ones, which I could do all in French. Or more complicated ones, in which I was never going to learn or comprehend enough in order to do in French. On the other hand, getting help can be easy. At all the hotels we used the front desk staff spoke enough English to work with us, and were happy to phone to make dinner reservations and the like.

Posted by shirley
Toronto, Canada
295 posts

The French have officially dropped "mademoiselle" so you could safely use "madame" all the time. Although unofficially, I'm sure the distinction will remain in use for a while.

Posted by pat
victoria, Canada
7820 posts

What shirly says is correct, it is always a bit nicer to add the "madam" to your bonjour, it doesn't matter the age of the female or married status as long as she is not a child.

Posted by Laura
Virginia, USA
2889 posts

I am very impressed that you have kept a pen pal for 40 years and are going to get to meet her. If you are going to brush up on French, I'd recommend you focus on "travel" phrases. These include the kinds of phrases you'd use to buy tickets, ask for a restroom, buy a pastry, order in a restaurant, etc. Just think of the scenarios you will encounter in your normal travel and work on the language you'll need for those scenarios.

Posted by shawn
north canton, ohio, usa
48 posts

Thanks everyone for all your helpful suggestions. I am relieved that I don't have to try to be conversational. I'm sure I can handle some helpful phrases and greetings.

Posted by Ray
Portland, Oregon, USA
1333 posts

@ Shirley, The French have officially dropped "mademoiselle" so you could safely use "madame" all the time. cool. that helps. last thing i want to do is piss off (PO) someone on my vacation. cant wait to use "madam" now. happy trails.

Posted by Patricia
Milwaukie, Oregon
81 posts

There are very good French language podcast lessons on radiological.com. Called Coffee Break French. And they're free! Designed to last only 20 minutes or so, building skills day to day.try them out.

Posted by Southam
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
910 posts

It will help, especially if you need it in a hurry, to know the various words for toilet. There are several, just as in English. One that confuses North Americans is the sign "w.c." borrowed from the English short form for water closet; i.e. flush toilet. Asking for the bill is a nuisance in any language, but essential. Doing a scribble motion with one hand adds visual impact and is universal.
I also want to know how to order beer, wine or coffee. Doing so will make the information in my first paragraph even more valuable.

Posted by Kim
Paris
537 posts

The most important, as Pat and Shirly noted, is to ALWAYS greet the shopkeeper/salesperson/desk attendant/maitre d' with Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur. It is very important to include the Madame/Monsieur,which will designate you as a polite person worthy of attention. Parlez-vous anglais? . at this point almost everyone will say yes and switch languages. From here you're home free!! (If you don't ask, even people who speak English could ignore you just for the point of it (I had a salesclerk tell me this directly once I speak French just fine, but somehow we got into this discussion, and he confirmed what I'd always suspected.) And a nice Merci and Au Revoir when you head out the door or finish the transaction/interaction. That's fantastic that you're meeting your penpal after a lifetime of correspondence. What a special occasion!

Posted by Robert
Portland
629 posts

I'm relieved about the mademoiselle info. I just got back from 5+ weeks in France and often hesitated when addressing a woman in a shop or other public place. A few times I said "Madame" and then wondered if maybe I shouldn't have.

Posted by Ray
Portland, Oregon, USA
1333 posts

@ kim, i fixed it for you.... The most important, as Pat and Shirly noted, is to ALWAYS greet the shopkeeper/salesperson/desk attendant/maitre d' with Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur. It is very important to include the Madame/Monsieur,which will designate you as a polite person worthy of attention. Parlez-vous anglais? . s'il vous plaît at this point almost everyone will say yes and switch languages. From here you're home free!! (If you don't ask, even people who speak English could ignore you just for the point of it (I had a salesclerk tell me this directly once I speak French just fine, but somehow we got into this discussion, and he confirmed what I'd always suspected.) And a nice Merci and Au Revoir when you head out the door or finish the transaction/interaction.
That's fantastic that you're meeting your penpal after a lifetime of correspondence. What a special occasion! happy trails.

Posted by Kim
Paris
537 posts

Funny, I've been living here for seven years and have never said Parlez-vous anglais, s'il vous plaît, but if that floats your boat, Ray, go for it. It doesn't sound like a normal construction to me although I suppose it might not be technically wrong.

Posted by Ray
Portland, Oregon, USA
1333 posts

@ kim, thats the way i was told to do it. Since my grammer/enlgish sucks i wont argue about the structure, but whenever i said it, no one bothered to correct or say anything wrong about using it. also, since the French is so proper, i would have thought they would have snuck a "please" in there somehow. happy trails.

Posted by Mark
Santa Barbara, CA, USA
144 posts

Kim is right. "Parlez-vous anglais, s'il vous plaît" sounds as strange in French as it would be in English. You could say "Excusez moi madame/monsieur. Parlez-vous anglais?". To the OP, don't worry about it. Your French hosts I am sure know perfectly that you come from a different culture and won't comply to their regional ways of greeting people.

Posted by Marty
Rockville, MD, USA
70 posts

I was in France (specifically Normandy) for the first time a few weeks ago. Everyone has mentioned the formality and it's so true and was hard for me to get used to. Since you have time, see if your public library subscribes to Mango or something similar where you can listen to French lessons that focus on things a traveler will need to ask or understand. I wish I had spent more time listening to audio lessons (you will hear more French than you will need to read). I did find my brain resurrected pathways to long-forgotten college French which was one of the most amazing aspects of the trip. Meanwhile my husband and sons were managing just fine by pointing to their selections on the menu. You can buy a phrasebook if you like, sort of as a backup plan, but we managed without one. Oh, and "l'addition, s'il vous plait" is how you ask for the check after a meal, but pantomiming writing with a pen on a pad gets you there too. Have a great trip!

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
631 posts

In any country the four phrases you need are: Hello, Goodbye, Excuse me and Do you speak English. This should be explained to every American leaving the U.S.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2684 posts

Maybe "they" told you to say "parlez anglais" with the "please" at the end. That's the Command form... of course, it's just polite to add "please" after the command request.

Posted by Ray
Portland, Oregon, USA
1333 posts

hi again, i was raised saying Please, in addition to the others like thank you and so forth, but i guess its not as common outside of the US or its implied in other languages or their syntax, grammar or whatever is different. happy trails.

Posted by Bets
Bloomington
1964 posts

I don't think the SVP is too out of line. It's used not only as "please" as in "could I ask you to pass the salt, please" but also as an interjection to gain someone's attention at the beginning of a request as in s'il vous plait madame, est-ce que.... Of course in English this sounds strange to us if we translate it. However, after 36 years of marriage to a Frenchman, he and I are still discovering formulaic phrases that sound strange when said in the other person's native tongue.

Posted by christine
TAVEL, Provence, France
7 posts

Hi Shawn I am a French native and since I have a Bed and Brekafast next to Avignon I have this kind of question and will also give some remark some of the American have made to me. you can expect all French under 50's to speak some English and all under 35's to speak good English. Shaking hands will be a good compromise if you do not want to air kiss, but a hug will be much appreciated if you are a close to the person. Nevertheless men to mem do not kiss except if tey are from the same familu or very very close friends. We are attached to politeness, no much noise, saying hello, goodbye, please and thank you to everyone even people you may cross in the village streets and children you do not know. In town is not as "social" you do ot great people in the streets except if you know them. But gettin in and out restaurants, shope, etc... or asking some direction then manners are expected. Being smaily will do a lot already ! I am sure you will be great !
Christine

Posted by shawn
north canton, ohio, usa
48 posts

Christine,
Merci beaucoup! I much appreciate your advice. This information is very helpful especially the etiquette for a small town. We are looking forward to meeting many friendly people like you on our trip. Shawn

Posted by Denny
Columbus, OH, USA
733 posts

I had the same concerns as Robert. On a similar note, in Munich I asked the fellows at the table nearby how to address the waitress of an unitentifiable age or marital status. Frankly, I don't recall the actual answer except that he adamantly insisted I not call her Fräulein, as that had shady connotations. That part stuck.

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2155 posts

It's true that you need to be careful with your phrasing when you can't really speak the language. I once asked a waiter, "Haben sie eine toilette?" His smart arse answer was, "Ja, zwei!" I really just wanted to be pointed in the direction of the facilities. :)