Help! I Don’t Speak French…

la marine paris canal saint martin

I have always been more word-orientated than numerical. This is a huge advantage when it comes to travelling. As I have hopped from country to country, I have endeavoured to learn at least a few basic words and phrases.

My most proficient second language happens to be French. I hold GCSE qualifications in both French and German but France is a country that I can’t stop returning to. The food, the people, the culture – France has it all.

If you are a first time visitor to France, you may have heard the horror stories before you go. “The waiters in Paris are rude and snooty to non-French speakers” “The people will ignore you even if you attempt to speak in their native tongue” these are two examples just for starters.

The fact is that the people in France and Paris in particular are, on the whole, lovely. They will appreciate any attempt made by visitors to their country to engage in their language. No matter how basic the word, phrase or how dubious the accent may be. Do not be scared to try.

Here are some key phrases to help win you new friends and give you confidence when in certain situations. No matter what comes out of your mouth, a smile and showing interest in what is being said will get you a long way.

Let’s begin with the basics…


To say hello it’s simply “Bonjour” (bon-jaw) or “Salut” (sal-oot) this will often be followed by “Ca va?” (sah-vah) which generally means “How are you?” The way to respond to this is “Ca va bien, merci!” (sah-vah bee-an mur-see) which means “I’m fine, thank you!”. Congratulations! You have now mastered a traditional French greeting, plus the two kisses of course.

If you happen to meet someone in the evening for example, you can adapt “Bonjour” to “Bonsoir” (bon-swah) which translates to “Good evening”. This is particularly handy when visiting a restaurant for dinner or meeting friends for drinks.

Now you’re in a shop or market. Help me! What do I say?!..

marche d'aligre paris

Quite often, if it’s a boutique shop or retail outlet, an assistant will approach and ask “Puis-je vous aider?” (pu-ees juh voo’s ay-day) which means “Can I help you?” quite often i’m just having a look around. So, if this is the case, a simple “Je cherche juste, merci” (juh shur-shay jooste mur-see) “I am just looking, thank you”  and a smile is enough to allow you to carry on browsing.

Of course, to go into more detail the language barrier starts to get a little higher. Luckily, many shops in France have staff who do speak English or various levels of other languages. In this case, you can ask “Parlez-vous Anglais?” (parlay-voo ong-lay) “Do you speak English?” and this usually makes proceedings a lot smoother.

When at a food market, the prices of certain items are not always displayed. This was very much the case at The Aligre Market in Paris. Armed with your new found confidence and broad smile, ask the vendor “Excusez-moi, combien s’il vous plaît?” (excuse-ay mwah, com-bee-an sill-voo-play?) and politely point to the product that you would like, this simply means “Excuse me, how much please?”.

Many times in my experience, the stall holder can detect the non-French lilt in my accent and will respond with the figure in English. On other occasions they have been kind enough to write down the number which really helps.

La Terrasse at Galeries Lafayette, Paris

Other key phrases that really come in handy in everyday situations while in France are as follows….

“Oui” (wee) – “Yes”

“Non” (non) – “No”

“L’addition, s’il vous plaît” (luh-addi-see-yon-sill-voo-play) “The bill, please”

“Je m’appelle” (jum-app-ell) “My name is..”

“Au revoir” (oh-rev-wah) “Goodbye”

“Je voudrais” (juh-voo-drays) “I would like..”

“Aidez-moi!” (ay-day mwah) “Help!”

“Tres bien” (tray-bee-an) “Very good”

“Je suis” (juh-swee) “I am”

Of course, this is just the basics. For additional learning, this company are just fantastic. offer a range of language courses specialising in various different languages taught by native speakers. Other highly recommended language courses can also be found at Rosetta Stone and Babbel.

Each course comes with a tutor that has the language that they teach as their first language. Complete beginners can accelerate to elementary level in just 12 sessions of two hours duration.

My confidence became so much greater the more French that I spoke in social situations when in France. Once you begin to immerse yourself in the culture and language of a foreign country, the need to know more really intensifies.

Communicating with a foreign individual in their native tongue ranks as one of the most rewarding experiences of my travelling life. With the help of Listen & Learn, this becomes so much easier.


  1. This is a very good guide to help those that may feel daunted by the prospect of visiting Paris. It is as you’ve mentioned always helpful to have a few phrases whilst over there. The locals may smile as they enjoy hearing us speak French with a slight English accent!

    • Thank you!It’s definitely useful to have a few phrases to get by with. The French people are so lovely that they will appreciate any effort to communicate.


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