Imagine ordering your petit-déjeuner (breakfast) or buying your billet (ticket) to the Louvre all in French? Use these handy French phrases and make your trip extra special.
Learning some French will offer you further insight into the French culture, mentality, and way of life. The ability to speak even un peu français (a little bit of French) will enhance your experience and open the doors to unique connections with the locals.
France is the world’s top tourist destination, attracting more than 79,5 million visitors a year! That’s why French is the next language in my travel phrase guide series.
Not only that but knowing French also comes in handy when travelling to Africa, Switzerland, Canada, Monaco, French Polynesia, the Seychelles amongst other places.
Let’s take a quick look at the French language so you’re a bit more clued up on its origin, use, and vocabulary.
I hope you enjoy this post as much as I enjoyed bringing it together. If you have any requests for other languages, let me know in the comments section!
Where is French spoken?
Did you know that more than 354 million people speak French on five continents?
That’s a lot of Bonjour-ing!
French is the third most spoken language in Europe, after German and English and has official-language status in 29 countries, including Belgium, Haiti, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Monaco, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Canada, Mali plus many other. It’s even one of six official languages of the United Nations.
It seems like nearly everyone wants to learn French, it’s the only language, alongside English, that is taught in every country in the world!
And the best way to learn it? Well, France operates the biggest international network of cultural institutes, which run French-language courses close to a million learners.
A Brief History of French
Way back in 842 AD French first appeared in writing. Before then, Latin was the language used for literature throughout Europe. Later, during the 10th and 11th centuries, French appeared in a number of documents and religious writings. However, French literature didn’t start to take off until the late 12th and early 13th century.
The French and English languages have a pretty mixed-up history. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, Norman French was adopted as the language of power on the British Isles.
For the next 400 years, French was the language of the nobility and of most official documents. King Henry V put a stop to that when he went to war with France, but because the two languages existed in parallel for so long, the English language is peppered with words of French origin, many of which can be traced back to French roots. This means that you actually already know a lot of French, even if you don’t think you do.
Now for the tricky stuff!
The French alphabet looks very similar to the English alphabet, but there are a few key differences.
There is a total of 26 letters in the French alphabet. Standard French contains 13 oral vowels and up to 4 nasal vowels, but there are 5 additional accented letters that can be applied to change the sound of a letter.
Here are some helpful pronunciation tips:
One of the fundamental rules of pronouncing French (and many other Latin-based languages) is that everything has to flow. That’s one of the reasons why French sounds so beautiful.
If you’re speaking French correctly, everything should sound like a continuous melody.
That’s where liaisons come in.
Liaisons are a phonetic link between two words that may sound awkward if left unconnected.
Let’s take a look at some examples where they are used when speaking:
- After pronouns e.g. vous avez sounds like vooz-ah-vey not voo ah-vey
- Numbers and nouns e.g. deux amis sounds like derz-ah-mee not der ah-me
- One syllable prepositions e.g chez eux sounds like shez-uur not sheh uur
And liaisons that are forbidden when speaking:
- When using full names e.g.
- After et (and)
Liaisons may seem complicated at first, but they will become easier the more you listen to spoken French. After a while, you’ll automatically be able to notice where a liaison is needed (and where it isn’t) and how to make it sound natural in your speaking.
What Not to Pronounce
Much like English, the French language isn’t written phonetically. The same sound can be represented by several different combinations of letters, and there are many cases of silent French letters. Two of the most well known are the silent “e” and the silent “h.”
The Silent “e”
The letter “e” is often silent in French, especially at the end of a word. Here are some examples:
Rue (road/street) is pronounced roo not roo-ee and inacceptable (unacceptable) is pronounced an-ah-sep-tah-bil not an-ah-sep-tah-ble
Of course, there are exceptions when it comes to masculine and feminine adjectives and nouns.
In the case of feminine adjectives and nouns, this typically means that the final consonant of the masculine form will now be pronounced. So, the masculine ouvert, meaning open in the masculine form and pronounced oo-ver, will become ouverte in the feminine form and pronounced oo-vert. The ‘e’ makes the final letter sounded.
The Final Consonant
As you’ve probably already noticed, there are a tonne of French letters that simply aren’t pronounced at the end of words. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it!
In French, silent letters, or lettres muettes, have rules and exceptions just like many other linguistic concepts.
In general, the final consonants of a word are usually silent in French except in some cases of the letters c, f, l or r.
Just remember this simple rule, the consonants in the word ‘careful’ are always pronounced.
Avec (with) is pronounced ah-vek
Cinq (five) is pronounced saank
Hiver (winter) is pronounced ee-ver
The general rule regarding French word endings is that when in doubt, you probably don’t pronounce it. But, French is full of exceptions!
The Infamous “r”
For many English speakers, the French “r” can be a source of frustration. To pronounce it, you’ll need to use your throat and imagine you’re trying to gargle. The French “r” is pronounced in the same place as the English “k”, but with your throat closed.
The Silent “h”
As you’ve probably noticed from every French speaker’s failed attempt to say the word “hamburger” in English, the “h” in French is a silent letter no matter where it’s located in a word.
The only exception to this is when the preceding letter is “c,” in which case the “ch” combination makes a “sh” sound or “k” sound.
Here are a few examples of the silent “h”:
Le haricot vert (French bean) is pronounced leh ah-ree-coh ver
Huit (eight) is pronounced weet
Hiver (winter) is pronounced ee-ver
We anglophones don’t have the greatest reputation for speaking foreign languages, but French is the one language in which many of us can at least utter a few words.
Admittedly there are a few finicky grammar rules to learn, but generally speaking, English grammar corresponds relatively closely to French grammar.
Consider words in English that end with –ible and -able, these are the same in French, only the pronunciation changes. So, the French word ‘possible’ sounds like poss-ee-bleh and ‘comfortable’ becomes kom-for-tah-bleh.
Then we have English words ending in -ent and -ant which also come from French and have the same spelling and the same meaning. So, the word, différent sounds like diff-er-ohnt and important sounds like ahm-poor-tahnt. The ‘t’ at the end is just slightly sounded.
Had enough? Ok, one more! Words in English ending in -ary like contrary become -aire in French. So, ‘contrary’ becomes contraire and sounds like kon-trair.
There are so many rules like this, so you can see just how easy learning French can be.
P.S. If you’re reading this on your phone and can’t see the pronunciation column, turn it to landscape mode. For some reason tables aren’t mobile friendly. Sorry!
Want the infographic to take with you? Scroll to the bottom of the page.
|Good night||Bonne nuit||bohn nwee|
|Goodbye||Au revoir||oh rev-war|
|How are you?||Comment allez-vous?||kohm-mohn ahl-leh-voo|
|I’m well, and you?||Ça va bien, et vous?||sa va byen, eh voo|
|Good, thanks||Ça va bien, merci||sa va byen, mer-see|
|Please||S’il vous plaît||sil voo pleh|
|You’re welcome||De rien||deh ree-en|
|I’m sorry||Je suis désolé||jeh swee deh-zol-leh|
|I don’t understand||Je ne comprends pas||jehn kom-pron pah|
|Do you speak English?||Parlez-vous anglais?||par-leh-voo on-gleh|
|How much is…?||Combien coûte?||kohm-byen koot|
|Where is…?||Où c’est?||oo seht?|
|May I please have…?||Est-ce que je pourrais avoir…?||es-kerh jeh poo-ray av-war|
|I don’t eat…||Je ne mange pas de….||jehn monj pah|
|I’m a vegetarian||Je suis végétarien (masc.) / végétarienne (fem.)||je swee ve-jeh-tair-ree-an / ve-jeh-tair-ree-en|
|the bill, please||L’addition, s’il vous plaît||lah-dee-zyon, sil voo pleh|
|Straight ahead||Tout droite||too dwat|
|Turn left||Tournez à gauche||tor-ney ah gawsh|
|Turn right||Tournez à droite||tor-ney ah drwat|
|Bus stop||Arrêt de bus||ah-ret deh boos|
|Help!||À l’aide!||ah led|
|I need a doctor||J’ai besoin d’un médicin||jay bez-wahn dohn meh-deh-sahn|
|I don’t feel well||Je ne me sens pas bien||jeh neh meh sahn pah byen|
|Call the police!||Appelez la police!||ap-leh lah po-lees|
|Fire!||Au Feu!||au fur|
**There are a few places that use unique words for the numbers 70 (septante) and 90 (nonante), such as Belgium and Switzerland. With the numbers 80 to 89, combine the number 4, the number 20, and the ones.
For example, in French 80 is four 20s, 81 is four 20s plus 1, and so forth. (Unlike most French-speaking countries, Switzerland actually has a word for the number 80. It’s huitante.)
Ready to improve your French? Visit my handy language resource guide.
Plus, if you want to know how the experts learn languages, I asked 11 top polyglots to share their language learning secrets. Find out how they start learning a new language, overcome plateaus, and maintain multiple languages.
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Over to you!
Which of these French phrases are the most useful? What other languages would you like a travel phrase guide for? Have you been to a French speaking country?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
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