Maybe you passed high school or even college French, but speaking like the locals is something quite different from what we learn in the books. I don’t pretend to speak like I was born here, but I generally get by sans problème.
We’ve talked about phrases that will save you money in Paris, but there are also a few essential words to know so you won’t feel totally lost when you’re exploring the city
Five vital French phrases
First, five indispensable phrases that will take you well outside the leagues of thoughtless tourists who never even attempt a word of French (and then complain of ill-treatment in France). Use these basics in almost every interaction and we guarantee that your entire trip will go more smoothly.
Best of all, they’re simple… and you probably already know them. Now use them!
1. “Bonjour / Bonsoir” | Hello / Good evening
(bone-jure / bone-swar)
Begin every human interaction with a simple hello or good evening. Don’t get caught up in the temporal boundaries surrounding both. Some people say bonjour until 7 p.m., others start bonsoir around 4 p.m. It’s a weird game, but as long as you use one of them when greeting a person, you’ll be safe.
Bonus: Entering a shop or interacting with a stranger? Show a touch more respect by adding “Monsieur” or “Madame” (miss-your / meh-damm). Thus: “Bonsoir, Madame.”
2. “Merci” | Thank you
Don’t be shy on this one. Thank people left and right, just like you would back home. A waiter places your coffee in front of you? Don’t remain quiet, say “Merci!” Someone holds the door? “Merci!” The nice lady hands you an ice cream cone at Berthillon? “Merci!”
Bonus: Add the “Monsieur” or “Madame” to class it up. “Merci, Madame.”
3. “Au revoir” | Goodbye
You’ve entered a shop, bakery, or restaurant, said your “Bonjour, Madame” and responded with a “merci,” when your order was brought to you. Now, get out of there with all of your manners intact by saying “Au revoir.”
Bonus: You guessed it–class it up with Monsieur or Madame.
4. “Pardon” | Excuse me
Getting off a train, pushing through a crowd, knocking into someone while reaching for a jar of mustard at the supermarket – simply say pardon with a cheery assertiveness and you don’t need to feel bad about shoving someone around a little bit.
Don’t try to say sorry (“désolé”) because you don’t need to apologize for getting out of the Metro. Save that for when you do something really reprehensible in France… like cut bread with a knife.
5. “Est-ce que vous parlez anglais?” | Do you speak English?
(ess-ka voo par-lay on-glay?)
This one is a dead giveaway that you’re not French, but who are we trying to kid ? Asking if someone speaks English, preceded by a “bonjour” of course, is never a bad thing. Many French people will switch seamlessly into English. Others, not so much.
Here’s the thing: It’s respectful to ask someone in their own language if they speak your language. If you just barrel forth in English first thing, you’ll come off as obnoxious. Just ask, and everyone will be happy.
Learn these phrases to navigate everyday situations in Paris and throughout France:
6. “Ça va?” | How are you?
Forget the “comment allez-vous” of textbook fame. A simple, “ça va?” is all it takes to ask someone how they’re doing. Ask it with your voice going up at the end. And the response couldn’t be easier — simply repeat “ça va” with your voice falling. It means both “how you doin’?” and “I’m fine, thanks”, depending on your intonation.
So yes, you’re having an entire conversation using just two words. Really simple.
7. “C’est combien?” | How much is it?
When it comes to prices and asking about money issues, save the stress for the numbers themselves. “How much is it?” is all you need to know, so point, say the phrase, and then prepare to fumble over the numbers.
8. “Café / noisette / café crème / cappuccino / allongé”
(caff-ay / nwah-set / caff-ay krem / cap-oo-chino / eh-lawn-jay)
Know your coffee order! If you just order a café, that’s a little cup of black espresso and milk isn’t served alongside it. If you want a touch of milk, order a “noisette.” A larger black coffee? That’s an “allongé,” and with milk it’s a “café crème.
There are plenty of great cafes in Paris to test out your French, including these shops that serve excellent coffee.
9. “Je vais prendre…” | I’ll take…
(zh’uh vay prawn-dra)
At a café, a restaurant, or even at a market, this phrase simply means, “I’ll have…” followed by the item you’d like. You’ll hear more advanced (and proper) derivations (je prendrais, je voudrais, j’aimerais) but let’s just keep it simple.
10. “Où est…” | Where is…
Every Parisian knows that you should never ask another Parisian for directions – they invariably point you the wrong way, even if by accident. Still, if you need to tempt fate, a simple “Where is” followed by your destination is all it takes.
Bonus: Make it proper! Throw in, “Excusez-moi, Monsieur. Où est…?” And naturally, end with a “Merci!”
11. “Vous prenez la carte bleue?” | Do you take bank cards?
(voo pren-ay la cart bluh)
Using bank cards (“carte bleue”) to pay isn’t always easy in France. A lot of establishments require a minimum charge around €10-15, so it’s best to ask first before assuming they’ll take it. They’ll tell you it’s accepted “à partir de 10 euros,” or starting at 10 euros. You can also ask, “Vous prenez l’American Express?” but expect “Non” 90% of the time.
12. “Une baguette tradition, s’il vous plait.” | A “tradition” baguette, please.
(Oohn bag-ett tra-diss-eon, see voo play)
When ordering your bread, you always want the baguette that is called the “tradition” if there are multiple options. In Paris, ordering a regular baguette is possible, too, but it’s rarely as good.
13. “Le Métro le plus proche?” | The closest Metro?
(Le Metro le ploo pro-shh)
Asking someone in the street where the closest Metro should be easy. “The closest metro?” is all you need to help orient you towards Paris’ underground transportation system. Getting directions from Parisians on the street can feel hopeless, but they do know how to use their Metro.
14. “Une carafe de vin/d’eau” | A carafe of wine / water
(oohn care-aff de ven / doe)
Asking for a carafe of house wine or free tap water is one of our hallmark tips. In fact, buying a bottle of water when dining out is one of the biggest rookie mistakes you can make in Paris.
Don’t buy a bottle of wine or “mineral water” (Evian) unless you really, really think you need it. House wine and tap water are cheaper and perfectly good. Use this phrase liberally… well, in restaurants and cafés at least.
15. “Pourriez-vous me prendre en photo ?” | Could you please take a photo of me?
(Pour-ee-ay voo meh prawn-dra en photo?)
Ditch the selfie sticks, please. (Seriously, they get in everyone’s way and look silly.) Ask a stranger in the street if they can take your photo and maybe you’ll make a new friend. If nothing else, it’s a chance to use your French.
16. “Est-ce qu’il y a une grève aujourd’hui?” | Is there a strike today?
(Ess-kill-ee-ah oohn grev oh-zhor-dwee?)
This is an important one for anyone planning a day of travel. Asking if there is a strike (“grève”) today is always a good idea since the French are kind of known for striking. If there is a delay on the trains or a big crowd gathering, it can’t hurt to ask a passerby, though it just might be a “manifestation,” or a demonstration, unrelated to a strike.
17. “Non, je ne parle pas anglais” | No, I don’t speak English.
(Non, zhe ne parl paw on-glay)
This one is super useful when scam artists ask you if you speak English, trying to get you to sign their fake petitions. Telling them that you don’t speak English is a great way to get them to leave you alone.
18. “Est-ce que vous vendez [item] ici?” | Do you sell [something] here?
(Ess-ka voo von-day [item] ee-see)
Sometimes you need bandages. Maybe a certain brand of notebooks. Maybe you’re searching for The Cat in the Hat in French. Asking if they sell the item in their store will save you the time of searching through the boutique yourself – just don’t forget your bonjour!
19. “Ce sera tout, juste l’addition, s’il vous plaît” | That will be all, just the bill, please.
(Se sair-ah too, zhoost l’ah-diss-ee-on, see voo play)
Often ending a meal in France can be a long ordeal, but when you want to go, you want to go. Then there’s the issue of getting the ever-evasive bill. After your main course has been cleared, you’ll often be asked if you want a dessert, a coffee, a digestif, etc. Just respond with this phrase, and they’ll bring the check quickly… sometimes.
20. “Je suis crevé/Je suis fatigué/Je suis HS” | I’m exhausted / tired / “out of service”
(Zhe swee crev-ay / fat-ee-gay / ah’sh-ess)
If you’re going to be in Paris, you have to let everyone know that you’re tired. That’s just the rule. Ask a French person how it’s going (see phrase 6), and they’ll often tell you in one way or another how tired they are. Maybe they just got back from work, maybe they just got back from vacation – it doesn’t matter, they’re always tired or HS (“hors service” or “out of service”). If you want to fit in, use these phrases liberally.
21. “Je suis désolé, j’ai pas de monnaie.” | I’m sorry, I don’t have any change.
(Zhe swee day-sew-lay, zhay pa de moan-ay)
Often you’ll find yourself paying a small sum with a very large bill. The French aren’t huge fans of this because it requires them to count out change. Anytime I pay with a 50 euro bill, I always apologize first and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any smaller money,” to let them know that I understand that it’s annoying, and it seems to prevent any feathers from getting too ruffled.
22. “C’est pas possible.” | It’s not possible.
(Say pa pose-ee-bl)
“It’s not possible.” Perhaps one of the most frequently used phrases to express irritation. When a crying child gets on the Metro, for example, you’ll say it to yourself to express irritation. It’s best muttered under your breath, but loudly enough so that others can hear. The French apparently think many things are not possible, even as they are witnessing said things happen.