Traveler’s French in Four Phrases

Now what, you may ask, is the interest of learning a small measure of French? Those of you who have traveled to France can relate to the frustration of waiting years to use your high school French knowledge, only to be rebuffed with English by a smug crêpe seller. Moreover, they only speak French in that one European country — Paris, or something. Mandarin Chinese is much more practical.

French, the language of love and sex and croissants, you might think is limited to France and various other country “bits” (southern Belgium, western Luxembourg, western Switzerland, eastern Canada). Furthermore, French is one of the six official languages of the U.N., and one of only two official languages of the E.U. You can discuss politics with ambassadors — how much more practical could you get?

Fortunately, France engaged in a long and proud history of colonization and exploitation all over the world, so today you can also nasalize your vowels in parts of the Caribbean (think Martinique and Haiti), South America (French Guyana), North and Western Africa (Morocco and  Senegal) and Asia (Vietnam, if you’re lucky enough to encounter someone born under the colonial rule). In many of these regions, French is  very useful, and much more widespread than English. For instance, after only a week of living in Tunisia, I had already made French my everyday parlance. Furthermore, people in these areas are much less, well, French — meaning they won’t respond to your attempts at French with English. Unfortunately, France is not always an ideal place to practice your French.

For your traveling ease, I have simplified the entire French language into only four phrases.

Why only four, you may ask? Granted, some meaning may be lost, but I am sure you can recall the last time that you prepared for a trip, scouring travel guides with the intention of memorizing every possibly useful Thai/Greek/Arabic word. How many of those phrases actually proved useful?

For instance, a confused face easily conveys “je ne comprends pas.” Also, “Parlez-vous anglais?” is fairly useless, because the English-speaking accent in French is quite distinct. Also, unfortunately, Americans, at least, are easily spotted abroad, even before they begin to talk.

Neither do I advise learning no French, however. Learning another language, even in small portions, gives you unprecedented access to the culture you are visiting. Taking the effort to say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” shows new people that you care about them and their culture. In short, slim down your vocabulary so you can focus on the traveling.

Our bare-bones French lesson is organized in three columns: the French word, a phonetic guide, and the meaning.

***Note: letters in parentheses (e.g. (e)) are nasalized vowels, meaning that you should take a vowel sound, and move it up into your nasal cavity—try to make the sound come partly out of your nose. This is the secret of the accent français.

Combien?                                                  Comb-bee-(eh)                                          How much is it?

Bonjour.                                                     B(owe)-joo-er                                            Hello.

Merci.                                                         Mare-see.                                                   Thank you.

S’il vous plait.                                          See voo play                                              Please

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About the author: Sarah Jenkins

Sarah Jenkins caught the travel bug early in life, and has traveled in Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa, in addition to living in France, Austria, and Tunisia. When she's not writing, reading, or drinking tea, she can be found teaching English Language Development to middle and high school students in Denver, Colorado. With students from around the world, Sarah is lucky enough to be able to “travel” everyday.

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