French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, spoken in France, Switzerland, Canada, various African countries, some Asian countries, and a number of Caribbean Islands. Knowing just a few simple French phrases will go a long way in getting along in any of these countries. People respond very favorably when travelers try to speak their language, even if it’s not perfect.
First, a few notes about pronunciation in French… “J” is often pronounced as “zh”, or the second “g” in “garage”. “N” in French is similar to the “n” in Ron, without touching the tip of the tongue to the top of the palate. The vocalization is more in the back of the throat than in the front of the mouth. The nasal “n” in French is indicated below by ň.
The “r” in French is vocalized in the back of the throat also by touching the back of the tongue to the back of the throat. It’s almost a slight choking sound and takes a little getting used to for native English speakers. That sound is indicated by ř in the pronunciations below.
Not all French phrase books emphasize the core phrases you really need to know. I chose these phrases based on my own experience while living in France.
Yes – Oui (we)
No – Non (noň)
Maybe – Peut-être (puh-teh-třuh)
Ma’am – Madame – (mah-dahm)
Miss – Mademoiselle (mah-dahm-mwa-zel)
Sir – Monsieur (muh-syooř)
If you learn nothing else, learn these polite phrases.
Excuse me – Excusez-moi (Eks-kyoo-zay mwa)
Please – S’il vous plait. (seel voo pleh)
Thank you – Merci (maiř-see) or Thank you very much – Merci beaucoup (maiř-see boh-koo)
You’re welcome. – Il n’y a pas de quoi. (eel nee ah pah duh kwah.)
Another way to say “you’re welcome” is: De rien – (duh řee-ehn)
I’m sorry. – Je suis désolé(e) (zhuh swee deh-zoh-leh)
Getting to Know People
Whether greeting a store clerk, your waiter, or anyone you meet, these few phrases are perfect when getting to know people. It’s good manners when entering a small shop to say “good morning (or evening) ma’am (or sir)”.
Good morning – Bon jour (bohň zhooř)
Good evening – Bon soir (bohň swahř)
How are you? – Comment allez-vous? (kōmahň-taleh voo?)
How’s it going? (to a friend) – Ça va? (sah vah)
Very well, thank you. And you? – Très bien, merci. Et vous? (treh bee-ehň, maiř -see. Eh voo?)
Comment vous appelez-vous? – What is your name? (kōmahň voo-zahpel-eh voo?)
My name is… – Je m’appelle… (zhuh mah-pel…)
Good-bye (see you around) – Au revoir. (Oh řay vwař.)
Good-bye – Adieu (ah-dyuh)
Questions and Answers
Often, just using hand gestures will convey your meaning. If you have a few basic question and answer phrases to go with the gestures, you can sometimes get the idea across. It’s a good idea to preface these phrases with s’il vous plait (please) and either madame or monsieur.
Where is…? – Où est…? (oo eh…?)
Where can I…? – Où puis-je…? (oo pweezh)
Here – Ici (ee-see)
There – Là (lah)
There is/are… – Il y a… (eel ee ah)
Who – Qui (kee)
What – Quelle (kel) or Quoi (kwah), depending on how it’s used
When – Quand (kahň)
Why – Pourquoi (poor-qwah)
How – Comment (kōmahň)
I need… – J’ai besoin de… (zhay behzwahň deh…)
I want… – Je veut… (zhuh vuh…)
Or more politely, say:
I would like… — Je voudrais… (zhuh voo dřeh…)
I have to… — Il faut que… (eel foh kuh…)
Do you have…? – Avez vous…? (ah-vay voo)
Give me… – Donnez-moi… (duhnay mwa…)
How much… – Combien…? (kom-bee-uhň)
Is it…? – Est-ce que c’est…? (ess kuh seh…)
It is… – C’est… (seh…)
Here (it) is – Voici (vwa-see)
There it is – Voilà (vwa-lah) I hear this mispronounced a lot on TV. It is pronounced vwa-la, not va-la.
When in doubt, use these phrases.
I don’t know – Je ne sais pas. (zhuh nuh seh pah)
I don’t understand – Je ne comprends pas. (zhuh nuh compreň pah)
I understand – Je comprends. (zhuh compreň)
Do you know…? – Savez vous…? (saveh voo?)
Do you speak English? – Parlez-vous anglais? (parleh voo aňgleh?)
Where to Learn More French
Besides the basic words and phrases above, continue to learn more advanced phrases in French, including how to order off a menu, how to reserve a hotel room, and definitely learn how to say numbers in French. There are a number of websites where you can learn French for free, such as Bonjour.com, LsFrench.com, and FrenchTutorial.com, which is a bit more advanced. These sites let you hear real French speakers saying the words to help you with your pronunciation.