French Decoded: Learning The Language


A French statute expounds on language.

Read on to learn 5 critical French phrases.

Those who follow our pages on a regular basis (thank you very much) may have noticed a period of inactivity here a couple weeks back. No, I didn’t come down with a severe case of writer’s block. Rather, I was on a vacation. I went to Nice, a beautiful city which lies on the Mediterranean coast of France.


As one who never studied French before I have to admit I was apprehensive about traveling and getting around the country. Would the people be friendly? Would they speak enough English so I could do basic things like order at restaurants or get directions to local attractions. Not wanting to leave my fate to chance, I decided I needed to take on a self-study crash course to learn the lingo. Here’s how it all went down, plus the 5 critical words/phrases you’ll want to know if you ever go to visit.


Though my time was limited I knew if I studied hard I’d at least come up with a few basic phrases to help smooth the way. Naturally, I loaded up on several French phrase books, not to mention a couple cool translation apps for my phone.  Here’s how it looked that very first day:



Learning French the American way.

My first lesson in French wasn't pretty.



And here’s how it looked on all the days that followed:



Learning French the American way.

Day 16. Day 32. Day 54 - The day before we left for France.



Truth be told, my study habits quickly devolved:



Learning French by osmosis.



Finally, the big day arrived and my wife and I jetted off to France. Having failed the test of self-study, I realized my fate was now in the hands of my dear spouse who had studied much harder than I had, my son who lives in France and promised to show us around, and those we’d meet along the way. In the end, all my worry was for naught. My wife graciously did her best to prove we cared enough to make an effort, my son deftly handled most questions at restaurants and other social situations with a shockingly practiced flair, and most everyone we met was extremely kind and spoke some English when we needed it. As it turned out, my major role was to smile and nod. Believe me, I quickly became an expert.



Nice is part of the French Riviera.

There's no doubt: "Nice" was nice and the French were terrific!



Lest you think I’m a complete failure at French, I do want to leave off with 5 critical words/phrases I learned that will serve wonders should you ever end up visiting. Here goes:


(1) As you finish your meal at a restaurant do not expect to have the bill delivered to you until you ask for it. The phrase you need to know  is, “L’addition si’l vous plait.” This is pronounced, “Ladeesyon, seel voo play.” If you feel even this is too much French to retain, catch the waiter’s eye, hold your hand up so he or she can see it, and proceed to sign your name in the air. If you’ve ever played an “air guitar” you’ll be a natural.


(2) As it turns out, the French aren’t snobs as you may have been led to believe, but they do maintain a level of formality—at least initially. Thus, adding the words, “s’il vous plait” for please after everything is a must. For example, you might say something like “Could you damn well speak English, si’l vous plait?”


(3) Just as please is a critical word to add when asking for something, saying thank you is equally important. “Merci” pronounced “mersee” is the word you want to use to say, “thanks.”  As an example, should someone ask how you’re doing, they’d say “Comment allez-vous?” (komo talay voo?) and you’d say something like “Tres bien, merci!” (tray bya, mersee!) for “Very well, thanks!” Or you might say something like, “I’d be doing a whole lot better if I understood a word you were saying, merci!”


Studying up on French and France.

I would advise getting a good French phrase book to carry with you. Mine was helpful on several occasions.

(4) For the most part, rather than ignore people passing on the street, the French expect you to say “Good day!” And as it’s always safer to say it formerly, you will want to add either Madam or Sir on the end. Thus, if you pass a woman you would say, “Bonjour, Madame!” (boh-zhoor mah dahm). Only when you are certain the woman is unmarried would you use “Mademoiselle” (madh-mwah-zel) instead of Madame. If you pass a man the phrase is “Bonjour, Monsieur!” (boh-zhoor muh-see-uh). Incidentally, the word bonjour is good for either good morning or good day. In the evening the word to use would be bonsoir (boh-swahr). Note: It’s not necessary to address cats, dogs or other critters formerly. However, as you never know how attached an owner may be to their precious little “chien” (i.e. dog) it couldn’t hurt, either.



(5) What group of critical words and phrases would be complete without including the ever popular, “Where’s the bathroom?”  The French equivalent is, ” Ou sont les toilettes?” (Oo son lay twalet?). Of course, it never hurts to add please, as in “Ou sont les toilettes, s’il vous plait?” Should even this fail, you can always resort to shouting, “Toilettes! Toilettes!” as you frantically point to your crotch and jump up an down. FYI: “Oui, oui!” (wee wee) is not relevant here as it translates to “Yes, yes!”


You should now be set for your next adventure to France, but just in case you still feel unprepared I’m going to add a special bonus phrase at no additional cost. Yes, I realize this means I can’t count to five, but believe me you won’t care the first time you need it. The phrase is bound to get good use, too, since the first time you hear a French person speaking their native tongue you won’t have the slightest clue what was said. The French equivalent of “I don’t understand!” is thus a final critical phrase to add to your ever-expanding French vocabulary.  For that, you say, “Je ne comprends pas!” (Juh nuh kom-pron pa). But don’t worry, should you forget it a slightly dazed and confused expression works just as well.


That’s all for now folks. Good luck and “Au revoir!” (oh ruh-vwahr).


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