Written by Saria Eid

Paris cafe

We think it’s never too early to start planning a trip. Even this year. Unsurprisingly, our French connections mean we feel everyone should visit le beau Paris at some point. Pourquoi? Because there’s nowhere like it.

The rusty remains of your schoolbook French (Regarde! La pomme arrive!) may not cut it when you need to actually navigate the City of Lights. To help you make sense of things, you could arm yourself with Google Translate, go old-school with a phrasebook or swot up in advance with Duolingo or Memrise.

Or… simply soak up this bloobloom Essential French Phrase Guide a.k.a. how not to look like an idiot abroad. Because, however bad your pronunciation or wrong your words, just making an effort tells the locals you genuinely want to connect. Alors, on commence (Let’s begin)!


Hello – Bonjour (Good day)
This is your catch-all. Even if you forget absolutely everything else, there’s always nod, smile, Bonjour. Later in the day, the French say Bonsoir (Good evening). When in doubt, simply repeat the greeting the French person says to you.

Hi – Salut
Use this with friends and people your own age or younger. French is more formal than English, so it’s safer to aim for over-polite than too casual. While you might happily say ‘Hi!’ to the nice lady at the post office, stick with Bonjour Madame at the bureau de poste to guarantee your parcel makes it.

Please – S’il vous plaît

Thank you (very much) – Merci (beaucoup)

Okay, so you know these already. If someone thanks you back, just say De rien (literally ‘it’s nothing’) which means ‘You’re welcome’ and makes you sound wonderfully confident.

Excuse me / Sorry

  • Excusez-moi (Excuse me) – If you want to catch the attention of that ticket guy who keeps ignoring you.
  • Pardon – If you didn’t understand something someone just said to you in very fast French. Also good for apologising when you accidentally bump a local while skipping down a boulevard pretending you’re in Amélie.
  • Desolé(e) – Your basic ‘sorry’. (The final extra ‘e’ indicates a female speaker. Without, it’s male. You can’t hear the difference when spoken, only see it when written. Relax – gender in French language is a whole other Journal post.)

Yes/No - Oui (wee) and Non (naw). Simple.


If you’re a beginner Frenchie relying heavily on a translation app, that’s cool. Just make it clear in case people haven’t guessed. You’d be surprised how many of them are dying to demo their English.

Sorry, I don’t understand.
Desolé, je ne comprends pas.

Sorry, I don’t speak French.
Desolé, je ne parle pas français.

Do you speak English?
Parlez-vous anglais?

And if they ask you if you speak French, you can always say Un petit peu, holding up your thumb and forefinger millimetres apart, in the international gesture for ‘shockingly little’. But hey, if you master the phrases on this page, you’re doing great.

Assuming you ARE a tourist, you’ll want to feast your eyes on all the lush monuments, parks, galleries, museums and restaurants across Paris. First, you need to get there.

Where is the airport / train station / metro station?
Où est l’aéroport / la gare / la station de métro?

And when you reach that cool cafe or brasserie, make like a local by asking properly for everything. (Better consult an app to decode the menu.) Avoid the clichéd movie finger-snap and yell of ‘GARCON!’ across the tables. A quiet L’addition, s’il vous plait (‘The bill, please’) will win you loads more waiter points.

To request what you want, what you really really want, whether it’s coffee, beer or that massive ham + cheese baguette over there, all you need is:

I would like…
Je voudrais…


It’s hard enough trying to remember the correct word order, tenses, pronunciation etc. when you’re new to French. And as with every language, the locals like to add a layer of slang on top. It’s something non-native speakers usually only learn once they’re quite advanced, but we thought we’d share a few examples:

‘pal’ or ‘chum’ – a more casual word for ami (friend)

La bouffe / bouffer
‘grub’ / ‘to eat’ – but you’d only say it with your potes

Gueule de bois
Literally ‘a wooden mouth’ – it means ‘hangover’. You can see why.

Faire chier
Ça me fait chier translates as ‘that makes me want to crap’ i.e. when something/one is really annoying you. Never say it to your Maman.

Not forgetting upside-down slang

Did you know French has a whole slang sub-category called Verlan? Verlan involves simply saying things back-to-front. The name Verlan itself is just Á l’envers – the French phrase for backwards or upside-down –swapped around. Try saying it, dropping the Á. See?

So it turns femme (woman) into meuf, and merci (thanks) into cimer and… NE PANIQUE PAS! It’s slang, so you’re not expected to know it. But it’s fun, so we thought we’d mention it.


If you happen to be in Paris while facemasks are still à la mode, you’ll have the opportunity to use one of France’s most famous languages: le mime.

Bon Voyage!
PHOTOS: Bram Naus

WORDS: Eileen MacCallum