In my years traveling and working in France, I’ve observed many Americans clumsily attempt to craft phrases in French while ordering in restaurants, purchasing museum tickets, or asking directions to La Tour Eiffel. Do the French turn up their nose? Do they walk away in a huff, disgusted by the American’s lack of linguistic finesse? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I’ve found that most French are flattered, touched even, when tourists attempt to converse with them in their langue maternelle (native tongue). The reason for this is that the French language is an extremely important part of French culture and identity. The beauty and accuracy of the language is a great source of pride for the French. If you understand this, and treat both the French language and the French themselves with respect, you will be a real vedette (star) during your stay!
Of course, as is the case in any country, you should absolutely expect to come across the occasional waiter who has dealt with his fair share of touristes that day and is not at all interested in listening to you massacre the words fruits de mer (seafood). However, as a general rule, I’ve found that the French are more than willing to wade through your foreign accent to try to understand what you’re saying. Don’t be surprised if they correct you, and take this as a compliment (it means you’re “worth” their time). Also keep in mind that most French people speak at least a bit of English, and that they might be just as excited to try out their English on you as you are to converse in French.
In short, if you’re interested in trying your hand at the French language with a few phrases while you’re traveling, I’d say give it a go! You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the connections you make with locals. A piece of advice I wish I’d had when I made my first foray into French culture at the age of 19 was that a simple “bonjour” goes a long way. When walking into any place of business, the French expect both client and vendor/host to exchange a courteous “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur.” Though this may seem formal to us Americans who fly in and out of the local supermarket, gabbing on our cell phones, barely even making eye contact with the cashier, the French consider this simple, sincere exchange to be the pre-requisite for any transaction or conversation to follow.
The French have two words that mean “you.” The word “Tu” is reserved for relatives and close friends or co-workers, while “vous” is used more formally, with elders, strangers, and co-workers with whom you are not as familiar. As I always tell my students, when in doubt, default to “vous,” especially when traveling.
So, what comes next? If you are serious about speaking some French on your trip, I would also suggest investing in a few sessions with a private French tutor before hopping across the pond. In most cases, this will help you to understand the mechanics of the language and pronunciation better than self-study alone. Most importantly, be brave! Chances are that if you step out of your comfort zone and try a bit of the French langage, you’ll have a satisfying exchange.
Bonne chance et bon voyage!