Studying French in school for 10 years verses living in a French speaking country and navigating through that same language are two very different things. Very quickly I noticed that native French speakers speak with a very different accent than my peers who have the same "English" French accent. Every day language, just like in English, is quick and can constantly jump from one subject to the next without hesitation. People tend to shorten words and speak in slang, which are not things that one learns from a textbook. Learning in school was mostly written French, but speaking it, however, is almost an entirely other language. Taking the knowledge of the things that I know on paper and using it to form words for communication, can often be a big challenge.
I want to teach you some tips and phrases that you should know, for spending time in a French speaking country. These little hints can help you to blend in a little better when you travel, and help you to stand out less as a foreigner.
Here in France, whenever a client enters a store, restaurant or professional workplace, the workers are expected to say hello, and the client is supposed to respond with a hello back. This seems pretty normal, but here is the catch: Hello, translated to "good day," is said differently, depending on what time of day it is. If it is morning or afternoon, you will say "bonjour," but as soon as evening comes around, the proper response is now "bonsoir" - good evening. It's a little detail, but this common mistake makes foreigners stand out like crazy.
This is another important phrase. Saying goodbye doesn't actually change, but is said a lot more frequently than in an English speaking country. From getting off a bus, looking over the shoulder and saying "au revoir" to the bus driver, to a delivery man dropping off a package to the house, "au revoir" is the polite and almost expected response to those who you part ways with, even if you don't really know them. Also, when pronounced, it is not spoken as two separate words, but rather just one, sounding like "oh-vwa."
Here is another weird one - at least to me. The word "salut" (pronnounced sa-loo) is said to friends, people that you know or those have just been introduced to by a friend, for the most part. Bonjour is a little bit too formal to say among friends. It is often said when giving a greeting kiss or when you enter into a room of friends. Here is the twist - you can also say "salut" as a greeting when you leave. I know, crazy right??
Here is something that every person is going to need to know at some point. My dad used to joke around and say that the only french that he knew was "Où est le toilet?" but in reality, it's an important phrase to know. In school, we were taught that the toilet was the "salle de bain," while in fact that translates to "room of the bath." If you ask for the "salle de bain" in a restaurant, people will look at you funny, as public toilets do not include baths. The most common way to phrase your search for the toilet is "Le toilet, c'est où?" (The toilet, it is where?) Give that one a shot next time you are in search to relieve yourself. On a side note, if you are searching for a toilet in a public building like a mall or airport, there is a high probability you will have to pay about €0.50 to use one. Just a heads up, so be sure to carry change on you.
5. You Come From Where?
Unless you were born in a French speaking country, if you are speaking French as a second language, people will almost always be able to identify that you have an accent. You may be asked, "Vous viennez d'òu?"(You come from where?) or "Vous êtes de quelle origine?" (You are of what origin?) These were some of the most confusing things people would asked me when I first arrived, as I had never heard these questions phrased like this before. Now you've heard them and will be prepared when someone asks about your nationality. By the way, your response to the question is: Je viens de Canada (or whatever Country you may be from).
6. Ordering Food
When you would like to order something, most locals say, "je prends," before they describe what they would like. This literally translates to "I'll take." Ordering stuff over a counter always makes me feel a little uneasy, as I'm not necessarily using the every day language that I'm comfortable with. Hopefully this little pointer will help you out a little bit.
7. If You Please
Most commonly, people know the phrase "please" to be, "s'il vous plaît/s'il te plaît." This is, in fact, how you say please, however the direct translation in English means, "If You Please." Because this is the case, it can mean more than just "please." You may hear people saying this to you if you make a purchase and they give you change or a receipt. This is also why, if you are in a French country but they are speaking English to you, why they might say "please" as they had you something.
8. Excuse Me
The exact translation for "excuse me" is "excuse-moi," although this is not the phrase that you will want to use when trying to get through the crowd or if you bump into someone. The correct thing to say is, "pardon," which I believe translates to pardon me. Sometimes I used the two phrases together, "pardon, excuse-moi," if I'm trying to get through a massive crowd and don't want to say "pardon" six times in a row. In Canada, we often say I'm sorry, instead of excuse me. In France, that often translates to an sincere apology and the correct phrase to say when passing by someone is still "pardon."
9. Have A Good Day/Evening.
Another way to send your regards as you leave is to say "(have a) good day" or "good evening". This can be said by adding an "é" to the end of the word, for example bonjour (good day) turns into bon journeé and bon soir, to bon soireé. Just make sure to use this along with "goodbye" - Bon journeé, au revoir!
10. How Are You?
Learning French in school, we were taught that we must always respond to every question in a full sentence. Just like in English, speaking in full sentences all the time, is much unlikely to happen. Think about the last time you had a conversation that sounded like this, with someone that you know: "Hello, how are you doing today?" "I'm doing very well thank you very much. How are you doing today?" As I mentioned earlier, the French are notorious for shortening their words and phrases. "Comment ça va?" is often shortened to "Ça va?" The response as well, can be shortened to, "Oui, ça va, et toi/vous?" There you go, nice and easy.
Over my last four months, my mind and language have grown quite a bit and I have been very challenged. Hopefully these few quick and simple pointers can help you a bit to navigate through speaking the French language. Have you discovered any challenges while speaking French to natives? I'd love if you'd share in the comments below! Have a great day and à bientôt (see you soon)!