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French Language Lessons: Conversation Bookends

David Ronis

The most basic (and possibly most important!) things you might need to say in France are to greet someone and say goodbye. Here are examples of these "conversation bookends" as well as a few other expressions found in between. You can listen to the lesson.

Notes on Pronunciation

French words tend to be accented lightly on the last syllable or the last syllable of a group of words. In rare instances for emphasis or where this is not the case, an accented syllable will be indicated by ALL CAPS. Liaisons are indicated by red, italicized initial consonants (e.g. "Puis-je vous aider?" pronounced as "pwee-zhuh voo zeh-day"). See Guide to Transliteration for more information.

Conversation Openers

The universal greeting in France, Bonjour is literally "Good Day". It's used to express "Hello" or "Good Morning".

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Hello

Bonjour

boh-zhoor

Depending upon what time of day it is, however, "Hello" is expressed differently. In the late afternoon or early evening, it's customary to say Bonsoir or "Good Evening". The time when one switches from Bonjour to Bonsoir is variable from region to region. Frequently it begins when shops re-open in the late afternoon (around 4pm).

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Hello

Bonsoir

boh-swahr

Salut is a casual, slang greeting widely used among friends, relatives and young people.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Hi

Salut

sah-lew

In addition to merely saying, "Hello", in most cultures people ask, "How are you?" or, in a more casual setting, "How's it going?". Here's how that goes in French.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

How are you?

Comment allez-vous?

koh-mah tah-lay-voo

Very well, thank you

Très bien, merci

treh bya* mehr-see

How's it going?

Comment ça va?

koh-mah sah vah

OK

Ça va

sah vah

It's going well

Ça va bien

sah vah bya*

Not so well

Ça va mal

sah vah mahl

* Reminder: in these transliterations "a" not followed by "h" rhymes with "cat".  The transliterated sound "ah" rhymes with the vowel in the first syllable of "father".

When you need to get someone's attention, you can use one of the following expressions. They are also used when asking to be pardoned for unacceptable behavior (We'll let you be the judge as to what constitutes that!). A second and more frequently found use of pardon is when someone's blocking the way and you're trying to get past.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Excuse me

Excusez-moi

Pardonnez-moi

Pardon

ex-kew-zay-mwah

pahr-doh-nay-mwah

pahr-doh

Whether you're shopping in a store or ordering in a cafe, a clerk or waiter might ask you one of the following questions. Notice the subtle difference in pronunciation between voudrez (voo-DRAY) in the question and voudrais (voo-DREH) in the answer.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

May I help you?

Puis-je vous aider?

pwee-zhuh voo zeh-day

What would you like?

Qu'est-ce que vous voudrez?

kehs-kuh voo voo-dray

I would like ...

Je voudrais ...

zhuh voo-dreh

I'm looking for ...

Je cherche ...

zhuh shehrsh

In Between the Bookends

It's very useful to have a couple of simple expressions in your back pocket for use in the middle of conversations. The following are standard expressions that you should know. In formal situations in France, when you don't know someone, or even if you know them but not well (the owner of the local bakery that you've visited a few times), it is customary to add Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle to Merci. "Merci, Madame!"  "Bonjour, Monsieur!"

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Please

s'il vous plaît

seel voo pleh

Thank you (very much)

Merci (beaucoup)

mehr-see (boh-koo)

You're welcome

De rien

duh ree-A*

Mr.

Monsieur

muh-syuh**

Mrs.

Madame

mah-dahm

Miss

Mademoiselle

mahd-mwah-zehl***

Sir and Madame

Monsieur-Dame

muh-syuh-dahm

Ladies and Gentlemen

Messieurs-Dames

meh-syuh-dahm

* Second syllable capitalized for accentuation. Also note that the vowel sound for this syllable rhymes with "cat".

** There's frequent confusion over how to pronounce Monsieur, and understandably so. Although it might appear the one should use an "oh" for first syllable, that is incorrect. It's an exceptional case and doesn't have a bit of an "o" vowel in it. It's simply, "muh" – basically the same vowel sound as the second syllable!

*** When practicing the pronunciation of Mademoiselle, try your best to pronounce it in three syllables and not four. (Digression: It's interesting to note, however, that the word is a compound word – literally ma demoiselle means "my (young) lady" and demoiselle, when found by itself, is pronounced "duh-mwah-zehl". (Is anyone familiar with the painting by Picasso "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and the stir it created?)  Nevertheless, in its compound form, Mademoiselle, the "duh" is subsumed into the first syllable.


When in France, many of us try to speak as much French as possible. Occasionally (more than just occasionally for some of us), we feel the frustration of not knowing the language as well as we'd like and just have to break down and ask if someone can speak to us in English. Other times, we are bold, we ask a question in French, and then don't quite understand the response. And then there are the times when we pose a question in French, almost understand the response (a near triumph!), and think that we'll be able to get it if it's repeated or pronounced more slowly. For all of those situations, check out the vocabulary below.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Do you speak English?

Parlez-vous Anglais?

pahr-lay-voo zah-gleh

I don't understand

Je ne comprends pas

zhuh nuh koh-prah pah

Please repeat that?

Répétez, s'il vous plaît

ray-pay-tay seel voo pleh

more slowly

plus lentement

plew laht-mah

When someone's explaining something to us, we frequently comment with short statements like "Right or "OK". Below are some very commonly heard expressions that you might hear (or use yourself!) in just those occasions:

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

So ...

Alors ...

ah-lohr

So ... (therefore)

Donc

dohk

Good

Bon

boh

Well, then. .. (So ...)

Bon, alors ...

boh ah-lohr

But, of course

Mais, oui

meh wee

Conversation Closers

There are many ways to say goodbye. Below are a few of the most commonly heard ones. Au revoir is really the all-purpose goodbye, literally meaning "until we see each other again". A tout à l'heure and à plus tard are a bit more casual. Good night can be expressed two ways, depending upon the situation. When you're leaving a restaurant after dinner in the US, you might say "Good night". In France, this would still be Bon soir, or "Good evening", unless the hour was exceeding late. Likewise, if you're rolling out of a bar at 4am (!) you might say Bonne nuit, assuming that you and the people you're addressing will soon be going to sleep. Bonne nuit is always used when you're turning in for the night. Salespeople or hotel and restaurant employees might wish you a good day, evening, or weekend by saying Bonne journée, bonne soirée or bonne week-end. Yes, the last one is what's called an "anglicisme", reviled by some purists, yet widely used!

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS

Goodbye

Au revoir

oh ruh-vwahr*

See you later

à tout à l'heure

ah too tah luhr

See you later

à plus tard

ah plew tahr

Good night

Bonsoir

Bonne nuit

boh-swahr

bohn nwee

Have a nice day

Bonne journée

bohn zhoor-nay

Have a nice evening

Bonne soirée

bohn swah-ray

Have a good weekend

Bon week-end

boh week-ehnd

* There's a common misconception in the English-speaking world that au revoir is pronounced in two syllables: "ohr-vwahr". In practice, this is almost true. When you say it quickly, it does kind of sound like two syllables, but in fact, it's three and the second one is just minimized.

Listen

You can hear this lesson being spoken.

Download MP3 soundtrack: fr_bookends.mp3 (3.0mb)
Click on the link to play the sound file (it takes a few minutes to download). Right click to download the file to save on your computer.

NOTE: We are working on the sound file. A few of the words have changed and we are going to break it up into a few smaller files.


David Ronis is a classical singer, actor and translator living in New York City. www.davidronis.com

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