How to Speak French

I have a strained relationship with the French language, rooted primarily in post-traumatic humiliation disorder, or PTHD. It’s sort of like PTSD, except with a lisp — PthD — which is totally appropriate given my ongoing decimation of French pronunciation.

Let us harken back to the year 1990 when I was a junior in high school. As the new kid, my social strategy included three steps:

  1. Speak Never
  2. Make No Eye Contact
  3. Hope Really Hard for a Friend

It was surprisingly ineffective.

In this emotional abyss, please imagine me (well shaded by the overhang of my gravity-defying, earthquake-proof bangs) in my Advanced Placement English class when the teacher announced we must read aloud.

Read aloud? GAH! Rule One violation! Still, I thought, I’m a good reader. This might be my chance. Someone will notice. Someone who’s been waiting – just biding her time – to find a good reader to be her friend!

That was the day I read the word rendezvous aloud.

I no longer remember the exact book we were reading, although I want to tell you it was the Scarlet Letter since we did read it that year and it was deliciously rendezvous-esque. But I do remember, vividly, the word rendezvous in the middle of the paragraph on the right-hand page and the feel of the paperback book in my hands, cracked open to my doom.


Which is French, of course, and pronounced RON-day-voo.

Except I pronounced it ren-DEZ-vuhs.

Ren-DEZ-vuhs with a hard DEZ in the middle and an us on the end to ensure my mistake was especially obvious.

Those were good times, friends.

Good, good times.

Fast forward with me to the summer of 1997, when I visited France with Rule One firmly in place. Speak Never. This way, I’ll avoid embarrassing myself and my entire country, I thought, and it was a very good plan until I met the Crépe Guy.

All I wanted was a Nutella crépe. That’s it. Just a gargantuan, paper-thin pancake with heaps of gooey chocolate oil sauce. Not a conversation. Not human interaction. Not a language lesson.

But I accidentally looked the Crépe Guy in the eye, and I smiled. He smiled back, and we struck up a conversation in English once he figured out I was tongue-tied in French. He’d lived in New York for a few years and just came home to Paris for good. He was gregarious. He was friendly and personable. He was funny. And after he pulled me out of myself – I broke Rules One and Two, after all – he pushed and prodded and cajoled me to try.

At least try to speak French, he said. It is a beautiful language, and you’re in a beautiful city. Try. He was kind to me and proud of his language and so I confessed.

I’m afraid, I said. I’ll get it wrong. I’ll be humiliated. They’ll laugh.

Oh, yes? he answered with fire in his eyes. People may laugh, but if zay do, I will teach you some French to say. I will teach you zees French, and you will learn it right now. Yes? You will learn zees one bit of French from me?

What could I say? I had to agree.

This is the French he taught me:

If zee people laugh, you must look at zem and say big, “EFF YOU!” And zen you say very sassy, “Pardon my French” and walk away.

He smiled again, and he winked (very sassy) while I laughed and laughed.

The Crépe Guy is still my favourite Parisian, and even though I’ve never said zee big EFF YOU in any city in the world except a few times in my head, he taught me an important lesson: Trying is better than not trying, and you never know what friends you might meet when you look people in zee eye.

We leave today for France, fifteen years older than the last time and hopefully a tiny bit wiser.


P.S. My French, though pathetic, is not entirely absent. I know how to say baguette, crépe, éclair, and croissant. If you know some French words I might use this week, please do share. I’m traveling without a dictionary, hoping I can wing it. Given my previous experience with French, this may not have been the soundest decision. (Help.)


image courtesy of criminalatt at

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15 responses to “How to Speak French”

  1. always make the attempt … they are very forgiving … a french phrase book couldnt go amis either … have fun!!! take comfortable shoes and walk as much as you can both day and night – there is much to see!!

  2. I’m getting in pretty late on this discussion, and I can see that you’ve already had a few very good pieces of advice. I’m fluent in French, so I’ve never experienced the stereotypical French snobbishness that so many Americans site, but from what I’ve heard from non-Francophone friends who have visited France, making SOME attempt to speak French, no matter how laughably awkward, goes a LONG way. So the advice to say, “Bonjour,” to everyone is excellent, as is the advice to learn how to ask if someone speaks English, “Parlez-vous anglais ?” (Pronounced, “PAR-lay voo zan-GLAY?”) The “s” on the end of “vous” gets run into the front of “anglais” and sounds like a “z.” Most Parisians can speak some English, especially if they work in a job that puts them in contact with lots of tourists. But I hear that many of them will pretend not to speak any English if all a tourist does is speak English to them. But approach them with a friendly, “Bonjour,” then drop your head slightly and say apologetically (even if you have to say it in English), “I don’t speak any French,” and suddenly, they become very helpful (and very fluent in English).

    Personally, my favorite words to learn in the language of any country I visit are “hello” and “thank you.” I’m sure you know how to say “thank you” in French. (In case you don’t, it’s “merci,” by the way.)

    Also, I can personally attest that French men are huge flirters. And, yes, simple eye contact and a smile from a female can be interpreted as flirting by the opposite sex, at least in France! I once had an airline agent at the check-in counter let me through with an overweight carry-on, and I think it was simply because I’d been speaking French with him and making a point to smile a whole lot.

    Have a FABULOUS time! (I’m envious!)

  3. My teenager is taking french this year which has made my husband decide to pull out his high school french. It was awful years ago and has gotten worse with time. I just sit at dinner and say, ‘please don’t say that at school.”

    I think you should just walk around shaking your booty and singing “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” I bet you get lots of free souvenirs (not pronounced soo-VEN-ers)

    Have a blast!

  4. Hey! have fun. I just read Bringing up Bebé… and she says French people are crazy about saying Bon jour, so whenever you walk up to someone say Bon jour, and then you’ll be set. 🙂 hehehhee.

  5. I have never been to France, but I read an awesome book on dealing with French people when the company I worked for was taken over by a French one. The author talked about why French people seem rude to strangers, and how important it is to “make a connection” before asking for something. Totally one of those you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar sort of things. Therefore, the best words to know in French are (said with your sweetest, most vulnerable smile, and *lots* of eye contact): “Pardonez-moi, parlez vous l’Anglais [LONG-lay]?” = Excuse me, do you speak English? Oh, and also that French men love to flirt. With their eyes. You can make *lots* of friends.

  6. Yeah, I had to take French in high school too. Our French teacher was a weirdo who made us watch an endless parade of Bruce Lee movies (dubbed into French). I learned nothing. I love “whores devour”! That cracked me up. For several years I would say I wanted to have some “crew-dites” on the table for people to nibble before a big festive meal. Enjoy France!

  7. At the ripe old age of 21, my then fiance and I were talking about potential wedding plans. I had been researching reasonable options for feeding the massive amounts of family we both have. So I suggested that we could forgo doing a full dinner and perhaps do a cocktail party with hors d’oeuvre instead of a formal dinner. Except I had never seen hors d’oeuvre written out before my handy dandy wedding planner; I thought I was being fancy and sophisticated by pronouncing it as whores devour and didn’t connect it to the actual word I’d heard and used so many times before. My husband just about died laughing. It’s been 4 years and I still haven’t lived that one down…

  8. learn some basic numbers/money. My aunt went to france in the 90s and got royally screwed on cab fare bc she didn’t know what the guy was saying and just assumed he’d be honest with her change.

  9. We went to Paris on honeymoon five years ago, and I have to say we needed almost no French. Just look puzzled and they will speak English. But, I did make attempts here and there in the spirit of not being an obnoxious foreigner. What you need to know is “Ou est les toilettes? (ooo ay lay twa-lets)” (where is the bathroom). Everything else is just details.

  10. 3 years of french in high school (required in Canada back in the 1970’s) and I can say “Je ne parle le francais”. Which is french (I think) for I don’t speak french.

    Oh, I can also say, J’mappelle Gaylin. I am Gaylin.

    My entire grasp of french won’t help you, obviously.

    Good luck.

    ps. poop in french is merde. Does that help?

  11. hmm… I think you all you need to know is “Je voudrais un sandwich ce mecredi,” which is the first sentence I learned in French. It’s pronounced “Zhe VOOO-dray uh san-WEECH cuh me-cre-DEE” (more or less) and means “I would like a sandwich this Wednesday.” You might want to leave off everything after sandwich if it isn’t actually Wednesday. Or at least Tuesday.

    My pronunciation of French isn’t half-bad. It’s my pronunciation in English that is sometimes worrying. At least in French I can apologize and say I learned English and Spanish first so my accent is bound to be atrocious. In English I just say that writing and speaking are different languages and I prefer the former.

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