French is the official language of France as well as some of its neighbouring countries, is a working language of the United Nations and is the official language of some 270 million people worldwide. Any tourist who does not make a little effort to speak French is missing out on an important part of the country’s identity and culture, and what many consider the most beautiful language in the world!
There are slight regional differences in pronunciation and local words. For example, throughout France the word for “yes” is rendered as “we”, but you will often hear the slang form “ouais” meaning “waay”. This is similar to the English use of “yeah” instead of “yes”. The Loire Valley has the reputation of being the region where the best French is spoken, without a regional accent.
|Other languages used in France|
|In Alsace and parts of Lorraine, a dialect of German is spoken called Alsatian, which is almost incomprehensible to speakers of High German. In the south, some people still speak dialects of Langue d’Oc (because the word for “ja” is oc): Languedocien, Limousin, Auvergnat or Provençal. The Langue d’Oc is a Romance language, very closely related to Italian, Spanish or Catalan. In western Brittany, a few people, mainly older people or academics, speak Breton; this Celtic language is closer to Welsh than to French. Basque is spoken in some parts of Aquitaine, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica, the Corsican language has a strong Italian influence. In Provence, Provençal is most commonly spoken, especially on the Côte d’Azur. However, almost everyone speaks French and it is unlikely that tourists will ever need to speak the regional languages, except to give things a ‘folk’ touch.|
Almost no one understands imperial units like the gallon or Fahrenheit. Stick to metric units (after all, the French invented this system!).
The French are generally very concerned with politeness (some would say to excess) and react coldly to foreigners who forget it. You may be surprised to be greeted by other customers when you enter a restaurant or shop. Be polite and greet everyone when entering and leaving small shops and cafés. For the French, it is very impolite to start a conversation with a stranger (even a shopkeeper or customer) without at least one polite word such as “bonjour”. Therefore, it is very helpful to start the conversation with a few basic phrases in French to convince them to help you.
- “Excuse me Sir/Madam”: Excuse me (ex-COO-zay-mwah mih-SYOOR/muh-DAM).
- (SEEL-voo-PLAY) “Please Sir/Madam”.
- “Merci Monsieur/Madame”: Thank you (mare-SEE)
- “Good Bye Sir/Madam”: Goodbye (Ore-vwar)
Avoid saying “Hi”, it is reserved for friends and relatives and using it with people you don’t know is considered a bit rude.
Note that French spoken with a strong English or American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In such circumstances, it may be better to write down what you are trying to say. But stories about waiters refusing to serve tourists because their pronunciation is not up to French standards are greatly exaggerated. However, do not be offended if a waiter responds to your broken French or even your fluent but accented French in English (if you speak fluent French and the waiter addresses you in English when you would prefer to speak French, continue to respond in French and the waiter will usually change seats – this is a common occurrence in more touristy areas, especially in Paris).
Please note that certain regions of France (e.g. Paris) are sometimes overrun with tourists. Residents of these areas may feel overwhelmed helping foreign tourists who speak an incomprehensible language and ask for directions to the other side of town for the umpteenth time. Be polite and understanding.
As France is a very multicultural society with immigrants from all over the world, many African languages, Arabic, Chinese dialects (like Teochew), Vietnamese or Khmer could be spoken. Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and even Romanian belong to the same language family as French, and it may therefore be possible to communicate basic information through a common vocabulary, especially if it is in writing.
Although most French people learned English at school, English proficiency is generally low, with only a very small minority mastering it. That said, large hotels and tourist attractions often have staff who speak English and other foreign languages. When speaking to French people, you should always start the conversation in French, as it is very rude to assume a foreign language.
The standard sign language is French Sign Language, known by the abbreviation LSF. Whenever an interpreter is present at a public event, he or she uses LSF. Users of American Sign Language (which is also used in English-speaking Canada), Quebec Sign Language and Irish Sign Language may be able to understand LSF. Because these languages are derived from LSF, they share important vocabulary and syntax with LSF and also use a one-handed hand alphabet very similar to that of LSF. However, users of British Sign Language, Auslan or New Zealand Sign Language will have great difficulty. These languages differ significantly from LSF in terms of vocabulary and syntax and also use a two-handed hand alphabet.