Survival French


Unlike Japanese, French pronunciation is anything but easy to explain in a couple of paragraphs with a mere handful of examples. Luckily there are two kinds of French people when it comes to us wacky foreigners trying out their language: The wonderful, friendly, rural French who will do their damnedest to understand you no matter how you mangle their tongue and patiently help you with words you have trouble with; and Parisians. I will instead go with listing pronunciations per word and, again, my pronunciation guide presumes that you speak with an English accent, so your mileage may vary if you do not.

oui : Yes. This sounds very much like “wee”, but don’t form the w with your lips. Instead think of it more as a halfway place between wee and uee. A smile and a nod goes a long way, too, but it’s difficult to really get oui wrong.

non : No. The latter n is not pronounced with tongue to the roof of the mouth. Instead, close your throat around the no to terminate it abruptly rather than the lingering “no” of English. The o is pronounced as in knock.

bonjour / bon soir : Hello / Good evening. You will be greeted on entry to any service facility, and it is considered extremely rude not to return the greeting. Pronounced bohnzhur and bon swah respectively.

au revoir : Goodbye. Similarly people will bid you farewell when you depart, and it’s very rude not to return the favour. Pronounced oh revwah, this is where we hit the joy of the French r, which is not hard as in English, but soft and rolled easily at the back of the throat as though you are gargling. Alas unless you learned to make this sound as a child the odds are that you will never nail it perfectly as an adult, but trying is appreciated

s’il vous plaît : Please. Literally “if you please”, it is a request for items or service. Pronounced si vuu pleh, combined with a bit of pointing and looking hopeful, this will get you just about anything you desire off a menu.

merci : Thank you, pronounced quite close to mercy, but place the emphasis on the latter half of the word – merci – rather than the first half. The more polite (or more grateful) version is merci beacoup, merci bowkoo.

pardon : Pardon / excuse me. The -on is pronounced identically to the end of non, and the emphasis is on the latter half of the word – pardon. This is extremely flexible, and is combined with your tone and body language to convey anything from “I’m very sorry”, through “please may I get past”, and on to “Excuse me, you there!” Especially useful in restaurants and cafés, as waiters and waitresses will not attend you without you distinctly attracting their attention with a raised hand, eye contact, and a pardon – and you usually need the pardon to get them to look your way. This isn’t rudeness on their part, it’s a desire to not intrude on your time until you want something.

je ne parle pas Français : I do not speak French, pronounced zhuh neh parleh pah Fronseh, again with that glottal pause on the -on. Pair with a suitably apologetic tone and most people will be happy to try to meet you halfway with some hastily-constructed pidgin borrowing from just about every European language there is. This is extremely effective, thanks to English being the bastard lovechild of Italic and Germanic languages.

où sont les toilettes, s’il vous plaît? : Where are the toilets, please? Pronounced oo sohn leh twailett, si vuu pleh. If you are in a place which doesn’t have its own toilets, such as a supermarket or other public area, you may well receive quite a long string of directions, but say merci anyway and head off in the direction indicated. Sooner or later you’ll find them.

un / deux / trois / quatre billets, s’il vous plaît : One / two / three / four tickets please. Pronounced uh / deuh / troih / katruh biyyeh, si vuu pleh. All r’s are soft and rolled, but holding up the right number of fingers can help. Un has that same glottal pause as non.

That should be plenty to start you off. French is a language with a relatively small common-circulation vocabulary compared to English – that is there are around 200,000 words in everyday French usage, compared to the 600,000+ we mess about with. This means you get a surprisingly large bang for your buck in learning even just a handful of phrases in French, and you can certainly survive a week or two’s holiday with them. Ideally get an audio phrasebook and spend some time listening to pronunciation and practising it for yourself before you go – You’ll be surprised at how much sticks.

Bon courage!



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