10 words in French every traveller or student must know to survive in France

words in French
Master the right words in French and you may just work your way to becoming a judge of what the best baguette in France is. Source: AFP

Nothing feels scarier than trying to speak one of the hardest languages in the world: French.

Well, maybe, Mandarin comes close.

Hard and hair-tearing it is, though, learning word in French and then entire sentences in French will perhaps be the most rewarding thing a non-French person can do.

And this is because France is a country where its citizens will treat you like royalty if you speak like one of them, more than any other country in the world.

Though not a scientific observation, ask anyone who’s visited France and they’ll likely tell you English is hardly spoken and often derided by locals.

Someone who speaks English in the US or the UK, for example, doesn’t get such special treatment.

Who doesn’t want to feel welcomed and included? This is a big perk — but there are greater benefits still for those who master many words in French.

words in french

People sit on the banks of the Garonne river at sunset before the Dome de la Grave landmark (L) and the Saint-Pierre bridge (C) in Toulouse, southwestern France, on September 5, 2023. Source: AFP

The big benefits of learning words in French

There are big benefits to learning words in French — the biggest of which is it’ll make the world feel smaller.

This is especially so if you speak English most of the time. The English and French languages existed in parallel for hundreds of years, with each borrowing words from one another.

If you know the following words, you probably know a lot of French:

  • budget
  • challenge
  • design
  • express
  • gin
  • jury
  • rave
  • squat

Learning words in French will not only help you in France but many countries with French as one of their official languages. These include Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Madagascar, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Once you’ve mastered words in French, you’ve built a foundation that’ll make it much easier for you to learn another Romance language — Portuguese, Spanish or Italian, for example.

Romance languages refer to a group of related languages that were derived from Vulgar Latin within historical times. It is known as the simplest to identify and the easiest to account for historically.

There’s no doubt there are loads to love and gain from learning words in French. You will face challenges, especially in getting the accent right. Speaking fluent French is probably going to take you years, if not a lifetime.

But there’s no need to know everything all at once. You just need to start with the basic words in French and have some smart strategies of how much to learn to get by for a few days, months or even up to a year.

words in French

Words in French won’t just help you in Frnace, but in French-speaking countries like Senegal. Source: AFP

How many words are in the French language and how many do I need to know?

Nobody knows how many words exist in the French language.

Le Grand Robert de la langue française, one of the biggest French dictionaries, contains 100,000 words and 350,000 definitions.

But here’s the good thing: you don’t need to know all of them to live and study in France.

Zaid Zafar Farooqui, for example, is pursuing a Master in Management (MIM) at the EDHEC Business School in France.

As an international student living in the country’s northern region, most locals converse in the national language. 

Luckily, the Indian native felt welcomed at his business school and built connections with MIM master’s students from Italy, Spain and China.

Likewise, Kiyun Kim had this to say when asked about whether it was easy to strike up a conversation with the locals when studying in France. 

“I felt it was easier. Encountering locals and starting conversations was very open in Paris and it felt interesting. Making new friends wasn’t at all difficult in any place I visited there,” he told Study International.

But what if you need to speak French? How do you say French words?

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Don’t study the French language in a stretch
  • Listen to words in French through films, movies, or TV shows
  • Talk to a friend in French
  • Say the words in French out loud 

If you are planning to travel or study in the City of Love, here are 10 useful words you need to know before starting your journey: 

10 words in French you’ll need to travel and study in France

1. Bonjour

This is a common greeting in French and it has several definitions.

Bonjour translates to “good morning” when used early in the day. Bonjour also translates to “hello” when used during the rest of the daytime until late afternoon. 

The word “bonjour” is a combination of two words: bon which means good and jour which means day. 

Pronounce it as “bohn-zhoor.” The “r” at the end is silent. 

Add a “monsieur” (sir) or “madame” (ma’am) after “Bonjour”, and you’ll sound more polite.

Example sentence: “Bonjour madame!” (Hello ma’am!)

words in French

No words in French can describe how much locals love spending their mornings in a cafe or terrace. Source: AFP

2. Enchanté

The next most important word which you’ll want to know is “enchanté.”  

“Enchanté” is a common French word used when meeting someone for the first time, and it translates to “Nice to meet you” in English. 

It’s a polite and friendly way to express that you’re pleased to make someone’s acquaintance.

“Enchantée” is the feminine form of the French word, and both the masculine (“enchanté”) and feminine forms have the same pronunciation. In fact, the last e in the feminine form of enchantée is a silent e.

Example sentence: “Enchanté de faire votre connaissance.” (Nice to meet you.)

words in French

Try using “s’il vous plaît” if you want to make a specific request when ordering food at French restaurants. Source: AFP

3. S’il vous plaît

What is the magic word in English? You guessed it — Please. Translate that into French, and you get “s‘il vous plaît.”

This word is used to politely request something and means “please.” Now, bear in mind that “s’il vous plait” is a more formal and polite way of saying please. There is another informal word that you can use among friends — “s’il te plait.”

If you’re unsure which to use, it’s best to stick to “s’il vous plait.”

You can pronounce it  as “seel voo pleh.” Pay attention to the nasalised “in” sound in “pleh.”

Example sentence: “Pouvez-vous me passer le sel, s’il vous plaît?” (Could you pass me the salt, please?)

4. Merci 

You’ll need to know how to say “thank you” each time you ask someone to help you with directions.

That’s where “merci” comes in. It means “thank you.” To put more emphasis, say “merci beaucoup” which translates to “thanks a lot.”

In French pronunciation, “MerciI follows two simple rules: the letter E is pronounced as È when it’s followed by two consonants, and the letter C is pronounced as S when it’s followed by the letter I.

Example Sentence: Merci pour votre aide! (Thanks for your help!)

words in French

Trying to get out of a packed train in France? Say “excusez-moi.”Source: AFP

5. Excusez-moi

It’s rude to interrupt someone when they are in the middle of a conversation or engaged in an activity. However, by using a certain word — “excusez-moi”— you can still interrupt them but do so politely.

This word is used to apologise or get someone’s attention, similar to saying “excuse me.”

You can also use it as a polite way to ask someone to step aside, such as on a crowded sidewalk or train.

It translates directly as: “excuse” = “excuse” and “moi” = “me”

Pronounce it as  “ɛkskyze mwa

Example sentence: Excusez-moi, monsieur (Excuse me, sir)

6. Où est…?

When you’re a tourist navigating a French-speaking country, or a student wondering where the library is, “Où est…?” is undeniably one of the most valuable phrases you can learn.

It means “Where is…?” and is used when you’re looking for a specific location or place.

Pronounced as “oo eh…?” The “è” in “où” is pronounced like the “e” in “bed.”

Example sentence: Où est la bibliothèque? (Where is the library?)

words in French

“Non” means “no” in French. Source: AFP

7. Oui/non 

These are words you likely already know. “Oui” means yes in French, while “non” means no in French.

These words can come in handy in almost every place you go such as stores, restaurants, and hotels.

Remember to nasalise the “on” on “non.”  “Oui” is pronounced as “wee” while “non” is pronounced as “noh.”

Example sentence for Oui:  Êtes-vous prêt à partir? Oui, je suis prêt. (Are you ready to leave? Yes, I am ready.)

Example sentence for Non: Avez-vous faim? Non, je n’ai pas faim. (Are you hungry? No, I’m not hungry.)

8. Je m’appelle

No matter where you are in the world, you would be introducing yourself when you meet a new person. In France, there is a phrase to do just that. 

“Je m’appelle” is a French word for “My name is.” It’s used to tell someone your name.

To properly pronounce it, it sounds like this: “je” means zhuh and “m’appelle” means mah-pehll

Combine both and you’ll get “zhuh mah-pehll”

Example sentence: “Je m’appelle Pierre.” (My name is Pierre.)

words in French

Buying something in France? Say “c’est combien” to ask how much does an item cost. Source: AFP

9. C’est combien

“C’est combien” is a French phrase that translates to “How much is it?” or “How much does it cost?” in English. 

The phrase “s’est combien?” in French is composed of two parts:

  1. “C’est” which means “It is” or “That is.”
  2. “Combien?” which means “How much?” 

Example sentence: “Je voudrais acheter cette robe. C’est combien?” (I would like to buy this dress. How much is it?)

10. Je suis désolé

To express “I’m sorry,” just say “je suis désolé.” In French, “je” means I, “suis” means am and “désolé” means sorry. The pronunciation of désolé is day-zoh-lay. 

Combine all three words together and pronounce “je suis désolé “as juh-swee-day-zoh-lay.

Example sentence: “Je suis désolé, j’ai cassé ton stylo.” (I’m sorry, I broke your pen)