When learning a new language it’s a bit difficult to know what areas to focus on first. Do I need vocabulary for travel? Phrases for asking directions? Keywords for understanding a menu and ordering a meal? Numbers for prices, addresses and phone numbers? Of course, the answer depends on why you’re learning the language and when you’ll be using it. The needs of a university student backpacking across the country are quite different from those of a family moving to France from Wichita, Kansas.
From my personal experience as an American expat living and working in France, I’d say that at the top of the list is mastering the things you say as you interact with people in everyday situations. I did a little research one morning as I went to the market and then ran some errands. I kept a list of the phrases I said in French in order to see what the most useful ones were. Here are my top ten:
#1 Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur.
Whether at La Poste, Monoprix or the market, greeting the person is ALWAYS important! And, generally speaking, the “Madame/Monsieur” isn’t really optional, especially if you are trying to reflect true French politesse.
#2 Pourriez-vous m’aider ?
I say this one all the time. Why? Because I often need to ask for help! Fortunately, most people are very kind and are happy to help me figure out where to weigh my bag of fruit or how to tell when it’s my turn at the post office.
#3 Je voudrais 500 g de fraises et un kilo de carottes, s’il vous plaît.
Standard market speak.
#4 Je voudrais envoyer cette lettre aux Etats-Unis, s’il vous plaît.
This simple sentence structure (Je voudrais…) can get me nearly everything I want. Je voudrais €1 million. Hmm… didn’t work that time.
#5 Oui, merci.
Again, very useful. I said this to the vendor who asked if I wanted my strawberries in the same bag as the carrots, to the pharmacist who asked if I wanted the prescription in the bag with medication, and to the woman at the post office who asked if I wanted my letter sent priority mail. See? Très useful.
#6 Excusez-moi, Madame.
Unfortunately, I have to say this one often too. I get sidetracked by the beautiful fruits and veggies and wind up bumping in to people. It’s also a phrase I use often on the métro at rush hour! Of course, a the more informal “pardon” will work in a pinch.
#7 Vous avez dit combien ?
Numbers are tricky and I sometimes check with shopkeepers and vendors to be sure I’ve understood the prices correctly. (Especially the producteurs from the countryside who sometimes have strong accents I’m not used to.)
#8 Une demi-baguette, s’il vous plaît.
Did you know that you can buy just half a loaf of French bread at the boulangerie?
#9 Oui, il fait tellement beau aujourd’hui. Il faut en profiter !
Discussing the weather with my neighbor. This definitely falls under a daily activity!
#10 Bonne journée. Au revoir.
Bonus Phrase! Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Madame/Monsieur, mais j’ai un petit problème. Pourriez-vous m’aider?…
This is what I consider to be the “magic French phrase.” You can pretty much win any harried (real or pretending) French person’s attention just by apologizing for bothering them first. In general, once you have admitted that you are indeed “bothering them” they are MORE than happy to go out of their way to help you.
Just as important as greeting, saying goodbye is the polite way to take your leave in stores, at the market, etc.