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How to Speak Basic French

French is a beautiful, romantic language, and it’s spoken in countries all around the world. If you’d like to learn basic French, start with practical words and phrases. Work on greetings, polite expressions, introducing yourself, and other simple conversational skills. Practice your pronunciation and, if you want to dig a little deeper, learn more about the language’s grammar and structure. To study French effectively, make flashcards, read easy French children’s books, and write simple daily journal entries in French.

EditSteps

EditGreeting Cheat Sheets

EditBasic Phrase Cheat Sheets

EditLearning Common Words and Phrases

  1. Greet people by saying “salut,” “bonjour,” and “bonsoir.” From starting conversations to greeting passersby, saying hello is the first step in learning basic French. Say “bonjour” (bon-zhur) for the most basic greeting.[1]
    Speak Basic French Step 1 Version 2.jpg
    • The “j” in “bonjour” is soft; it’s a “zh” sound, or a combination between “sh” and “j.” Pronounce the “n” just slightly, but try not to let the tip of your tongue hit the roof of your mouth as you would in English. French is pronounced with the back of the mouth and nose more than front of the mouth.
    • Bonjour literally means “good day,” and is a more formal way to say hello. Say “salut” (sa-loo) for an informal expression, like “hi” in English.
    • It’s also best to use bonjour during the day. At night, say, “bonsoir” (bon-swarh), which means “good evening.”
  2. Say “au revoir,” “bonne nuit,” or “salut” to bid farewell. “Au revoir” (ohr-vwah) is the best-known way to say goodbye in French. Literally, it means “until we see each other again.” For a more informal expression, you could use “salut,” which can mean either “hi” or “bye.” While it’s Italian, the French also sometimes use “ciao,” too, such as “Ciao, salut.”[2]
    Speak Basic French Step 2 Version 2.jpg
    • You can also say, “bonne nuit” (bon-nwee), which means “goodnight.”
  3. Practice saying the alphabet to get a feel for French phonics. Pronounce the vowels a, e, i o, and u as “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” and “oo.” Consonants like b and c, which sound like “bee” and “see” in English, are pronounced “bay” and “say” in French.[3]
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    • Pronounce the alphabet in French like this: “ah (a), bay (b), say (c), day (d), eh (e), eff (f), zhee (g), osh (h), ee (i), zhay (j), kay (k), elle (l), em (m), en (n), oh (o), pay (p), koo (q), air (r), ess (s), tay (t), oo (u), vay (v), doo-bluh-vay (w), eex (x), ee-grek, (y), zed (z).”
    • Practicing the alphabet can help you get to know how vowel and consonant sounds work in French. This can improve your pronunciation, even if you just want to learn how to say a few practical phrases.
  4. Work on learning how to count in French. Whether you’re ordering in a restaurant or telling someone how old you are, knowing your numbers will come in handy. Break it up into steps, and you’ll be able to count to 1,000 in no time. On the first day, practice 1 through 10, then work on 11 through 20, and memorize the rest of the tens digits (30, 40, 50, and so on) the next day.[4]
    Speak Basic French Step 4 Version 2.jpg
    • The numbers 1 through 10 in French are “un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix.” Say them like this: “uhn (1), duh (2), trwah (3), katreh (4, the “reh” is subtle, and isn’t a distinct syllable), sank (5), sees (6, the “s” sounds are soft, like “cease”), sept (7), weet (8), nuhf (9, it sounds like “surf” without the “r”), dees (10, it rhymes with “cease”).
    • For a list of numbers with a helpful pronunciation feature, see http://www.languageguide.org/french/numbers.
  5. Master practical phrases if you’re a traveler. If you’re visiting a French-speaking location, learn how to ask useful questions, such as “Do you speak English?” or “Where is the bathroom?” Keep in mind there are 2 words for “you” in French; “vous” is polite, and “tu” is informal. Use “tu” if you’re talking to a friend, and “vous” if you’re asking a passerby for directions.[5]
    Speak Basic French Step 5 Version 2.jpg
    • To ask “Do you speak English,” say, “Parlez-vous anglais?” (par-lay voo ahn-glay). For the informal version, ask “Parle-tu anglais?” (parl-too ahn-glay).
    • If you’re at a restaurant, say, “Je voudrais” (zhuh voo-dray), which means “I would like.” For instance, tell the waiter, “Je voudrais une salade” (zhuh voo-dray oon sah-lod), which means “I would like a salad.
    • In an informal setting ask, “Où sont les toilettes?” (oo, sohn lay twah-lette) if you need to find the restroom. If you’re at a formal dinner party at someone’s home, ask the host, “Excusez-moi, où est-ce que je peux me rafraîchir?” (eh-skew-zay-mwah, oo ess-kuh zhuh puh muh rah-fray-sheer), which means “Excuse me, where can I freshen up?”
    • Many French speaker know English but, if you’re in France, it’s polite to excuse yourself for not knowing French: “Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas français” (Zhuh swee day-zo-lay, may zhuh-nuh parl pah frahn-say). This means “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak French.[6]
  6. Memorize the French words for please and thank you. It’s always wise to be polite if, say, you’re asking for directions or ordering at a restaurant. Recall that there are 2 ways of saying “you.” Likewise, there are formal and informal ways of saying “please.”[7]
    Speak Basic French Step 6.jpg
    • The formal way of saying “please” is “s'il vous plaît” (see voo play). Say, for instance, “Excusez-moi, s'il vous plaît, parle-tu anglais?” (eh-skew-zay-mwah, see voo play, parl-too ahn-glay), which means “Excuse me, please, do you speak English?”
    • The less formal version of “please” is “s'il te plaît” (see teh play). Ask your friend, “Je voudrais de l’eau, s'il te plaît” (zhuh voo-dray deh low, see teh play), which means “I’d like some water, please.”
    • “Merci” (mair-see) means “thank you.” To say “Thank you very much” or “Thanks a lot,” say “Merci beaucoup” (mair-see bow-koo) or “Merci bien” (mair-see bee-ehn).
    • To say “You’re welcome,” use “Je vous en prie” (zhuh voo-zawn pree), which is more polite, or “De rien” (deh ree-ehn), which is less formal.
  7. Learn how to ask and respond to “How are you” in French. To ask someone how they’re doing, say “Comment allez-vous?” (koh-mah tahl-ay voo). This is the polite version; less formal alternatives include “Comment vas-tu?” (koh-mah vah-too) and “Ça va?” (sah vah).[8]
    Speak Basic French Step 7.jpg
    • If someone asks how you’re doing, you could respond, “Très bien (treh bee-ehn), which means “very good.” Other responses include “Pas mal” (pah mahl), which means “not bad,” and “Ça va” (sah vah), or “It’s going.”
  8. Practice telling others about yourself. Learn how to tell people your name, age, and where you’re from, and to ask others about themselves. To introduce yourself, say, “Je m'appelle” ('zhuh mah-pell), which means “My name is.”[9]
    Speak Basic French Step 8.jpg
    • To ask someone their name, ask “Comment vous appelez-vous?” (koh-mah voo zah-play voo), which is more polite, or “Comment tu t'appelles? (koh-mah too tah-pell), which is informal.
    • Ask, “Quel âge as-tu” (kell-ozh ah-too) or the formal “Quel âge avez-vous” (kell-ozh ah-vay-voo) to ask someone’s age. To respond, say, “J'ai 18 ans” (zhay deez-weet ahn), which literally means “I have 18 years.”
    • “Où habitez-vous” (oo ah-bee-tay voo) and Où habites-tu?” (oo ah-beet too) mean “Where do you live.” You’d say, “J’habite à New York, mais je suis de Canada” (zha-beet ah New York, may zhuh swee deh Canada), which means “I live in New York, but I’m from Canada.”

EditImproving Your Language Skills

  1. Practice your pronunciation, especially the French “R.” Listen to spoken French, and practice mimicking the way sounds are formed in the throat instead of the front of the mouth. For example in English, the “r” sound is made in the front of the mouth with the lips and teeth. French speakers, on the other hand, make the “r” sound by drawing the back of the tongue close to the soft palate.[10]
    Speak Basic French Step 9.jpg
    • One of the best ways to improve your pronunciation is to get a French speaker to correct your mistakes. If you know a native speaker or someone who’s fluent, ask them to help you develop a better accent.[11]
  2. Familiarize yourself with gendered words. In French, all nouns and adjectives are either masculine or feminine. Many words that end in “e” are feminine, but keep in mind there are lots of exceptions! The key thing to know is that the adjective’s gender must match the noun’s gender.[12]
    Speak Basic French Step 10.jpg
    • Additionally, if a noun is plural, an adjective that describes it must also be plural. You’d use “Sam est petit,” (Sam eh puh-tee) to say Sam, who’s a boy, is short. If Sam and Beth, who are girls, are both short, you’d say “Sam et Beth sont petites” (Sam aye Beth sohn puh-teet).
    • Articles, such as “the” and “a,” also need to match the gender and number. “Un” and “une” (uh and oohn) are the masculine and feminine versions of “a.” “Le,” “la,” and “les” (luh, lah, and lay) are the masculine, feminine, and plural ways of saying “the.” You’d use “l’” for words that begin with vowels: “l’école.”
    • If you’re describing yourself, make sure the adjective matches your gender. For instance, “Je suis américain” (zhuh sweez-ah-may-ree-keh) is masculine, and “Je suis américaine” (zhuh sweez-ah-may-ree-kenn) is feminine.
  3. Learn about how the verb “to have” is used in French. Knowing when to use “être” (to be) and “avoir” (to have) can get a little tricky, but it’s a key aspect of basic French. In French, you’d use the verb “to have” to say “I’m hungry” and “I’m thirsty.” For instance, the literal translations of “J’ai faim” (zhay feh) and “J’ai soif” (zhay swof) are “I have hunger” and “I have thirst.”[13]
    Speak Basic French Step 11.jpg
    • To ask someone if they’re hungry, use “Avez-vous faim?” (ah-vay voo feh) or “As-tu faim? (ah-too feh). Swap out “faim” with “soif” (swof) to ask if they’re thirsty, and “sommeil” (soh-may) to ask if they’re sleepy.
    • The verb “to have” is always used to express conditions such as hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Use “être” (to be) for adjectives such as gender and nationality.

EditUsing Effective Study Techniques

  1. Memorize daily or weekly vocabulary lists. Make vocabulary lists at your own pace. For instance, make a list of 10 new words or phrases every day, or use a word of the day calendar to add 1 new word to your vocabulary per day.[14]
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    • When you study, review your previous list or word to keep it fresh, then move on to new material.
    • Try making themed lists, such as foods, body parts, and household objects. If you're traveling to a francophone country and want to study vacation-related vocabulary words, check out https://www.laits.utexas.edu/fi/html/toc/03.html.
  2. Make flashcards to build your vocabulary. Write down a word in French on one side of the flashcard, and the translation on the other. When you write down the French word and its translation, say them out loud. Quiz yourself, or have someone help you study your flashcards.[15]
    Speak Basic French Step 13.jpg
    • Seeing, writing, and speaking the translations out loud can help you commit your vocabulary words to memory.[16]
  3. Watch French movies and TV shows. French is spoken rapidly, so try renting or buying French films or TV shows to get used to hearing and understanding the language. You can also search for videos on YouTube and other streaming services.[17]
    Speak Basic French Step 14.jpg
    • You may be able to select French dubbing for English TV shows and movies on DVD, so check audio menus.
  4. Read children’s books in French. Flashcards can help build your vocabulary, but you should also try to learn how to use the words in context. The language in children’s books is simple, and illustrations can help you guess words that you don’t know.[18]
    Speak Basic French Step 15.jpg
    • Look online or at a library for French children’s books. You can also download free or cheap ebooks on your e-reader or other electronic device.
  5. Write journal entries about your day in French. Once you have a grasp of basic French, practice writing a few short sentences in French every day. They don’t have to be complex, especially when you first begin. To reinforce your vocabulary, try incorporating words from your daily or weekly lists.[19]
    Speak Basic French Step 16.jpg
    • For instance, you might write, “Aujourd’hui c’est dimanche, le 7 Octobre. J’ai déjeuné avec ma cousine. J’ai mangé une salade de poulet, de la laitue, des épinards, des oignons, et des tomates.”
    • That translates to “Today is Sunday, October 7. I had lunch with my cousin. I had a salad with chicken, lettuce, spinach, onions, and tomatoes.”
    • If you have a friend or relative who speaks French, ask them to read your entries and correct any errors.

EditVideo

EditTips

  • When asking a question, remember to bring up the pitch of your voice at the end of the phrase. If you lower the pitch of your voice, “Ça va” means “It’s going,” and “Tu as faim” means “You are hungry.” If you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of these phrases, they mean “How are you?” and “Are you hungry?”
  • Remember to use the formal “vous” to show respect to strangers, professors, bosses, and elders. You would use informal phrases only when speaking to children, friends, or family members.

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EditSources and Citations


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