Rick Steves French Phrase Book & Dictionary (2023)

Hi, I’m Rick Steves.

I’m the only monolingual speaker I know who’s had the nerve to design a series of European phrase books. But that’s one of the things that makes them better.

You see, after more than 30 years of travel through Europe, I’ve learned firsthand: (1) what’s essential for communication in another country; and (2) what’s not. I’ve assembled the most important words and phrases in a logical, no-frills format, and I’ve worked with native Europeans and seasoned travelers to give you the simplest, clearest translation possible.

But this book is more than just a pocket translator. The words and phrases have been carefully selected to help you have a smarter, smoother trip in France. The key to getting more out of every travel dollar is to get closer to the local people, and to rely less on entertainment, restaurants, and hotels that cater only to foreign tourists. This book will not only help you order a meal at a locals-only Parisian restaurant—but also help you talk with the family who runs the place...about their kids, travel dreams, and favorite fromage. Long after your memories of châteaux have faded, you’ll still treasure the personal encounters you had with your new French friends.

While I’ve provided plenty of phrases, you’ll find it just as effective to use even just a word or two to convey your meaning, and rely on context, gestures, and smiles to help you out. To make harried postal clerks happy, don’t say haltingly in French: “I would like to buy three stamps to mail these postcards to the United States.” All you really need is timbres (stamps), les Etats-Unis (USA), and s’il vous plaît (please). Smile, point to the postcards, hold up three fingers...and you’ve got stamps. (For more advice, see the Tips for Hurdling the Language Barrier chapter.)

To get the most out of this book, take the time to internalize and put into practice my French pronunciation tips. But don’t worry too much about memorizing grammatical rules, like the gender of a noun—forget about sex, and communicate!

This book has a nifty menu decoder and a handy dictionary. You’ll also find tongue twisters, international words, telephone tips, and two handy “cheat sheets.” Tear out the sheets and tuck them in your beret, so you can easily memorize key phrases during otherwise idle moments. A good phrase book should help you enjoy your travel experience—not just survive it—so I’ve added a healthy dose of humor. And as you prepare for your trip, you may want to read the latest edition of one of my many guidebooks on destinations in France.

Adjust those cultural blinders. If you come to France expecting rudeness, you are sure to find it. If you respect the fine points of French culture and make an attempt to use their language, you’ll find the French as warm and friendly as anyone in Europe.

Your experience will be enriched by a basic understanding of French etiquette. Here’s the situation in a nutshell: The French feel that informality is rude and formality is polite, while Americans feel that informality is friendly and formality is cold. So, ironically, as the Americans and French are both doing their best to be nice, they accidentally offend one another. Remember you’re the outsider, so watch the locals and try to incorporate some French-style politeness into your routine. Walk into any shop in France and you will hear a cheery, “Bonjour, Monsieur / Madame.” As you leave, you’ll hear a lilting, “Au revoir, Monsieur / Madame.” Always address a man as Monsieur, a woman as Madame, and an unmarried young woman or a girl as Mademoiselle (leaving this out is like addressing a French person as “Hey, you!”). For good measure, toss in s’il vous plaît (please) whenever you can.

My goal is to help you become a more confident, extroverted traveler. If this phrase book helps make that happen, or if you have suggestions for making it better, I’d love to hear from you at rick@ricksteves.com.

Bon voyage! Have a good trip!

Getting Started

Challenging, Romantic French is spoken throughout Europe and thought to be one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Half of Belgium speaks French, and French rivals English as the handiest second language in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Even your US passport is translated into French. You’re probably already familiar with this poetic language. Consider: bonjour, c’est la vie, bon appétit, merci, au revoir, and bon voyage! The most important phrase is s’il vous plaît (please), pronounced see voo play. Use it liberally—the French will notice and love it.

You can communicate a lot with only a few key French words: ça, ça va, je peux, and voilà. Here’s how:

Ça (pronounced “sah”) is a tourist’s best friend. Meaning “that” or “this,” it conveys worlds of meaning when combined with pointing. At the market, fromagerie, or pâtisserie, just point to what you want and say Ça, s’il vous plaît, with a smile.

Ça va (sah vah), meaning roughly “it goes,” can fit almost any situation. As a question, Ça va? (Does it go?) can mean “Is this OK?” When combined with a gesture, you can use Ça va? to ask, “Can I sit here?” or “Can I touch this?” or “Can I take a picture?” or “Will this ticket get me into this museum?”...and much more. As a statement, Ça va (which basically means “Yes, it’s OK”) is almost as versatile. When the waiter asks if you want anything more, say Ça va (“I’m good”). If someone’s hassling you and you’ve had enough, you can just say Ça va (“That’s enough.”).

Je peux? (zhuh puh, means “Can I?”) can be used in many of the Ça va? situations, and more. Instead of saying, “Can I please sit here?”, just gesture toward the seat and say Je peux? Instead of asking “Do you accept credit cards?” show them your Visa and ask Je peux?

While English speakers use Voilà (vwah-lah) only for a grand unveiling at a special occasion, the French say it many times each day. It means “Yes” or “Exactly” or “That’s it” or “There you go.” Unsure of how much your plums cost, you hold a euro coin out to the vendor and say Ça va? He responds with a cheery Voilà...and you’re on your way, plums in hand.

While a number of French people speak fine English, many don’t. The language barrier can seem high in France, but locals are happy to give an extra boost to any traveler who makes an effort to communicate. As with any language, the key to communicating is to go for it with a mixture of bravado and humility.

French pronunciation differs from English in some key ways:

Ç sounds like S in sun.

CH sounds like SH in shine.

G usually sounds like G in get.

But G followed by E or I sounds like S in treasure.

GN sounds like NI in onion.

H is always silent.

J sounds like S in treasure.

R sounds like an R being swallowed.

I sounds like EE in seed.

È and Ê sound like E in let.

É and EZ sound like AY in play.

ER, at the end of a word, sounds like AY in play.

Ô and EAU sounds like O in note.

In a Romance language, sex is unavoidable. A man is content (happy), a woman is contente. In this book, when you see a pair of words like content / contente, use the second word when talking about a woman.

French has four accents. The cedilla makes Ç sound like “s” (façade). The circumflex makes Ê sound like “eh” (crêpe), but has no effect on Â, Î, Ô, or Û. The grave accent stifles È into “eh” (crème), but doesn’t change the stubborn À (à la carte). The acute accent opens É into “ay” (café).

French is tricky because the spelling and pronunciation seem to have little to do with each other. Qu’est-ce que c’est? (What is that?) is pronounced: kehs kuh say.

The final letters of many French words are silent, so Paris sounds like pah-ree. The French tend to stress every syllable evenly: pah-ree. In contrast, Americans say Par-is, emphasizing the first syllable.

In French, if a word that ends in a consonant is followed by a word that starts with a vowel, the consonant is frequently linked with the vowel. Mes amis (my friends) is pronounced: mayz-ah-mee. Some words are linked with an apostrophe. Ce est (It is) becomes C’est, as in C’est la vie (That’s life). Le and la (the masculine and feminine “the”) are intimately connected to words starting with a vowel. La orange becomes l’orange.

French has a few sounds that are unusual in English: the French u and the nasal vowels. To say the French u, round your lips to say “oh,” but say “ee.” Vowels combined with either n or m are often nasal vowels. As you nasalize a vowel, let the sound come through your nose as well as your mouth. The vowel is the important thing. The n or m, represented in this book by n for nasal, is not pronounced.

There are a total of four nasal sounds, all contained in the phrase un bon vin blanc (a good white wine).

Nasal vowelsPhoneticsTo make the sound
unuhnnasalize the U in lung
bonbohnnasalize the O in bone
vinvannasalize the A in sack
blancblahnnasalize the A in want

If you practice saying un bon vin blanc, you’ll learn how to say the nasal vowels...and order a fine white wine.

Here’s a guide to the rest of the phonetics in this book:

ahlike A in father
aylike AY in play
ehlike E in let
eelike EE in seed
ehr / airsounds like “air” (in merci and extraordinaire)
ewpucker your lips and say “ee”
glike G in go
īlike I in light
ohlike O in note
oolike OO in too
slike S in sun
uhlike U in but
urlike UR in purr
zhlike S in treasure

French Basics

Hellos and Goodbyes

Struggling with French


Simply Important Words

Sign Language

French / English Dictionary

English / French Dictionary

Be creative! You can combine the phrases in this chapter to say “Two, please,” or “No, thank you,” or “Open tomorrow?” or “Please, where can I buy a ticket?” “Please” is a magic word in any language, especially in French. If you know the word for what you want, such as the bill, simply say L’addition, s’il vous plaît (The bill, please).

Hellos and Goodbyes


Meeting and Greeting

Moving On

Hello.Bonjour. bohn-zhoor
Do you speak English?Parlez-vous anglais? par-lay-voo ahn-glay
Yes. / No.Oui. / Non. wee / nohn
I don’t speak French.Je ne parle pas français. zhuh nuh parl pah frahn-say
I’m sorry.Désolé. day-zoh-lay
Please.S’il vous plaît. see voo play
Thank you (very much).Merci (beaucoup). mehr-see (boh-koo)
Excuse me. (to get attention)Excusez-moi. ehk-skew-zay-mwah
Excuse me. (to pass)Pardon. par-dohn
OK?Ça va? sah vah
OK. (two ways to say it)Ça va. / D’accord. sah vah / dah-kor
Good.Bien. bee-an
Very good.Très bien. treh bee-an
Excellent.Excellent. ehk-seh-lahn
You are very kind.Vous êtes très gentil. vooz eht treh zhahn-tee
It doesn’t matter.Ça m’est égal. sah meht ay-gahl
No problem.Pas de problème. pah duh proh-blehm
You’re welcome.De rien. duh ree-an
Goodbye.Au revoir. oh ruh-vwahr

Pardon and Excusez-moi aren’t interchangeable. Say Pardon to get past someone; use Excusez-moi to get someone’s attention.

Meeting and Greeting

The French begin every interaction with Bonjour, Monsieur (to a man) or Bonjour, Madame (to a woman). It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this courtesy. To the French, a proper greeting respectfully acknowledges the recipient as a person first, and secondly as a professional. Taking the time to say a polite hello marks you as a conscientious visitor and guarantees a warmer welcome.

Good day.Bonjour. bohn-zhoor
Good morning.Bonjour. bohn-zhoor
Good evening.Bonsoir. bohn-swahr
Good night.Bonne soirée. buhn swah-ray
Hi / Bye. (informal)Salut. sah-lew
Welcome!Bienvenue! bee-an-vuh-new
Mr.Monsieur muhs-yuh
Mrs.Madame mah-dahm
MissMademoiselle mahd-mwah-zehl
Good day, gentlemen and ladies.Bonjour, Messieurs et Madames. bohn-zhoor mays-yuh ay mah-dahm
My name is ____.Je m’appelle ____. zhuh mah-pehl ____
What’s your name?Quel est votre nom? kehl ay voh-truh nohn
Pleased to meet you.Enchanté. ahn-shahn-tay
How are you?Comment allez-vous? koh-mahnt ah-lay-voo
Very well, thank you.Très bien, merci. treh bee-an mehr-see
Fine.Bien. bee-an
And you?Et vous? ay voo
Where are you from?D’où êtes-vous? doo eht-voo
I am from ____.Je suis de ____. zhuh swee duh ____
I am / We are...Je suis / Nous sommes... zhuh swee / noo suhm
Are you...?Êtes-vous...? eht-voo
...on vacation...en vacances ahn vah-kahns
...on business...en voyage d’affaires ahn vwah-yahzh dah-fair

The greeting Bonjour (Good day) turns to Bonsoir (Good evening) at dinnertime. If the French see someone they’ve just greeted recently, they may say Rebonjour.

You might hear locals use the breezy Bonjour, Messieurs / Dames or even Bonjour, tout le monde (Hello, everybody) if both men and women are present. But to proper French people, this is too rushed and sloppy. Take the time to say Bonjour, Messieurs et Madames (Hello, gentlemen and ladies).

Moving On


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