French (français) is the official language of France, as well as a number of its neighbours, is a working language of the UN and is the official language of around 270 million people in the world. Any tourist who doesn't put a bit of effort in to speak French is missing out on an important part of the country's identity and culture, and what many consider to be the most beautiful language in the world!
There are slight regional variations in pronunciation and local words. For example, throughout France the word for yes, oui, said "we", but you will often hear the slang form "ouais", said "waay." It's similar to the English language usage of "Yeah" instead of "Yes". The Loire Valley has the reputation of being the region where the best French is spoken, with no regional accent.
Other languages used in France
In Alsace and part of Lorraine, a dialect of German called Alsatian is spoken, which is almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard High German. In the south, some still speak dialects of the Langue d'Oc (because the word for "yes" is oc): Languedocian, Limousin, Auvergnat, or Provençal. The Langue d'Oc is a Romance language, a very close relative of Italian, Spanish, or Catalan. In the west part of Brittany, a few people, mainly the elderly or scholars, speak Breton; this Celtic language is closer to Welsh than to French. In parts of Aquitaine, Basqueis spoken, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica, the Corsican language has a strong Italian influence. In the Provence, Provençal is most likely to be spoken, especially along the Riviera. However, almost everyone speaks French and tourists are unlikely to ever need to speak the regional languages, except to give a "folkloric" flair to things.
Hardly anybody understands imperial units such as gallons or Fahrenheit. Stick to metric units (after all, the French invented this system!).
The French are generally attached to politeness (some might say excessively) and will react coolly to strangers who forget it. You might be surprised to see that you are greeted by other customers when you walk into a restaurant or shop. Return the courtesy and address your hellos/goodbyes to everyone when you enter or leave small shops and cafes. It is, for the French, very impolite to start a conversation with a stranger (even a shopkeeper or client) without at least a polite word like "bonjour". For this reason, starting the conversation with at least a few basic French phrases goes a long way to convince them to try to help you.
- "Excusez-moi Monsieur/Madame": Excuse me (ex-COO-zay-mwah mih-SYOOR/muh-DAM)
- "S'il vous plaît Monsieur/Madame" : Please (SEEL-voo-PLAY)
- "Merci Monsieur/Madame" : Thank you (mare-SEE)
- "Au revoir Monsieur/Madame" : Good Bye (Ore-vwar)
Avoid "Salut" (Hi); it is reserved for friends and relatives, and to use it with people you are not acquainted with is considered a bit impolite.
Note that French spoken with a hard English accent or an American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In such circumstances, it may be best to write down what you are trying to say. But tales of waiters refusing to serve tourists because their pronunciation doesn't meet French standards are highly exaggerated. A good-faith effort will usually be appreciated, but don't be offended if a waiter responds to your fractured French, or even fluent but accented, in English (If you are a fluent French speaker and the waiter speaks to you in English when you'd prefer to speak French, continue to respond in French and the waiter will usually switch back - this is a common occurrence in the more tourist-oriented areas, especially in Paris).
Please note that some parts of France (such as Paris) are at times overrun by tourists. The locals there may have some blasé feelings about helping foreign tourists who speak in an unintelligible language and ask for directions to the other side of the city for the umpteenth time. Be courteous and understanding.
As France is a very multicultural society with immigrants from all over the world, many African languages, Arabic, Chinese dialects (such as Teochew), Vietnamese or Khmer could be spoken. Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and even Romanian belong to the same language family as French, and therefore it may be possible to communicate basic information through some common vocabulary, particularly when written down.
Although most French people have studied English in school, proficiency is generally poor, with only a very small minority being conversant in it. That being said, major hotels and tourist attractions will often have staff who speak English and other foreign languages. When approaching French people, always be sure to begin the conversation in French, as assuming that a foreign language will be spoken is considered to be very rude.
The standard sign language is French Sign Language, locally known by its native initialism LSF. Whenever an interpreter is present for a public event, he or she will use LSF. Users of American Sign Language (also used in Anglophone Canada), Quebec Sign Language, and Irish Sign Language may be able to understand LSF. As those languages were derived from LSF, they share a good deal of vocabulary and syntax with LSF, and also use a one-handed manual alphabet very similar to that of LSF. Users of British Sign Language, Auslan, or New Zealand Sign Language, however, will have great difficulty. Those languages differ markedly in vocabulary and syntax from LSF, and also use a two-handed manual alphabet.