Tips: Speaking French in France
I originally wrote this as a response to jdawg943's "finished the tree" post, but maybe it will be useful to others. Hopefully others will have even more to contribute.
It occurs to me that if you're going to go to Paris and try to speak French, especially in August when a lot of regular Parisiens and Parisiennes will be away then you are likely to run into the phenominon of switching. What happens is that if you hesitate a bit and the person you're talking with knows a little English then they'll switch. Usually it's to show off their English, or to improve it, but sometimes it's out of frustration. It's good to try to head it off in that case.
One trick is to use French hesitation words. After all everybody hesitates when they talk, including native speakers. In English we tend to say "uh", and draw it out as necessary "uhhhhhh". In French it's "Eu", and gets drawn out too "Euuuuuuuuu". The vowel is pretty much the long "u" but a little rounder as it goes on.
In Switzerland and the South of France they are more likely to use "ben" as a hesitation word, and so I've adopted it which makes people in Paris think I'm Swiss. "Ah, ben, non, effectivement, j'suis American. Mais, j'habite là bas."
Another good French hesitation word is "Alors", which you can draw out for 15 or 20 seconds as necessary as you think of what you want to say. "Alooorrrrrrruhhhhhhhhhh", ....
Then there are exclaimations (I'm not talking about swearing, don't worry). You usually produce these automatically, like "ouch" or whatever. The French say "Ai!", not "Ouch!", so it might pay to get yourself into the habit of saying "Ai!" pron. "eye!", but quicker.
Then there's "oops", that's "oh, là là" but it's pronounced "oh" not "ooo", that's a common misconception. The number of là indicate the degree of oops:
Oh là là - I forgot the cream for my coffee
Oh là là là là - I've spilled my coffee
Oh là là là là là là là là - I've spilled a full back of groceries
You'll probably see this elsewhere, but the important one is that you don't say just "bonjour". I think it's Balzac's fault because he wrote once "Bonjour à qui? Bonjour mon chien?" Instead you have to address it to a person: "Bonjour, Madame", "Bonjour, Monsieur", "Bonjour, monsieur-dame". The last one might be a Swiss-ism, I'm not sure.
Paris is a big busy city, and while it's not as busy in August many places are closed so the open ones are busy anyway. So people economise words (while being polite). If somebody is scurrying the most polite thing is to be quick. Like so:
Instead of - "J'aimerais une table pour deux s'il vous plait." - hold up your thumb and forefinger and say: "Pour manger, s'il vous plait."
Instead of - "Je ne voudrais que boîre un verre pour l'instant" - say, "Pour boîre un verre?" they might wave you in or they might wave you away. At least everybody knows what they're getting into.
There are dozens of these. Maybe we should start a thread for them.
The formal vous is about distance, use it to be polite with strangers, especially older strangers or somebody you're about to bother (directions, pushing past in a crowded restaurant). For young people default to "tu", but there are some exeptions in both cases. You have to get a feel for it but in general remember it's about distance so for example if a bartender comps you a drink or a coffee then he's "tu" but if he gets the wrong idea and starts getting too friendly emphatically switching back to "vous" should put him in his place. Toss in a "monsieur" or two and the intention is clear. See how it can be used to actually be less polite? Neat huh?
There's lots more. I think I'm going to cut-and-paste this and give it its own thread if other people find it useful.
I've thought of another entry for "Politeness":
Things go wrong, so sometimes you have to say you're sorry. There are different ways to do it and some of them at least vary by degree. For really little things just "excusez-moi" will do, as will "pardon" or "pardonnez-moi". "Je m'excuse." takes it up a notch, meaning something more like "I offer my apology" rather than "I excuse myself".
Then you get into real apology territory: variations on "désolé". I would never say just "désolé" by itself. It sounds flippant like that, but if I really need to say I'm sorry I would say something like "Je suis désolé, Madame/Monsieur." or in advanced cases, like if you step on somebody's foot, hard and it hurts too much for them to brush it off, or if you spill something on somebody's nice clothes, bag whatever then haul out the "infinite sorry": Je suis infiniment désolé, Monsieur/Madame !". And of course offer to help as you would normally.
Responses vary too. "Il n'y a pas de quoi" or just "pas de quoi" express "it's nothing". "De rien" (pron. "do rien") means the same. "C'est pas grave" or "pas grave" means it isn't nothing but it's no big deal.
Sometimes I hear younger people especially using "pas grave" in response to situations where really "pas de quoi", or even "non, pardonnez-MOI" would be more appropriate. For instance once I was coming down a narrow stair at the train station on which a couple of girls were smoking, I said "excusez-moi, s'il vous plaît" to ask them to scoot over a bit. They did, and one of them answered "c'est pas grave". I've heard this a couple of times since then and it still strikes me as a bit wrong. Of course it isn't serious!
Anyhow, the more polite thing in that situation seems to be something more like "Non, non, c'est moi." or at least "pas de quoi". Anyhow I hope that particular trend doesn't pick up.
Très utile! Merci! My favourite tip, "The number of là indicates the degree of oops".
I didn't realize they really said "oh là là" en French. I thought that was just made up. Also, I thought it was "oo" instead of "oh" so I learned a lot with that one comment.
They certainly do use oh la la. I moved to France in January this year with my family. My daughter (8 yrs) attends the local primary school is already coming home singing playground songs including the inimitable oh la la.
Apparently so! I've recently heard it used a few times on a french radio station and on a french t.v show.
On switching...my wife and I rented an apartment near the Bastille one spring. It was on the third floor, and one day I rode up the lift with a fellow who struck up a conversation, in French of course. I thought I was doing exceptionally well holding up my end, until we reached the top and he remarked, in English, "So, you are from Boston, yes?"
Thanks so much! One question, how far can the Oh la la's go before someone decides you're being ridiculous?
That's an excellent question! I recall seeing a comedy routine in which somebody kept doing it long enough that somebody left the room and came back in and it was still going.
But I guess it would start to sound pretty weird after maybe 10 or so. Probably most people would either trail off at that point or switch to profanity. ;)
I'm chuckling imagining myself trying to convince a stanger on the street of my French abilities by dragging out ''Aloooooorrrrrrruuuuhhhh" for literally 15 to 20 seconds. I wonder how long they'd last before they'd walk away? Sounds like the recipe for some sort of hidden camera show.
But seriously, good tips. Especially about "Bonjour" needing a subject, so to speak (I did not know this), and the tutoyer/vousvoyer explanation. This is very similar to how Tu/Usted works in (Latin American) Spanish, but I think there are some subtle differences.
Wow. This is great! And very interesting. I always thought it was ooo la la! But would people stare at you if you held "Alors" for longer than 15-20 seconds?
OK, really 5 seconds is probably the longest you can get away with. On the other hand it's what the French use. "Soooooooo," pretty much works the same way in English. :)
I have also experienced the switching phenomenon in Paris (but not much in the countryside where many people really don't feel comfortable with English). Awesome tips on pause words! I also find it helpful to go ahead and engage in English until they hit the point of not understanding and then go back to French. Many of the store clerks and hotel personnel will stop talking English if you go beyond the few topics they feel comfortable with.
I suspect for a French person, bumping into an English speaking person is an exciting opportunity for them to practice. When I was in Mexico, people always wanted to practice their English with me. It doesn't usually get any further than "Hello, how are you?" and "Where are you from?" and then they were ready to switch back to Spanish. I was happy to accommodate them.
Yeah, here in Mexico most people can't tell that I'm half American, but once they start to notice my accent, or i tell them, they love to try to speak English xD I don't think I've ever met anyone more eager to speak English than drunk mexicans.. my friends almost get mad at me when they're smacked at 3 a.m. and I reply in Spanish to save time. Good stuff.
Do they like to practice cussing with you? When I was there I was in college, in my late teens or early 20s and the guys liked to show how macho they were by cursing. Now I'm a lot older and I bet they wouldn't dare :)
Oh constantly! But I mean that's fairly normal, bad words tend to be one of the first things you learn in a new language, especially if you go to where that language is spoken people also seem pretty excited to teach the newbie how to cuss
Just FYI, Bonjour monsieur-dame isn't a swissism, it's used in the countryside and in small towns in France (or messieurs-dames). The last time I went up to Paris, I realised I'd become far too countrified -- I was indignant when no one said "Messieurs-dames" when joining the long queue in the boulangerie.
Came here to say this. However not everyone does it. It is a symbol of social class to some extent. Ça indique si on est 'bien élevé' ou non.
What does monsieur-dame mean? Is it like saying ladies and gentlemen in English? Is it used for a group of people or a couple?
It's for a couple. For a group it would be messeurs-dames. In terms of pronunciation only the first syllable changes.
Also it's slightly more polite to put it (or just Madame or Monsieur) first: "Madame, bonjour !"
Thank you. I'd never heard of this before. It's amazing the things they don't tell you at school or in books. I love hearing about all the cultural aspects of learning the language.
Golden tips ! Thumbs up.
BTW : "J'aimerais une table pour deux s'il vous plait."
Keep up the good work !
A question about tu and vous. In German it's can be a bit of a big deal to change to tu, but you can never change back to vous. For example, normally I'd call a teacher vous. But maybe we are friendly, we decide it's ok to use tu between us. But I could never use vous again with that teacher. How is this in French?
This is brilliant, thank you! When I eventually get to go to France I'll be saying all of these! Oh là là là la !
Great information! Thank you. (Not that I can see my way to Paris any time soon - but someday. :-) Meanwhile this is just all very interesting and makes the language feel more real, lively, and useable.