French phrasebook

French (français) is a Romance language, and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world: 220 million people speak French, including 115 million native speakers. The French language originated in France, but in the modern day it is spoken all over the world; it is an official language of 29 different countries, an important business, cultural, or minority language in dozens of other countries and regions, and is used officially by scores of international organisations including the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Olympic Committee. Although it’s been largely supplanted by English these days, French was the main international lingua franca well into the 20th century, and at one point, French was the language spoken in most of the royal courts of Europe. To this day, it remains de rigueur for educated people in many societies around the world to have some level of basic French ability.

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French speaking areas

Aside from France itself, French is widely spoken in many other parts of Europe, including the southern half of Belgium (Wallonia and Brussels), western Switzerland, Monaco and Luxembourg. A significant number of speakers are also found on most of the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, and Sark but not Alderney, where the local Francophone community died out some time after the Second World War), the tiny Pyrenean country of Andorra, and the Aosta Valley of northwestern Italy.

Like Spanish and German, but unlike English, the French language is governed by an official regulator – L’Académie française. Headquartered in Paris (shown here), the Académie issues guidance and recommendations on good French, and its occasional spelling reforms are often controversial.

In the Americas, French is spoken primarily in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, the northern and eastern parts of Ontario and around the Winnipeg area of Manitoba. Although Canada is an officially bilingual nation and there are Francophone enclaves in almost every province, outside these four provinces, it’s quite rare to encounter anyone in Canada who speaks more than a few words of French without hunting down those off-the-beaten-track French-speaking communities. French is also spoken in a few parts of the United States, namely parts of Louisiana and northern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. French is also the official language of Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the northern half of Saint Martin, and French Guiana, all of which are, or used to be, French colonial possessions.

Elsewhere, French is an official language of many former colonies in Africa. It is an important administrative and cultural language in the former French Southeast Asian possessions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In Oceania, French is the sole official language of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, which remain overseas departments of France today, as well as one of the official languages of Vanuatu.

The varieties of French which are spoken in Belgium and Switzerland differ slightly from the French spoken in France, though they are similar enough to be mutually intelligible. In particular, the numbering system in French-speaking Belgium and Switzerland has some slight peculiarities that are significantly different from the French spoken in France. Nevertheless, all French-speaking Belgians and Swiss would have learned standard French in school, so they would be able to understand you even if you used the standard French numbering system.

There are many differences between the French spoken in Quebec and that spoken in France. The two main differences are that Quebec has retained many 18th- & 19th-century French words, while in France the language has incorporated many English words. Nevertheless, all Francophone Canadians, including Quebecois, learn standard French in school. This means that while you may not understand conversation among locals, they will be able to converse with you in standard French if required.

Aside from Europe & Canada, many French-speaking regions have incorporated the words of local languages and on occasion have formed distinctive dialects or languages known as Creoles.

The French Wikivoyage has a page that can help you locate French-speaking regions.

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French verbs conjugate differently according to tense, mood, aspect and voice. This means that there are many more possible conjugations for French verbs than English verbs, and learning how to conjugate each verb in different scenarios can be a challenge for English speakers.

French nouns are divided into 2 different genders: masculine and feminine. Unlike in English, all inanimate objects have a gender assigned to them (eg. pain (bread) is masculine; comédie (comedy) is feminine), and the article of each noun depends on its gender: le (m), la (f) or l’ (before words starting with h or a vowel, regardless of gender). The plural definite article is les, for all genders. Similarly, third person pronouns also depend on the grammatical gender of the subject: il (m) or elle (f), with ils and elles being the masculine and feminine plurals, respectively. When there are groups of mixed-gender people or objects, ils is always used. The grammatical gender of nouns denoting persons generally follows the person’s natural gender (eg. mère (mother) is feminine, père (father) is masculine), though some nouns are always of the same gender regardless of the natural gender of the person they are referring to (e.g. maire (mayor) is always masculine even if referring to a female mayor, personne is always feminine even if the person in question is a man).

In French, there are two equivalents of the English word “you”. In informal situations, and when addressing children or pets, the word to use will be tu, while in formal situations, or when addressing a group of people regardless of circumstance, the word to use will be vous. It is important to know the distinction, as while addressing a pet dog with the vous form would sound ridiculous and be likely to amuse, using tu in a formal situation would be inappropriate and may offend the person whom you are addressing. After initially using the vous form, a person may say to you “On peut se tutoyer”; this is a polite invitation for you to use the tu form with them.

The default title used when addressing a man is monsieur, while a woman would be addressed as madame. Mademoiselle was traditionally used to address young, unmarried women, but this is now controversial and arguably sexist, so unless the other person tells you otherwise, it is best to default to madame. The respective plurals are messieurs and mesdames, so the French equivalent of “ladies and gentlemen” would be “mesdames et messieurs“.

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