For me, the holy grail of learning French is to actually ‘sound French’. Back home, I would always say ‘Bon appétit!’ before beginning a meal. I would watch Hollywood classics where the suave French gentleman often murmured, “Enchanté,” as he plants a baise main on the hand of a beautiful woman.
So, when I moved to France, I thought I was already on my way to sounding French, n’est-ce pas?
Well, from what I’ve learned living in Paris, if you want to sound French, you must absolutely, positively NOT say these phrases which are all too familiar to many of us.
Importantly, help is on the way.
I have some tips, so take note!
“You are all Parisians now.”
A couple of years ago, I attended the Cours de Civilisation Francaise de la Sorbonne, the renowned course that boasts famous graduates, including the 18-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier, years before she became First Lady of the USA, Jackie Kennedy.
The first day of class, someone asked the professor how long it takes to truly sound French and become Parisian. She answered, “You are all Parisians now.”
When we expressed doubt, she said,
Even if you’re here a few weeks, or a few months studying our language and culture, you live here in Paris. Well, then, you’re Parisians. And I promise you will sound French.
To sound French was my goal at the Sorbonne and it still is. Of course, one of the best ways to do this is to meet French people and pay attention to their vocabulary and accent.
Springtime last year, I was sitting in a café in the Tuileries Gardens not far from my apartment when a French friend phoned me. After chatting a few moments, I ended the call. An older gentleman sitting nearby asked me in French, “Excuse me, I can’t figure out your accent. Are you French?”
He looked puzzled when I answered, “Thank you! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!
I thanked him because it’s a reussite, a feeling of success. However, to really sound French, I have to keep practising and learning all the time.
To avoid that “Ooops, I shouldn’t have said that,” or “Ooops, I should have said that instead,” here are a few of my insider tips.
3 things to avoid to sound French
1. Bon appétit!
It’s unappetizing to French people to hear that!
My best friend cringed the first time I said this. He explained that French people think it’s a cliché and only waiters say it. I was stunned because I say it frequently. When I told him Anglo speakers use it all the time and that a popular cooking magazine is called ‘bon appétit‘, he burst out laughing.
Instead, he told me to say “Bon app!” it’s a jokey way of saying the same thing, but way more cool. The problem is that by saying “Bon appétit” implies that you need a good appetite to eat the meal which is not necessarily a compliment to the chef, your host!
This is another sophisticated sounding word. But apparently, it’s considered old-fashioned and ‘has-been’ as a French tutor once told me. When introduced to someone for the first time, she admonished me, “instead say a simple, ‘bonjour’ if it’s daytime or ‘bonsoir’ if it’s at night.”
If a French person sneezes, the polite thing to say is… nothing.
The French consider it a private, involuntary act that should go unnoticed, kind of like a burp or any other physical sound that emanates from the human body.
After a sneeze, in our culture, it’s considered polite to immediately say, “bless you,” which comes from the superstition that your soul may be in mortal danger from evil spirits.
If you must say something to a French person, murmur, “Á vos souhaits,” but very very discreetly.
So, ‘bon app!’ as you tuck your napkin under your chin, and very nice to meet you but I’m not enchanted, and if you just sneezed I absolutely didn’t notice.
What tips or phrases have you learned (or learned to avoid) in order to sound French? Share them with us in the comments below so we can all improve!
1. ‘French café’ by Caribb, via Flickr
2. ‘Baisemain’ via Wikipedia
3. ‘La Sorbonne’ by BrownieJayWhite, via Wikimedia Commons
4. ‘Café de Pomone in the Tuileries’ by Chad and Steph, via Wikimedia Commons
5. French waiter by Paul Rysz, via Flickr
6. Sneezing woman by sid, via Flickr