Nobody says je voudrais
After bonjour, one of the first phrases most British schoolchildren learn (or at least they did in the 1990s) was je voudrais une baguette/une glace/ un billet simple s'il vous plaît – I would like a baguette/ an ice cream/ a single ticket please.
But while teaching a few basic tourist phrases is a good place to start, in reality je voudrais (the conditional tense of the verb vouloir – to want) is rarely used by French people in the boulangerie, café or train station as it's very formal.
It's not incorrect, but will rather make you stand out as a tourist.
If you're in a café you can say Est-ce que je peux avoir un café s’il vous plait ? (can I have a coffee please) or the more casual je vais prendre un café (I'll take a coffee) while in the boulangerie simply saying une baguette s'il vous plaît is perfectly acceptable.
Make sure you say hello to your waiter. Photo: AFP
But everybody says bonjour
But whatever you're asking for, never forget to start each interaction with a bonjour.
While children are of course taught this basic French word, it's not often stressed just how crucial this is to French life. Every interaction in France – from ordering bread to getting into a lift with other people to having a 3-foot swab shoved up your nose at the Covid-19 testing centre – starts with a bonjour.
Not saying it marks you out as insufferably rude in France, unlike in English-speaking countries where it's quite alright to just launch into your request without a formal greeting.
Saying sacre bleu will make you sound 90 years old. Ditto zut alors
For some reason French textbooks seemed convinced that French people encountering a surprise or the petty irritations of daily life (stepping in dog dirt, running out of bread or narrowly escaping being mown down by a scooter) respond by shouting either sacre bleu! or sometimes zut alors!
In reality you could comfortably spend a decade in France without hearing either and sacre bleu in particularly is extremely old-fashioned and roughly equivalent to turning up in the UK and shouting 'Crickey! Golly Moses!'
And yes, OK, maybe the best French swear world of all time (putain – fuck) is not appropriate for the classroom but there are some great and widely used non-sweary options.
Mince! Is the swear-free version of merde (shit). It's the kind of thing that people say in front of their kids and is basically the same as Anglophones saying 'oh sugar' instead of 'oh shit'.
While for an 'oh no' type exclamation you could use purée!
Verbs are very important . . .
OK, maybe my teachers did in fact mention this but it really cannot be overstated to French learners.
Most people can pick up nouns and phrases as they go by listening in on conversations, watching French TV, chatting with the neighbours etc.
But really the only way to learn verbs is to spend at least some time sweating over a grammar book.
It's unfortunately very necessary though, because you won't progress until you learn how to structure verbs.
It's possible that only the members of the Academie française really know all the French grammar. Photo: AFP
. . . But you can cheat on the future tense
You will need to learn the future tense eventually, but while you're learning, make good use of the futur proche – the tense that basically involves sticking 'je vais' in front of most things.
Want to say you will buy a Navigo pass tomorrow but can't remember how to conjugate the verb acheter (to buy) in the future? No problem – use je vais acheter un pass Navigo demain – I'm going to buy a Navigo pass tomorrow.
It works with questions too – Allez-vous rester longtemps à Paris ? – Are you going to stay in Paris for long?
It won't be grammatically correct in all circumstances (it's intended for use for events in the near future) but people will understand what you mean and it's a handy cheat while you are slogging your way through the many different tenses that the French language enjoys (including the one specifically for writing novels).
Half the time the French don't know either
Ever had a French person explain something to you, proudly trot it out in conversation only to be told by a different French person that you are completely wrong? Yes, we all have.
It may not help confused linguists, but it's sometimes comforting to know that even the French find their own language complicated.
The Academie française, the official guardians of the French language, spend a large part of their time correcting frequently-made mistakes that have crept into the everyday language of French people, so try not to worry too much about everyone around you being a grammar expert. Half of them are probably faking it.
And if you're looking for something to pass the time, try asking random French people what the rule is on when bonjour (good day) becomes bonsoir (good evening) and see how long it takes before you get the same response (18 months and counting for me).