In my experience, Paris is one of those places you’ll have very different experiences depending on the way you carry yourself. If you walk into a French bakery, point at what you want, and speak loudly and slowly in English as if dealing with a deaf person, you may get the impression that the French are rude or dislike Americans. (I’d also guess that’s the fastest way to have someone spit in your food.)
However, if you go in there and apologetically, in your best French, ask parlez-vous anglais? (the polite form of “do you speak English?”) most people you meet will at least smile and say un peu (or “a little”).
Americans are famous for going to other countries and expecting its people to speak our language. By setting the tone as humble and friendly, you’re almost guaranteed to find people much more accommodating than if you had gone in there insisting you be understood in English!
Here are the most common words and phrases I have found useful to know when visiting Paris. If you are unsure how to pronounce them, Google Translate is a great resource for practicing!
Parlez-vous anglais? – “Do you speak English?”
I preface almost every conversation I have in France with this. Most people in a touristy city like Paris will at least say un peu or “a little.” Plus they will be much more forgiving when you try to speak to them in broken French mixed with English!
Merci – “Thank you”
Use liberally, especially if the person has been patient with your lack of French proficiency. If you want to really convey your gratitude, the phrase is merci boucoup (pronounced boo-coo) or “thank you very much.”
De Rien – “You’re welcome”
This is what you say if somebody thanks you. It roughly translates to “it is nothing” or “it is of nothing.”
Excusez-moi or pardon – “Excuse me”
You would never (well, should never) stop someone in America by going “hey, you!” Saying excuse me is common courtesy in any country if you’re asking for a moment of someone’s time. Plus, if you want to stop someone to ask for help, you should at least try to say it in a language they understand.
L’eau normal – essentially “Tap water”
The tap water in France is fine to drink. However, if you just ask for water in a nice restaurant, most of the time they will ask if you want minerale (mineral) or gazeuse (carbonated), which comes out of a bottle and usually aren’t free.
Water in French can be confusing when you say it wrong (unlike agua in Spanish which is very clear). I have gotten away with saying “lo-nor-male” but there are videos online that show correct pronunciation if you want to really do it right.
Végétarien – the word is French is similar enough to the English that if you just said “vegetarian” to your waiter, he/she will likely understand. Most will assume you are asking about non-meat dishes, and can point them out on the menu, even if they cannot tell you in English what exactly you will be getting. (To make it sound more French, put the syllable emphasis on the ‘tarian‘)
Since most menus will be posted in French, it’s useful to familiarize yourself with the various words for meat (viande), so you can try to avoid dishes that include them. At the very least, you should know words like pork (le porc) or chicken (poulet). Food Republic has a great “cheat sheet” of food/drink-related phrases for ordering in French you can find here.