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Words every globetrotter should know

Endear yourself to locals by speaking their language first

By Chris McGinnis
CNN Headline News

Byblos, Saint Tropez
Poolside at the Byblos, Saint Tropez.

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(CNN) -- "Bonjour. Merci. Desole. Parlez-vous anglais? S'il vous plait." That's three words and two phrases. It sounds simple. Most travelers recognize those words and understand what they mean.

But many American tourists in France rarely, if ever, use them. And that's too bad, because using those words, no matter how simple it may seem, no matter how awful you think your accent is, will vastly improve your next trip to France, Quebec or anywhere else French is spoken. Try it, you'll see.

I've been to France three times in the last year. On each trip, I've made it a point to observe how American travelers act and how they are perceived by the French, and I've come to this conclusion: Americans are terrified that they will mangle any French words they dare utter, so they usually start off by blurting out what they want in English, assuming that they will be understood. But the French are offended when we speak English first, without even trying to speak French, assuming that we'll be understood.

I spent a few days last week at the Hotel Byblos in Saint Tropez on the French Riviera. The Byblos has long been the haunt of moguls, stars and jet setters. It's just the sort of place you'd fear being a big bumbling American tourist, irritating everyone with your desperate attempts at speaking French.

But I was on a one-man mission to help mend Franco-American relations. Even though I barely know any French, I made it a point to initiate every interaction with the few key phrases that I learned and memorized ahead of time. These are the same key phrases I memorize in the language of any country to which I'm traveling. (See below.)

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So, even though I knew full well that the Byblo's tuxedoed concierge spoke flawless English, each time I approached, I would ask him, "Parlez-vous anglais?" To which he would smile and reply, "Of course! How can I help you?"

At the sumptuous poolside breakfast buffet the waiter would approach, and I'd say, "Je voudrais un café au lait." (I'd like coffee with milk.) To which he'd smile and reply in perfect English: "Would you like your milk cold, or steamed?"

My accent was probably awful, but as we say in the United States, it's the thought that counts, and the simple fact that I tried to speak French first endeared me to nearly everyone.

You too can endear yourself to the locals anywhere by memorizing the following key words/phrases. I've posted the French translations here, but before you leave on any international trip, learn the following in the language of whatever country you are traveling to:

• Hello -- (Bonjour)

• Goodbye -- (Au revoir)

• Thank you -- (Merci)

• Please -- (S'il vous plait)

• Sorry -- (Desole)

• Yes, no, OK -- (Oui, non, d'accord)

• I would like ... -- (Je voudrais ...)

• Do you speak English? -- (Parlez- vous anglais?)

• How much? -- (Combien?)

So brush up on the basics before your go on your next trip. Memorize the key words or phrases, and practice your accent with a local when you arrive. You'll see that a little language skill goes a long way. Bon voyage!


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