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Do you need to speak French for a Motorhome trip in France?

Visiting any foreign country can be challenging unless you speak a fair bit of the local language. So, is it really possible to hire a motorhome, book restaurants, buy food, find your way around and check into campsites without any French language? We think it is, but our motorhome and campervan basic French will definitely help…

Parlez-vous Français? Do you speak French?

France has a bit of reputation for being unaccommodating of those who don’t speak French but if you learn a few simple words, communication becomes a lot easier.

For at least 20 years, English has been widely taught in French schools and a surprising number of people do know more than a few words – the trick is getting them to use them!

We find the main reason most French people are reluctant to speak English is because they lack confidence in their English language skills and are nervous about getting it wrong and making a fool of themselves – it is just as uncomfortable for them to try to speak the English they learnt years ago as it is for us to try to speak the French we learnt at school and haven’t used since.

Our best advice is not to assume that the person you are approaching will speak English – after all, why should they? We are the foreigners visiting a French-speaking country.

Instead of expecting them to help you in your native tongue, perhaps it is best to start by explaining that you don’t speak their language. This simple change almost always makes the person you are trying to communicate with take pity on you and much more inclined to help if they can!

So, if you learn nothing else before you come, learn how to say “Sorry, I don’t speak any French” (see below) – with an apologetic smile as you say it. If you speak a little French but lack confidence and are worried about getting a rapid-fire response in French, try learning to say “I speak very little French so please speak very slowly” (see below) to start each new conversation.

Many French people admit that they are more likely to attempt to try and speak English if they believe they won’t feel foolish stumbling through their rusty English, so it helps to make them believe they are getting it right too with a few encouraging nods. Try not to get the giggles if their English is hilarious either!

A few carefully chosen phrases can go a long way to making yourself understood and will hopefully make the other person more responsive too. Combine this with a few key motorhome phrases and suddenly, your campervan trip becomes a lot easier!

There are hundreds of handy traveller’s phrase books available to buy which can be invaluable to keep in your pocket while travelling, and the web and apps are great tools to assist with communication too. By using a translation tool such as Google (http://translate.google.com/) on your computer or phone you can either translate a few words in advance or translate a word or phrase at the time on your phone and simply pass the phone over to the other person to read if you don’t fancy trying to pronounce it.

If really stuck, the nationwide network of tourist information offices (Office de Tourisme) nearly always have a member of staff who speaks English and they are extremely resourceful in helping floundering tourists.

You may not be familiar with traffic regulations and road signs in France but most good (English) atlases of France have a glossary showing translations for important road signs etc. Having a printed translation of the most common roads signs to keep in the cab of your motorhome during your trip as a quick reference is a useful tool too. Take a look here for some common ones.

Here are some more common phrases and translations you might find helpful for your campervan adventure in France.

A few basics:

Please S’il vous plaît (often abbreviated to “SVP”)
Thank You Merci
Sorry Pardon
I do not speak French Je ne parle pas Français
I speak a little French Je parle un peu Français
Please speak slowly Parlez lentement s’il vous plaît
Do you speak English? Parlez vous Anglais?
Is there anyone here who speaks English Est ce que il ya quelqu’un ici qui parle Anglais SVP?
Can we eat here Est ce que nous pouvons manger ici?
I would like a drink Je voudrais une boisson svp

Useful motorhome and campervan terms:

Motorhome (such as a SKY 20 or SKY 51 motorhome) Camping-Car (camping-car is the generic term for any type of motorhome)
Campervan (such an OPTIMIST campervan) Fourgon amanegee (or fitted out van)
Hired motorhome Camping-Car de location
Campsite Un camping
Service area (for motorhomes) Aire de service camping car
Do you have a place for one night? Avez vous une emplacement pour une nuit svp?
Water Eau
Waste water Eau gris
Chemical toilet WC (doub-le-vay say) chemique
Toilets Toilettes or WC
Showers Douches
Toilet and shower block Sanitaires
Electricity Electricité (also commonly referred to as ‘deux-cent-vingt’, a reference to the voltage 220 volts)
Gas Gas or Gaz
Diesel Diesel, Gasoil or Gazole

Communications:

Mobile phone Portable
The internet Internet
Home (or office) phone Telephone fixe (or ligne fixe)
Fax Fax
Computer (inc Laptops) Ordinateur
Pay-as-you-go phone Portable sans abonnement (without contract)
Top up voucher (for a pay-as-you-go phone) Ticket de recharge
Call abroad Appeler à l’étranger or Appeler Internationale
Telephone number Numero telephone

On the road (signs you might see in French):

Autoroute Motorway, Highway (typically a toll road)
Péage Tolls (and toll stations on motorways)
Sortie Exit
Route principale Main road (as opposed to minor road)
Route nationale Trunk road
Route départmental Smaller county roads
Cedez le Passage (on road signs) Give Way to other traffic
STOP Stop!
Priorité à Droit Priority to traffic from your right. NB. It is essential to understand this rule as it is rare outside France and leads to much confusion amongst foreign drivers. Don’t forget to ask the France Motorhome Hire team to explain it before you set off!
Stationnement interdit No Parking
Allumer vous feux Headlights on (usually in tunnels)
Route barré Road closed
Deviation Diversion (usually on a yellow sign in the shape of an arrow)

These terms are all provided in the hire manual that comes with your RV so you will always have something to refer to if you need it once you are on the open road.

Finally, don’t worry if you totally fail to learn a single word before you come. Most of our clients don’t get around to it but even those that tour France and the rest of Europe for months seem to manage to eat, drive, buy anything they need, explore and communicate with the locals then return raving about the hospitality they have been shown. Hand signals and a smile still go a long, long way!