Learning French in a classroom is one thing. Speaking French out there in the big wide francophone world is something else. French slang is often quite different from what you learned in your French course and even the simple vernacular idiom can be confusing. Imagine a French person coming across the English expression “raining cats and dogs” for the first time! (In French, il pleut des cordes - it’s raining ropes.)
To help you out, here are some common (and colloquial) French expressions and phrases to get you started on your linguistic journey. We will be covering both basic French words to help you navigate your trip to France and French expressions you might not have learned in your beginner French course.
French Words And Phrases To Get Around
Visiting France? Don’t want to appear impolite? Here are some of the most common words and expressions for everyday use.
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When meeting someone, you will want to ask “Hello, how are you?”:
- Bonjour, comment allez-vous? (formal), ça va? (informal)
- Or: Allez-vous bien? If you know that person has been poorly.
Unlike in English, where you might wish someone a good morning or good afternoon, French greetings only cover the whole day. Only at the end of the day might you wish someone Bonsoir, but never in the sense of “good evening”. Bonsoir is closer to "good-night" - you say it when you leave in the evening or shortly before going to bed.
Bonne nuit is only used just before going to bed.
During the day, when leaving you will tell your French friends:
Au revoir! (literally, "till we see each other again.")
If they are going somewhere and you want to say “have a good trip”, tell them: Bon voyage!
French Word for "Please" and "Thank-You"
Of course, any French for Beginners class will include basic French phrases for “please” and “thank you”, but in the spirit of thoroughness, here they are again:
|English word||French translation|
|French translation |
|Please||S'il-vous plaît.||S'il te plaît.|
|Thank you very much||Merci beaucoup||Merci beaucoup|
When meeting the French, you should address them in the following way:
|Gender||English word||French word|
|feminine (married)||Mrs., Ma'am||madame|
In your first French lessons, you often learn the phrase: "Do you speak French?"
This is silly. They might, but you don’t, at least not yet.
So here are some more useful basic French phrases to get you around:
- "Excuse-me, do you speak English?"Pardonnez-moi, parlez-vous anglais?
- "What is your name?"
Quel est votre nom? (formal)
Comment t’appelles-tu? (informal)
- "Where can I find…. (insert dictionary search result here)?"
Où puis-je trouver ….?
- "How much does it cost?"
Combien cela coûte-t-il?
Combien ça coûte? (colloquial)
- "Does this stop at …..?
Est-ce-qu’il s’arrête à….?
- "I am lost. Can you show me where I am?"
Je suis perdu. Est-ce-que vous pourriez me montrer où je suis?
- "Avez-vous une carte anglaise plutôt que française?"
Can I have the English rather than the French menu?
And here's a French to English table of common French question words:
|English designation||French designation|
|How far?||À quelle distance?|
About French words for understanding directions and time
Of course, it helps if you can understand the answer to your question (which you will, of course, have asked with impeccable French pronunciation).
Here is a list of words used in directions:
|straight ahead||tout droit|
|bus stop||arrêt de bus|
Remember when you speak French that the French don’t use AM and PM - they’re on twenty-four hour time, so expect to hear “dix-sept heures” for five o’clock in the afternoon.
- Un quart d’heure = a quarter of an hour
- Une demi heure = half an hour
In case you need to make appointments, here is a list with the name of the days of the week in French. And because we want you to learn more about French culture, we’ll give you their etymology. Unlike the English language, where the words of the week come from Germanic Anglo-Saxon, the French weekdays are based on Latin designations + the word Dies (French, like Portuguese, is a Romance language derived mostly from vernacular Latin, though it was heavily influenced by Frankish, a Germanic language spoken by the first kings of France).
- Lundi (same as in english: Moon-day, Luna-dies)
- Mardi (the day of Mars)
- Mercredi (the day of Mercury)
- Jeudi (the day of Juno)
- Vendredi (the day of Venus)
- Samedi (Sambati dies, name of the day of the Judaic Sabbath)
- Dimanche (Dominicus, the Christian Sabbath day)
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Conversational French Words and Phrases They Didn’t Teach You in French Class
Whether you are planning to travel in France or have already been living in France for some time, (or simply regularly watch French films to improve your command of the language) you are sure to stumble over French idioms. You know - those expressions in which you know every word from your French vocabulary lessons, but still don’t understand the meaning of the phrase.
Here you will learn how to speak French like a native rather than a textbook.
Words and phrases English speakers need to know
Here are some words that you will encounter in spoken French - or when watching or reading the French news - but that are hard to find translations for. In other words, your French English or French French dictionaries might tell you the meaning of these common words (and their descent from Indo European), but not their usage:
- Du coup
These common words come at the the beginning of a sentence and denotes an effect. Can sometimes also be used like the English “in short”.
Mon reveil n’a pas sonné ce matin. Du coup, j’ai été en retard.
My alarm didn’t ring this morning. Thus, I was late.
- Quand même
These words can mean “after all, still” (J’ai quand même pu prendre le bus - I still managed to catch the bus), but can also be used to express indignation:
C’est quand même pas drôle d’avoir à se dépêcher le mâtin.
It’s awfully annoying to have to rush in the morning.
Et puis ils ont augmenté le prix du ticket. Non mais quand même!
What’s more, they raised the ticket prices. Honestly!
(Et puis - “and so”, “also”, “what’s more” is another one of those phrases…)
A word meaning “in short”, it is used to summarize:
Réveil cassé, énervée, plus d’argent pour le déjeuner - bref, la journée a bien commencé!
Alarm broken, annoyed, no money left for lunch - what a start to the day!
- Ça roule?
This short exchange means: “All right?” “As usual!” (Comme d’hab is short for “comme d’habitude”, in French slang.)
- Ça te dit?
When you speak French, you ask Ça te dit? (does it talk to you?) to see if another person is pleased with doing something.
On va au resto. Ça te dit?
We’re off to the restaurant. Do you feel like it?
- N’importe quoi
Although it means “whatever, anything at all”, “n’importe quoi” is best translated in English as “rubbish”:
Mais il dit n’importe quoi!
He’s talking rubbish.
Though you can also “do rubbish” in France:
Il fait n’importe quoi! means he’s either not doing a job correctly or is doddering about and accomplishing nothing. If someone is spelling French words like they are pronounced, il fait n’importe quoi.
French phrases denoting frustration
Here are some idiomatic expressions in French you might hear from annoyed people:
If a French speaker says Ça me gonfle, it can be translated as “I am so tired of this”. It can be used for anything that really annoys you. It’s quite familiar and is the equivalent of ça m’énerve. For example, when the cat constantly knocks over your careful piles of flashcards explaining French grammar. Synonyms to these French idioms are ras-le-bol/la cafetière (the bowl/coffee pot is full - and soon to overflow) and j’en ais marre.
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Avoir le cafard, “to have the cockroach” translates in English to “feeling blue”. This expression was supposedly first used in French poet Baudelaire’s book Les fleurs du mal and is derived from poor living conditions infested with vermin, which is depressing. You can "have a cockroach" from realising that your French pronunciation hasn’t improved, you always use the wrong pronoun and you still don’t know where to put the adverb.
Avoir la moutarde qui lui monte au nez, “to have mustard rise into your nose” means to get progressively more angry. Like that feeling when you get mustard up your nose. Or when learning the conjugation of French verbs or trying to decipher French accents from the south of France.
Someone in this state of mind might respond to your enquiries with:
“Mêle-toi de tes oignons!”, “take care of your (own) onions!” - mind your own business. The inhabitants of previously colonized countries probably wished France had taken care of their onions and left them alone instead of imposing French culture on them.
After trying to find the right words in French to express what you mean for ten minutes straight, you might say: “Laisse tomber”, “let it fall” - “forget about it, let it go.”
If French speakers say “Revenons à nos moutons” “let’s come back to our sheep”, they’re not talking about a walk in the countryside - just that you should get back on topic after straying on a fascinating tangent about the Indo-European languages, the French Revolution or where you can find the best French clothing.
A few amusing phrases in the French language
Beginner French courses may not cover these, but we will! Here are some nice cases of knowing all the words, but not necessarily the meaning. So here are idioms in the French language to improve your vocabulary:
- À la Saint Glin-glin. The Catholic calendar has feast days for all its saints - but none are called Glinglin. If something is due to happen à la Saint-Glinglin, it never will.
- Les mouettes ont pied “the seagulls can stand” (”avoir pied” in a body of water means you can stand in it with your head above the water). This is a charming way of saying in French that your glass is empty and someone should refill it.
- J’en mettrais ma main au feu!
One translation could be “I would swear to it in court”. It is referring to either the story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who put his hand in the fire to show his bravery and determination or to a medieval practice of divine judgment in which a glowing rod was thrust into the defendant’s hand. These words are only if you are 100% sure of something.
- Haut comme trois pommes, as tall as three apples (stacked atop each other) - referring to toddler or small child:
Mes amis ont un p'tit boud'chou, haut comme trois pommes; il est trop mimi !
My friends have a little sweetheart, about yay high; he's so adorable!
Eager to learn French the way it is spoken in France, learn grammar, practise how to pronounce it properly and know which words are idiomatic and which aren’t? One of the best ways to learn the French language is with a private tutor - so why not give our Superprof tutors a chance?