The 25 Most Useful French Phrases I Learned While Studying in France

August 18, 2014
useful french phrases

Once upon a time I studied abroad in Lyon, France, for five months. It was wonderful. I lived with a host family and attended a French university and everything. I ate tons of croissants and Nutella. I even learned the way of the French “bise” greeting.

So I thought for this month’s “Brainfood” post I would share with you what I found to be the most useful French phrases I picked up while studying abroad in France. It’s crazy because most of these are things my textbooks did not teach me. It took me being immersed in the French-speaking realm to pick them up. And now I’m sharing them here. Think of them as a souvenir from France, from me to you.

So if you are a French-language student who is looking to shift into more colloquial, conversational French, this post is for you.

Et aux francophones qui lisent cet article, si vous voyez une erreur, dites-moi!

only lyon sign

1.
Il faut la glisser.  [il fo la gli.se]  
You have to slide it.

You’ll need this whenever you go to make a purchase with your American credit card. The credit cards there all have a chip in them, with a pin number attached, and chances are your credit card is of the magnetic strip sort. This is probably the phrase I found myself using the most often in France—I’m not even kidding.

 

2. Bonjour à tous.  [bɔ̃.ʒu ʁa tus]  Hello, everyone.

I always heard this at church—people would get up at the pulpit and start with Bonjour à tous…


3. C’est logique?  [se lɔ.ʒik]  Does that make sense?

You can use this the way you would in English—after a super long explanation to ask the person you’re talking to if they understood you. But I actually asked this all the time when speaking with francophones to ask if what I was saying was proper French. Just pay attention to how you say it so your question is clear.

 

4. Ça n’a pas de sens.  [sa na pa də sɑ̃s That doesn’t make sense.

I wanted to present this right after C’est logique? because I noticed the answer I usually got after that question whenever I wasn’t making sense was not “ce n’est pas logique” but ça n’a pas de sens. So, you could say that c’est logique and ça n’a pas de sens are opposites.

 

5. Comment épelle-t-on ce mot?  [kɔ.mɑ̃ te.pɛl tɔ̃ sə mo]  How do you spell that word?

Because a French person is going to use a new word on you, and you’re going to have to stop them to ask how to spell it and what gender it is. I’d specify ce mot instead of just saying ça because you might accidentally ask them how to spell the word ça.

You can also say Comment l’épèlle-t-on? to simply say “How do you spell it?”

 

6. doucement  [du.smɑ̃]  slowly / gently

I know. It looks like it would mean “sweetly.” And I’m sure you could probably use it that way. But the majority of the time, a French person will use it to mean “slowly” or “gently.” My host mom used it on me when I jumbled some of my French while talking to her, and at the park I saw a parent yell it at her son who was rollerblading too fast.

 

7. Allez-y / vas-y.  [a.le.zi / va.zi]  Go ahead.

You can essentially use this the way you use “go ahead” in English. So if you accidentally interrupt someone, or if you want someone to walk ahead of you on the sidewalk, reach for this phrase.

 

8. C’est par où? C’est par là.  [se pa.ʁu / se paʁ la]  Which way is it? It’s that way.

My host brother taught me this one. We walked around Lyon for, like, 20 minutes while I kept asking him, “Which way is it?” And he would say, “Oh, it’s that way.” This one’s crucial for when you’re in a new place.

 

9. On y va? On y va. [o ni va]  Shall we go? Let’s go.

On y va has kind of got that Ca va? Ca va. dynamic going on, doesn’t it? I found this to be a slightly more colloquial version of allons-y, which also means “let’s go.” I’m not sure that allons-y can be used as a question, though…


10. Je reviens.  [ʒə ʁə.vjɛ̃]  I’ll be right back.

Yeah, so don’t try to translate “I’ll be right back,” into French, word-for-word. This is the phrase you need.

 

11. Aïe, ça m’a fait mal.  [aj sa ma fe mal]  Ow, that hurt.

Just in case someone slaps you or something.

 

12. Je (ne) l’ai (pas) fait exprès.  [ʒə (nə) le (pa) fe ɛks.pʁɛ]  I did it on purpose / by accident.

Fine, so maybe I didn’t use it a ton. But hey, should you find someone chewing you out for something you did by accident, you might as well be able to communicate that. (I may have used this phrase to express that I’d accidentally touched a painting at an art museum.)

 

13. Ça suffit!  [sa sy.fi]  That’s enough!

Notice the exclamation point. You’ll only want to use this on, say, a dog that keeps barking, or a person who keeps mocking you. So don’t say it when someone is pouring you a drink at a restaurant! (Say c‘est bon in that case.)

 

14. Je suis habitué(e) à…  [ʒə sɥi a.bi.tɥe a]  I’m used to…

You know—to say that you’re used to doing a certain thing. Easy. Just put the infinitive of a verb after à.

 

15. Je suis content(e) de / j’ai hâte de…  [ʒə sɥi kɔ̃.tɑ̃(t) də / ʒe at də]  I’m excited to…

These two are a little different but similar enough to pair them together. Je suis (très) content(e) de means “I’m (very) excited/happy to/about…” while j’ai hâte de… means “I’m looking forward to / I can’t wait to…” With either phrase, you can simply put the infinitive of a verb after de to express what you’re excited about doing. But with je suis content de, you can just slap ça on after de to say “I’m happy about that.”  Does that make sense?

I would use these over je suis enthousiaste or je suis excité(e) when expressing excitement about something. The French tend not to exaggerate as much as we do in English, plus excité has sexual connotations. (Though, you can use excité in the right context, apparently. I still wouldn’t risk it.)

 

16. tout à fait  [tu ta fe]  quite / completely

It may consist of three words, but you’ll pretty much just be inserting it in a sentence where you would use one word in English. Example: “That was tout à fait / quite relaxing.”

Bonus usage: To exclaim “Exactly!” Example: “Is this what you mean?” “Oui, tout à fait!

 

17. en fait  [ɑ̃ fɛt]  in fact / actually

Notice that this isn’t pronounced the way it looks. Use en fait the way you would use “in fact,” “as a matter of fact,” or “actually” in English. So, for example: I saw Céline yesterday. En fait, she was with her new boyfriend, Jean.

So far I’ve only encountered this adverbial usage of en fait I’m describing at the beginning of a sentence. So, keep it there!

 

18. Ça marche. / Ça roule.  [sa maʁʃ / sa ʁul]  That works.

Both of these can basically be used to say, “Yeah, that works for me.”

Bonus usage of ça marche: to express that something is functioning properly. I’m not sure that I even ever heard the word fonctionner while in France.

Bonus usage of ça roule: Ça roule? Ça roule! (“How are things going?” “They’re going okay.”)

 

19. beaucoup/trop de monde  [bo.ku/tʁo də mɔ̃d]  a lot of / too many people

I remember going to a pub for trivia night with a group of French students, and when we noticed that it was way too crowded, one kid said, “Il y a trop de monde.” So I noticed that I heard il y a beaucoup/trop de monde for “there are a lot of / too many people” more often than I heard il est bondé for “it is crowded.” In faaact, our girl Emilie in the comments tells us that bondé is a bit on the formal side for everyday conversation.

 

20. hop  [ɔp]  muttered word

Pay close attention, and you’ll hear a French guy or gal mutter “up” to himself or herself while doing something like cleaning the kitchen. It’s kind of like how we mutter “ok” to ourselves in English. This is something that I wouldn’t try to incorporate into my own French vocabulary, actually, because it’s more of an acquired habit…it’s hard to mimic a natural usage of hop.

I also saw my host mom say Hop là! upon finally getting a bowl into a very high cabinet in the kitchen. So just pay attention to where you see this word. It’s fun 🙂

Bonus usage: Apparently Et hop!  is “Bingo!”

 

21. Oh là là.  [o la la]  Oh my. / Oh no. / Oh dear.

I included this because I think oftentimes people try to use this to indicate being pleasantly surprised at something or to remark at something risqué. But in most cases, you’ll be remarking at something unfortunate. Dropped all of your papers? Oh là là. Can’t think of the French word you want to use? Oh là là… Forgot your umbrella at the restaurant? Oh là là! J’ai oublié mon parapluie.

 

22. Et alors?  [e a.lɔʁ]  So?

This can mean two things: either “So…?” as in “What happened next?” or “So?” as in “So what?”


23. J’ai mes règles.  [ʒe me ʁɛɡl]  I’m on my period.

You’re welcome, ladies.

 

24. C’est trop bon / bien / beau.  [se tro bɔ̃ / bjɛ̃ / bo]  That’s too good / beautiful.

I’m really happy about this phrase because I say its English equivalent all. the. time. C’est trop… is used in French very much like “That’s too…” is in English. You say it when something is beyond “very” something. So if, for example, someone tells you a hilarious joke, you could say C’est trop bon! Just don’t overuse this phrase.


25. Ça envoie du lourd / pâté.  [sa ɑ̃.vwa du luʁ / pa.te]  That’s awesome.

Yep. You’re literally saying “That sends…heavy…pâté…?” but don’t question it. It’s nice to know something other than c’est cool, huh?

 

A Few Tips on Improving Your French


1. Live with a host family, or, at the very least, make a few French friends you can spend time with while speaking only in French.

French students can be a little shy, so you may have to be a little proactive about it, but you’ll likely find some kids your age who will find you interesting as a non-native French speaker 😉

2. Spend time perusing the aisles of grocery stores.
Carrefour and Monoprix are especially great stores to go to because they have food, housewares, cosmetics, clothing, etc. Pay attention to how they label nail polish, baking powder, baking pans, feminine products, stamps, applesauce…everything. Plus, when you see a word visually along with its context, you’re much more likely to remember it.

3. Remember that no language is a coded form of another.
So, instead of thinking in terms of single words all the time, look for fixed phrases and differences in sentence construction. You wouldn’t expect tout à fait to mean “quite” at first glance, would you? Or what about how much stricter French is about the placement of adverbs? Moreover, understand that an English word and its French “equivalent” will not share all the same meanings and connotations with one another. “Stamp” in English refers to something you apply ink to and to postage. French? Tampon (yes, tampon) refers to an inking stamp, and timbre refers to postal stamps.

4. It isn’t just about language.
Spend some time observing French gestures, habits, ways of life, etc. While of course you don’t want to stereotype or generalize, you will likely notice differences between how you do things and how the French do things. I noticed while eating with my host family, for example, that you want to keep both hands visible at all times at the table. Baguette has at least three different uses at the dinner table, as well (eating, scooping food onto your fork, and serving as a vehicle for your after-meal cheese). I also noticed that there is a whole lot less multi-tasking with eating. You sit down at a certain time of the day. You eat. You enjoy. So I’d try not to walk around chowing down on a waffle with Nutella on it 😉

 

Resources

These are the best resources I have found for improving your colloquial French…

Dictionary. Reverso English-French dictionary / Reverso French-English dictionary

(Need a physical dictionaryThis French dictionary is the best one I’ve come across.)

Translations in context. bab.la English-French / bab.la French-English

Comme Une Française. This girl is just wonderful. She posts videos with majorly helpful information like, “5 Embarrassing Mistakes in French,” “10 French Gestures,” “5 French Slang Expressions Using Names,” and so much more. You’ll go to this site and want to just ingest the whole thing in one sitting.

Cooking. Try your hand at preparing some local cuisine using French recipes! Marmiton is a common go-to source for recipes in France.

Tchao!

Maurine

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No Comments

  • Reply Lynn Smith November 22, 2014 at 5:47 am

    Thanks for the awesome post! Would it possible to see a video using these phrases? I never took French, I took Spanish in school, however I am visiting France next Spring and it would be extremely helpful to hear them spoken. Even if you don't post a video this was still a GREAT post. Thanks so much!

  • Reply Maurine Dashney November 22, 2014 at 5:57 am

    Hey, Lynn! I'm happy to be of help 🙂 I've been thinking about doing a video, actually—I've noticed this post has been getting quite a bit of traffic, and it'd be pretty useful, huh? At the moment, I actually have un rhume—a cold—but once it clears up in a few days I'll see what I can do 😉

  • Reply Camille November 28, 2014 at 6:35 am

    I'm french and i love your post !!! That's funny to see how some word habits (like "hop" or "ça envoie du paté") can not sound similar to you, because for us it's so normal and sometimes we don't pay attention to the fact in english (or another languages) our expressions seem stupids ahah ! "Ça roule pour moi", translated would be like "it's rolling for me"… i don't know if it makes sense for you… but it's funny ! Pinterest brought me there and i appreciate your post, without mistake and not mocking about the french language ! It is very interesting even for someone like me (french people). I didn't want to check my text, so if at some part it doesn't mean anything… sorry about that :p i'm subscribing your blog !!! 🙂

    Bonne soirée et à bientôt !

  • Reply Maurine Dashney November 28, 2014 at 6:50 am

    Vous êtes si gentille, Camille! Thank you for your wonderful comments. (And your English is wonderful!) It's so great to hear from a native French speaker that this post checks out 🙂

    Welcome to the blog!

  • Reply Emilie December 5, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Hi Maurine, Francophone writing here (and I haven't writen in English for quite a long time so I apologise in advance for all the mistakes). I've found your blog while browsing through pinterest, this post is very interesting to read for me !
    I'd like to precise a few things if you don't mind
    1. On doit la glisser (a credit card is of feminin gender in french), I would rather say "Il faut la glisser".
    5. épelle (no é or è before ll or tt)
    6. je l'ai fait exprès/ je ne l'ai pas fait exprès. Hasard is more linked to probabilites and coincidences.
    19. bondé is correct but more formal, so in everyday conversations we use "Il y a trop de monde".
    You're right, it's often the phrases which are not in books that are the most useful. And these are great ones to have in mind when you travel in France.
    Emilie

  • Reply Maurine Dashney December 5, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Thanks SO much for your feedback, Emilie. I'm going to go ahead and make those changes now!

    Also, your English is great 🙂

  • Reply Maurine Dashney December 5, 2014 at 9:07 am

    GUYS. I just thought of a NUMBER 26: de toute façon [də tut fa sɔ̃]. It means "anyway/anyhow," as in "anyway…I was saying…" De toute façon…je disais…

    I may have to swap this in. If I can find the heart to take something else out.

  • Reply Mustard on the Side December 8, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    For #5 I would say: c'est epeller comment? or comment c'est epeller?

    More things they say all the time: merde- shit, general exclamation; Ce/cette putain de….: like saying this damn/fucking chair; bon ben- like a response of "ok then" usually used while thinking about how to do/doing something; degage- get out of my way Sorry about the no accents thing

  • Reply Maurine Dashney December 8, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Haha these are great! Thank you thank you. Also apparently "mince" is kinda like "crap" in English? Francophones, be honest, though…is saying "mince!" dorky?

  • Reply embracingeating December 31, 2014 at 6:59 am

    Bookmarking this post! I hadn't heard of the "Hop" before – that was interesting

  • Reply Wendy Lowen January 4, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    I've noticed French students that we host in the summer often say "donc" which I believe translates to "thus". I can't really imagine using the word thus conversationally in English. Great post! Thank you.

  • Reply Cate January 7, 2015 at 6:15 am

    Fabulous post! I just spent a few months in France as an au pair and this has cleared up some confusion on a few phrases that I heard all the time, and although it was clear what some of them may mean through context, I never knew for sure! Ça suffit! Hop and On y va, being the main ones! Thanks!

  • Reply Christine M February 1, 2015 at 6:12 am

    The same !

  • Reply Holly February 5, 2015 at 5:14 am

    I found this post so helpful! Thank you. I did a summer school programme in Strasbourg and I'm hoping to go back to study for another term so these phrases will be great to go back with!

    Holly x

  • Reply Maurine Dashney February 5, 2015 at 5:17 am

    Oh yay I'm so happy to be of help, Cate and Holly! And thanks for that awesome piece of insight Wendy 🙂

  • Reply Laura Cerny April 7, 2015 at 1:02 am

    I would add one: C'est tout. That's all. In a shop they will ask "C'est tout?" Is that all? and you respond, "C'est tout." That's all. Unless of course you want something else.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 10, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    I love it, Laura!

  • Reply Nermine Sami April 16, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    First of all,Thank you so much for such great article and advices,i wish if i had seen it before my visit to France,i have faced the same difficulties when it comes to what to say or not to say specially "Ça suffit!"which i mistakenly used at the university restu ..and i didn't realize it's not the correct one to say "This is enough of food for me",but we have managed it,and people in south of France were so kind and hospitable to forgive our language mistakes,True is not enough to study language at class .

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 16, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    Oh, you're so welcome, Nermine! Oh goodness, the south of France is wonderful—the people there are just the nicest, aren't they?

  • Reply Fran Caldwell April 20, 2015 at 5:26 am

    Ok, I got stuck in a Paris pharmacy looking for tampons. Now I know why it was so awkward. And what is the feminine hygiene product called? I've now forgotten.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 20, 2015 at 5:30 am

    Haha, I love it, Fran! Good question—I believe it is just 'tampon', actually, though that is also the word for "stamp", so a lot of context probably helps 😉

  • Reply Kathryn April 23, 2015 at 1:42 am

    Maurine, I lived in France almost a decade ago and I think I would have made a nearly identical list. Only #25 was unfamiliar to me. Another phrase that I remember hearing often was "Tu veux que je te dépose?" as I was living in a small city with no car and often friends would offer me a ride home in the evening so I wouldn't be walking alone. I don't think I understood the question the first time or two I heard it. Thanks for sharing this list. It was a happy reminder of my time in France!

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 23, 2015 at 1:45 am

    Oh, I love that, Kathryn—I wasn't quite familiar with that phrase! Thank you thank you. Everyone…"Tu veux que je te dépose?" is totally number 26 on this list 😉

  • Reply littlemousejane April 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Wow, thanks, this is great! I'm a descendent of French-Canadian-Americans and am avidly devouring French classes, books, articles, etc, in preparation for my study abroad. My dream is to live "dans un pays francophone" so I can speak this most beautiful language every day.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 29, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    You're totally welcome! And ahhh bonne chance! Living in a French-speaking country is the absolute best 🙂

  • Reply Libellule Dragonfly May 24, 2015 at 2:43 am

    Hi ! I've stumbled upon your blog via pinterest and being French the title got my attention ^^ and I love your post, it made me laugh (especially with "hop" that I use all the time).
    You're absolutely right about not using "exciter" for "excited", you use exciter either for a kid that's over excited, to descirbe someone making a scene (like in "quel excité celui-là"), or in a sexual context.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney May 24, 2015 at 2:45 am

    Woohoo, my suspicions about "excité" have been validated! Thanks for stopping by, Libellule!

  • Reply Cécile June 12, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Hello Maurine,
    What an excellent post! As a French native I've just loved it!!
    You could also add : "Bien joué" (for well done) and the famous "Et Voila" !! that we, French people, use all the time to say we've finished something or we've found a "brillant" idea… French is really a strange langage.. Right?
    All my best:)
    Cecile (editor of the EtVoila blog : http://www.etvoila.net)

  • Reply Maurine Dashney June 12, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Merci bien, Cécile! These are perfect!

  • Reply moreskinnydays August 24, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    Wonderful post, fresh and useful! I wish every "The 25 Most Useful … " posts I clicked on the web were like this–well written, content I have not seen before, a level of connection about the shared love of a subject that makes me want to read it over and over.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney August 24, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Aw, thanks so much, I'm glad you love it! I had such a fun time writing it 🙂

  • Reply Bland Crowder October 2, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    Nice! Like "actually" mention but thought you'd have said that "actuellement" didn't mean "actually"! Very helpful stuff. Also, need to expand "Oh, là là" to illustrate "Oh là là là là là là," with lip position and intonation only used when saying this. And that it is NOT Ooh-là-là! And now, on to wallah! Good guide!!

  • Reply Jemma October 25, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    "No language is a coded form of another." Good advice and well put!

  • Reply Maurine Dashney December 3, 2015 at 12:01 am

    Hey, thanks, Jemma!

  • Reply pietro December 9, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    To be frank a lot of these expressions have a double entendre and are also useful in a sexual context. But most of french expressions are about food and sex anyway.

  • Reply Anne Mathews January 28, 2016 at 1:33 am

    Great post, makes lots of sense. I would also add c'est vrai – it is peppered in any French conversation and a statement, question or simply an observation.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney January 28, 2016 at 1:34 am

    Thanks so much, Anne! Yeah, you're right, "c'est vrai" is so versatile, isn't it??

  • Reply Anne Mathews February 6, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    Great post and all so true. I would also add c'est vrai – it's a statement, question, comment and very much part of any French conversation.

  • Reply Gésica March 15, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks! Excellent post!

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 4, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    You're quite welcome (:

  • Reply Howard Salmon April 4, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    Could you tell me what 'actuellement' does actually mean? Thanks.

  • Reply Maurine Dashney April 4, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    Yes! It means "currently."

  • Reply Icecrystal April 14, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    How lovely! I took my A level French and a dictionary to the Perigord for a 10 day hedge care vacation. Turned out the house was 47 kilometres from the nearest town/railway. The only person who could speak English was the Bank Manager. I had a wonderful time and came home fluent in French-Garden-speak. You learn the parts of a language you NEED, and none of this experience tied in to school French. After 3 days I lost the dictionary (might have ended up in the compost bin!) Gracious friends in the south of France, I won't forget them.

  • Reply Lauren A May 23, 2016 at 12:43 am

    I spent 3 months in Paris and can say everything in this post is accurate & helpful! Thanks for posting!!

  • Reply Carole B July 19, 2016 at 6:06 am

    Just here to specify that 'tampon' is fine for tampon, and 'serviette' (yes, like a napkin… don't ask) is a period pad. If you need to ask for them, it's probably best to specify 'serviettes hygiéniques' (then there will be no doubt at the counter of a small shop what you're after!) 🙂 Stamp in French (for a letter) is 'timbre' but a rubber ink stamp is tampon (and think of the verb 'tamponner' meaning to rubber stamp a document, a ticket, or even to 'swab' for a delicate fabric you can't clean roughly)… Les auto-tamponneuses is dodgems (probably because of the rubber bumpers). 🙂

  • Reply Carole B July 19, 2016 at 6:06 am

    I agree that 'oh la la' is more often used in a negative context actually (and the more 'la la la la la la' you use at the end, the more emphasis you place on how appalled you are at the situation). My English boyfriend often asks 'what you are oh la-laying about this time!' Ahahah

  • Reply Carole July 31, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    "Mince" (which literally means "thin," as in "elle est tres mince.") in this usage is a more polite way of saying "crap." It's the kind of word your grandmother would use, like "darn!" in English. Alternative: "zut" or "zut alors!"

  • Reply Fentiz oussama August 20, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    my level on french language it's not good at all, the only thing who let me use french in my job everything i do french email report so that what encouraged me to develop my language on it, i love english so much i devote my time to be better on it

  • Reply Cathy Poole December 10, 2016 at 1:38 am

    Love your post! Noticed in Paris bakeries, when you order something, the staff often says "D'autres chooses, Madame?" more often than, "C'est tout?" (Maybe this is a way to keep you ordering more? 😉)

  • Reply Maurine Dashney December 10, 2016 at 1:38 am

    Hahaha I bet you're right! Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply Dr. Alan Fetner and Dr. Mary Hartigan May 4, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    Lovely!

  • Reply Cathy Poole July 15, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Love your post! Noticed in Paris bakeries, when you order something, the staff often says "D'autres chooses, Madame?" more often than, "C'est tout?" (Maybe this is a way to keep you ordering more? 😉)

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