Learning how to speak French in a classroom and knowing the difference between your French verbs and adverbs is extremely beneficial, but being able to actually converse with native-speaking French people, or in the many French-speaking countries of the world, is a truly putting your theoretical skills to the test.

The reason that all of this can be so challenging is that, like any language, basic French words can easily turn into slang. Besides that, there are French phrases that you may not have come across in the classroom or in your French dictionary that could really be confusing. If you had to think about it, using an English example, imagine a French-speaking person coming across the phrase “raining cats and dogs” – there is no French dictionary or any amount of French translation could make sense of that because in French it means “it’s raining ropes!”

To help bridge the gap between French theory and actual conversation, here are some basic French words and French phrases that could help you in the francophone world.

Basic French Words and Phrases to Help You Get Around France

French people really appreciate it when visitors make an effort to converse with them, so here are a few French phrases that could help you to make that all-important first impression.

If you meet someone and want to know how they are, you could say:

  • Bonjour, comment allez-vouz ? (if you want to be formal) or;
  • Ça va ? (if you are able to be more casual)
  • Ça va mieux ? (If you know that person has not been that well.)

One of the first things you need to know about greetings in French is that there are different French phrases for each different time of the day. Whereas in English we would say good morning, or good afternoon, the French translation of this covers the whole day.

pyramid at Louvre museum
The French appreciate non-native speakers making an effort to speak the French language. | Source: Unsplash

Only at the end of a day you could say Bonsoir.  This basic French word is used as a greeting in the late afternoon and in the evening, but can also be used to say goodbye.

There is a version of the word goodnight that is only used just before bed, and the French translation of that is bonne nuit. But be careful, unlike in English bonne nuit is not used to say goodbye to company when you part ways. Instead, you would say bonne soirée.

French phrases that you would use during the day could include:

  • Au revoir ! (Goodbye)
  • Bon voyage ! (Have a good trip.)

These greetings are not found in a French dictionary, so it’s important to learn them through conversational French classes or with a private tutor.

Basic French Words for ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’

Of course the French translation for the ways to say please and thank you will be covered in your basic French lessons, but here is a list of a few of the more important basic French words that you could keep in your back pocket!

 

English wordInformal French translationFormal French translation
PleaseS’il te plaîtS’il vous plaît
Thank youMerciMerci
Thank you very muchMerci beaucoupMerci beaucoup
Excuse mePardonPardonnez-moi / Excusez-moi

Basic French words for greeting people can change according to who they are, here are some important examples to remember.

 

GenderEnglish wordFrench word
MasculineMrMonsieur
Feminine (if unmarried)MissMademoiselle
Feminine (if married)MrsMadame

Basic French Phrases for Travelling to French-Speaking Destinations

Perhaps you have not had time to enrol in extensive French lessons, but now you have a last minute business or leisure trip and need to learn a few French phrases rather quickly. Here are a few that will help to get you going.

  • Pardonnez-moi, parlez-vous anglais ? This means, excuse me, do you speak English?
  • Que lest votre nom ? This means what is your name, if you were asking formally.
  • Comment t’appelles-tu ? This also means what is your name, but in a more casual way.
  • Ou puis-je trouver … ? This means where can I find ...? Make sure you have your French dictionary handy to fill in the gaps for this one.
  • Combien coûte-t-il ? This means how much does it cost? You could also use the more colloquial expression here Combien ça coûte?
  • Est-ce-quíl s’arrėte à ... ?  This means does this stop at …?
  • Puis-je prendre une tasse de café ? May I have a cup of coffee?
  • À quelle heure est le prochain bus ? What time is the next bus?
  • Pouvez-vous recommander un bon restaurant ? Can you recommend a good restaurant?
  • Un verre de vin blanc s'il vous plaît. A glass of white wine please.

Make Sure You Know Direction Words

You might not have all your French verbs mastered and of course you definitely can’t walk around with your nose in your French dictionary all day, especially while you are travelling. So it is very important that you can understand a few basic French words that will help direct you and get you to where you are going safely!

 

English
French
straight aheadtout droit
turntournez
underground trainMétro
leftgauche
rightdroite
one kilometreun kilomètre

Remember that when you are speaking French, that there is no use of AM and PM. They only use twenty-four-hour time, so for instance, you could hear time described like this:

 

EnglishFrench
half past four in the afternoonquatre heures et demie de l'après-midi
quarter of an hourun quart d'heure
one hourune heure
three quarters of an hourtrois quarts d'heure
6 a.m.six heures
6 p.m.dix-huit heures

When it comes to memorising basic French words to the point where you will not need your French dictionary, knowing the French translation for the days of the week is really helpful.

Monday means Lundi

Tuesday means Mardi

Wednesday means Mercredi

Thursday means Jeudi

Friday means Vendred

Saturday means Samedi

Sunday means Dimanche

Other Conversational French Phrases You Won’t Learn in Class

You might know heaps of vocabulary including French verbs and adjectives. You may even know how to put them all together. These are all useful topics that are covered in French classes.  There are, however, some key French phrases that are helpful for travelling around France that you will not pick up in class, or find in your French dictionary.

To really get this right, one needs to embark on what is called language immersion and it is how you would pick up colloquial French phrases.

There are a number of ways to do this, obviously, you could spend time living in France or a French-speaking country, if that was possible, or you could immerse yourself in French films, podcasts, and books. These are just some of the ways to immerse yourself in a new language, there are others.

A Few Everyday Phrases to Throw Into Your French Conversation

In every language, there are those phrases that seem to have a unique meaning and are simply untranslatable. Here are a few that you may stumble across:

  • Du coup

Formally, this means 'thus' in English, while in its informal usage du coup would translate roughly to 'in that case'.

  • Quand même

Sometimes in English, we want to express our indignation, and often we would use the words ‘after all’ or ‘still’. For example, the meeting ran late, but I still managed to catch my bus after all!

  •  Ça te dit ?

In English we would say, Does that suit you? Does it resonate?

French Phrases That Denote Frustration

French can be a very expressive language, the phrases that you would typically use won’t be found in your French dictionary and grammar books but are handy to know. Here are some of the things you would hear from an annoyed French person.

people reading on staircase along the Seine River in Paris
With a great French teacher, you'll be making conversation with the locals in Paris on your next trip. | Source: Unsplash

If a French-speaking person happens to say Ça me gonfle, the English translation means “I’m so tired of this.” It can actually be used for just about anything that is really annoying.

It’s quite similar to other French phrases, one, for example, would be, ça m’énerve. You could say this when the dog next door constantly barks while you are trying to practice your French verbs! There are other French phrases that are similar to this, one means the coffee pot (or bowl) is full and soon to overflow! Very descriptive don’t you think? The French translation of this is ras-le-bol/la cafetière. You might also hear someone say j’en ai marre which means I’m fed up.

The list goes on!

In English, these French phrases can sound very poetic but of course the French translation makes sense to the native French-speaking person!

Avoir le cafard, directly translated means “to have the cockroach” but in English, it simply means feeling blue or down in the dumps. This expression dates back to the French poet Baudelaire’s book Les Fleurs du Mal. The background to this memorable French phrase is derived from having to live in hideous cockroach-infested conditions. So next time you feel frustrated by not being able to tell your French verbs from your adverbs, you could say avoir le cafard! A bit extreme, but you wouldn’t be wrong.

Here’s another truly poetic phrase that is quite hilarious when you apply the English to French translation:

Avoir la moutarde qui lui monte au nez, this literally translates to “to get mustard rising up your nose” but signifies that you are getting increasingly angry.

The person in this state of mind may respond to your exclamation with:
Mêle-toi de tes oignons, which directly translates to “take care of your own onions” and means mind your own business.

Here’s another one. After trying unsuccessfully to find the basic French words to express yourself, you could end up saying Laisse tomber which means “forget about it, or let it go.”

When French-speaking people use the words Revenons à nos moutons which has the hilarious French to English translation, “let’s come back to our sheep”, they do not mean taking a walk in the countryside! What they are trying to say is that you should not stray too far off the topic that you are meant to be talking about!

Have fun with the language, and try to use these expressions in daily life.

Amusing French Phrases

stack of books
There are many French phrases you won't find in books. | Source: Unsplash

Your French for beginners classes or your French dictionary may not cover these amusing phrases but they could really add spice to your French conversations.

  • À la Saint Glin-glin – this comes from the Catholic calendar which has feast days for all of its saints - however none of them are actually called Glinglin. So if something is due to happen à la Saint-Glinglin, it means it never actually will.
  • Les mouettes ont pied which means “the seagulls can stand (in a body of water)” and 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 English to French translation of this could be “I’d swear to that in court.” These are the words you would use if you were absolutely sure about something.
  • Another amusing English to French translation is Haut comme trois pommes, which means as tall as three apples that are stacked on top of each other. This is a very sweet way to refer to the size or height of a small child or toddler.

Becoming a master at French translation, or increasing your vocabulary of basic French words, are excellent ways to build your language foundations, but if you are serious about being able to speak French properly and not just understanding the theoretical difference between a French verb and noun, you should consider finding a private tutor.

Try searching for a tutor on a tutoring platform where you can find a tutor near you to explain why you need to understand the wonderful nuances of the French language.

There are so many advantages to finding extra French tuition, you could choose face-to-face or online lessons and on platforms like Superprof, you could even benefit from an introductory lesson at no charge.

Need a French (FLE) teacher?

Enjoyed this article?

5.00/5, 1 votes
Loading...

Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.