It is one of the first things you will encounter as a débutant (a beginner) in French.
Even if you have unsavory memories of learning the language in school—perhaps traumatic enough to cause a kind of amnesia—I bet you still remember these two little words.
Because like all–purpose flour, ça va is a common and versatile expression used in a variety of different ways.
So let’s take a look at this small but mighty creature. I promise that by the end of this article, you will have rekindled your relationship with this word!
The Straightforward Meaning of Ça Va
Let’s get old school and go back to the classroom.
You are (insert age here) years old and just trying to make it through life let alone another French class.
Many language teachers do not go into detail about literal translations, which can sometimes be a good reference point to start with.
The literal translation of ça va is “it goes” or “that goes.”
This expression is most commonly used to ask how someone is doing, even if you are not necessarily expecting or wanting a reply.
Salut, ça va? (Hi, how are you?/how are things?/how is it going?)
The register of this expression is classified as informal, which means that you need to exercise caution when using it in certain situations, especially with those you would address using vous (you—formal/plural) rather than tu (you—informal/singular).
I will be using the latter for the rest of the article, as well as occasionally dropping the “ne” in the negative, which is often omitted in informal conversations.
Ça Va: The All-purpose French Expression and How to Use It Like a Pro Pastry Chef
Ça Va as a Response
Ça va in the positive
Now that you have asked how someone is, or as in the above example, somebody has just asked you; you are going to need to know how to reply.
Simply respond with ça va in a neutral to positive tone of voice—only if you are feeling that way, of course!
In doing so, you are letting the speaker know that life is going okay.
Ça va. (I am fine./Everything is good.)
To strengthen this feeling (or make it more emphatic), you can add a positive adverb such as bien (well).
Ça va bien. (Things are going well.)
Ça va in the negative
Many French learners think that the expression comme si, comme ça (like this, like that) is the appropriate thing to say at this point, especially if you are feeling “so-so.”
The truth is that while understandable to francophones, this is not the well-used expression anglophones think it is.
You are more likely to hear ça va in the positive form but spoken in a tone of voice that indicates the speaker is not feeling wonderful for whatever reason.
If you want to be more explicit about your negative feeling, you can simply respond with:
Ça (ne) va pas. (Everything is not good./I am not okay.)
You can also express this by using the adverb mal (badly).
Ça va mal. (Things are not going well.)
Ça Va and Fashion
Does this dress make me look fat?
Before we strike a pose, did you know that the va in ça va is the third-person singular of the verb aller (to go)?
Aller à (qqn) is used when you want to say that an item of clothing suits or looks good on somebody.
Let’s imagine that I have just walked out of a fitting room in a rather becoming pair of trousers. We are close friends (i.e., we use tu) and you want to compliment me on my astute fashion sense by saying, “hey, those trousers look great on you!”
In which case, you can say:
Ça te va bien! (That really suits you!)
Or if you think I look hideous but want to be polite and honest:
Ça te va pas. (That does not suit you.)
Using Ça Va to Call in Sick
Whether you are too tired the next day after an exhausting trouser shopping spree or are genuinely feeling a bit under the weather, there are two nifty expressions you can use to express this, especially if you need to call out of work:
Je ne me sens pas bien. (I do not feel well.)
Ça ne va pas. (I do not feel well.)
Let’s look at a possible exchange between you and your boss:
Boss: Bonjour __, c’est très tôt—ça ne va pas ? (Hello__, it is very early—is there something wrong?/are you sick?)
You: Oui monsieur/madame, ça ne va pas du tout. Je crois que j’ai une gastro-entérite. (Yes, sir/madame, I do not feel well at all. I think I have gastroenteritis.)
Totally in Agreement with Ça Va
Do you want to learn how to use ça va to keep everyone happy?
Ça va is often used when you want to know if what you are proposing is acceptable to someone else.
It can begin the sentence as in:
Ça (te) va si j’achète cette voiture? (Is it okay if I buy this car?)
Or at the end of a sentence as a quick confirmation:
Je veux y aller ce soir—ça (te) va? (I want to go there tonight—is that alright?)
Let’s look at some more examples:
Ça te va si je m’assois là? (Is it alright if I sit there?)
Je peux manger le sandwich qui reste—ça (te) va? (Can I eat the leftover sandwich—is that okay?)
Everything Will Be Alright Using Ça Va
Ça va can be used to mean that something will happen.
The construction ça va + infinitive indicates that something will happen in the future.
Let’s say you are having a really bad day—you got a parking ticket, spilled soda down the front of your shirt before a meeting and dropped your front door key down a deep crack in the sidewalk.
You are feeling low and decide to share the story of your day with a friend.
In this situation, they might respond with something like:
Ça va passer. (It will pass.)
Ça va aller. (It will be alright.)
You can of course alter the meaning to say that something will happen in a negative sense using mal (badly) as we have encountered before:
Ça va mal finir. (It is going to end badly.)
Ça Va with Plural Nouns
Ça va can be used to ask how everyone is doing.
As much importance as French places on agreement, this is one situation when learners can happily throw the rulebook out the window.
So, if there is a whole group of guys at a party and you want to ask how all of them are doing, you can walk in and say:
Ça va les gars? (How is it going guys?)
Notice that les gars is plural, but the verb does not conjugate to agree with this.
Another example situation where ça va can be used in this way is when a parent comes into their daughter’s bedroom to ask how her homework is going:
Comment ça va les devoirs? (How is the homework going?)
Using Ça Va to Say Sparks Will Fly
There are a few expressions that begin with ça va that indicate that a future situation is going to be difficult, or more accurately “heated.”
You: Mais qu’est-ce qui se passe? (What is happening?)
Friend: Jean a encore joué un tour à Pierre. Ça va barder. (Jean has played another trick on Pierre. Things are going to get heated).
Ça va barder/ça va chauffer (sparks will fly/things are going to get heated) build upon what we have already established in terms of using ça va to talk about the future.
But, this usage takes it one step further in your French learning. With this particular usage, you are going beyond studying grammatical constructions to actually using the language naturally—as in using everyday expressions that take you closer to proficiency.
Shooting Someone Down (Figuratively) with Ça Va
That is a bit rich—and I do not mean the cake!
There are times when someone is being hypocritical and not in a position to justify what they are saying.
Maybe your friend is always making fun of how tasteless your baking is when they cannot even bake themselves!
In English (and sticking with the cake theme) we might say something like:”that is rich coming from you!” or “you can talk!”
Equally, there are multiple ways to express this idea in French, but this one might be the very thing to sum up this tasty menu of ça va:
Ça te va bien! (Figuratively—that is rich coming from you!)
Notice this is exactly the same turn of phrase as in the point about fashion. It is all about the way you say it here.
Practicing Ça Va with FluentU
By now you are hopefully feeling a bit clearer about the multiple uses of ça va—our nifty, all-purpose friend.
Now that you are aware of the ways that it is used, you will likely start hearing it as you encounter French being spoken by native French speakers. An excellent way to give yourself this opportunity is to access the thousands of authentic French videos on FluentU.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with FluentU's adaptive quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning and play the mini-games found in the dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
As you study, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a 100% personalized experience.
It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
FluentU is not just about watching videos, though. It is about learning and actively practicing the language you in hear in the videos with the help of interactive subtitles, flashcards and vocabulary lists.
You might even spot another way ça va is used that I have not included in this article. Imagine how good you will feel when you discover additional uses!
Ça va is not as daunting as you might have originally thought, right? It is actually easier to use this expression correctly than not.
Now, all you need to do is go out there and start using ça va like a pro pastry chef!
Sophie McDonald is a freelance content writer with a burning passion for writing and languages. You can find her Twitter page here where she will most likely be talking about writing and languages.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.