Did you know there are actually two ways to speak French?
And that doesn’t include idiomatic expressions or business lingo, which are a whole different story.
Conversational French can be as diverse and spicy as you could ever imagine, especially if you don’t know much about the French language yet.
While you may learn the “bookish” conversational French in school, you’ll realize that you also need to know the street type, common conversational French.
Because it’s really what people speak on a daily basis in the streets, stores, restaurants, parties, the workplace and even in movies.
Why is it important to know both ways?
1. It’s essential to know the grammatically correct way of speaking conversational French. No doubt.
2. But it’s also essential to be able to understand what you’ll be hearing in everyday real life.
If you’re walking in the beautiful streets of Paris, you may hear something like, Salut, tu vas bien ? (Hello, how you’re doing?)
But what did you hear exactly? Is that what you’ve learned in high school French class?
Chances are that in school you learned to say, “bonjour, comment vas-tu ?” (Hello, how are you?) the familiar/correct way of saying it. Or you may have learned to say, “Bonjour, comment allez-vous ?” (Hello, how are you doing?) yet another formal way.
If you hear “salut, tu vas bien ?” versus “bonjour, comment allez-vous ?” you need to know that both phrases mean (hello, how are you doing?) even though they sound completely different and are spelled completely different. Is the informal variation recognizable to the untrained foreign ear? Not always.
This happens a lot in conversational French because there are lots of twists to the language. Learning those twists will help you to get ahead as you travel throughout the country, spend a night out at a French restaurant or watch French movies.
5 Golden Nuggets of Wisdom for Brilliant Conversational French
1. Beware of the Twists of Conversational French
French can be very unconventional. That’s what can make this language hard to grasp at first.
There are actually very few expressions that can’t be said more than one way in French. For the most part, conversational French is just made up of a variety of ways to say the same thing.
However, if you’re willing to learn about the basic familiar conversational terms that I’ll show you here, you’ll be able to practice them and recognize them when the time comes. You can also learn more about them by watching authentic French content on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
In addition to conversational twists, you can also learn more about real French conversation as a whole. And thanks to the interactive subtitles, you can add words to your personal vocab lists and flashcard sets to ensure you use those French terms correctly when communicating with native speakers.
Interested? Check out the free FluentU trial to see how else you can improve your French conversations.
2. Basic Conversational French Expressions from Formal to Familiar
Hello, how are you?
Bonjour, comment allez-vous ? (formal)
Bonjour, comment vas-tu ? (familiar)
Salut, comment tu vas ? (very familiar)
Salut, comment ça va ? (even more familiar)
What’s your name?
Comment vous appelez-vous ? (formal)
Comment t’appelles-tu ? (familiar)
Comment tu t’appelles ? (very familiar)
Where are you from?
D’où venez-vous ? (most formal)
D’où vous venez ? (formal/common slang)
D’où viens-tu ? (familiar)
D’où tu viens ? (very familiar/common slang)
Come, let’s go.
Venez, allons nous-en (formal)
Viens, allons nous-en (familiar)
Viens, on s’en va (familiar/common slang)
Viens, on se tire (very familiar/common slang)
Viens, on s’arrache (most familiar/common slang)
As you can see, conversational French is very rich, and you’ll be able hear any of those forms at any time of the day, anywhere in France.
3. Know When to Use Vous or Tu in Conversational French
In conversational French, the use of the pronoun vous is called le vouvoiement (from the verb vouvoyer) and the use of the pronoun tu is called le tutoiement (from the verb tutoyer).
Both are still used every day in conversations, even though the younger generations are much more willing to use the tutoiement than the older generations.
The rule of thumb when it comes to using tu or vous when speaking to someone is the following:
- Anyone new you meet on the street, in your hotel, at a restaurant, at the post office, in stores and anywhere you would meet strangers, would expect to use le vouvoiement.
- Anyone your age or younger, met in a casual setting, would be okay with using le tutoiement.
- When in doubt, it’s always okay to use le vouvoiement.
For example, if you’re in Paris you might say:
S’il vous plaît, pourriez-vous m’indiquer où sont les Champs Elysées ? (Please, could you direct me to the Champs Elysées?)
Pourriez-vous is vouvoiement. Pourrais-tu would be tutoiement.
However, if you’re someone anywhere from 0-25 years old and you find yourself at a party with people around your age, it would be okay if you used le tutoiement.
“Bonjour, je m’appelle Anne, et toi ?” (Hello, my name is Anne, and you?) This would be familiar/common conversational French.
The vouvoiement of toi is vous.
When in doubt, it’s always safest to use le vouvoiement. And then, if the person wishes to be tutoyé(e), he or she will tell you, tu peux me tutoyer (you can say tu to me). If they don’t invite you to do so, then just keep using the vouvoiement.
4. Ask for Things the Proper Way in Conversational French
A simple nuance of a verb in conversational French can make a big difference. For example:
Je veux (I want)
Je voudrais (I would like)
There is a stronger distinction between “I want” and “I would like” in French than there is in English.
Saying “je veux” (I want) could come across as rude.
Saying “je voudrais” (I would like) sounds much more polite to the French ear.
For example, if you were in a restaurant and said “je veux de l’eau, s’il vous plaît” (I want some water, please) it may sound kind of rude to the waiter, and you’ll be waiting and waiting for your water, wondering why.
Now, if you were to say, “je voudrais de l’eau, s’il vous plaît” (I would like some water, please) which sounds much softer, you would increase your chances of getting what you’re asking for.
5. There Are 6 Conversational Words That’ll Save Your Life in France
Bonjour (hello/hi/good morning/good day)
S’il vous plaît (please)
Merci (thank you)
Combien (how many/how much)
1. Don’t ever forget to say Bonjour
When you’re going to engage in a conversation with someone, in the street or any place you enter, such as a store, an office, someone’s house or just about anywhere else, the keyword here is bonjour (hello/hi/good morning/good day).
While it’s often acceptable not to say hello in the US when you enter any of those places, it’s very rude in France. So keep this in mind and remember that it’s a very important word of conversational French.
2. Be sure to say s’il vous plaît
If you’re in a restaurant and call the waiter, you should always say, “Monsieur, s’il vous plaît!” (Please, sir!) or “Mademoiselle, s’il vous plaît” (Please, miss!) Never call a waiter garçon. That’s very condescending in today’s France, and things might not go well for you if you do.
3. Merci is always a useful word in any language
Well, no trick here, it’s as important to say “merci” (thank you) in French as it is in English. So make sure you say that as many times as you would in English when speaking French. If you say it more, it can’t hurt.
Merci pour l’aide. (Thank you for your help.)
Merci beaucoup pour le dîner. (Thank you very much for the dinner.)
4. Ça can go a long way in conversational French
This two-letter word is so handy in conversational French that you want to make sure you get this one down. And the cool part is that it means both this and that. That’s why you may have noticed that French people may confuse the two in English.
Je voudrais ça. (I would like this/that.)
Combien ça coûte ? (How much is this/that?)
J’ai besoin de ça. (I need this/that.)
5. Combien is a very useful 2-way word
Combien means both how much and how many in French.
Combien ça coûte ? / ça coûte combien ? (How much is this/that)
Combien de couverts ? / Combien de personnes ? (how many people)
The second sample sentence is what you might hear the hostess say as you walk into a restaurant.
6. Où is essential to ask for direction and locate what you want to go visit
Où est la tour Eiffel ? (Where is the Eiffel Tower?)
Pouvez-vous me dire où se trouve la tour Eiffel ? (Could you tell me where is the Eiffel Tower?)
Où se trouve la station de métro la plus proche ? (Where is the closest Metro station?)
If you practice and use those cool conversational French phrases and expressions you’ll be impressing people you speak to, because you’re now equipped with some solid basics to start being comfortable in conversational French.