9 Incredibly French Expressions They Don’t Teach You in School
Do you find that your French conversations are missing a certain je ne sais quoi?
They need a little something extra to reach perfection.
French expressions can put the cherry on top of your French sundae.
You’ve done your fair share of studying and you’ve got cultural immersion covered.
You know your personal pronouns from your indirect object pronouns.
You’re getting a good handle on the structures of French sentences.
Now it’s time to step up your game by using colloquialisms as native speakers do!
By getting a grip on these popular French expressions, you can throw them into your conversations naturally and effortlessly.
You’ll finally start to sound much more like a native!
9 Incredibly French Expressions They Don’t Teach You in School
1. Occupe-toi de tes oignons
The first time I heard this, I had no idea why someone would want to go and occupy themselves with their onions.
Of course, that’s just the literal meaning, but sometimes these things can throw a French learner off guard.
To put it simply, the expression means “mind your own business” and there are various ways that the expression is used. One way is to tell someone “c’est pas tes oignons” which has the same figurative meaning but a different literal translation, meaning “it’s not your onions.” The French clearly don’t like to share their onions.
“Combien tu gagnes?” (“How much do you earn?”)
“Bah, je te dis pas, occupe-toi de tes oignons!” (“Well, I’m not telling you, mind your own business!”)
2. Au pif
Au pif will really have you sounding like a native speaker. Jazz up your speech by using it in all sorts of situations that have to do with measuring or estimating.
It’s most commonly used in the context of cooking. You could say “j’ai préparé la pizza au pif” which directly translates to “I prepared the pizza by guessing all the measurements of ingredients.”
However the term can be used in other contexts in relation to doing something “by feel” without absolute precision.
“J’ai choisi au pif!“ (“I picked something randomly!”)
3. Mine de rien
This is a tricky phrase to grasp. It has many different nuances in usage and we don’t have a direct translation in English.
Mine refers to the air or appearance of something or someone, so literally the phrase mine de rien translates to having an “air of nothing.” It tends to insinuate that something appears to be simple when in fact there’s a lot more to it.
“Johnny n’a pas l’air sportif, mais mine de rien, il est arrivé premier dans la course ce matin” (“Johnny doesn’t look athletic, so you wouldn’t have guessed, but he came first place in the race this morning.”)
“Regarde ce tableau, mine de rien l’artiste a mis un an à le peindre.” (“Look at this painting, it looks so simple but it took the artist a year to make.”)
4. Connaître la musique
To connaître la musique is when you’ve done something so often you know exactly how it goes. It indicates that you’re familiar with something, whether it’s a routine, a person, a feeling or an event.
The phrase can be used both literally and idiomatically. The literal meaning is “to know the music.” So, whether it’s the music you know or if it’s just something you’re familiar with in general, vous connaissez la musique!
“Oui, oui, pas besoin de revenir là-dessus. Je connais la musique.” (“Yes, yes, no need to rehash that. I know the score.”)
5. Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier
Don’t you just hate it when you’re caught up in a dispute of some kind and, when you’ve already left the situation, the best comeback ever pops into your head? Unfortunately it’s too late for that witty response now. That’s exactly what this phrase was coined for. It’s a case of staircase wit.
In fact, we even borrowed this expression from the French as they clearly nailed it. Too bad “staircase wit” doesn’t sound quite as dramatic as l’esprit de l’escalier. Next time you’ve thought of the perfect retort a little too late, at least you’ll remember the term for it, hopefully.
“N’importe quoi, j’aurais dû penser à ça hier.” (“No way, I should have thought of that yesterday!”)
“T’as l’esprit de l’escalier.” (“You always think of the perfect retort too late.”)
6. N’importe quoi
This is my favourite French phrase of all time. I use it so much that it has even spilled into my English conversations.
It’s a phrase that takes me back to my school years when kids would make up all sorts of bizarre stories, crossing-their-hearts-and-hoping-to-die that they really did single-handedly fly a rocket into space over the weekend. This is what this phrase was made for. It was all a load of n’importe quoi.
Basically it translates to “a whole lot of nothing,” but it can indicate that something made no sense or was completely shocking. It can even mean “anything,” as in “I would do anything, whatsoever, to get that job!” It’s one of those expressions you can use when you don’t necessarily believe or agree with something. Or it can just be used as an angsty “whatever.”
“T’as fini ton devoir?” (“Have you finished your homework?”)
“Bah non, t’as fait n’importe quoi!” (“But no, you’ve done it all wrong!”)
7. Quand même
This is one of those phrases that you’ll hear all the time in French conversation, and if you haven’t, you can look up examples of usage on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can search for any idiomatic expression in the FluentU library to see all the different ways that native speakers use them in conversation. In addition to these subtitled videos, you can also add words and phrases from these clips into your personal vocabulary lists and flashcard sets. To take advantage of all its features, go ahead and sign up for a free trial.
This particular phrase is also one of those that don’t directly translate into English. That being said, it’s one of the phrases that you can pick up super easily and have no problems dropping into conversations when speaking French.
Quand même means a variety of things: “whatever” “anyway” “still” “even so” “nonetheless” and “in any case.” It’s kind of a throwaway phrase, one that doesn’t really promise much in the sense of information. In that sense it’s almost comparable to conversation fillers such as “like” and “anyway” in English.
“Tu ne vas pas chez elle ce soir?” (“You’re not going to her place tonight?”)
“Non, elle était horrible hier soir!” (“No, she was horrible last night!”)
“Mais, quand même, elle est ta sœur!” (“But, even so, she’s your sister!”)
Bref is a lovely little word that gets straight to the point, literally. It’s a familiar expression and directly translates to “brief” or “short.” It’s also used when someone is trying to cut a long story short and summarize a situation or provide information quickly. Think of it as the French “yada yada.”
“Les avocats m’ont expliqué tout les arguments—bref, ca va être très difficile de gagner le procès.”
(“The lawyers explained all the arguments to me—in short, it will be very difficult to win the trial.”)
9. Non, mais allô quoi?
Thanks to the new age of reality TV, we’re now bombarded with all sorts of “celebrities,” including the ones who are famous for being, well, écervelé (ditzy). That includes French reality star Nabilla, whose famed remark: “Non, mais allô quoi?” has quickly become a cult classic among the youth of France.
The phrase translates literally to “no, but hello, you know?” but what it really wants to say is “are you serious?” It’s a remark of disbelief about something, along the same lines as n’importe quoi.
“Tu n’aimes pas le chocolat? Non, mais allô quoi?” (“You don’t like chocolate? Are you joking?!”)
Be advised that if you throw this into a sentence the French will either be (a) impressed with your knowledge of French pop culture or (b) worried that Nabilla is taking over the world.
So, there you have it, your instant guide to speaking like a native with just a few, super useful expressions.
Throw these into everyday French conversation and see what happens!