How to Speak French Now: 25 Essential Phrases for Beginners
Want to start conversing in French right away?
French conversation begins with knowing what to listen for and what to say in response.
Whether you’re a complete beginner or an advanced learner who has yet to crack the code of fluent French conversation, this set of 25 essential phrases will give you the boost you need.
- Conversational Phrases to Keep You Talking
- 1. Ça va ? / Ça va (How’s it going? / OK)
- 2. Ça y est ! (That’s it!)
- 3. C’est ça ? / C’est ça (Is that it? / That’s it)
- 4. Bon / Ah bon ? (Good / Oh really?)
- 5. Alors (So)
- 6. Bien / Eh bien (Well…)
- 7. Ben oui / Ben non (Well, yeah / Well, no)
- 8. Mais oui ! / Mais non ! (Of course! / Of course not!)
- 9. Ça m’est égal (I don’t mind, It doesn’t matter to me)
- 10. Ce n’est pas grave (Never mind, It doesn’t matter, It’s no big deal)
- 11. Ça marche ? / Ça marche (Does it work? / It works)
- 12. Pas de problème (No problem)
- 13. Ça ne fait rien (Never mind, It doesn’t matter)
- 14. C’est-à-dire ? / C’est-à-dire (What do you mean? / In other words)
- 15. Franchement (Honestly)
- 16. Quand même (Anyway, Still, All the same)
- 17. Enfin (Well, Finally)
- 18. Ça te dit ? / Ça vous dit ? (Are you up for it?, How does that sound?)
- 19. À cause de (Because of…)
- 20. D’ailleurs (By the way, Incidentally)
- 21. En tout cas (In any case, Anyway)
- 22. Tout à fait (Exactly, Absolutely)
- 23. Et puis (And what’s more, And then)
- 25. Je n’en sais rien (I don’t know anything about it)
- Conversational Fillers Can Be a Good Thing
- The Difference Between Spoken French and Written French
- Quick Recap And Breakdown
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Conversational Phrases to Keep You Talking
1. Ça va ? / Ça va (How’s it going? / OK)
This is one of the first phrases most people learn. Consequently, it’s easy to dismiss its importance and incredible versatility. Basically, ça (it, that) is a handy noun and aller (to go) is a handy verb.
Ça va ? (literally “it’s going?”) asks someone how things are. The usual response is ça va, which means things are fine. Ça ne va pas , on the other hand, indicates things are perhaps not going so well.
There are a ton of expressions that can be added on to ça va. It’s a sort of general-meaning template that other words are slapped onto. Knowing how to use this template may help you work out many common expressions even if you don’t immediately understand them. Here are just a few examples:
Ça va de soi. (It goes without saying.)
Ça va mal finir. (It’s going to end badly.)
Ça te va bien ! (It suits you!)
Ça ne va pas non ? (What’s wrong with you?)
Keep this in mind whenever a conversation arises, and you should have no trouble understanding related expressions.
2. Ça y est ! (That’s it!)
Ça y est ! is somewhat similar in meaning and usage to voilà . It often signifies that something is present or finished. Here are a few possible translations:
“There it is!”
3. C’est ça ? / C’est ça (Is that it? / That’s it)
You’re probably noticing a pattern. There’s no getting around it, ça is a word that comes up over and over in French conversation. Trying to talk without it is like trying to prepare a three-course meal without a knife.
C’est ça, along with ça va and ça y est, can be a simple way of checking for a confirmation.
C’est ça ? (Is that right?)
Oui, c’est ça. (Yes, that’s right.)
This little word is going to help you in all kinds of unexpected ways.
4. Bon / Ah bon ? (Good / Oh really?)
You’ll hear the word bon a lot. Literally, it means “good.” In spoken French, though, it’s often used as an interjection. It can signify decisiveness, similar to “right” or “OK” when used at the beginning of a sentence in English.
When you attach an ah on to the front of it and voice it like a question, ah bon ? means, “Oh, really?”
5. Alors (So)
Alors, depending on the context, can mean “so,” “well,” “then” or “while.” Don’t be too intimidated by the specifics, though, as it’s usually pretty easy to figure out what it means from the context. It’s often just used as a filler or transition word along the lines of “well” or “so.”
Et alors ? means “So?” or “So what?”
Good to know when you want to totally dismiss someone’s point or ask for further info.
6. Bien / Eh bien (Well…)
The word bien translates pretty, well…well into English. Like the word “well,” it can signify an overall positive state or hesitance, though not so much a deep hole in the ground. (That would be un puits , just in case you were curious.)
Eh bien is a common interjection that just means “so” or “well” but can often add emphasis to a question or statement.
7. Ben oui / Ben non (Well, yeah / Well, no)
Ben is a variation on bien that has become very common. As with bien, it can be used to indicate hesitance or also emphasis. If you think about it, “well” can also be used this way to some extent in English.
Tu veux aller au cinéma ce soir ? (Do you want to go to the movies tonight?)
Ben, oui ! (Well, yeah!)
8. Mais oui ! / Mais non ! (Of course! / Of course not!)
Putting mais in front of oui or non is another way of boosting emphasis for those occasions when you really need it.
Tu me trouves grosse ? (Do you think I’m fat?)
Mais non ! (Of course not!)
9. Ça m’est égal (I don’t mind, It doesn’t matter to me)
Sometimes a little casual indifference can be just as useful to French speakers as to English speakers.
Tu veux voir quel film ? (Which movie do you want to see?)
Ça m’est égal. (I don’t mind.)
10. Ce n’est pas grave (Never mind, It doesn’t matter, It’s no big deal)
Things often seem like a big deal when they’re really not. You can use this to quickly disarm a tense situation in which someone thinks you’re upset with them, or just to comfort someone who’s having a hard time. Notice that the n’ is usually left off in spoken French.
J’ai oublié notre rendez-vous. Tu m’en veux ? (I forgot about our date. Are you mad at me?)
Mais non ! C’est pas grave. (Of course not! It’s no big deal.)
11. Ça marche ? / Ça marche (Does it work? / It works)
Another ça phrase in the neighborhood of ça va, ça marche can just be generally used to check if someone is okay with something. You can also say “comment ça marche ?” to ask how something works (like a vending machine or a cellphone).
12. Pas de problème (No problem)
Just a way to say “no problem” or “no worries.” Quick reassurances are important.
13. Ça ne fait rien (Never mind, It doesn’t matter)
Another reassurance. Ça ne fait rien (or just ça fait rien ), along with ce n’est pas grave, is a good way of just saying that something doesn’t really matter.
14. C’est-à-dire ? / C’est-à-dire (What do you mean? / In other words)
This is a good phrase to clarify or to ask for clarification. If you hear what someone says but it doesn’t make sense to you, you can get them to rearrange their thoughts using different French you might better understand.
15. Franchement (Honestly)
This one tends to be popular on reality television, on which it’s very important for participants to emphasize the sincerity and validity of their (scripted or not) feelings.
Franchement, j’ai pas de sentiments pour lui. Il a une nouvelle copine ? Je m’en fous, franchement. (Honestly, I don’t have feelings for him. He has a new girlfriend? I don’t care, honestly.)
16. Quand même (Anyway, Still, All the same)
The traditional meaning of quand même is along the lines of “all the same,” or “still,” and it’s used this way. But it also tends to be used as a filler word quite often, to the point where it’s difficult to say exactly what its function is. A lot of the time. you’ll find that it’s used for emphasis.
When said as an exclamation quand même ! is used to express surprise or shock like “really?” in English.
17. Enfin (Well, Finally)
Enfin can be confusing. It can mean “finally” or “after all,” or it can just be a pure filler word. It can also be used to indicate impatience or frustration. When used as a filler word, it’s often reduced to ‘fin.
Like alors or quand même, though, the meaning can often be deduced from the context. The important thing is to start listening for it and recognizing it when you hear it.
18. Ça te dit ? / Ça vous dit ? (Are you up for it?, How does that sound?)
Another ça phrase for good measure. This phrase has a more specific usage, as it usually falls into the category of making plans. Plans are important because they mean more opportunities for conversation! You don’t want to miss or misunderstand someone asking if you want to hang out again.
Ça te dit d’aller voir ce film ? (Want to go see this movie?)
Désolée, non. Je n’aime pas Godard. (No, sorry. I don’t like Godard.)
19. À cause de (Because of…)
This phrase is useful to have on deck because you can build sentences around it. You can continue what started out as a short sentence by extending the thought.
Je n’ai pas dormi à cause de ce bruit infernal. (I didn’t sleep because of that horrible noise.)
Use à cause de in situations where the cause is something negative. You can use grâce à (thanks to) for more positive causes.
To remain neutral, stick with en raison de (because of).
20. D’ailleurs (By the way, Incidentally)
This is good phrase for transitions between two sentences, giving you a moment to catch your breath and collect your thoughts. It’s another word that’s often used as filler, but when used as a transition it usually translates more directly to “incidentally” or “by the way.”
21. En tout cas (In any case, Anyway)
This translates as “in any case,” “anyhow” or “anyway.”
En tout cas, nous ne sommes pas allés au cinéma. (Anyhow, we didn’t go to the movies.)
22. Tout à fait (Exactly, Absolutely)
This can be used by itself as a response to let someone know that you agree with them. It’s also convenient to use as an adjective for emphasis.
C’est tout à fait ça ! (That’s exactly it!)
23. Et puis (And what’s more, And then)
Another useful transition that will help you keep conversation flowing.
Et puis, il m’a dit que j’avais mauvais goût en matière de film. (And what’s more, he told me I had bad taste in movies.)
24. En fait (In fact, Actually)
This one is used as a contradiction but also kind of a filler phrase, actually. While writing up this list, I was actually listening to a French television show in the background, and I actually heard en fait about twenty times, actually. I actually did.
25. Je n’en sais rien (I don’t know anything about it)
When in doubt, disavow all knowledge! This phrase can be used to get out of an uncomfortable discussion, or just to honestly proclaim your ignorance on a subject. You will usually hear this phrase spoken without the n’.
Où est mon portable ? (Where’s my phone?)
J’en sais rien. (I have no idea.)
Conversational Fillers Can Be a Good Thing
How do French speakers talk so fast? Well, part of it is the language itself. But also, not everything that’s being said is necessarily crucial. These little bits of linguistic fluff do not require a whole lot of thought to put together.
A large part of any spoken language is made up of repetition, emphasis and acknowledgment. If you listen to the more passive side of a conversation in English, it might sound like this:
“I had no idea.”
We don’t just acknowledge what someone is saying out of politeness. We do it to let them know that we’re still listening and want them to continue.
To get native French speakers to talk to you, you have to keep them talking. You also have to keep talking yourself. To do this, you’ll need a variety of familiar words and phrases to fall back on, including but not limited to transitional language, language for emphasis and common expressions that can be easily slipped into many conversations.
The Difference Between Spoken French and Written French
So what is the difference between spoken French and written French? The difference goes far beyond verbs, nouns and conjugations.
Due to its abundance of liquid vowels and slippery consonants, French is often spoken quickly. All this makes for a language that is quite difficult for non-native speakers to understand.
It’s not unusual to study French in the classroom for years and still be stumped by the vocal stylings of native speakers.
In order to understand and interact with French speakers, you need to get familiar with the main subjects of conversations and with everything that’s being said.
If you’re a French beginner, however, one thing you can do to avoid the spoken/written disconnect is to take advantage of instructional resources that take spoken French into account. Here are just a couple:
- French Today has lessons and audiobooks that focus on teaching French the way it’s actually spoken first and foremost. Using their materials, you can become familiar with grammar and vocabulary concepts while also developing an understanding of what that grammar and vocabulary really sounds like in action.
- FluentU helps you learn conversational French through an array of authentic French videos like movie clips and commercials. This will help you become accustomed to the speed of spoken French, vocabulary usage and other aspects of the language that you might not find in textbooks. The videos come with interactive captions and a contextual video dictionary, as well as flashcards and personalized exercises.
- IE Languages offers an e-book on informal and spoken French that comes with numerous audio files, so you can study spoken French directly. You can also get this at a discounted rate with their combo pack, which includes the French tutorial (helpful if you’re still struggling with grammar concepts or you want a complete overview of the language).
- “Beginning Conversational French” is an online course from ed2go that teaches you the basics with audio, written and interactive materials. Lessons are focused around dialogue scenarios, so you’ll get a taste of practical French with communication placed at the forefront of learning.
Quick Recap And Breakdown
Checking if Someone or Something is Basically Cool
Being a Good Listener and Reassuring Presence
Getting from One Thought to the Next
Words and Phrases You Can Drop Just About Anywhere
- franchement (as long as you really mean it, of course!)
Another word that falls into this category but isn’t included on this list is quoi (what), which you can read about in this list of slang expressions.
So now that you’re armed with language that can be applied to all kinds of conversations, go out and start having some of those conversations!
If you’re not in a situation yet where you can talk to native speakers, you’ll at least be able to start listening for these words and phrases in video content or on the radio, which will help you be that much more ready when the time comes!
Bonne chance ! (Good luck!)
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)