Beginner’s French staples get stale fast.
Like the stereotypical red wine and baguette, they’ll hold you for a while, but sooner or later you’re going to want something more substantial.
There’ll come a point when you tire of repeating the same phrases over and over (and over).
The fact is, there’s often a better way to say things.
There’s no getting around it: To unlock intermediate French vocabulary, you’ve gotta branch out and diversify.
If you’re trying to bridge that gap between beginner and intermediate French, you’ve hopefully already been studying up by watching movies, reading books and immersing yourself in the language.
Actually speaking French can be a completely different ballgame.
But sprinkling in the right phrases here and there will get your French game going strong.
Language Makeover: 9 Basic French Phrases Transformed into Intermediate Expressions
1. Je voudrais/Je veux
We have wants. We have needs. Je voudrais (I would like to) and Je veux (I want) are two different conjugations of the lovely verb vouloir (to want).
Whether you’re using the more polite conditional version…
Je voudrais un café. (I would like a coffee.)
…or the more direct version…
Je veux un café ! Vite ! (I want a coffee! Fast!)
…it can get redundant.
In some cases, specifically when followed by a verb, it’s just not the best way to say things.
You can certainly say:
Je voudrais nager aujourd’hui. (I would like to swim today.)
In fact, you should say it, because it’s proper French.
To change things up and speak like a bona fide French native, though, use J’ai envie de (I feel like). French natives toss this phrase around all the time, using it to express things they are or are not in the mood for.
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To keep the distinction fresh…
Je voudrais is best for ordering in restaurants or asking for something (politely).
J’ai envie de is best for describing something you’re in the mood to do.
BONUS: Je n’ai pas envie (I don’t feel like it) or, as you’re likely to hear it in spoken French, J’ai pas envie, is a helpful phrase to know. Use it to reply to someone who is giving horrible suggestions on how to spend the afternoon.
2. Il est nécessaire/devoir
You must learn the proper phrases to express the many obligations in your French life. You may already be up close and personal with the verb devoir (to have to). I like to remember the meaning of it by keeping in mind that the French word for homework is les devoirs, and that you must do your French homework.
When expressing necessity, the subjunctive is often used. The phrase Il est nécessaire que (It’s necessary that) takes the subjunctive and is a perfectly acceptable phrase to express stuff you just gotta do. The phrase is a bit on the simple side and easy to remember because it translates directly into English. In fact, you may be using it just to avoid the phrase…
Il faut que…
Now before you start crying fear tears and running for the hills, just because this phrase does not translate into English as easily doesn’t mean it’s difficult to use. Used much like its beginner’s subjunctive counterpart Il est nécessaire que, it means “One must” or “It’s necessary that.” Do not pay too much attention to the Il. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean the phrase has to be about a male noun. It only means that it’s impersonal. You can use it in all the same situations that you use Il est nécessaire que.
So here are the ways you must use these phrases:
Devoir is best if you are talking simply about someone’s obligations, like:
Je dois aller au supermarché. (I must go to the supermarket.)
Tu dois partir. (You must leave.)
Il est nécessaire que is best to use when you really want to stress necessity:
Il est nécessaire que tu apprennes l’utilisation de “Il faut que.”
(It’s necessary that you learn the use of “Il faut que.”)
Il faut que is best if you know your subjunctive, are ready to sound pro and are talking about things that must happen, things someone must do or just about any situation that’s all about gottas and have-tos.
Il faut que tu te souviennes de ça. (You must remember that.)
PRO TIP: Il faut que can be used without the subjunctive as a regular verb (though it only exists in the impersonal Il form), as in:
Il faut dormir. (It is necessary to sleep.)
Just use Il faut + the infinitive and you’re good to go.
If only there was a better way to say seulement (only)! As a beginner, you may find yourself using this adverb often, not sure where else to turn. It is best used to qualify a verb, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it with nouns. Ah, but alas, there is a better way to say it with…
Placed around the conjugated verb in the same fashion as other negating phrases like ne…pas (not) or ne…jamais (never), this is a synonym of seulement used like so:
Je n’ai qu’une maison. (I have only one house.)
Conversationally, it is used more often than seulement.
PRO TIP: You will often hear (or will begin to say) phrases like:
J’ai qu’un frère. (I have only one brother.)
Much like how the French drop the ne in ne…pas, the same will be heard with ne…que. That one syllable sure rolls off the tongue better than seulement once you get the hang of it!
4. Oh là là !
Although the French do use this phrase, as well as the shortened version Oh là !, it definitely has a beginner’s ring to it and is perhaps reminiscent of elementary school days when it was the only French phrase you knew. Exclamations in French can range from tried-and-true phrases like Oh là là ! to explicit phrases (that we better leave out for now).
If you’re looking for a better way to !!! and sound like you know more French than a third-grader, try out the following:
- La vache ! Yes, this directly translates to “the cow,” and furthermore, it translates to the English phrase “Holy cow!” Use it to express surprise…or, you know, to point out that there is a cow in front of you.
- Dis donc ! is used the same way you would use Oh là là ! or “Wow!” in English. In addition, you can also use it to command someone to “Listen!”
- Ah bon ! is a very common exclamation French people use to express surprise. Think of it as “Oh really!” in English. You can also tack a question mark at the end to express “Oh really?” or say it like “Ah, I see.” Just keep in mind that just because bon means “good” in English doesn’t mean you have to use this expression exclusively for positive situations.
5. Ça va (bien)
Ça va ?
Oui, ça va.
This is an exchange that happens a lot in conversational French, the direct English translation being:
“How’s it going?”
It’s one of the first conversations you will have in French class. If you’re looking for a different way to say that everything is alright, diversify and try one of these:
Tout se passe bien. (Everything is well.)
Tout va bien. (Everything goes well.)
You may be familiar with the phrase comme ci, comme ça, for if you are only doing “so-so.” To express the same notion, but like more of a native, try bof (blah).
In addition, if you are on the asking side of the exchange, then you may want to ditch the textbook question Comment ça va? for something more common in French conversation like Ça va bien ? or Tu vas bien ?
6. Je suis content(e)/fatigué(e)
Ah, the emotions. You may want to get more specific when someone asks you how you are doing rather than fall back on the old “Yeah, I’m fine.” Maybe you want to unload your emotions on them instead. Surely you’ve become familiar with the emotions in beginner’s French, but to make them sound more colorful (and advanced), let’s go through a few alternatives.
If you’re doing well
Je suis en pleine forme. (I’m in good shape.)
Use this phrase to express that you are feeling well (healthwise/physically). It’s a great phrase to learn if you are recovering from an illness.
Je suis de bonne humeur. (I’m in a good mood.)
Use this expression to say you are in a good mood or if you are describing someone else who is in a good mood.
J’ai hâte (de…) ! (I can’t wait (to…)!)
Use this phrase if you are just too excited to wait. You can specify what you’re excited about by adding de + an infinitive. Unfortunately for French learners, there is no good direct translation for “I’m excited.” Remember that Je suis excité(e) means that you are sexually excited, not excited to go on vacation!
If you aren’t doing well
Je suis énervé(e). (I’m upset.)
Use this phrase if you are annoyed and upset about something. In addition, you can use C’est énervant to say “It’s bothersome/upsetting.”
Je suis préoccupé(e). (I’m worried.)
Use this phrase if you are worried or (as it translates) preoccupied with something. Hopefully it’s not your French you’re worried about!
Je suis crevé(e). (I’m dead tired.)
This phrase is a little more on the slang side, but it means you are so tired that you are basically dead. I think we all have times when this phrase is appropriate.
Je suis de mauvaise humeur. (I’m in a bad mood.)
Like its happy counterpart, use this phrase to say that you are in a bad mood.
Je m’ennuie./Je meurs d’ennui.
Are you bored? Okay, then these are some good phrases. The first meaning “I’m bored” and the second translating to “I’m dying of boredom.” Take your pick.
7. On va voir
The near future is basically a food group when it comes to beginner’s French. You use it to express things that will happen in the future. After being introduced to its easy conjugation, it’s hard to shake it off as you transition to intermediate French. I mean, aller + the infinitive, and you’ve got the future. Come on, who wouldn’t abuse that?
Luckily, the future tense isn’t hard to master. You can turn some common phrases from your beginner’s textbook into intermediate French using the simple future.
Here are a few to get your feet wet with:
- On va voir (We’re going to see) transforms into On verra (We will see).
- Je vais aller (I’m going to go) transforms into J’irai (I will go).
- Je vais partir (I’m going to leave) transforms into Je partirai (I will leave).
In fact, now’s the time to reassess each time you use the near future. If it’s something that’s not going to happen super soon, then you need to upgrade your French to the simple future!
BONUS: If you are talking about something in the future, take our previously-mentioned phrase Tout va bien and respond with Tout ira bien (It will be okay) to reassure fellow French learners that everything is going to be just fine.
That does not roll off the tongue at all, does it? Montre-le-moi (show it to me) and its simplified conversational counterpart, Montre-moi (show me), are pretty simple vocabulary. Montrer (to show) seems like the logical go-to when asking someone to show you something.
Although the verb is used by native speakers, however, you are more likely to hear someone say Fais voir out in the French-speaking world. It means “Show me.” (Or in the ungraceful direct translation, “Make to see.”)
Montrer is best used in writing or when forming a subject + verb sentence:
Je t’ai montré. (I showed you.)
Fais voir is best used as a command. Like when you really want someone to show you the way to intermediate French mastery.
9. Au revoir
No, the post isn’t over…yet. First, we have to go over some of the best ways to say goodbye. So say au revoir to au revoir (at least some of the time) and make way for some more specific ways to say Adios (wait, that’s Spanish).
For when you are going to see someone later
À tout à l’heure !
À plus !
À la prochaine ! (Until next time!)
À ce soir ! (See you tonight!)
À demain ! (See you tomorrow!)
As you can see, just add whenever you will see the person next after À, and BAM! you’ve got a personalized goodbye.
- Salut ! Meaning the same as the informal greeting, you can also use it as a goodbye with friends.
- Adieu ! (Farewell!) Make sure you are only using this with someone when it is a goodbye for an extended period of time, or if tears are involved.
Try phrases like Bonne nuit (Goodnight), Bonne après-midi (Have a good afternoon) or Bon week-end (Have a good weekend) for more specific, well-wishing goodbyes.
So there you are.
You’re still getting the same messages across as from your early days of French, but with more punch and pizzazz!
Bonne chance ! (Good luck!)
And One More Thing…
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