A common tale of woe exists among language learners.
Maybe you’ve already heard this one.
Or even experienced it yourself!
It starts when you decide to learn a language because you want to travel to a particular country, like France.
You do your best to acquire as much vocabulary as possible to avoid having communication problems.
However, as soon as your plane lands, you realize that you don’t understand a thing!
There is a reason for this, and it’s not that you didn’t learn enough vocabulary.
People in real life tend to speak very differently from the way they do in books or at school, and there are some things that you will need to learn by yourself and by making native friends. And maybe by dating a native French speaker!
But don’t worry, you can learn from my experiences, too!
Today I would like to give you a list of 15 popular expressions you will come across in everyday French. With these expressions and others, you will be able to become more spontaneous and relaxed in your travels and learning.
Mais Oui! 15 Popular French Phrases for Fresh Learning
If you don’t know how to pronounce any of these words or phrases, you can simply click on any of them and you will be taken to Forvo.com, a site where you can hear words being pronounced by native speakers.
1. Ça va
A: Ça va ?
A: Ça va…
This bit of dialogue is a perfect example of why you should not try to translate literally, as the same expression can mean something different when it appears as a question or affirmation.
If someone starts a conversation with you with this phrase, they mean “How are you?” But if they say ça va, et toi ? they mean “I’m fine, and you?”
Something else that you should pay attention to is the other person’s tone. If you hear something like ça va… this probably means “not very well, but I don’t want to speak about it.” Don’t take it personally and don’t insist. French people are generally not very keen on talking about their problems to someone they barely know!
2. Mais oui !
This expression means “yes” or “obviously.” It is a synonym of bien sûr ! It is very informal, so beware. You would not say this to your boss!
If someone raises their tone of voice with this expression, don’t worry! The French tend to be very expressive, and the tone makes a difference in many cases.
3. Un truc
French people seem to love this word. It is perfect for everything! It means “a thing,” but there is no real meaning as it changes depending on the context. And this is why you will learn to love it! You can use the ambiguity to your advantage, just like a wild card. Did you forget how to say a word? Just say un truc ! See? Easy!
You will probably hear this a lot, especially from teenagers, so don’t say that we didn’t warn you! It means “It’s cute,” and is an abbreviation for c’est mignon. It goes well for anything: a dress, a pet, a baby. You will recognize it because girls tend to say it with the same tone as “Aww, so cute!” in English.
5. Ta gueule !
This expression is extremely offensive, so I would advise you to avoid using it unless someone makes you angry and you want to actually express that thoroughly. It means “shut up!” but the French language has many other expressions that you can use instead (like “tais-toi!”) that don’t sound as harsh.
If you wish to look for more synonyms for this expression or others, or if you are not sure of what an expression means, I would recommend that you take a look at Larousse, one of the great references in the French language, or L’internaute, a handy website where you will find definitions as well as similar expressions.
6. Un flic
This term is employed by slang users to refer to a police officer. Note that flic is a colloquial term that is equal to “cop” in English.
According to Pourquois.com, there are different theories as to why people call police officers this word. The information in this link is entirely in French, so test your skills and try to understand it!
For those whose reading skills are not at that level yet, one theory is that flic is from a word of German origin, flick, which refers to young people who cause trouble. Another is that it is from a word of Latin origin, fligere—that means “to hit”—and refers to times in which police officers were allowed to hit people.
This term is used mainly by youths who live in the suburbs of the major cities, possibly because there have been many cases of officers responding to violence with more violence.
This expression means “What is this mess?” or “What the hell is this?” People use it when a situation is chaotic for any reason.
It has its origins in the 19th century, and it refers to the chaos in brothels.
Bordel, in case you were wondering, means brothel or prostitution house.
8. Le fric
Like any Romance language, French has a vast variety of synonyms for each word, which are used in different situations depending on the register, the region and the age of speakers.
Le fric is a colloquial synonym for money. The standard term, and the most recommended one to use if you are starting to learn the language, is l’argent. So avoir du fric would mean to have money or to be rich.
This is, by far, one of the most used expressions among young people. Pote is the slang term for ami (friend) or “buddy” in English. “Je vais sortir avec mes potes” (I’m going to go out with my friends) is a very common expression. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with this one and prefer to say amis instead, that is perfectly fine as well.
10. Je m’en fous
There is something that you should know about French people, and this is that they are quite expressive. They are Mediterranean, after all!
They can, of course, be polite, but if they get angry or upset, run away! This expression is a clear example of language changing according to the situation. It means “I don’t care,” but you would not want someone to say it to you directly.
French people use it when they want to emphasize that they don’t care about the argument or excuse someone is trying to give them—and in any circumstance, to indicate that they won’t keep listening to it.
11. Putain !
This is the equivalent to “sh**” in English, but people use it so much that it is not as strong anymore. They use it when they are angry, surprised or even just upset.
How will you know which it is? You will need to judge by context and tone of voice! And if you are still not sure, ask!
French people love abbreviations. They just can’t help it!
Y’a is the short form for il y a, which means “there is.” Our advice is not to be afraid to ask your new friends when you don’t understand something.
Besides, if you feel like words are missing in a sentence, just remind them that you are still learning. They may just think that if you know some slang words you know everything!
13. Mince !
As we mentioned before, French people can be very expressive, and this is another example.
Mince means “thin” or “not very important,” but it can also mean “damn” or “sh**.” Again, if you are not sure, the context and tone will be essential to know the exact meaning.
Mdr is not necessarily considered slang, but it is used mainly among young people. It is the abbreviation for Mort de rire or “dying of laughter”—or roughly the equivalent of the English “LOL.” The French use it a lot in text messages and informally written messages, so you had better get used to dying of laughter!
Contrary to appearance, bosser is far from meaning “being bossy.” Instead, it means to work (for someone).
However, like many countries, France and Belgium have adopted many words from British and American English, and “boss” is one of them.
Although they also use chef, it is more and more common to hear someone saying mon boss than it used to be a few years ago.
When I moved to France for the first time, I had been learning French for ten years, and that was not enough. Cultural immersion was needed! I soon came to realize when expressions were extremely inappropriate, such as ta gueule! I also realized that I had to learn when and when not to use them. For this reason, I encourage you to travel, make mistakes and learn.
Hopefully this guide will help you to do it faster!
After graduating with a degree in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Alicante, Spain, Veronica Manzanares moved to Paris to work as a Spanish Teaching Assistant and then to Copenhagen, Denmark. After realizing how hard Danish was, she moved to the U.K., where she would like to settle down.
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