15 Popular French Phrases

Many language learners try to learn as much vocabulary as possible before going to visit or live in a different country.

However, as soon as they arrive, they realize they don’t understand a thing. Sound familiar? 

People in real life tend to speak very differently from the way they do in books or at school.

There are some things you need to learn by making native friends, consuming the media they consume and immersing yourself in their culture. 

But don’t worry, you can learn from my experiences, too!

In this post, you’ll learn 15 popular expressions to help you communicate more naturally and understand everyday French.


1. Ça va

A: Ça va ?

B: Oui, ça va, et toi ?

A:  Ça va…

This bit of dialogue is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t 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 this phrase, they mean “How are you?” But if they say ça va, et toi ? they mean “I’m fine, and you?”

Something else you should pay attention to is the other person’s tone. If you hear something like ça va… (with the last syllable trailing off), this probably means “not very well, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Don’t take it personally: French people are generally not keen on talking about their problems to someone they barely know!

2. Mais oui !

This expression means “yes” or “obviously.” It’s a synonym of  bien sûr ! It’s very informal, so beware: don’t 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, because it’s perfect for everything. It literally translates to “a thing,” but there’s no fixed meaning as it changes depending on the context. And this is why you’ll 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 !

4. C’est mimi !

You will probably hear this a fair amount, especially from teenagers. It means “It’s cute,” and is an abbreviation for c’est mignon. It goes well with anything: a dress, a pet or a baby. You’ll 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 advise that you avoid it unless someone makes you angry and you want to be crystal clear about how you really feel. 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 of this expression or you’re not sure what an expression means, I 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 can find definitions as well as similar expressions.

6. Un flic

This is French slang for a police officer. Note that  flic is a colloquial term equivalent to the English “cop.”

There are different theories as to why people call police officers this word. (Be warned: the information in the link is entirely in French, so test your skills and try to understand it!)

For those whose reading skills aren’t 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’s from a word of Latin origin, fligere—which 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, in those areas, there have been many cases of officers responding to violence with more violence.

7. C’est quoi ce bordel ?

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 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, region and age of the speakers.

Le fric is a colloquial French word for money (in the same way that American English uses “bucks”). The standard term (and the most recommended one if you’re starting to learn the language) is l’argent . So  avoir du fric would mean to have money or to be rich.

9. Pote

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’s perfectly fine as well.

10. Je m’en fous

As I mentioned earlier, French people are quite expressive.

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 wouldn’t want someone to say it to your face.

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 listen any longer.

11. Putain !

This is the equivalent to “sh**” in English. The French use it when they’re angry, surprised or even just upset.

How will you know which it is? You need to judge by the context and tone of voice. And if you’re still not sure, ask!

12. Y’a

French people love their abbreviations!

Y’a is the short form for il y a , which means “there is.” Again, don’t 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’re still learning. Otherwise, they may think that if you already know some slang words, you’re already fluent!

13. Mince !

Again, 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’re not sure, the context and tone will help you know the exact meaning.

14. Mdr

Mdr isn’t necessarily considered slang, but young people often use it. It’s an abbreviation for Mort de rire or “dying of laughter”—or roughly the equivalent of the English “LOL” or the skull emoticon.

The French use it a lot in text messages and informally written messages, so you’d better get used to dying of laughter!

15. Bosser

Contrary to appearance, bosser is far from meaning “being bossy.” Instead, it means to work (for someone).

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’s more and more common to hear someone saying  mon boss .

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When I moved to France for the first time, I’d been learning French for 10 years, and that wasn’t enough.

I soon came to realize which 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! Check out some popular French sayings next. 

And one more thing...

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All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.

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