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When you’re learning French, what are some good ways to start a French conversation?
Whether you’ve just been introduced to someone new, find yourself sitting next to a French-speaker on the bus, or end up walking beside a French tourist while visiting an attraction, I’ve got a French conversation starter for you.
Before we dig into the conversational French, I’d like to say a little bit about conversations in general.
Starting Conversations Doesn’t Have to Be Tricky
We’ve all been there. You meet someone new and start chatting with them, only to have the conversation fizzle out after the initial “Nice to meet you”s are over with. What gives?
What’s probably happening is that you’re each hoping that the other one will decide on a good conversation topic. But you can’t wait forever, or you’ll miss your chance; someone has to make the first move. And with a few handy conversation starters, that can be you.
Starting a conversation in a foreign language like French can feel more difficult than doing it in your native tongue. You can end up doubting yourself. What if they get bored talking with a non-native speaker? What if you accidentally say something rude? What if they don’t understand you?
With these French conversation starters, I want to give you the confidence to move beyond these concerns.
One more thing. When you want to start a conversation with someone, the best thing you can do is to say something. Anything. Don’t worry about coming up with the “perfect” way to start chatting. Just be natural, and the conversation will flow without you needing to force it.
How to Keep a Conversation Flowing
Once you’ve sparked up a conversation, how can you keep it going?
The easiest way is to avoid closed-loop questions. These are questions that the other person can only answer with “yes” or “no”. The problem with them is that they don’t invite any further discussion; you ask a question, they answer yes or no, and that’s it.
Instead, ask open-ended questions. “What happened next?”, “What do you do for fun?”, “Tell me more about where you grew up.”
And Remember… Conversations Don’t Need to Start at the Beginning
Not all French conversations need to start with “bonjour!”. That’s certainly the most common way, but it may not be best for every situation.
I’ve found that some of my most naturally-flowing conversations are those that start in the middle.
You skip the boring small-talk and hit the ground running, so the conversation never has a chance to fizzle out.
Let’s get started looking at some French conversation starters you can use in the real world.
French Conversation Starters: To Someone You’ve Just Met
- “J’aime votre chapeau/sac à dos/manteau, puis-je vous demander où vous l’avez acheté(e) ?” (“I like your hat/backpack/coat, may I ask where you bought it?”) Complimenting someone’s taste is a foolproof way to start a conversation and quickly get the other person chatting to you like an old friend.
- “Est-ce que vous savez l’heure ?” (“Do you know what time it is?”)
- “Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de cette histoire (indicating an article in a newspaper) ?” (“What do you think of this news story?”) Use this phrase, for example, if you’re reading the paper and notice an interesting story that you can chat about with the person next to you, or if you see someone else carrying a newspaper and you catch sight of an interesting headline. Obviously, don’t interrupt someone if they’re actually in the middle of reading their paper though.
- “Est-ce que vous savez où se trouve une bonne boulangerie/épicerie/pâtisserie dans le coin ?” (“Do you know where to find a good bakery/grocery store/pastry shop in this area?”) Chatting with a local is a good way to both practice your French and learn about the city you’re visiting. But if the person turns out not to be a local, no problem! If they have a bit of time, they might help you find what you’re looking for, or the two of you can look for a local to give you directions. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers, either local or tourists!
Conversational French Phrases: In a Restaurant or Café
- “Excusez-moi, est-ce que je peux m’asseoir ici ?” (“Excuse me, can I sit here?”) Crowded cafés and food courts where strangers have to sit at the same table are a wonderful opportunity to start up a conversation with someone new. Ask politely if you can sit at their table, then use one of the other conversation starters to get the ball rolling.
- “Ça [indicating the other person’s food or drink] a l’air bon.” (“That looks good.”)
- “Je recommande le poisson/repas végétarien/poulet, c’est excellent.” (“I recommend the fish/vegetarian dish/chicken, it’s excellent.”) Use this phrase if you’ve eaten there before. Ordering something new in a restaurant is always a gamble, so people are usually grateful to get a recommendation about what’s good. It will open the conversation for you to chat about your favourite foods, or your favourite restaurants in the area.
- “Qu’est-ce que vous recommanderiez ici ?” (“What would you recommend here?”) If the other person looks like a regular at the establishment, strike up a conversation to ask them what their favourite dish is there.
- “On a commandé la même chose !” (“We ordered the same thing!”)
French Conversation Starters at Tourist Attractions
- “C’est fatiguant, hein ? Quand était la dernière fois que vous avez fait l’exercice comme ça ?” (“This is tiring, eh? When’s the last time you did exercise like this?”) Try this phrase when the walk to an attraction is particularly difficult. You’ll probably end up lightening the mood of the other person, if they’re grumbling under their breath about the strenuous hike.
- “Quelles autres attractions touristiques/historiques est-ce que vous avez vues dans la région ?” (“Which other tourist/historical attractions have you visited in the area?”) If you both share an interest in visiting culturally or historically significant sites, you have a ready-made topic of conversation.
- “Qu’est-ce que vous savez sur cet endroit ?” (“What do you know about this place?”) You might get some really interesting tidbits of trivia about the attraction in question if you ask other people what they’ve heard about it.
- “J’ai lu que ce site est l’endroit où (some historical event) est arrivé.” (“I read that this is where (some historical event) happened.”) If you learn some fascinating info yourself about the place you’re visiting, you can share it with other tourists to get a conversation going about it.
Phrases to Start a French Conversation in Someone’s Home
- “J’adore cette bibliothèque/ce casier à vin/cette peinture, où est-ce que vous l’avez obtenu(e) ?” (“I love this bookshelf/wine rack/painting, where did you get it?”)
- “Qu’est-ce que vous avez pensé de ce livre (indicating a book on their bookshelf) ?” (“What did you think of that book?)
- “Depuis combien de temps est-ce que vous vivez ici?” (“How long have you lived here?”)
One thing to keep in mind: if you’re in France, I suggest you don’t ask for a tour of the home you’re visiting. It’s not very common in France for people to show guests all around their home. Pity, as it’s a great conversation starter!
Business French: Conversation Starters
Sometimes, you’ll meet someone in a more formal setting, perhaps being introduced by a mutual acquaintance at a business event or dinner party. In these cases, you’ll probably opt for some more classic conversation starters. Here are some examples:
- “Bonjour, je m’appelle (your name). Enchanté.” (“Hello, my name is (your name). Nice to meet you”)
- “Je suis très heureux/heureuse de faire votre connaissance.” (“It’s nice to meet you.”)
- “Comment est-ce que vous connaissez [name of the friend who introduced you] ?” (“How do you know [the name of the friend who introduced you]?”)
- “Qu’est-ce que vous aimez faire dans votre temps libre ?” (“What do you like to do in your spare time?”) I love this phrase, because it does two things: invites the other speaker to talk about themselves, which most people are happy to do (thus kickstarting the conversation), and lets you learn more about them and their interests. You may discover that you have more in common than you originally would have guessed.
- “Qu’est-ce que vous faites comme travail ?” (“What do you do for a living?”)
Conversational French to Use During a Skype Call
Skype calls with conversation partners are unique in that they don’t have a situational context that you can use to fuel the conversation. You’re just two people in front of your computer screens. In this case, you’ll probably want to start with one of the traditional greetings above, and then ask the other person for some information about themselves:
- “Est-ce que vous avez des enfants ?” (“Do you have children?”)
- “En quoi est-ce que vous avez fait vos études ?” (“What did you study [in university]?”)
- “Quels sont vos rêves pour l’avenir ?” (“What are your dreams for the future ?”)
- “Est-ce que quelque chose de drôle vous est arrivé pendant la semaine dernière?” (“Did anything funny happen to you in the past week?”)
- “Quel est votre endroit préféré que vous avez jamais visité ? Pourquoi ?” (“What’s your favourite place you’ve ever visited? Why?”)
What Will You Talk About in French Conversation?
Obviously there are a lot more situations than I’ve mentioned here in which you can start a conversation in French.
I think I’ve gotten my point across, though, which is that there are countless right ways to have a conversation with someone new. The only wrong way is to make excuses and talk yourself out of doing it.