French Idioms Crash Course: How to Sound Like a Native French Speaker
So you want to speak French like a local. Perhaps not exactly like a native speaker, but like someone who lives there.
You can sound like a French speaker even though you're a complete beginner in the language.
It's possible. I've done it in Portuguese.
My knowledge of Portuguese is extremely limited. I only know how to say a few dozen words.
Admittedly, I already know French and Spanish, which helps a lot for guessing Portuguese words since so many of them are similar across these languages.
But when it comes to native-like pronunciation, no guesswork will do the trick.
If I come up with a sentence made up of guessed words, people typically understand me. But it's obvious to them I'm a visitor. A tourist. The same goes if I use words I've only learned through reading: I sound like a visitor.
How to Sound French: Imitate
Here's the deal: the only way you'll ever stand a chance of sounding like a local, albeit one with a foreign accent, is by listening to and imitating the locals.
And by imitating, I mean learning complete phrases, like a parrot. Not just repeating the words, but copying the exact sounds, the tone, the music.
But imitation goes even further than that. You also need to mimic body language. The movements of the hands, head, arms. Body posture.
Our brain detects all these things when evaluating whether a person is a local or not.
The funny thing is, your accent – or lack thereof – is not that important.
If you've ever spent time in New York, you may know what I mean. Many New Yorkers have foreign accents. Yet no one can question their New Yorker status. It's about the words and phrases they use. Their intonations. Their body gestures. More generally speaking, their attitude.
Typically, only people who have lived in a place for long enough have integrated these things.
Can you fool people in a country into thinking you've been living there for a while? I believe so.
In the following section, I'm going to show you some examples of phrases French locals use every day.
And I really mean “show”. You're going to watch a few very short video clips with animated dialogues that use some common phrases and expressions. Try to watch, listen, and imitate. If you can reproduce the sounds and gestures of these characters, you'll be on your way to localdom!
Ready? Let's get rolling.
How to Make a Suggestion Like a French Native
Ça te dirait de sortir ?
Ah ouais, génial !
Native French speakers use the expression “ça te dirait de …” very frequently to suggest an activity.
The equivalent in English would be “what do you say we …“
Other examples :
“Ça te dirait d'aller au cinéma ?”
“Ça te dirait de dîner à la maison ?”
“Ah ouais !” shows an enthusiastic reaction. “Génial !” is a common way to say “great”, “awesome”. A common alternative is “super !”
How to Arouse Suspicion in French
Dis donc Christine ! C'est toi qui a pris mon biscuit sur la table ?
Moi ? Non ! Je lisais mon bouquin !
The phrase “dis donc !” is very commonly used in French to get someone's attention and let them know we're about to say something important. What follows may be something good or bad. In this case, the boy is making an accusation.
Other examples of using “dis donc”:
“Dis donc ! tu as vu cet éléphant !
“Dis donc, tu es très forte toi !”
The boy asks “c'est toi qui a pris … ?” That's a common way of expressing suspicion of someone, accusing someone.
“C'est toi qui a cassé cette assiette ?”
“C'est toi qui a utilisé mon téléphone ?”
The girl replies by denying: “Moi ? Non !” and gives her alibi: “Je lisais mon bouquin !” “Bouquin” means “livre” in informal spoken French.
What to Say When Someone Sneezes
A tes souhaits !
When someone sneezes, you say to them “A tes souhaits !” That's somewhat equivalent to the English “bless you”. If you don't know the person, you'll use “à vos souhaits” instead, a more formal variant.
The person who sneezed will respond with “merci !”
If you know the person well, you may alternatively say “à tes amours !” which is a humorous equivalent.
If the person sneezes several times, you may chain the following – after each sneeze: “à tes souhaits !”, “à tes amours !”, “qu'ils durent toujours !”
I usually avoid literal translation since it's important to learn phrases directly in French with the supporting visual context. I'll make an exception for these because I think they're quite funny: the above sneezing phrases literally mean: “to your wishes”, “to your loves”, “may they last forever”.
How to Finish a French Conversation
Euh excuse-moi, il faut que j'y aille !
Mais ça m'a fait vraiment plaisir de te voir.
“Excuse-moi” is a common way of apologizing in French – although the French have been increasingly using “désolé(e)”, probably from the growing influence of the English language. But “excuse-moi” or “excusez-moi” remains a proper way to apologize, including in informal French.
“Il faut que j'y aille” means the person has to leave, she has to go somewhere, as the “y” suggests (in this case it means “there”).
It's an informal, everyday expression we use to express the fact we need to leave because we have a commitment.
“Ça m'a fait plaisir de te voir” is a polite phrase to say when leaving someone, similar to what we would say in English.
In this excerpt, the girl is actually eager to end the conversation which she finds boring. She adds the last phrase to soften the fact that she's “bailing out”.
However, you may use that same phrase sequence when ending a pleasant conversation with a person you were happy to see again.
How to Talk About Your New Boyfriend or Girlfriend
J'ai rencontré quelqu'un !
Oh mais c'est une super nouvelle, ça !
The expression “j'ai rencontré quelqu'un” in spoken French typically applies to the romantic realm.
It means we've found a new boyfriend / girlfriend.
In everyday life, we may of course say “j'ai rencontré quelqu'un” to mean we've run into someone.But generally we provide additional details about the person we've run into.
By contrast, “j'ai rencontré quelqu'un !” as a standalone phrase typically refers to a romantic encounter.
The boy replies saying “c'est une super nouvelle !” , a very common way of expressing joy when hearing good news.
Notice the “oh mais” that precedes the phrase. This is typically used to accentuate the exclamation that follows.
For example, if someone asks you “tu aimes le poisson ?” You may answer “j'adore le poisson !” But if you're really enthusiastic about eating fish, you may say “oh mais j'adore le poisson !” which makes your response more forceful.
Another way of emphasizing exclamation is to append “ça !” as is the case in “Oh mais c'est une super nouvelle, ça ! It's much like saying “now that is great news !”
How to Introduce People in French
Alors : Roger voici Anne, Anne voici Roger !
This is a very typical way to introduce people : [person1] voici [person2], [person2] voici [person1].
An alternative to “voici” is to say “je te présente“, or if you don't know the person well, “je vous présente“.
Note the word “Alors :” at the start of the sentence : it serves to prepare the people involved for what's coming, getting their attention before making the introduction.
In some cases you may need to introduce one person to another but not the other way around, for example if the second person is well known. In that case you may just say [person2] voici / je vous présente [person1].
How to Sell Things in French
Bon, alors vous en voulez combien ?
Euh, j'en demande 4000 euros…
A typical way to ask for the selling price in a person-to-person type transaction is to say “combien en voulez-vous ?” or, a more informal variant, “vous en voulez combien ?“
For example, if you see an advertisement for a car for sale and call the seller, you may ask them “vous en voulez combien ?”
An alternative is “vous en demandez combien ?”, substituting “demander” for “vouloir”. The two can be used interchangeably in this common expression.
As a reply, the seller says “j'en demande 4000 euros”. It means, “je demande 4000 euros pour cet objet”, or “j'en veux 4000 euros”.
Note that in a retail setting, such as a store, you typically don't ask “vous en voulez combien ?”. Instead you may say “combien coûte ce [object]” or “quel est le prix de cet [object]”. Or even “c'est combien ?“
How to Finish Your Order in a French Restaurant
Autre chose ?
Euh, voyons voir … Non, ce sera tout.
Typically, after you order something, the clerk or salesperson will ask “autre chose ?” which means “Voulez-vous autre chose ?” That's for checking whether your order is complete.
You may hesitate about adding other items to your order, and take a few seconds to think about it. If that's the case you can say “voyons voir …” which is a way to say “let me think …”, “let's see …” If you don't want to add anything to your order, you can say “ce sera tout“. The clerk will then process your order and generate the bill so you can pay.
For example, in a store you order a few items. Then the salesperson asks “autre chose ?”. You answer “non, ce sera tout” or “non c'est tout“. He/she then wraps your items and tells you the total price you need to pay.
How to Thank Someone for Nothing
Ah OK, je vois … Bon, merci quand même …
In spoken, informal French, we often say “ah OK, je vois !” when we figure out something.
For example, you ask a person for an explanation about what's going on in the street. After hearing the explanation, things are now clear to you, and you may say “ah OK, je vois“.
However, the expression is also used in situations where you find out things are not what they appear to be. In such cases “ah OK, je vois …” indicates disillusionment, frustration.
For example, it suddenly becomes clear to you the person you're talking to is not what she appears to be, or is trying to get something from you.
In this clip, the phrase is followed by “bon, merci quand même …” It's a polite way of thanking someone even though you feel they haven't helped you in any way.
For example, you ask someone for directions, but the person replies with useless information because they clearly don't know anything. You may say “merci quand même” before leaving, and ask someone else.
In some cases, “merci quand même” is meant to send the person a message that they have not been helpful. It's a bit like saying “thanks for nothing”. In this clip, for example, it's clear the man is quite annoyed and frustrated by whatever the other person said.
There are also situations, however, in which the person has done their best to help, albeit unsuccessfully. You may say “merci quand même” to show appreciation for their efforts.
How to Say You Don’t Have Enough Money
Et toi, tu en as ?
Euh, j'en ai pas beaucoup …
In this clip, the girl asks the boy if he has any money – the word “money” is not heard in this clip, it was mentioned in an earlier section of the full video. She says “tu en as ?” meaning, in this context, “tu as de l'argent ?”
The boy replies with “j'en ai pas beaucoup“. It's an informal, colloquial way of saying “je n'en ai pas beaucoup” which is the grammatically correct form of the phrase. It's also the form we'd use in writing.
In spoken French, we often use this phrase to say we have little, or none, of something. It's sometimes used to turn down a share request. For example, if someone asks you “tu peux me donner un peu de frites ?”, you may reply “ah j'en ai pas beaucoup …”, meaning “sorry but no”.
Another example : “tu crois qu'il a des amis ?” “Non, il en a pas beaucoup …” which may in fact mean he does not have any friends.
Use These Phrases, and You Will Sound More French
So there you have it. You now have a few keys to start sounding like a French speaking local. Watch and practise the short clips until you imitate the characters to perfection.
Of course, these are just a few phrases and expressions for use in given situations. But if you get the hang of it, you can easily find many more. Make sure to always look for video for context and body language.
Armed with such a solid idiomatic and pronunciation foundation, you'll be ready to dive into a real-life immersion in a French speaking country. You'll be amazed to watch your listening and speaking skills skyrocket.
Take my word for it, I've been there!