Don’t get me wrong, having a strong foundation in a language before communicating with a native speaker is essential. I have my French classes to thank for a lot of the cultural knowledge and French words I know. But when I arrived in France for the first time, there were some French language rules that I never learned in my French classes. After spending two years living in France, I want to share some practices I wish I had known before starting out. So if you’re looking to learn French like a native, you should definitely keep reading.
When I first moved to France, I worked as an au pair and I learned a lot while I was there. When you’re learning a new language, you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to forget a lot of what you learned along the way, and that’s okay. When I left for France, I felt pretty confident in my French skills, but the more I learned, the more I realized how much I hadn’t known before I got there. Even phrases I thought I had mastered like, je ne sais pas, or I don’t know, were not as straightforward as I thought. One time I was out with a French friend, and I asked him if he knew what he was ordering for dinner, and he just looked up and said something that sounded like “shay pah.”
Thinking it was some obscure French dish that sounded kind of like foie gras, I asked him what that was. He went on to explain that he had actually said, je ne sais pas, but he had just slurred the words together, which I would soon learn is a common colloquial practice. We had a few laughs, but I never made that mistake again, which brings us to our first rule.
1. You’ll hear slurs and informal contractions like chais pas
Languages get lazy over time, which is part of the reason why we no longer speak like Shakespeare. We want to speak as quickly as possible so we’ll combine certain sounds together. In English, the question “Want to give me five dollars?” means the same thing as “Wanna gimme five dollars?” But words like wanna, gimme, and gotta are used in informal settings to get out what you want to say more quickly and easily. “Wanna gimme five dollars” is a lot easier to say than “Want to give me five dollars?”
Well, the same thing happens in French. Instead of saying je ne sais pas, the French slur together “je ne sais” to become something that sounds like “shay,” sometimes written as chais or ché in French. The same thing can happen with “je suis,” or I am. The two words can be slurred together to form the sound “shui,” or chuis in French. You’ll definitely hear younger generations talking like this, but it is really informal. Make sure you only use this rule with close friends.
2. Young people don’t always say oui when they want to say yes
Ouais is a French word I didn’t know existed until I had French friends. Oui, or yes, was one of the first French words I learned, so I was surprised to learn there was another way to say it. Ouais is an informal way to say oui. It’s used in the same way that we use “yeah” in English. Just like slurring, ouais isn’t something you should say to your teacher or your waiter; it’s reserved for informal situations.
3. The French have their own versions of words like “um” and “yuck”
Before I got to France, I thought I had learned most of the everyday vocabulary, but it turns out I didn’t know some of the most common words in the book. I didn’t know filler words like these:
- euh = uh/um
- ben = um/well
- hein ? = huh?
I also learned other interjections like:
- aïe ! / ouïe ! = ouch!
- beurk = yuck/ew
- hop là ! = presto/got it/there we go
- bim = Boom
- miam = yum
- chiche ! = I dare you!
- ho ! = wow!/hey!
- vlan ! = bam!
- chut = shush
- holà = woah
- Toc, toc ! = knock, knock!
4. The French have a very particular tongue-twisting slang
Learning slang is one of the best ways to speak French like a local. In French, one of the most common types of slang is called verlan. Verlan is a slang popular among youth, where French words are formed by switching the order in which the syllables are pronounced. Slang is something you’ll pick up when spending time with native speakers, but here are a few words you should know if you want a head start:
- ouf = wild
- chanmé = badass
- meuf = chick
- chelou = shady/seedy/weird
- vénère = mad
5. You won’t hear ouh là là as much as you’d expect
When I was little and wanted to speak like a French person, I would talk about baguettes and snails and continuously use the phrase “ouh là là.” The phrase is often used in reference to the French so I assumed I would hear it all the time in France. But like a lot of stereotypes, the French don’t really say ouh là là. And I think this stereotype needs debunking.
Instead, the phrase oh là là is used much more commonly, which means “oh dear.”
6. There are a lot of French hand gestures you probably didn’t know existed
Even though body language is used in languages worldwide, I didn’t think the French would have so many hand gestures that I wouldn’t understand. We were always learning new vocabulary in French class, but we never learned any hand gestures or body language. Click here to learn some of the most common French gestures.
7. The French say rebonjour rather than saying bonjour twice
Bonjour is one of the most commonly used words in France. You use it to say hello to almost everyone you see, but you’re only technically allowed to say hello to someone one time per day. Once you’ve greeted a coworker once, you don’t have to do it again, even if you left work and met up with them later in the day. It’s actually considered rude to tell someone bonjour twice in one day because the person you’re greeting will assume that you forgot you already saw them. Rebonjour is always said a little jokingly and definitely isn’t required, but the culture around bonjour is something I wish I learned sooner.
8. There are a lot more English words in French than you’d imagine
From my first day of French in high school, my teacher spoke almost only in French. She would use English for important announcements or to clarify something, but besides that, our French classroom was French-only. That’s why I was surprised to hear English words sprinkled throughout my conversations with French locals. These English words are called anglicismes, or franglais, and are used throughout France. I heard words like “babysitting,” “chat,” and “manager.” Though the French try not to use any English, you’ll likely hear some English words if you find yourself in a French-speaking country.
9. The French say “like” just as much as Americans do
Genre is probably the only French word I’m glad I didn’t know. As a relatively young 20-something, I grew up saying the word “like” because I was guilty of watching bad reality TV with California girls throwing the word around like it was a brand new purse. So when I found out that the French also have a word that they use precisely like we use “like,” I really tried to avoid it. The French use the word genre as a filler word, just like “like.” The word is mostly used among teenagers and is used at the dismay of many teachers and parents, similarly to “like” in English.
If you’re still in French class, try asking your French teacher about some of these French practices or sharing them with your classmates. You’ll sound like a local in no time!