Learning French as a foreign language means that we often learn a more standardized, international version of the language. We are imbued with proper grammar, nuanced phrasing, and in-depth knowledge of the language, but sometimes to the detriment of natural and authentic speaking.
There are a few phrases in particular that are taught to English-speaking students of French that are simply not used or are considered inappropriate for the situations in which most people find themselves. So, without further ado. Here are 10 French phrases you’ve learned in French class that you should swap out for their natural counterparts.
Je m’appelle ___ – moi, c’est ___
Just like saying, ‘Hi, I’m _____’ is more natural than the proper, ‘Hello, my name is _____’ in English, ‘Je m’appelle’ skews a bit too formal and awkward for most everyday situations. People tend to introduce themselves with the more simple ‘moi, c’est _____’.
Because ‘je m’appelle’ is one of the first things you learn in French class, it’s drilled into our heads as being the way to introduce oneself. Despite ‘moi, c’est _____’ being shorter and arguably more informal of an introduction, it is widely used in all sorts of scenarios from meeting people at a party to introducing yourself in a professional setting.
Comme ci, comme ça – ‘ça va’
Oh my. Let’s please just never use this one.
‘Ça va’ is the swiss army knife of responses. Feeling great ? ‘Ça va !’ Lousy day ? ‘Ça va…’ Doing a-okay ? ‘Ça va.’ Intonation is all you need to change the meaning of this short-and-sweet reply to match whatever mood you’re in ! Just please no ‘Comme ci, comme ça.’ This has been a public service announcement.
Nous – On
When learning French, we’re often told that ‘nous’ is the only way to express ‘we’. People may know that ‘on’ exists, but often think of it as the stuffy equivalent of ‘one’ in English (‘One shouldn’t do such a thing’). But if you were to step foot in France, you’d hear that ‘nous’ is hard to come by and that everyone uses ‘on’ to express we, they, and even I.
The biggest perk of using ‘on’ is that it’s so much easier to conjugate than ‘nous’ ! (‘On’ is conjugated the same as il/elle – troisième personne du singulier) Would you rather say ‘Ou est-ce que tu veux qu’on se retrouve ?’ or ‘Ou est-ce que tu veux que nous nous retrouvions ?’
Chouette – Cool
Groovy, man ! ‘Chouette’ was one of the first ever words I learned in French. I used it for years and years until, just last year, I was reading a French novel in which the character said she couldn’t believe her dad still called things ‘chouette’ even though the 70s/80s were long passed. Nowadays, even if people might sprinkle ‘chouette’ in here and there for some color, ‘cool’ is king.
« T’as jamais été à Berlin ? »
« Ah ouais c’est hyper cool, j’adore. »
Just make sure you’re saying cool and not cul… There’s nothing worse than saying that something is ‘butt’ when you don’t mean to.
Je voudrais – Je prends
While ‘je voudrais’ is certainly very polite and used often, it is not the go-to phrase used to order food and drink in boulangeries, cafes, or even restaurants; “je prends’ or ‘je vais prendre’ (I’ll get, Let me have, I’ll take, Can I get, etc.) is what should be in your pastry-ordering arsenal.
The politeness of this type of interaction rests on your use of ‘Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame’ and ‘Merci, au revoir / Merci, bonne journée.’ While using the conditional of ‘je voudrais’ would bolster the register of what you’re saying, it does not determine the overall tone of speech.
« Bonjour, Monsieur. Je prends une baguette tradition bien cuite avec une tarte aux fraises. Ce sera tout. Merci, bonne journée. »
De rien – Je vous en prie
When you look up ‘you’re welcome’ in WordReference, you’ll see ‘de rien’ and ‘il n’y a pas de quoi’ as appropriate French translations. Please don’t fall into this trap! Both of these can be construed as rude due to their casual nature. Although the previous examples all show more relaxed expressions, ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ are areas you don’t want to skimp out on in French.
Je vous en prie (or ‘je t’en prie’) is a wonderfully polite little phrase and one that can be used in a multitude of ways.
(Walking into a building with someone) « Je vous en prie. » (‘After you’)
« Je vous en prie, asseyez-vous. » (‘Sit down, please’)
« Je vous en remercie. » – « Je vous en prie. » (‘Thank you’ – ‘You’re welcome’)
C’est pourquoi – C’est la raison pour laquelle
Sometimes you gotta get a little fancy. Since ‘c’est pourquoi’ is not grammatically allowed to introduce a clause (it can only act as a conjunction de subordination between two clauses), we need to break out the big guns and use the more complex ‘c’est la raison pour laquelle’ which can introduce a clause.
‘Est-ce que tu savais que notre examen aura lieu demain ?’
‘Oui, c’est la raison pour laquelle je compte faire une nuit blanche pour étudier !’
Excusez-moi – Pardon / Excusez-moi de vous déranger
‘Sorry’ tends to act a bit differently in French than it does in English. The French language also has more ways of excusing oneself that are applicable in different scenarios.
The moral of the story here is that ‘excuse me’ does not blindly equate to ‘excusez-moi’ ; what you are excusing yourself for and in what context will help determine how to properly express yourself in French.
(Pushing past people in a crowded train) ‘Pardon.’
(Interrupting someone to get there attention) ‘Excusez-moi de vous déranger.’
(Apologizing for something you’ve said/done) ‘Je m’excuse.’
Sincèrement – En vous remerciant par avance
French email signatures are famously formulaic, voire ceremonial. This is a prime example of a time when simply having the English words properly translated into French won’t do the job. You would inversely never see anyone end an email in English with “Please agree, Sir, to my most distinct salutations.”
S’il vous plaît – Merci de / Veuillez
I often see people learning French translate a sentence such as ‘Please go to the store and buy some eggs’ as ‘S’il vous plaît aller à l’épicerie acheter des œufs’. (Choosing the right translation for ‘store’ and avoiding ‘pour aller à l’épicierie’ is a different story and worth explanation another time).
The French tend to ask for people to do something by thanking them in advance for having done it. This is part due to the grammatical nature of ‘s’il vous plaît,’ but it’s also important to note that thanking someone ahead of time for what you’d like them to do is not passive aggressive nor rude, just the way the language structures this type of request.
Est-ce que tu peux aller à l’épicerie acheter des œufs
Merci d’aller à l’épicerie acheter des œufs
Veuillez aller à l’épicerie acheter des œufs*
Interested in learning more French?