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French phrases that language learners just don't get

The Local France
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French phrases that language learners just don't get
Customers sit at a cafe's terrace in Paris. (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Even if you've lived in France for years, there are some French phrases and expressions that might still catch you out. Here are just a few of the many that we often get wrong.

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C'est n'importe quoi

Ni'importe quoi is one of those terms we hear thrown into French sentences a lot, so we naturally try to do the same, but don't always get it right.

Often used to express exasperation, "C'est n'importe quoi!" can be a tough one for foreigners to grasp but usually means something like "That's nonsense/rubbish". N'importe quoi by itself can also mean "whatever".

Du coup

This filler phrase meaning something like "so" or "therefore" pops up in French conversation similarly to how "like" peppers the speech of an American teenager. It can bewilder French learners who don't understand how it can be so omnipresent yet have no actual meaning. 

In this case it's not that we use du coup incorrectly, but more that we never use it (but would really love to) because we haven't a clue when it's appropriate.

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Quand même

Two words with so many meanings.

"Quand même is a very common and versatile French expression," writes Laura Lawless from the French language learning section of the site Thought Co. "You can hear it several times a day, every day, and each time you think you understand all of its meanings, another one seems to come along."

The site has a few examples to illustrate their point:

Ex 1. J'avais peur, mais je l'ai fait quand même. - I was afraid, but I did it anyway (or but i still did it).

Ex 2. C'est quand même difficile. - It's actually quite hard.

Ex. 3 Quand même ! - Really! Honestly! (disbelief, outrage)

Ex 4. Quel idiot, quand même ! - Really, what an idiot!

Désolé(e)

This word isn't used with nearly the same frequency as "sorry" in English. The French are far more likely to say "pardon" or "excusez-moi" for everyday blunders and save désolé for when they're truly sorry for something they did.

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Oh là là

First of all, it's not Ooh (là là) but Oh. In English this phrase has taken on a sexual innuendo, but that's not the case in French, where it's basically used for everything else. Here's a comprehensive guide on how to use these three little words.

Visiter / rendre visite

English-speakers need to be careful not to mix these two up. "Visiter" is for a place, such as a monument or a city, while "rendre visite" is used when talking about people. If you just say you're going to visiter someone, it can have a sexual connotation. 

Sacré bleu

English-speakers might whip out this phrase to express astonishment thinking it makes them sound oh-so-French, but in reality it's extremely out-dated and almost never used by French people these days, except perhaps in jest.

J'ai chaud

In English it would sound ridiculous to say "I have hot" as opposed to "I'm hot" on a sweltering day. But in French saying "Je suis chaud" could land you in trouble, as it actually translates to "I'm horny".

Bonjour

Bonjour seems like the simplest of French words -- a no-brainer, right? Au contraire. Foreigners too often get it wrong by not saying it at all (which some argue is the root cause of why French people are said to be so rude). Read this to make sure you actually know how and when to use the most important word in French

And don't say it twice to the same person in the same day. Say "re-bonjour" instead.

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Adieu

Say this to a French person and you're wishing them a final farewell, as in you'll never see them again. Just stick with au revoir to sound a bit less dramatic.  

Plus

This tricky little word consistently stumps French learners because it can mean two opposite things - either "more" or "none", depending on whether you pronounce the 's' or not (pronouncing the s means "more").

Putain

The greatest of French swear words is so ubiquitous that foreigners often overuse it and forget it's not meant to be used in polite company. Better safe than sorry with this one. 

Je suis plein(e)

"It's common to hear an Anglophone say after a good dinner: 'Ce dîner est excellent et maintenant, je suis plein(e),' French teacher at French a la Carte Florence Harang told The Local in a previous interview. "But Je suis plein(e) means "I am pregnant" (and is only actually used for animals, not humans). 

Saying J'ai bien mangé is far more appropriate for when you can't eat another forkful of Gallic grub.

C'est bon/c'est bien

Another couple of pesky phrases for French learners as we often confuse the two.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis, who runs the language learning website French Today told The Local in a previous interview: "For this one, the answer is simple: memorise an example that rhymes. C’est bon means yummy. So remember “c’est bon le jambon” - ham is yummy.

"C’est bien means approval, so 'c’est bien Julien' or Damien, or Félicien... pick a name you know!" 

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C'est pas terrible

English speakers can be forgiven for getting confused with the word terrible in French, as saying "c'est pas terrible" actually means something is terrible, rather than isn't, as you would think at first.

Je suis confus

"At the question 'Vous comprenez?' ('Do you understand?') some English speakers might answer: 'Non, je suis confus' " said Harang. "But in French this means "I am embarrassed", not confused. They should say instead: 'Ce n'est pas très clair pour moi.'"

By Katie Warren

Another version of this story was published in 2016

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