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23 things you don’t know about the French language until you live in France

There's learning French in the classroom and then there's what happens when you arrive in France.

23 things you don't know about the French language until you live in France
Photo: Faks87/flickr
When it comes to learning French you really have to be in the country to do it because they are many (many) things they just don't teach you in school.
Here are some essential tips to get you au fait with French in France from The Local and our friends at the Earful Tower Paris podcast.
1. French is often 'Un peu too much'
You'll notice that French people, particularly younger people who dwell in the capital, are always casually dropping English words into the middle of their sentences for seemingly no rhyme or reason (other than it's trendy at the moment).
One minute they'll be chattering away in their mother tongue and the next they'll be saying something's “un peu too much” (a bit too much) or something shocking might be described “completement what the fuck“.
In other words you've learned French and then you get over here and find that half their sentences are peppered with English, a trend particularly pronounced in the business and tech worlds.
Just because someone is doing this, however, don't assume that they speak English, any more than Del Boy was a fluent francophone.
2. Sometimes they go all Spanish
Admit it, were you ever left totally confused after listening to a conversation in French and hearing them use the word “si” instead of “oui“?
As you probably know the Spanish word for “yes” is “si” but the French also use it to say “yes” as well. (It also means “if” in French just to add to the confusion).
In French is is specifically used to answer “yes” to a negative question – Vous n'allez pas au travail aujourd'hui?” “Si, si, j'y vais” – You're not going to work today? Yes, I am going or when you don't agree with a negative statement someone has made. It's basically a way of contradicting someone.
Tu ne comprends rien!Si, si je comprends.
3. One word rules them all
Perhaps the first word we are ever taught in French is bonjour. But what they don't tell you is that bonjour isn't just a greeting, it's actually the most important word in the French language and if you use it correctly and frequently it will make life so much more pleasant for you in France.
It's likely to also help change that stereotype you had of impolite French people.
“You can never overdo it with bonjour,” says Julie Barlow author of the The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed.
“When you think you've said it too much, you're probably saying it just enough.”
4. But they often prefer kisses to goodbye
Perhaps the second word we are taught in French is Au Revoir which of course means goodbye, but you'll be surprised how little it is used in France, especially in informal situations.
Most people says Salut when they are saying goodbye but among friends you'll soon get used to saying bisous which basically means “kisses” (although actual kisses are obviously out at present).
Oh and that word you learned in school: Adieu – You can pretty much forget about it. 
5. You can say “Re-hello”

Well, rebonjour to be exact, as the Earful Tower points out. That’s when you see someone for the second time on the same day. You can even say rebonsoir if the same thing happens in the evening. Although it needs to be pointed out rebonjour is often said in a kind of jokey way with a smile on your face.

6. They don’t say “hon, hon, hon” when they laugh
For some reason (that we try to explain here) people think the French tend to make the sound “hon, hon, hon” when they laugh. But have you ever heard a French person laugh like this in real life? No, nor have we. They laugh just as everyone else does… by laughing.
Why do people think the French say 'hon hon hon' when they laugh?
7. But they do say “bon…. bon… bon” all the time
As the guys at the Earful Tower point out, you'll need to stock up on your “bons” when you come to France.

“Everyone knows the French say bonjour and bonsoir, bon appetit, and even bonne journée.

“But I had no idea they say so many other bons, which you should really know. Every day of the week can have a bon (bon dimanche = Have a good Sunday). You can say bonne dégustation, bonne continuation, bonnes vacances, bonne chance and of course bon courage!

“The list goes on and on forever. It remains unknown at this point if, when buying candy, the seller says bon bonbon, but they probably do.”

READ ALSO Bon bon – why everything is good when you're speaking French 

8. They have their own gestures like the “nose twist fist”
The French don't just communicate with words. The stereotype of the French being a nation of gesticulators is somewhat true.
But it’s not just that they love a good gesture it’s that until you are in the country of shrugs and shoulders you don’t realise that the French have their very own Gallic gestures for communicating.

9. They have the best sounding swear word
The chances are that if you've spent any time in France you've heard the word putain or Puuuuuuutaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiin!
Putain, is the most commonly-used swear word among French people (and among foreigners who've been here longer than three years.) But it's not one you'll learn at school. (You probably learnt merde meaning shit.)
Basically putain covers a whole range of emotions, from anger, to joy, fear to surprise.
An ode to the greatest French swear word
10. They have really, really strong regional accents
French text books and exam listening exercises do not prepare you for trying to understand a man from deepest darkest Provence or a woman from the land of the “Ch’tis” in northern France.
Let’s not even talk about the Quebecois, whom you’ll likely need an interpreter for.
You can live in your corner of France for years and speak fluent French, but be prepared to feel like a beginner when you venture into another region.
11. They have their own sounds
It really shouldn't be surprising given that they have their own language but when you hear for the first time the French versions of certain sounds, you'll be taken aback.
For example beurk means yuk and miam means yum. 
12. Cocorico!
And of course French animals also have their own sounds. French donkeys don't go “hee-haw” they go “hi-han” while cockerels shout cocorico!
13. They don’t say Sacre bleu
There seems to be rule among the Anglophone press that every story about France has to begin with the phrase Sacre bleu! See below for example.
Except you soon realise that no one actually says it in France and the same goes for Zut alors! (although people do say Zut).
In fact it’s not just the mythical swear words that the French don’t actually use. There are a whole bunch of expressions, words and phrases you learn in school (or from the television) that they rarely use including “Je m’appelle…” and “Voulez vous couchez avec moi!”
14. You're either a mec or a meuf
Every French guy under 40 refers to every other French guy under 40 as mec (pronounced meck) while younger women often call each other meuf.
It could be translated as dude or mate. If you want to fit in in France, start your conversations with guys with a salut mec – hi mate – and voilà, you fit in.
Meuf, which comes from the French backwards slang Verlan (it's femme backwards), is simply the female equivalent, although it tends to have a slighter younger profile than mec
15. They speak a backwards language
Over to the Earful Tower podcast for this one: “It’s called Verlan and it's essentially switching syllables in words around. Eg: Merci is Cimer.
“While this might sound like some kind of kids’ language, French people actually use it, provided they are under the age of 40. You may have used it without even knowing – the singer Stromae is Verlan for Maestro, the word Meuf comes from Femme (woman or girlfriend)… and the word Verlan itself… yep, it comes from L’envers (reverse).”
Verlan: France's backwards language you need to learn
16. Mademoiselle isn't always acceptable
You might find it strange when you realise that such a common word is a contentious issue in France, but it is.
Mademoiselle is considered by some as sexist because it separates married women from single ones when the same distinction isn't applied to men, while if you're using it to a woman over a certain age or in a professional setting it can come across as patronising.
This has led to the word being banned from French administrative forms with feminist groups saying they want it phased out altogether. 
There's a fuller explanation of the controversy here, but as a rule of thumb Madame is probably safer and unlikely to offend anyone.
17. Do you really know how to say Oui properly?
You'd be forgiven for thinking oui isn't one of the words you'll struggle with when you're in France. 
But once here, you'll be confronted with all kinds of variations from the clipped oui you're familiar with to a more casual sounding ouaaaaaaaaii (pronounced almost like waaaayyyy) which can vary in length. Naturally this can lead to some confusion for the foreigners in town.
And there's also the mysterious inhaled oui that many French women do that you should be prepared for. It might sound like “whhhoui” or “wheeee” (we have no idea how to spell it). Avoid trying to do it as you might swallow your chewing gum. But you can see how it's done in the video below.
18. There's a testicle in the soup
It would have been great at school if they'd taught us some of the fantastic expressions the French use, because there are lots and they use them frequently. 
They have expressions for sex, obviously and they have expressions for insulting people, equally obviously, and they have expressions that are just brilliant that they would never have taught you at school like 'There's a testicle in my soup' – Il y a un couille dans le potage – which is roughly equivalent to saying 'Houston, we have a problem'.
19. It's not Ooooh laa laa
The most famous three words in French Oh là là that we have pinched for English and changed to 'Ooooh la la' which is mostly used to describe something sexy aren't really used like that in French.
What you'll hear far more often is what sounds like “Or lorr lorr” as someone reacts to something they don't like or if they are shocked.
And the more shocked and horrified the more “lorr lorrs” you're likely to get.  
It can also be used positively in which case it is more like oh là là. For a more detailed explanation of the Oh là là conundrum click below.

Oh là là - How to really use the best three words in French

20. They have their own text speak
Once you settle in and make some French friends and inevitably starting messaging each other or checking out social media then you'll need to learn a whole new subset of terms.
MDR (LOL), MR6 (Merci), B1Sur (Bien sûr) are just a few of the abbreviated terms you can learn. But there are many more.
21. They have a load of shortened slang terms you can use
Chances are you'll hear the locals shorten many of the words you learned.
Comme d'habitude, D'accord and restaurant are more than shortened to comme d'hab, D'ac and resto. If you want to blend in then best learn them.
French slang shortcuts you'll need to blend in
22. Don't be afraid to speak up because they will love your accent

We all love the sound of French people speaking English, but what you don’t realise until you get here is that the feeling is mutual.

Forget about the idea you had of being afraid to speak French in case a moody person runs out of patience because you’ll be surprised how often you can make the heart of a stony-hearted Parisian melt just with your “tres mignon” accent when speaking French. 

23. Ouistiti!

The French don't say “cheese” when they are taking a photograph or even fromage for that matter. Officially they are meant to utter the word “ouistiti” which is also the name of a South American monkey.

Although many in France will deny people say “ouistiti” anymore”.

. . . and also

Once you've lived in France long enough and spent a lot of time speaking or reading French, something weird happens to your English and you start to think it's perfectly acceptable to talk about the Metro being perturbed or that a new rule will be precisioned tomorrow.

READ ALSO 9 'English' sentences that will only make sense if you live in France


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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.