Ten key French phrases that will make you sound like a local

These 10 expressions will help you add the native touch to your spoken French skills.

Ten key French phrases that will make you sound like a local
Photo: spaxiax/Depositphotos
When it comes to having a chat in another language learning formal vocabulary and grammar rules will only get you so far. At a certain point you'd like to think you could pass for a native. 
The following examples are all commonly used in everyday conversations in French and the more you use them the more natural your language will start to sound.
Why do I need to know tiens?
Tiens is said all the time in French, particularly when someone is serving you food and drink, and while in certain situations it can be easy to guess what people mean when they say it, that isn't always the case. 
So, what does tiens mean?
One of the meanings of tiens is 'here you go' or 'there you go'. For example: Tu me pretes un stylo? – Tiens — Can I borrow a pen? – Here you go.
You'll hear this use of tiens, along with the plural form tenez, very frequently in places like cafes and bars as the server hands you your order. 
The plural form works in exactly the same way: Tenez, je vous ai acheté des fraises – 'Here, I bought you some strawberries.'
However tiens can also be used to indicate surprise. 
In this situation it would be the equivalent of someone saying 'damn', 'blast', 'well' or else 'darn' or shoot' in American English. 
For example, Tiens, je me suis encore trompé! (Damn, I got it wrong again!).
On top of that it can also be used to draw attention to something. 
So, for example, if you hear someone say Tiens, prends ce vase et pose-le là-bas. (Hey, take this vase and put it over there). 
All uses of tiens are very colloquial so it's important to avoid using it when you're in a formal environment. 


Why do I need to know carrément?
The nifty French word regularly crops up in conversation, often on its own as a reaction to something.
Once you know what it means, carrément is one of those colloquial French word you'll start using all time because it's so handy and it will effortlessly make you sound native.
So, what does carrément mean?
Carrément is an adverb that can loosely be translated into English as 'really', 'completely' or 'absolutely'. It can be used in a sentence or on its own, as it often is, often emphatically.
For example: 
Il est carrément fou! — 'He's completely mad!'
Elles vont carrément faire ca? — 'Are they really going to do that?'
Tu vas vraiment l'inviter a ta fête? – Carrément! — 'Are you really going to invite her to your party? Absolutely!'
It also means 'squarely' but you won't hear carrément used in this way nearly as often.
Where does it come from? 
The word is thought to have first appeared in French in the 13th century. 
In French a carré is a square and although carrément doesn't really have anything to do with this geometric shape, it is probably loosely related in the sense of square being a bold, solid shape.
Other than that, in French, if someone is described as being carré, this can also mean 'straightforward' or 'no-nonsense'. It's not hard to imagine how all these words derived from the word square.
More examples:
Il fait carrément chaud! — 'It's really hot!'
Allez, vas-y carrément! — 'Come on, just go for it!'
Les manifestants ont carrément defié la police. — 'The protesters completely defied the police.'

C'est ça

Why do I need to know c'est ça?
C'est ça (pronounced ‘say sah') is one of those phrases you hear all the time without even realising it – probably because it's useful in lots of different situations.
What does it mean?
Literally translated as ‘it's that', c'est ça is most often used as a sort of confirmation, the way English speakers will say ‘exactly', ‘that's it', or ‘that's right'.
For example, Laquelle est ta voiture, la verte ? – Oui, c'est ça. (Which one's your car, the green one? – Yes, that's right.) or Je suis sûr que c'est ça ! (I'm sure that that's it!)
C'est ça can also be used to identify an element of particular importance, like ‘That's the… (problem, thing, etc.)':
You could say, C'est ça le problème, ils l'ont jamais connu. (That's the problem, they never met him.)
Tack a question mark at the end, and c'est ça becomes a search for confirmation, like ‘right?' or ‘is that it?'
Tu t'appelles Guillaume, c'est ça ? – ‘Your name is Guillaume, right?'
Be careful, though. The French frequently use c'est ça with a good dose of sarcasm, like an anglophone would say, ‘yeah, right'.
Elle ne m'aime pas parce qu'elle est jalouse ! – Ouais, c'est ça… (She doesn't like me because she's jealous! – Yeah, right…)
Or, Vous étiez là toute la soirée, mais vous n'avez rien vu, rien entendu, c'est ça (You were there all night, but you didn't see anything or hear anything, right?). 
Often, a oui is added before or after c'est ça, or the ça is transformed into a cela (which means the same thing but adds a little emphasis):
Et tu n'es pas venu parce que tu avais peur ? – Oui, oui, c'est cela ! (And you didn't come because you were afraid? – Yes, yes, exactly!)
Que dalle! 

Why do I need to know que dalle?
You'll hear it all the time and unless you know what it means, it could be very confusing as the expression has nothing to do with the French word dalle meaning 'slab' (as in a slab of stone).
But once you know what que dalle means, you'll find using it very straightforward and it's an easy way to make your spoken French sound native.
What does it mean?
Que dalle is a French noun meaning 'nothing', 'very little' or 'not very much'. You can use it literally to mean 'nothing' or 'none', or in a more figurative way to mean a very small amount of something as in 'pittance' or 'peanuts'.
For example:
Qu'est-ce que tu as fais ce weekend? Que dalle. – 'What did you do this weekend? Nothing.'
Quelles sont tes perspectives de boulot? Que dalle. – 'What are your job prospects? I have none.'
Combien as couté ton repas? Que dalle. – 'How much did your meal cost? Peanuts.'
Where does it come from?
Que dalle has interesting origins. The expression is widely thought to come Romani (the language spoken by Roma people) word 'dail' meaning nothing at all.
Surprisingly, a few dozen Romani words have weaved their way into French slang, but out of them all, que dalle is by far the most commonly used. 
Some more examples:
Ton travail est bien payé? Non, que dalle – 'Is your work well paid? No, it pays very little.'
J'ai compris que dalle à son discours! – 'I didn't understand anything about his speech!'
Elles s'attendaient à un gros changement, mais finalement, il n'y a eu que dalle.  – 'They were expecting a big change, but in the end, nothing happened.'
Why do I need to know si?
Si will demonstrate that you know the nuances of the many different ways to say ‘yes' in French.
What does it mean?
Si is one of the many ways to say ‘yes', along with the ever reliable oui and its more casual cousins ouais and mouais, the latter being used when you have a hint of hesitancy about whatever you are agreeing to.
Si, however, is used in a very specific situation, when you are contradicting someone who has made a negative statement. The appropriate facial expression to adopt when using si is an indignant one.
Si can also be used to reply to a negative question with a “yes!” in the same emphatic and challenging way.
Remember: si is used when stressing the opposite of what the other person is saying, if their comment or question is negative. If they were making a positive statement and you wanted to contradict them, use non instead. 
One word of warning. Si also means ‘if' in French. So context is crucial.
How is it pronounced?
Exactly the same as the Spanish or Italian si, or the English see or even sea. 
Tu n'aimes pas le chocolat, n'est-ce pas? – Mais, bien sûr que si! J'adore ça! — ‘You don't like chocolate, right?' ‘But, of course I do! I love it!'
Tu étais paresseux aujourd'hui et tu n'as pas travaillé? — Si! J'ai travaillé! — ‘You were lazy today and didn't work?' ‘Yes! I worked!'

Pas de souci

Why do I need to know pas de souci?
Pas de souci will show French people you are not an ill-mannered foreigner and that you understand the basic rules of politeness.
What does it mean?
Pas de souci is the French equivalent of saying ‘no problem', ‘not a bother' or ‘don't worry'.
It is used as an informal response to merci when you do someone a favour or help them. It can be used when you open a door for someone and they, hopefully, say thank you. Or when you give someone directions and they express gratitude for not spending another hour lost in Paris's meandering streets. Or if your friend announces he has forgotten his wallet and you offer to treat him to lunch.
Souci literally translates as 'worry', so the whole phrase means ‘without worry'. You could also use pas de problème or tout va bien.
How is it pronounced?
This sounds almost exactly as it is written, although the s is silent in pas.
Here's a handy audio file to help you learn.
Mon dieu ! J'ai oublié mon portefeuille. – Pas de souci — ‘My God! I have forgotten my wallet.' ‘Don't worry.'
Je suis désolé d'être en retard, merci d'avoir attendu. – Pas de souci — ‘I'm sorry I am so late, thank you for waiting.' – ‘Not a bother'.


Why do I need to know hein?
French speakers pepper informal conversation with hein all the time. It's one of those words that no one teaches in school, but will make you sound a lot more natural when you talk. 
What does it mean?
Hein is an interjection which is used to pose a question or seek confirmation. It is usually found at the end of a phrase, but also sometimes at the beginning or on its own, and serves a number of different purposes. 
Hein?, when it's on its own or at the beginning of a phrase, is very similar to the English ‘huh?' or ‘what?', used to indicate that the speaker has not understood something and would like it to be repeated. As in, Hein? Qu'est-ce que tu as dit? – ‘Huh? What did you say?'
And just like ‘what?', hein? used in this way can also indicate the surprise of the speaker, rather than that they have not heard what the person they are talking with has said: Hein? Tu as déjà fini? – ‘What? You already finished?'
It can also be used to insist on a response, even when the speaker may already suspect that they know the answer: Pourquoi est-ce que vous êtes en retard, hein? Vous êtes réveillé tard ? – ‘Why are you late, huh? Did you wake up late?'
Or to simply solicit the agreement of the listener, like ‘eh?' or ‘right?', especially at the end of the phrase. For example, Ce n'est pas si facile que ça, hein? – ‘It's not so easy, right?'
Finally, hein can be used at the end of a phrase to emphasize what has just been said, as in Laissez-moi tranquille, hein! – Let me be, ok? (In this case, no question is actually being asked).
However hein is used, it's usually in an informal context, and is the kind of filler word you want to avoid in presentations at work or school.
How is it pronounced?
While written as hein, remember that the h is silent and the n is not actually an ‘n', but signals the presence of a nasal vowel.
For those familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, hein is written as ɛ̃. For those who are not, the closest way to write it in English would probably be ‘uh?', but rather than drawing the ‘u' out, cut it short and hold your nose while you say it. Or better yet, watch the YouTube video below and hear a French person say it at least 15 times…
How do I use hein?
Still not sure how to use hein ? This video gives plenty of examples, explained by an actual Frenchman.
Why do I need to know kif-kif?
This informal phrase will help you out when comparing multiple things that are more or less the same, or when you want to make someone believe that that's the case.
What does it mean?
Kif-kif means ‘it's all the same', ‘it's equal', or ‘it makes no difference'. This phrase is usually used in informal scenarios to compare two options that are so similar that they are virtually equal. 
For example, Si je prends le métro ou le bus, c'est kif-kif, ça va durer une demi-heure (Whether I take the metro or the bus, it's all the same, it's going to take half an hour).
It can also be used to indicate that two parties have contributed equally to something, especially expenses: Tu as payé le dîner ? Non, on a payé kif-kif. (Did you pay for dinner? No, we split the bill).
In this case, the term moite-moite or moitié-moitié (half and half) can also be used.
According to some sources, the expression kif-kif comes from the Arabic expression 'kïf kïf', meaning ‘exactly the same', a repetition of the word kïf (كيف), meaning ‘how' in the interrogative and ‘like' in the affirmative.
French colonial soldiers brought it back to mainland France in the mid-19th century, and it can be found in literature from as early as 1867. So while kif-kif is informal, it is well established in the French language.
How do I use kif-kif?
Here are a few more examples:
Le Ricard ou le pastis 51, c'est kif-kif. – ‘The Ricard or the 51 (two brands of pastis), it's the same thing.'
J'ai payé les billets et tu as payé le transport, c'est kif-kif. – I payed for the tickets and you payed for transport, we're even. 
There are a number of variations of kif-kif, notably kif-kif bourricot and kif-kif la bourrique, which don't change the meaning, but do add a little bit of rhetorical pizzaz. 
Also similar are bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet and c'est du pareil au même, both of which are used to indicate that two seemingly different options are in fact the same, as in politics.
For example, Que gagnent la gauche ou la droite, c'est du pareil au même! – ‘Whether the Left or the Right wins, it's all the same!'
Why do I need to know chouette?
It's a very useful word you can use to describe something that you like or you think is nice or cool. But it's also the name for a big-eyed nocturnal bird.
What does it mean?
As a noun, chouette is the word for 'owl' in French. There's la chouette effraie, the barn owl, and la chouette lapone, the great grey owl.
However, you're much more likely to hear chouette being used in conversation as an adjective to describe something or someone that's 'great', 'nice' or 'pleasant'.
So on a passé une chouette soirée means 'we had a pleasant evening', and tu portes une choutte chapeau means 'you are wearing a nice hat'.
For a person you might say, il est un chouette garcon (he's a nice/friendly kid).
Chouette also has a very common usage as an interjection to express satisfaction about something: Chouette! Mon colis est arrivé! (Great! My package has arrived!)
Then there are other expressions that include the word chouette, such as Machin chouette, which you use to refer to someone whose name you can't remember, in the same way as you 'thingummy' or 'thingamabob' in English.
And perhaps the most pejorative usage of chouette but one that may come in handy occasionally is using it to describe a grumpy old lady or hag, une vieille chouette
It's also worth noting that chouette is an informal word that you're more likely to use in conversation with friends than in a business meeting. 
Chouette is a bit like saying ‘neat' or ‘swell' in American English or ‘ace' in British English.
If you're looking for alternatives you can say c'est super! or cést genial! to describe a situation or outcome you're happy about.
If you want to describe a chouette person you can call them sympa instead, or for an object joli/e
Chouette as an expression to celebrate something good does derive from the French word for owl.
It first appeared in France around the Middle Ages, as the now lost verb choeter, which meant to be/act trendy or smart.
French Renaissance writer François Rabelais was among the first people to use it in writing when describing his wife as une belle petite chouette, showcasing how people associated the nocturnal birds of prey with being elegant and clean.
Il n'y a pas de quoi
Why do I need to know il n'y a pas de quoi?
If you're looking for a polite but relaxed response to merci or excusez-moi, this handy little phrase should do the trick.
What does it mean?
Il n'y a pas de quoi can be translated most directly as ‘there's no reason to', and can be completed with the verb corresponding to the thing there's no reason to do. For example:
Il n'y a pas de quoi s'inquiéter.
‘There's nothing to worry about.'
Il n'y a pas de quoi avoir honte.
‘There's nothing to be embarrassed about.'
But this phrase is actually most often used on its own as a friendly response to apologies or expressions of gratitude, similar to the way anglophones might say ‘don't mention it', ‘it was nothing', or ‘no worries'. As in,
Merci mille fois ! Il n'y a pas de quoi.
'Thanks a million! Don't mention it.'
Je suis vraiment très désolé… T'inquiète, il n'y a pas de quoi.
‘I'm really very sorry… Don't worry, it's no big deal.'
How is it pronounced?
Il n'y a pas de quoi (‘ill knee ah pah duh kwah') is somewhat of a mouthful for a simple polite response, so it often gets shortened with the habitual dropping of the ne, Il y a pas de quoi (‘Eel yah pah duh kwah'), then the il – Y'a pas de quoi (‘Yah pah duh kwah')- or the truncation of the entire first part of the phrase, leaving you with just pas de quoi (‘pah duh kwah').
The more you shorten the phrase, of course, the more informal it becomes.
Alternatives and variations
For ‘thank you', other polite responses include de rien (‘you're welcome', less formal), je vous en prie (‘you're welcome', more formal), or avec plaisir (‘my pleasure').
Apologies can also be dismissed with ce n'est pas grave (‘it's no big deal') or pas de souci (‘no worries').
Finally, this column wouldn't be complete without mentioning the variation il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat, which literally means ‘There's no reason to flog a cat', but is used like ‘there's nothing to get worked up about' or ‘there's no need to get your knickers in a twist' would be in English.
Ne t'énerve pas, il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat.
‘Don't get angry, it's nothing to get worked up about.'

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French Expression of the Day: La montagne qui accouche d’une souris

This phrase might sound anatomically impossible, but it happens more often than you'd realise.

French Expression of the Day: La montagne qui accouche d'une souris

Why do I need to know la montagne qui accouche d’une souris?

Because this is a fun way to add in French fables to everyday conversation.

What does it mean?

La montagne qui accouche d’une souris – roughly pronounced lah mon-tahn-ya key ah-coosh doon sohr-ees –  translates precisely to “the mountain who gives birth to the mouse.” 

The expression does not literally have to do with mountains and mice – instead it comes from French folklore, and refers to obtaining mediocre or ridiculous results after embarking on an ambitious project. In English you might say it’s a let down, or perhaps a somewhat similar phrase might be ‘all mouth and no trousers.’

Dating back to the 17th century, la montagne qui accouche d’une souris was made famous by Jean de la Fontaine, a fable-writer and poet. In the fable “La montagne qui accouche” (The mountain who gives birth) everyone is expecting that the mountain will give birth to a city ‘larger than Paris’ and are subsequently shocked when it births a small mouse. 

It is meant to be a metaphor for expecting a lot and then obtaining something small or insignificant. You might see this phrase used as a critique for a policy or plan that was meant to create lots of change, but in reality has had little impact.

Use it like this

Ils se sont vantés que le nouveau programme social aiderait des millions de personnes, mais presque personne ne le connaît ou n’a été aidé par lui. Est-ce la montagne qui accouche d’une souris? – They boasted that the new social program would help millions of people, but hardly anyone knows about it or has been helped by it. Is this a case of all mouth and no trousers.

C’est la montagne qui accouche d’une souris lorsque seulement cinq personnes se sont présentées à la fête alors qu’il devait y en avoir cinq cents. – The party was a massive let-down when only five people showed up when there were meant to be five hundred.