We all have memories of our high school foreign language classes and the expressions that our teacher taught us are indispensable if we ever plan to travel. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to do so have probably gotten at least one strange look when testing out these expressions on real natives. The French phrases we learn in the classroom are sometimes outdated, sometimes only used in certain regions or by certain populations, and sometimes they just come out wrong! Some of these phrases might make you seem like a charming or naive tourist… But if used in the wrong context or with the wrong people, you could even get yourself into trouble! In any case, here are 6 French words and expressions that you should definitely leave at home. Plus, we’ll provide suggestions to replace them with that will make you sound less like a foreigner.
French Phrases: Which to Learn and Which to Forget
“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir ?”
Made famous by the popular Labelle song, “Lady Marmelade,” this is one of the most well-known French phrases. But most of them probably don’t even know what it means: “do you want to sleep with me tonight?” It’s a bit racy, and very awkward if you say it to just anyone! And now that you do know what it means and are thinking of using it as a pick-up line, know that it isn’t very polite to say to someone you have just met (although it does use the formal “you”).
What to say instead: “Puis-je vous offrir un verre?” or “Je peux t’offrir un verre?”
This is a much more classy (not to mention less overt) way to find out if someone is interested. It’s a good way to strike up a conversation that could lead to more – offer to buy them a drink and get to know them better. You’ll earn bonus points because you won’t be tempted to sing the line, either.
“Comme ci, comme ça”
This one isn’t rude or in any way sexual, it just isn’t used very often anymore. In French class, when asked “Comment vas-tu ?” we were all trained to respond, “Ça va bien,” if we are well, or “Comme ci, comme ça,” if things aren’t going great. Since I arrived in France over 3 years ago, I can honestly say that I’ve heard actual French people say this only about as many times. Do yourself a favor and learn some more recent phrases to express yourself if you aren’t feeling 100%.
What to say instead: “Kif kif” or “Bof” or “Ça peut aller” or “Pas mal”
“Kif kif,” deriving from Arabic, means the same thing as “comme ci comme ça” but is less antiquated: so-so. “Bof” is the French equivalent of the sound “meh” in English, meaning that things could be better. “Ça peut aller” is essentially a nice way of saying “no,” things aren’t okay but you will be fine. And finally, “pas mal” just means “not bad.” Take your pick of these French phrases depending on your mood!
Especially in France, where waiters don’t come over to check on each table every five minutes like they do in the States, you may need to flag your waiter down if you need something. You may have seen this expression in an old French movie, or even in an outdated textbook, as a way to get your waiter’s attention. While it may have been acceptable in the past, yelling this out if you need more water is a definite “don’t” these days.
What to say instead: “Excusez-moi” or a smile and discreet wave
Just like in English-speaking countries, a polite “Excuse me?” or a simple (friendly, of course!) hand gesture will do the trick, and your waiter will come over to your table when they are free. This also works when you need the check (“L’addition, s’il vous plaît”) as some cafés and restaurants don’t bring it automatically so as not to rush their customers.
This is not necessarily a French phrase that should not be used, but just one that needs some explaining. English speakers tend to think that a “rendez-vous” is strictly for romantic meetings, which is not the case. If your French doctor asks when you’d like to set up your next “rendez-vous,” don’t make the mistake of assuming he is hitting on you! He is likely just asking when you can come in for your next appointment. This is a word that can be used for any type of meeting. You’ll need to use context clues to decide for yourself what is intended.
What to say instead: “Rendez-vous amoureux” or “rencard”
If you want to ask someone on a date, use one of these two words. This way you’re sure to specify that you are interested in something romantic to avoid any awkward misunderstandings. Check out these tips for dating French men and women.
“Je suis fini” / “je suis chaud”
While these two phrases are correct French, they probably don’t mean what you think they do. Be very careful with the use of the auxiliary verbs “être” and “avoir.” If you get them wrong, you’ll end up saying things like “I am dead” and “I am horny” when you really mean “I am finished” and “I am hot”! Avoid embarrassing situations by learning to use these correctly.
What to say instead: “J’ai fini” and “j’ai chaud”
We know what you really meant. 😉
“Zut alors !”
This becomes one of many French learners’s favorite French phrases. But if you use it in France, you’ll probably stick out like a sore thumb. Another outdated expression, young people today seem to use anything but this one to express disappointment.
What to say instead: There are plenty of creative and trendy alternatives to this
phrase (ranging from very mild to quite vulgar).
Your best bet is to ask a French person what they would naturally say. Or, go to a bar during a soccer game when the home team is losing. If you keep an ear out, you’re sure to pick up loads of new obscenities. 😉
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