French in 10 phrases or fewer

Learning a second language is endlessly challenging, and if you stick to textbooks, you’ll never learn how people speak it in real life. Lucky for you, I’ve been in France for nine months now, taking notes, so I present to you…drumroll please…

EJ’s guide to speaking French like a native in 10 phrases or fewer

  1. “Buhh” This is a filler word along the lines of “um.” The key to this one is in the facial expression: eyes wide, mouth stretched wide into a bit of a frown.
  2. “du coup” Expresses consequence, but is used more liberally than we use “and so.”
  3. “par contre” Expresses contrast, but to a lesser extent than “au contraire.” It’s along the lines of how we say “oh but” or “on the other hand,” or how (as my loyal readers may have noticed) I frequently write “Oh but wait.”
  4. “a priori” Note that this is not even French, but Latin. I can’t even use it in a sentence if I try, but they use it all the time.
  5. “en fait” This means “in fact,” but it’s used as filler, almost how we use “like.” You might say for instance, “In fact I am hungry du coup I am going to the store because in fact I am out of food du coup I have to buy many groceries in fact.”
  6. “RIB” This is not a rib from your body, though it may as well be, considering its significance to your life in France and the consequences you will incur if you do not have one. The relevé d’identité bancaire is proof of your bank account. You can print one from your online account or at the ATM. It doesn’t accomplish anything that a void check can’t accomplish, yet you are demanded to furnish them at least once per week, any time you give someone any other paperwork.
  7. “Op!” They say this as they complete tasks. Step 1, “Op!” Step 2, “Op!” Sometimes they supersize it to “Op là!” which basically means “Uff da.”
  8. “Vous n’avez pas de pièces?” In France, especially in Paris, you are always expected to have exact change. I always feel like saying, “No, I don’t have exact change, but I’ll bet you do in that cash drawer you’re sitting at.” (Yes, cashiers are seated in France.) I usually preempt this exchange by handing them some coin along with a bill, even if it doesn’t correspond to the sum whatsoever. It placates them, and I’ve found it’s better to placate French cashiers than to make a point.
  9. “Veuillez nous excuser.” French authorities do not apologize because nothing is ever their fault because no self-respecting Frenchman ever takes responsibility for anything but a well-chosen wine. So if, for example, your train is late, the conductor, who is of course absolutely not responsible—the fault lies upon someone far away you can’t yell at—he does not say, “We’re sorry for the inconvenience.” He says, “Please excuse us.” The difference, to me, is significant: in the phrase “We’re sorry,” speaker does the action of apologizing. In the phrase “Veuillez nous excuser,” the speaker commands you to do the action of excusing. Veuillez, I should note, is a form of the verb “vouloir,” which means “to want.” They might as well be saying, “You know you want to excuse me, bee-otch!” Way back in French I or II, we were taught that “Je suis désolé(e)” means “I’m sorry,” but I’ve never actually heard that here.

But if you learn only one sentence in French, it shouldn’t be “Hello” or “How are you?” or even “How do I get back to a place where they speak English?”, it should be this:


While this phrase translates to “It is not possible,” what it usually means is “I cannot be bothered to do whatever it is you have requested even though it is my job to do so,” or “I am too lazy to stand up to Our Lady of Infinite Administration,” and sometimes, “You’re making me uncomfortable but I am too passive aggressive to ask you to stop.”

Want to establish a bank account without providing legal of proof of your parents’ address because you haven’t lived with them for the past five years? Ce n’est pas possible!
Want the social security card to which you have a legal right as a government employee so that you can afford to go to the doctor? Ce n’est pas possible!
Want to talk to customer service? Ce n’est pas possible!
Want a full refund for the train ticket a surly employee wouldn’t print for you even though he absolutely could have? Ce n’est pas possible!
Want the internet that you pay for to work? Ce n’est pas possible!
Want your landlord to fix your electricity? Ce n’est pas possible!
Want to sunbathe in your own yard? Ce n’est pas possible!

En fait, I heard that phrase so many times this year that du coup, it inspired the title for the memoir I may eventually publish about this year. Keep an eye out for future bestseller Nothing is Possible: My Year in France.*

*(c) Emily Joan Smith, 2011


2 responses to “French in 10 phrases or fewer

  1. Oui Oui Oui! You must make a memoir Emilie. I was hoping you were considering that, especially because I’ve read a mere fraction of your entries and would love to have them to read on my bedside table instead of remembering to turn on my computer.

    I think I am going to incorporate “Op!” into my daily routine because I simply love checking things off I accomplish and exclaiming.

    Have a splendid time with your family in London! Hugs to all,

  2. I have frequently read your blog, it’s very amusing and this particular article made my mother proper LOL. You should take this as a great compliment as not only is she a french teacher but is actually French and has no doubt gone through the same paperwork hell that you have for the past year. Only she went through it for about 20 years, four of which were spent in Paris which as you well know not much is “possible”! I hope you enjoyed the year none the less, luckily me being a european I don’t think I had to endure as much as you, but I do sympathise and my mother REALLY AGREES with pretty much everything.


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