20 Minutes to Perfect French: The Few Gestures and Noises You Need to Pass as Fluent While Understanding Nothing

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-09-13
PUBLISHED ON  2015-03-24

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Mose Hayward

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The world thinks it knows what a French person sounds like: a derisive laugh that somehow pulls phlegm through the nostrils, a sarcastic oh-la-la between pinched puffs of smoke…

But what do the French think the French sound like? And what can you say and do to pass as one of them?

As part of our Fluent in 20 Minutes series, we hereby present the few key gestures and noises that will allow you to maintain conversations and sound perfectly natural in French, whether or not you understand what’s being said.

The goal is to feign a high degree of cultural awareness by latching onto just a few essential French elements that are almost never taught in language classes, for some reason (academic snobbery? incompetence?). Foreigners can live in France for years before they discover some of these; use them right from the beginning and your experience is guaranteed to be much more interesting.

1. Filler Words

If you don’t know how to say something in French, or don’t have anything to say, don’t worry. The French are hardly saying anything most of the time anyway. Consider the following sentence:

Bon, bah, voilà quoi, à la limite, tu vois … eh bien donc, voyons alors.

Essentially, none of these words convey meaning, but you can use all or some of them when in a French conversation and a vocalization seems to be expected. Here’s a good audio recording of many of these.

2. Hide Your Enthusiasm with these Stock French Responses

Normally, our Fluent in 20 Minutes series encourages you to be as positive as possible when you’re speaking a language that you don’t speak. That rule doesn’t apply this time however; if you sound positive — or worse, enthusiastic — you definitely won’t sound French. Consider the following:

The phrases above should be memorized and can be employed in response to just about any situation in France.

3. Nouns

Your two animate nouns for speaking minimalist French are: mec (guy), and meuf (woman, gal). The last item, meuf, is an example of Verlan, a set of French slang words formed through inversion (in this case, from the word femme).1

Your one inanimate noun is: truc (thing). See this guide if you are planning on communicating with the inanimate French.

These three, plus pointing, are really the only nouns you need.

4. Showing Affection

The French don’t use the word chouchou (darling) all that much, but I do, and recommend employing it liberally with lovers, friends, shopkeepers and administrative functionaries, to offset the frigid evil and seriousness of life in France.

If you want to sound even cuter, you can extend it to chouchou d’amour (love-muffin).

5. Never Say “Voulez-vous

couchez avec moi.” Please. The phrase is trite, and barely qualifies as French. Vocalizing your interest in romantic exertion is not recommended at all, in fact (as per our one rule for getting lovely French men and women into the sack).

But, if you absolutely must say something, whisper on va baiser ? (we’re going to fuck?) or, even better, declare on va faire l’amour ! (we’re going to make love).

The later is liberally used by the French, often for situations in which we Anglos might not employ the words “making love”. It would not be unusual, for example, to hear Parisian street fucking referred to as “faire l’amour sur la rue“.

6. Toasting

Bellow “santé !” For a more formal occasion, you may say “chin-chin“.

7. Liking

As suggested above, it’s not wise to express much positivity if you’re trying to sound French, but the verb kiffer is so lovely that it merits inclusion here. Use it instead of the aimer that you were taught in French class, and reinforce it with grave. For example:

Je kiffe grave son mari. — I’m very attracted to his/her husband.

Je kiffe grave ce pain au chocolat. — I absolutely love this chocolate croissant.

Kiffer is informal and rather Parisian; Francophones from other lands sometimes don’t understand it.

8. Putain !

Putain (lit. whore) is a filler word and also a general swear word; the French use it in situations when we would say “fuck”. Like “fuck”, it can mean all kinds of things depending on intonation and situation, so employ frequently if you don’t have a wide vocabulary yet in French.

It is a swear word, so the obvious caveats apply. Note, however, that the French are not (quite) as uptight as English speakers about the situations in which swearing is employed — and it is much more broadly expected among all social classes.

9. The French Pout

The French pout, a.k.a. faire la moue, as demonstrated by Dimitri Maynard.
The French pout, a.k.a. faire la moue, as demonstrated by Dimitri Maynard.

Known as “faire la moue”, this most French of French gestures is, of course, a way to express disdain or doubt about something.

There are of course dozens of other gestures that are typically, ridiculously French. For intermediate to advanced French gesturing see this video.

10. Mouth Noises

Yes, the French do actually say oh-la-la, although generally not to express sexual arousal, as many Anglos think. It’s for disgust and disappointment, of course. Other typical French noises are the tsk and the raspberry.

In the video below (from 0:36), these girls demonstrate this French mouth silliness very well. The title card in the video suggests that the sounds are to express agreement, but that’s only true because the first girl is showing agreement with the disgust of the second — all of these sounds are mainly used to express disdain.

The scene a staged for humorous effect, but is only a slight exaggeration, and is an excellent learning guide.

If you feel that I’ve missed anything essential for speaking fluent French with 20 minutes of study, t’es con, but go ahead anyway and add your thoughts in the comments.

  1. There is also a Verlan version of mec (keum), but it sounds rather dated, and we try to stay current around here. ↩︎

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