As of next month, I will have lived one full year in Geneva! I have made so much progress over the past year; I moved here with virtually no working knowledge of French, and now I am able to have very basic conversations with my teacher over Skype about racism and police violence in Switzerland.
Even though I am in French classes three days a week, I don’t usually have the opportunity to have lengthy French conversations in my everyday life. Rather, I find myself going back time and again to the same list of words and phrases for practical, everyday transactions. Here they are — 15 in total, along with the social contexts I’ve observed around each one.
1. Bonjour (and bonsoir)
Way to state the obvious, lol. While bonsoir technically means “good evening” and can be activated as soon as the sun goes down, it is perfectly acceptable to use bonjour at all hours of the day. You always want this to be the first word out of your mouth when you walk into a shop, cafe, or post office, followed by monsieur or madame. With friends, you can also use the less formal greetings of salut or coucou.
2. Merci, bon journée
This is the preferred way to end polite interactions, at least here in Geneva. Bon journée means “have a nice day.” When my neighbors run into me in the elevator, they will robotically mumble bonjour at the beginning and bon journée as they exit. For friends, a popular way to say goodbye is ciao ciao.
Ouais is French for “yeah,” a less formal version of oui. I love the way it sounds and in fact prefer using ouais so much that I sometimes forget to switch back to oui when talking to strangers!
4. C’est ça ? C’est ça.
This Q&A translates, respectively, to “Is that right?” and “That’s right.” This is generally used in a more casual setting.
5. Ça marche.
This is a simple way to say “works for me.”
Voilà has more nuances in French than it does in English. In English, it’s used as a verbal flourish, capping off an extravagant plan or meal that has just been laid out. In French, there are several different ways it can be used. There are three main contexts I’ve noticed:
A. Voilà (“here you go”) — server at a cafe, bringing the coffee you ordered
B. Voilà (“there you go”) — your coworker, affirming a point you just made
C. Voilà (“so yeah”) — pedestrian who has just stopped to answer a question from a reporter and is now awkwardly shrugging to indicate that they’ve finished speaking
7. Oh là là (là là)
An exclamation of surprise. When all four làs are deployed, the person is usually deeply dismayed. “Oh là là là là! I’ve left my wallet at home!”
In French class, students are usually taught to use très for “very,” but in real life I’ve noticed that people use vraiment (“truly”) much more often.
French for “OK.” But the English word OK also works.
10. Pardon / excusez-moi
While both phrases mean “excuse me,” the context is slightly different. Pardon is when you’re trying to squeeze your way off the bus and issuing a general apology to the bodies around you. Excusez-moi (plus monsieur or madame) is used to get the attention of specific people.
11. Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?
One of the most important phrases to know. “Do you speak English?”, or, to be more literal, “Is it that you speak English?” This is a more polite version than the one taught in French phrasebooks (Parlez-vous anglais ?) and is preferred in Switzerland, which places extra value on politeness.
12. Plus lentement, s’il vous plaît
“More slowly, please.” A lifesaver for people like me who suck at listening comprehension. I’ve heard someone who speaks French French say that plus doucement is better, but my teacher, who is Swiss, prefers lentement.
13. Je cherche…
“I’m looking for…” For when you walk into a store and the salesperson asks if they can help you find anything.
14. C’est pas grave
“It’s not important” or “it’s all right.” This is said to me whenever I fail to understand a question posed to me in French, and you can see the light literally leave the person’s eyes as they decide to give up and switch to a different topic.
15. Bon week-end !
“Have a nice weekend!”
One last note about learning French for Switzerland: get the numbers right. Instead of multiplying 20 by 4 and adding 10 and all sorts of nonsense, the Swiss use a system that actually makes sense. Seventy is septante. Eighty is huitante. Ninety is nonante. See how easy that was, France? DO BETTER! 😉