How to sound French: forget the clichés!

MyFrenchLife™ – - How to sound French - what not to say - French cafe

For me, the holy grail of learning French is to actually ‘sound French’. Back home, I would always say ‘Bon appétit!’ before beginning a meal. I would watch Hollywood classics where the suave French gentleman often murmured, “Enchanté,” as he plants a baise main on the hand of a beautiful woman.

MyFrenchLife™ – - How to sound French - what not to say - Kiss hand

So, when I moved to France, I thought I was already on my way to sounding French, n’est-ce pas?

Well, from what I’ve learned living in Paris, if you want to sound French, you must absolutely, positively NOT say these phrases which are all too familiar to many of us.

Importantly, help is on the way.

I have some tips, so take note!

“You are all Parisians now.”

A couple of years ago, I attended the Cours de Civilisation Francaise de la Sorbonne, the renowned course that boasts famous graduates, including the 18-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier, years before she became First Lady of the USA, Jackie Kennedy.

MyFrenchLife™ – - How to sound French - what not to say - la Sorbonne

The first day of class, someone asked the professor how long it takes to truly sound French and become Parisian. She answered, “You are all Parisians now.”

When we expressed doubt, she said,

Even if you’re here a few weeks, or a few months studying our language and culture, you live here in Paris. Well, then, you’re Parisians. And I promise you will sound French.

To sound French was my goal at the Sorbonne and it still is. Of course, one of the best ways to do this is to meet French people and pay attention to their vocabulary and accent.

Springtime last year, I was sitting in a café in the Tuileries Gardens not far from my apartment when a French friend phoned me. After chatting a few moments, I ended the call. An older gentleman sitting nearby asked me in French, “Excuse me, I can’t figure out your accent. Are you French?”

MyFrenchLife™ – - How to sound French - what not to say - Café Tuileries

He looked puzzled when I answered, “Thank you! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!

I thanked him because it’s a reussite, a feeling of success. However, to really sound French, I have to keep practising and learning all the time.

To avoid that “Ooops, I shouldn’t have said that,” or “Ooops, I should have said that instead,” here are a few of my insider tips.

3 things to avoid to sound French

1. Bon appétit!

It’s unappetizing to French people to hear that!

My best friend cringed the first time I said this. He explained that French people think it’s a cliché and only waiters say it. I was stunned because I say it frequently. When I told him Anglo speakers use it all the time and that a popular cooking magazine is called ‘bon appétit‘, he burst out laughing.

MyFrenchLife™ – - How to sound French - what not to say - waiter

Instead, he told me to say “Bon app!” ­ it’s a jokey way of saying the same thing, but way more cool. The problem is that by saying “Bon appétit” implies that you need a good appetite to eat the meal which is not necessarily a compliment to the chef, your host!

2. Enchanté

This is another sophisticated sounding word. But apparently, it’s considered old-fashioned and ‘has-been’ as a French tutor once told me. When introduced to someone for the first time, she admonished me, “instead say a simple, ‘bonjour’ if it’s daytime or ‘bonsoir’ if it’s at night.”

3. Ahh-choo!

MyFrenchLife™ – - How to sound French - what not to say - sneezeIf a French person sneezes, the polite thing to say is… nothing.

The French consider it a private, involuntary act that should go unnoticed, kind of like a burp or any other physical sound that emanates from the human body.

After a sneeze, in our culture, it’s considered polite to immediately say, “bless you,” which comes from the superstition that your soul may be in mortal danger from evil spirits.

If you must say something to a French person, murmur, “Á vos souhaits,” but very very discreetly.

So, ‘bon app!’ as you tuck your napkin under your chin, and very nice to meet you but I’m not enchanted, and if you just sneezed I absolutely didn’t notice.

What tips or phrases have you learned (or learned to avoid) in order to sound French? Share them with us in the comments below so we can all improve!

Image credits:
1. ‘French café’ by Caribb, via Flickr
2. ‘Baisemain’ via Wikipedia
3. ‘La Sorbonne’ by BrownieJayWhite, via Wikimedia Commons
4. ‘Café de Pomone in the Tuileries’ by Chad and Steph, via Wikimedia Commons
5. French waiter by Paul Rysz, via Flickr
6. Sneezing woman by sid, via Flickr

About the Contributor

Debra Finerman

I'm an American, an ex-pat, a journalist, a published author (including a historical novel set in France), a mother, a traveler, an adventurer, a lover and a lover of the French way of life currently living in Paris.

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  1. Keith Van Sickle Apr 29, 2017 at 5:01 PM - Reply

    There are regional differences in France. While “bon appétit” and “enchanté” are old-fashioned in Paris, they are still common in the South of France, where I live. But even here, there are people who find “bon appétit” dated.
    By contrast, when I lived in French-speaking Switzerland, “bon appétit” and “enchanté” were always, always used. As was “santé” when someone sneezed. The Swiss love their rules!

    • Debra Finerman Apr 29, 2017 at 5:41 PM - Reply

      Thanks, Keith! Good point, different regions in France do have different habits, accents and even demeanors. And the Swiss, even more different. Is it true that in France, people kiss once on each cheek. But the Swiss always kiss three times?

      • Keith Van Sickle Apr 29, 2017 at 7:44 PM - Reply

        Yes, different parts of France have different habits. Where I live, in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, it’s three kisses. But just an hour from here, in Aix-en-Provence, it’s two. And in Brittany it’s four.
        And yes, for the Swiss it’s always three kisses, starting with the left cheek, no exceptions. The rules are very clear. When I lived there I think they were in the village handbook, next to the phone numbers for the fire department and the fondue delivery service. 😉

  2. Susan Walter Apr 29, 2017 at 9:23 PM - Reply

    I agree with Keith that bon appétit and enchanté are both still used. Here in the Touraine I hear the first frequently, and not just from waiters, and the second quite often, although by no means always when introductions are done. And hurrah that sneezes are ignored. I’ve always found being ‘blessed’ irritating. I am unaware of it being considered polite in the anglo world (I grew up in Australia and lived in the UK). I thought it was just a hangover from a medieval superstition and a sort of verbal tick.

    • Debra Finerman Apr 30, 2017 at 4:09 AM - Reply

      Bonjour Susan,interesting to know that in the Touraine you hear these phrases. Just goes to show what a diverse and varied country France is. I can tell you that the Parisians I asked about this, and there were many, all agreed with the article. Vive la difference between regions. Thanks for your input.

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