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Learn French Idioms

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Learn More About French Idioms

Learning to speak French is a continuous process, as no matter how far you advance, you can always expand your knowledge of the language further. In the early stages, you will likely learn some of the most common words and phrases, but as your ability grows, your learning will becoming more in-depth. As a consequence, you will start to tackle some more complicated concepts and one such example is the use of idioms.

In simple terms, an idiom is a word or phrase which has a meaning that is understood culturally by speakers of the language, but which has a different meaning than the actual words would suggest. For example, in English, if you say you had to “bite your tongue”, it would mean that you had to keep quiet about something, rather than literally biting your tongue. A native speaker would understand that this is an idiom, but a language student may not.

Much like with the English language, French idioms are phrases that a native French speaker would instantly recognize, understand and instinctively know are not to be taken literally. However, a French language student, especially early on in their learning, may not. It is also important to stress that French idioms are distinct from English idioms, meaning that most English idioms do not translate directly into French and visa versa.

The Importance of Idioms

Generally speaking, idioms are considered relatively informal and are not likely to be used between language students early on in the learning process. Similarly, if a native speaker is talking to someone they know is a novice at the language, they are not likely to utilise idioms when more simple language would suffice. As a result, many French language students view learning idioms as somewhat unnecessary at first.

However, as your ability to speak French increases, the people you speak it to adapt and start to use more complicated language, including idioms. Without a knowledge of what idioms are and how they are used, this can be extremely confusing, because their real meaning is very different to what you will be able to decipher. For this reason, learning idioms can be considered a step towards true mastery of the language.

Unfortunately, because idioms are so ingrained into the language, and because their meanings are not literal, there is no quick way to learn them all. It may be possible to pick up some of the most common idioms by watching French television and films, reading French literature, or by simply listening to native French speakers in real life. Yet, in most cases, learning French idioms will require you to actively seek them out and learn their meanings one by one.

Examples of French Idioms

In order to get you started, we have compiled a list of some of the most popular and commonly used idioms. In each case, you will find the French idiom, its literal translation and the true meaning of the idiom. Learning these can act as the first step on the road to becoming familiar with as many French idioms as possible:

  1. Coup de foudre
    While this literally translates to “bolt of lightning”, the idiom is used to describe love at first sight. It can be considered somewhat similar to the English word “lovestruck”, which means to be hit suddenly by feelings of love.
  2. Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe
    Used to describe arriving at an awkward moment, you may use this idiom if you turn up at a friend’s house while they are arguing with their partner. The literal translation of this is “to arrive like the hair in a soup”.
  3. Se creuser la tête
    Literally meaning “to dig into your head”, this idiom is roughly equivalent to the English expression “to rack one’s brains”. It is used to describe either thinking very hard, or trying desperately to recall something.
  4. Se mettre le doigt dans l’œil
    You may use this idiom to describe a situation where you have made a mistake. It means “to put your finger in your eye” and is somewhat similar to “putting your foot in it” in English.
  5. Il pleut des cordes!
    Finally, if you say “il pleut des cordes!” you are saying “it is raining some ropes!”. This refers to very heavy rainfall and is similar to the common English phrase “it is raining cats and dogs!”