Impressions of a Mexican in Paris: 5 little things French people do and say

One of the things I enjoy the most about learning a new language is discovering the little details that give it its character and the different ways a message is conveyed even when words become scarce. The kind of thing that can’t be looked up in a dictionary or found in a grammar book, often so embedded into everyday conversation that some native speakers are surprised to learn they’re not as universal as they believed.



What a better way to really get to know a language’s personality (lang-ality?) than the hand gestures, facial expressions, interjections and set phrases that go with it? So, with no further ado, lo and behold an extract of the first findings of my ‘linguistic psychoanalysis’ – a list of my favorite ‘petit riens‘ that francophones and non-francophone peoples of the Americas do differently.

 1. The “j’en sais rien” – facial expression.
The name says it all. Eyebrows are arched up as if expressing their surprise, lips puckered up and slightly pulled down. Then the lips are pressed together, a small puff of air pushing against them before escaping with a discrete “pop” sound. Classic.

2. The stressed inhale – pet ‘word’ or silence filler.
Why fill up silences between sentences in French with long, unsophisticated euh’s – or dare I think of English-speaker ‘um’s’ – when you can fill it up with this sound?
Here’s how it’s done: Lips are spread apart in a slight smile. Then, a sudden or sustained (depending on how long it takes you to gather your thoughts) gulp of air through the teeth and/or through the space between the teeth and the inner cheeks.

3. The ‘hop’ – /ˈɔp/
A father puts his child upon his shoulders : ‘hop !‘ Up he goes!
A baker hands you your delicious pain au chocolat :  ‘hop !‘ There you go!

4. The ‘tac’
So you go to ‘la pharmacie’ and the lady at the counter asks you for a few documents. You hand them over and she starts looking over the list:
Alors, carte vitale : tak ! pièce d’identité : tak! Ordenance : tak !

5. The ‘bonne continuation’
Whether it’s a colleague leaving the office for a new job or a potential landlord informing you that the flat / room is already taken, a polite francophone will surely wish you all the best for the future endeavours in which they will no longer partake.

So, there you have it. My top 5. What about you? What are the ‘little nothings’ that caught your eye (or your ear) in the language you’re studying? Share it with us in the comments below!


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