Making Small Talk in French
Small talk usually takes place at the beginning of a conversation with a stranger you have just met, after introducing yourselves and finding out where each of you comes from. Small talk allows you to remain vague, if you so desire, and exchange simple questions and answers. Of course, it can lead to a more serious conversation, but small talk generally deals with innocuous subjects such as the weather, family, or work. In other words, it is a wonderful way to acquaint yourself with someone else and allows you, as you are sitting in your airplane seat, for example, to decide whether you want to pursuer the conversation with the stranger next to you or go back to the great book you were reading.
There are several ways in French to designate small talk. One of them is: parler de tout et de rein(pahr-lay duh too ay duh ryahN) (talk about everything and nothing).
In order to start a conversation in any language, you have to use some key question words. Here are the basic French ones:
- Qui? (kee) (Who?)
- Qu'est-ce que? (kes-kuh) (What?)
- Où? (oo) (Where?)
- Quand? (kahN) (When?)
- Pourquoi? (poor-kwa) (Why?)
- Comment? (ko-mahN) (How?)
- Combien? (kohN-byaN) (How much?)
- Quel/Quelle? (m. and f.) (kehl) (Which?)
Asking key questions
Here are a few examples of how to use these French question words in simple sentences — you can also use some of them on their own occasionally — just like in English.
- Qui est-ce? (kee ehs) (Who is it?)
- Qu'est-ce que tu fais? (kehs-kuh tew feh) (What are you doing?) [informal]
- Où habitez-vous? (oo ah-bee-tay-voo) (Where do you live?) [formal or plural]
- Quand part l'avion? (kahN pahr lah-vyohN) (When does the airplane leave?)
- Pourquoi allez-vous à Paris? (poor-kwa ah-lay-voo ah pah-ree) (Why are you going to Paris?)
- Comment s'appelle la petite fille? (koh-mahN sah-pehl lah puh-teet fee-y) (What is the little girl's name?)
- Comment s'appelle . . .? (koh-mahN sah-pehl) (What's . . . name?)
- Quel est son prénom? (keh-leh sohN pray-nohN) (What's his/her first name?)
- Combien coûte le billet? (kohN-byaN coot luh bee-yeh) (How much is the ticket?)
- Quel hôtel préférez-vous? (kehl oh-tehl pray-fay-ray-voo) (Which hotel do you prefer?)
Add the following statements your small talk vocabulary. These statements are the basics of small talk and are indispensable when you are fairly new at a foreign language:
- Je ne comprends pas. (zhuhn kohN-prahN pah) (I don't understand.)
- Je ne sais pas. (zhuhn seh pah) (I don't know.)
- Pardon/Excusez-moi. (pahr-dohN/eks-kew-zay-mwa) (Excuse me.)
- Je suis désolé/désolée. (zhuh sew-ee day-zoh-lay) (I am sorry.)
If you ever find yourself in a foreign country trying to get directions from one of the locals who starts babbling at you with incredible speed, you can imagine how useful the previous few sentences are.
Talkin' the Talk
After arriving in Paris from New York, Amanda Hull gets on her connecting flight to Nice. She is very tired because of spending the night on the plane. She collapses in her seat and gets ready to fall asleep. But minutes after, she is awakened by the following words:
Patrick Barnet: Pardon, madame, quel est le numéro de votre place? (pahr-dohN mah-dahm kehl eh luh new-may-ro duh voh-truh plahs) Excuse me, ma'am. What is your seat number?
Amanda Hull: Je ne sais pas. Attendez! Oh, c'est le 24B ; excusez-moi. Je suis désolée. (zhuhn seh pah ah-tahN-day o seh luh vaNt-kahtr bay eks-kew-zay-mwa zhuh sew-ee day-zoh-lay) I don't know. Wait! Oh it's number 24B. Excuse me. I am sorry.
Patrick Barnet: Ce n'est pas grave! (suh neh pah grahv) That's okay.
As you must have figured out, Amanda has taken the wrong seat. She apologizes profusely and moves to her assigned seat, but is now quite awake. Why not then have a conversation with this nice young man who seems eager to talk? After the usual introductions, they continue chatting.
Patrick Barnet: Où allez-vous? (oo ah-lay-voo) Where are you going?
Amanda Hull: Je vais d'abord à Nice, puis à Toulon voir ma fille. (zhuh veh dah-boh-rah nees pwee ah too-lohN vwar mah fee-y) I am going to Nice first, then to Toulon to visit my daughter.
Patrick Barnet: Vous venez souvent en France? (voo vuh-nay soo-vahN ahN frahNs) Do you often come to France?
Amanda Hull: Oh oui, j'adore la France. (o wee zhah-dohr lah frahNs) Oh yes, I love France.
Patrick Barnet: Quand repartez-vous pour les Etats-Unis? (kahN ruh-pahr-tay-voo poor lay-zay-tah-zew-nee) When are you going back to the States?
Amanda Hull: Dans un mois. Et vous, pourquoi allez-vous à Nice? (dahN-zaN mwa ay voo poor-kwa ah-lay voo-zah nees) In a month. And you, why are you going to Nice?
Patrick Barnet: Pour le travail. (poor luh trah-vay) For work.
Pay attention to two little words that you see over and over again in French. Both are unpretentious but very important:
- et (ay) (and) You must never link et with the next word (no elision). Here is an example: Il est beau et intelligent (ee-leh bo ay aN-teh-lee-zhahN) (He is handsome and intelligent.)
- dans (dahN) (in) — used for time and space. Notice in these examples that dans can have slightly different meanings depending on the context. Sorry, you can seldom translate word for word from French to English or vice-versa!
• Dans un mois (dahN-zaN mwa) (In a month)
• Dans l'avion (dahN lah-vyohN) (On the plane)
Words to Know
je vais/vous allez
zhuh veh/voo zah-lay
I go/you go
to leave / to go back
dans un mois
dahN zahN mwa
in a month