The nine noises that will make you sound like a true French speaker

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The nine noises that will make you sound like a true French speaker
Everyday French scenarios - such as the riot police turning up your café terrace - can be covered by a variety of French noises. Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Being able to speak good French is obviously mostly vocabulary related, but if you want to truly blend in with the locals, there are some noises you will need to make as well.


Here we've rounded up the nine mostly commonly-used sounds that you will hear in conversation.

Best used, obviously, with some expressive hand and arm gestures to really help you blend in.


1. Pfff

It might sound (and look) a bit silly but this word is a staple of French conversation and used in the right way, it will give your spoken French a bit of native attitude. 

Pfff often goes hand in hand with a facial expression that exudes boredom or dislike because it is used to convey contempt, disdain and scorn. 


The French use it when somebody is saying something they consider to be stupid, ridiculous, pathetic so much so that they are at a loss for a real answer and are reduced to saying pfff. 

There isn't an exact translation in English, but it could be compared to sighing loudly when someone is speaking and some might even make a similar noise to the French pfff to go with it. 

Here's an example of this noise in use: Pfff, elle n'avait rien d'exceptionnel cette femme. - Pfff, there was nothing exceptional about that woman. 

Or, Pfff, c'est n'importe quoi - Pfff, whatever. 

Remember that while it is very common, it is still colloquial and is certainly one to avoid using in front of your boss. 


2. Aïe

Aïe is a sound you will hear a lot around France and it may be one that moves you to ask the person who utters it if they're ok. 

The action that goes with this word is a deep frown or perhaps even a wince of pain, because it is the French equivalent of 'ouch!' or 'ow!' in English. 

So for example you might say: Aïe! Je me suis piqué le doigt. - Ow! I pricked my finger. 

Or Aïe! Aïe! Aïe! Je viens de me couper. - Ouch! I just cut my finger.

It can also mean 'oh', 'oh dear', 'oh no' or 'oh my'. 

In this case, you might say: Aïe! Que se passe-t-il? - Oh my! What's happening? 

3. Bah

Bah will make you sound as French as the French, particularly if you deliver it with your eyebrows raised, your hands turned palms upwards and your mouth formed so that both corners are pointed to the floor. Or with your eyes wide open and an expression of complete perplexity.

Bah can mean ‘I know everything' or ‘I know nothing', it all depends on the delivery and context.

Say it quickly and you can sound dismissively confident. However, you can also say it quickly to sound genuinely surprised. It can also be stretched out to demonstrate just how sceptical and incredulous you are. Or indeed how dubious you are. Everything depends on your facial expression.

Baaaah oui.... 'But of course, you are a fool for asking this question'. Or 'I think so….' (showing your hesitation)

Bah oui! 'Yes!' (showing the answer is blatantly obvious)

Bah oui? 'Goodness me! Is that really true?'


4. Ben

This is one of those French words that you're unlikely to be taught in school and it can really throw a spanner into the works when people start using it in informal conversations. 

And if your name is 'Ben' then you're even more likely to be confused... particularly when you see it written down. 

But the main translation for Ben (pronounced 'ba') isn't exactly a word.

The equivalent in English would be 'er' as in the noise you make when hesitating or playing for time at the beginning of a sentence. 

For example, Et tu sais à quelle heure revient ton frère? - Ben, j'en sais rien. (And do you know what time your brother got home? - Er, I don't know anything).

If you're surprised it can also mean 'well'. 

Or, J'ai gagné €10,000  à un jeu à gratter! - Eh ben, t'en as, de la chance! (I won €10,000 on a scratchcard game! - Well, you're lucky!)

It can also translate to 'of course', such as Et tu vas à l'anniversaire de Pascal samedi? - Ben oui! (And you're coming to Pascal's birthday on Saturday? - Of course!)

You could also say Ben ça alors! to mean 'well, well, well!'


5. Blow a raspberry

Difficult to spell, this is the noise that babies make when they blow out their cheeks, or the noise of someone making a farting sound.

Unlike in British and Americans cultures, though, in French this is not rude, it's simply a way of saying 'I have absolutely no idea'. It can be used as well as or instead of a shrug if you've asked something that is simply impossible to answer.

6. Hein

French speakers pepper informal conversation with hein (pronounced more like 'huh') all the time. It's one of those things that no one teaches in school, but will make you sound a lot more natural when you talk. 

Hein is an interjection which is used to pose a question or seek confirmation. It is usually found at the end of a phrase, but also sometimes at the beginning or on its own, and serves a number of different purposes. 

Hein ?, when it's on its own or at the beginning of a phrase, is very similar to the English ‘huh?' or ‘what?', used to indicate that the speaker has not understood something and would like it to be repeated. As in, Hein? Qu'est-ce que tu as dit? - ‘Huh? What did you say?'


And just like ‘what?', hein ? used in this way can also indicate the surprise of the speaker, rather than that they have not heard what the person they are talking with has said: Hein? Tu as déjà fini? - ‘What? You already finished?'

It can also be used to insist on a response, even when the speaker may already suspect that they know the answer: Pourquoi est-ce que vous êtes en retard, hein? Vous vous êtes réveillé tard ? - ‘Why are you late, huh? Did you wake up late?'

Or to simply solicit the agreement of the listener, like ‘eh?' or ‘right?', especially at the end of the phrase. For example, Ce n'est pas si facile que ça, hein? - ‘It's not so easy, right?'

Finally, hein can be used at the end of a phrase to emphasise what has just been said, as in Laissez-moi tranquille, hein! - Let me be, ok? (In this case, no question is actually being asked).


However hein is used, it's usually in an informal context, and is the kind of filler word you want to avoid in presentations at work or school.

7. Kif-Kif

This informal phrase will help you out when comparing multiple things that are more or less the same, or when you want to make someone believe that that's the case.

Kif-kif means ‘it's all the same', ‘it's equal', or ‘it makes no difference'. This phrase is usually used in informal scenarios to compare two options that are so similar that they are virtually equal. 

For example, Si je prends le métro ou le bus, c'est kif-kif, ça va durer une demi-heure (Whether I take the metro or the bus, it's all the same, it's going to take half an hour).

It can also be used to indicate that two parties have contributed equally to something, especially expenses: Tu as payé le dîner? Non, on a payé kif-kif. (Did you pay for dinner? No, we split the bill).

In this case, the term moite-moite or moitié-moitié (half and half) can also be used.

8. Bof

If you're feeling demotivated, indifferent, or want to engage in the traditional French pastime of avoiding being positive (being honest) about things, this is a need-to-know. However, people don't say 'bof' as a word, it's more of a combined shrug and a sigh with a slight noise.

Historically it's thought that this word might be linked to the acronym of Boeuf, Oeuf, Fromage. All three foods were rationed during the German war-time occupation in France and black marketeers became known as BOFs. Overtime bof has lost this unscrupulous association and come to mean something quite different. 

It's an interjection that translates more as a feeling of disinterest or mild unhappiness than an actual word.  

It's nearly always used as an indifferent or slightly negative response to a question, for example, - Que penses-tu de ce film? – Bof. Pas terrible. (What did you think of the film? – Whatever. It wasn't terrible.) 

Similarly bof could also be the response to ‘Don't you think the film is great?' (Tu trouves pas que ce film est génial?) or ‘Do you want to go to the cinema? (Ca te dit d'aller au cinéma?), meaning an apathetic ‘not really' in both cases.

It could also be a slightly depressing reply to ça va? meaning ‘not great', ‘ok', or ‘meh'.

Considering that a normal reply would be ‘fine' or ‘good thanks' (bien, merci) saying you are just ‘alright', ‘ok' or bof actually implies that you feeling a bit miserable. 

9. Oh là là

And let's finish on a French classic. Any caricature of the French involves someone saying Oh là là and the best thing about this cliché is that it's actually true.

Living in France you hear it at least once a day, probably more, and after a while you find yourself saying it almost as much.

One important thing to note is that unlike in English (when we say 'Ooh la la') when the French use this expression it is never intended to express that someone is sexually attractive. Also in English we tend to emphasise the 'ooh', in French it's 'oh' not 'ooh' and it's the là là part of the phrase that is stressed. 

There are several meanings for Oh là là and to work out which one you're hearing you'll need to rely on context. 

Here's a look at the different ways it is used. 

It can mean admiration, almost in the same way anglophones use the phrase 'Oh my god'.

For example, you show someone your new ring and they say Oh là là c'est beau! (Oh my god it's so pretty!). It is high, light and happy. This is a good Oh là là.

Then there is the bad Oh là là.  Perhaps predictably, the French often employ the bad Oh là là, used more in the sense 'Oh my god that's freaking annoying'. . 

For example: a car burns through a pedestrian crossing nearly knocking you over or just doesn't stop to let you cross the road generally or the cashier at the supermarket tells you je ferme ma caisse, moi (I'm closing my till) even though the queues are huge.

This Oh là là (or even Ho là là) is low, baritone and disapproving, often muttered under your breath.

Then there is the pièce de la résistance (which, incidentally, is not something the French say. Go figure.) - the Oh là là là là là là. Yes, that's right. Six “là”s - no more, no less - in quick succession. This is bad. This is very bad.  Not to be bandied around lightly, this is reserved for those head-in-hands, all hope is lost kind of moments which, again perhaps unsurprisingly, happen in Paris more often than you think.

This is used when the French miss a crucial goal in the (soccer/rugby/other ball sport) or when you get halfway home from CDG and realise the cab driver doesn't take carte blue.


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marc_321293 2021/10/08 12:05
You forgot the one where the French (women folk usually but not exclusively) inhale rapidly when the say "Oui!" to punctuate their agreement with some point, possibly made in rapid-fire conversation with another. It's sounds more like a whistling inhale sound.
Anonymous 2021/06/11 03:57
🥩 boeuf 🥚 oeuf Attention orthographe
Anonymous 2021/06/11 03:55
Oh là là c'est trop joli. C’est beau. C’est malheureux C’est + masculin.
Anonymous 2021/06/11 03:54
Vous êtes réveillé tard ? Attention forme pronominale. Reflective verb Se réveiller Vous vous êtes réveillé tard?
Anonymous 2020/07/06 17:53
There's also "tack". Certainly used in the south (not sure about the north) when, say, a shop assistant presses a few buttons on a computer terminal. Each press is accompanied with the "tack" sound. Listen out for it!

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