top cx logo
cx logo
Explorearrow down
search icon
Explore
arrow down

Why translating French word-for-word can help - or confuse

Sometimes even French people cannot explain a familiar phrase because that is ‘just the way it is’

Ask a French person to explain a phrase and they will usually conclude: Bah, c’est comme ça Pic: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

When learning another language, many of us are told not to translate phrases too literally.

However, doing so can often help us to remember them. 

For example, ‘what is it that it is?’ still helps me to spell qu’est-ce que c’est?, even though I have lived here since 2004. 

Many people do the same with ‘I have hot’ or ‘I have 21 years’.

Would you look at that!

One of my favourite French phrases is regarde-moi ça un peu, the literal translation of which would be ‘look at me that a bit’. Have you come across this one?

‘Look at me that a bit’ is used to point something out, with the goal of sharing laughter, or perhaps indignation.

Read more: Widen your vocabulary with 10 alternatives to common French phrases

For example, two mothers might be at the park chatting while their children play, when one child starts ordering the other kids around from the top of the climbing frame. 

Her mother might nudge the other parent and say regarde-moi ça un peu, before they both start chuckling.

Our English equivalent is ‘would you look at that!’, but the reason I particularly love the French version is the moi, which is present even in the short version (regarde-moi ça). 

Essentially, the speaker is inviting you to look at ‘that’ (ça) but actually begins with ‘look at me’ (regarde-moi), which is an impossibility unless you have independently functioning eyes.

At least they are only asking you to do this for a short time (un peu).

Read more: Six idioms to spice up your French conversations

French people cannot explain it either

Here in Brittany, an event occasionally warrants an extension: regarde-moi ça un peu, là! means ‘look at me that a bit, there’, which now gives you three places to look.

Ask a French person to explain this phrase, and after an initial attempt at justification they will usually conclude: Bah, c’est comme ça. 

Indeed, that’s just the way it is. 

There are some phrases and aspects of French life that you simply have to accept and then move on. 

Next time you want to point something out to a French acquaintance, invite them to ‘look-at-me-that-a-bit’ and you will sound like a native.

Related articles

Unravel the etymology of certain French words

Seven words which even French people confuse masculine/feminine

‘Do not correct me everytime I murder the French language’

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
featured helpguide
Healthcare in France*
Featured Help Guide
- Understand the French healthcare system, how you access it and how you are reimbursed - Useful if you are new to the French healthcare system or want a more in-depth understanding - Reader question and answer section Aimed at non-French nationals living here, the guide gives an overview of what you are (and are not) covered for. There is also information for second-home owners and regular visitors.
Get news, views and information from France