If you’re learning French, you should make an effort to learn some of their proverbs.
Just like French colloquialisms, they’re a bit more on the intermediate/advanced side but well worth it for taking your French to a more impressive level.
If you’re an upper intermediate or advanced learner looking to wow your French teacher, friends, or colleagues, practise using proverbs in appropriate contexts.
In this article, we’ve put together a list of useful and interesting French proverbs that you can learn right away.
What are French proverbs?
Just like the English proverbs “a rolling stone gathers no moss” or “waste not, want not”, French proverbs are often quoted, short sentences that denote a wise, inspiring meaning in a succinct and poetic expression.
They generally sum up different situations accurately.
Learning French proverbs is similar to French idioms, where the literal meaning or translation cannot always be used.
Instead, we must use a metaphorical interpretation to understand them accurately.
Why is learning French proverbs important?
French proverbs are an important facet of the French language.
They feature in dialogues and help to convey meaning. But learning French proverbs is also important because they help you learn more about the rich French culture.
They also help you learn the traditions of the French, and, if you so choose, expand your lexical prowess and vocabulary.
French proverbs, their English equivalents, and their literal meanings
See my list of French proverbs below.
If you’ve encountered any of these in your dialogues with French natives, you’ll find the explanation below.
1. L’appétit vient en mangeant
English equivalent: Appetite is encouraged by eating
Literal meaning: Appetite comes with eating
Have you ever been completely full but inspired to eat having seen others eating?
That’s exactly what this French proverb sums up! The metaphorical meaning, though, is what we’re more interested in.
It means when you start getting into something or caught up in something that you weren’t interested in before, you start to enjoy it more.
For instance, if you were studying poetry and decided that you didn’t like a particular writer, you might eventually grow accustomed to their writing style.
Your poetry teacher might then say to you: vous l’apprécierez avec le temps, l’appétit vient en mangeant.
2. Mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné
English equivalent: Better to be alone than with bad company
Literal meaning: It’s better to be on your own than badly accompanied
If you’ve ever been through a tough breakup, this proverb will epitomise your experience.
It’s just like the English proverb “better to be alone than with bad company”, and means what it implies–that you’re probably better off without someone who was a bad companion.
This is a French proverb that you can learn, which can be used for many different circumstances.
If your friend argues with you over something trivial, and leaves your party, and tells you je pars maintenant (“I’m leaving now”)_ you might say _mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné (“better to be on your own than badly accompanied”) in response.
3. Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid
English equivalent: Haste makes waste / Slow but sure / Slow and steady wins the race
Literal meaning: Little by little/step by step the bird creates its nest
Patience is a virtue, which is one way to understand this French proverb.
You might equate it with petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid, which is a French proverb that is all about patience and hard work.
If you’re learning how to ballroom dance, your teacher might tell you that vous l’apprendrez lentement (“You’ll learn it slowly”), petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.
4. Les chiens ne font pas des chats
English equivalent: They’re a chip off the old block/the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Literal meaning: Dogs are not cats
If someone likens you to your parents, they might follow up with this French proverb that you can learn.
Les chiens ne font pas des chats means “dogs don’t make cats”, or “dogs are not cats”.
It can sort of suggest that you are incredibly similar to your parents and, in this sense, means “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”
If you’re playing basketball with your parents and you manage to make a layup shot, your father might say c’était impressionnant, les chiens ne font pas des chats, to suggest that you got your talent from him.
5. Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre
English equivalent: The deafest are those who don’t want to listen
Literal meaning: No one is as deaf as the one who doesn’t want to hear
Stubborn teenagers might hear this French proverb quite often, especially if they’re not heeding their parents’ advice.
You might be trying to explain that it’s important to eat vegetables and fruit, since they fortify the defences of the body, to which your teenage son will reply je n’aime pas les fruits et légumes (“I don’t like fruits and vegetables”).
After this, you might say: il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre, to emphasise how important the advice is.
6. Qui vivra verra
English equivalent: Only time will tell
Literal meaning: Who lives, sees
If you happen to be waiting for the results of a driving test, the only thing standing in the way of receiving the result is time–so in this sense “Only time will tell”.
This is where learning French proverbs like _qui vivra verra _comes in handy, as you might hear it from someone close to you.
You could be worried about the results, but sometimes the only thing you can do is to wait for them.
In this context, a wise friend might say:
Être patient. Qui vivra verra.
7. Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir
English equivalent: Better safe than sorry / Prevention is better than cure
Literal meaning: Better to prevent than to cure / heal
Though the literal translation of mieux vaut prévenir que guérir relates to health and wellbeing, it can be used in a figurative sense to refer to preparations that you must make to avoid certain negative repercussions.
For example, if you’re about to take a French exam and don’t want to fail, your French teacher might say:
Il est important d’étudier si vous voulez réussir l’examen. Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir.
8. Qui court deux lièvres à la fois, n’en prend aucun
English equivalent: Too many / a lot of irons in the fire
Literal meaning: Who chases two hares simultaneously, catches neither
If you’ve got two tasks that need completing, what’s the best way to approach them?
According to this French proverb you shouldn’t attempt to split your attention and complete them at the same time.
Well, if the hares are metaphors for tasks in this French proverb, pursuing both of them at the same time doesn’t bear good results!
Instead, qui court deux lièvres à la fois, n’en prend aucun. If you chase two hares at the same time, you’ll not catch any.
If you’re walking down a Parisian street with your phone in your hand and attempting to cross the road while sending a message, someone might say to you:
Fais attention. Qui court deux lièvres à la fois, n’en prend aucun.
9. Qui n’avance pas, recule
English equivalent: He who doesn’t advance, goes backwards
Literal meaning: Who doesn’t advance, steps backwards
If you’re a member of an organization that is in pursuit of success, learning French proverbs like this will impress your colleagues and remind them to keep going.
It means that without progress, you’re not likely to adapt to new situations and, while the world around you makes strides in the right direction, you’re left behind.
So, since progress is an essential goal of successful people, you might hear your boss say:
Continuez à travailler vers ces objectifs. Qui n’avance pas, recule.
10. L’habit ne fait pas le moine
English equivalent: Don’t judge a text / book by its cover / The clothes don’t make the man
Literal meaning: The clothes don’t make the monk
It’s never nice to make snap judgments of others, or to make a judgment of something without fully investigating what it’s all about.
The English proverb that emphasises this is “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and the French proverb you can learn to convey this same meaning to French natives is l’habit ne fait pas le moine.
If you’re in a competition and your teammate begins to make fun of your competitor, but you have a suspicion that they’re secretly very proficient and have the skills needed to win the competition, you might say:
Je pense qu’ils pourraient être bons dans cette tâche. L’habit ne fait pas le moine.
11. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire
English equivalent: It’s not the end of the world
Literal meaning: It’s not like you must drink the sea
This is an absolute gem of a French proverb.
It’s one of the French proverbs that you can learn to show off your French skills.
Although it might seem like you’re belittling the difficulties of others, if you’re exasperated by someone who complains, and complains, and complains some more, simply for the sake of complaining (and their life is pretty easy and carefree) you can say to them:
Arrêter de se plaindre. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.
12. La nuit porte conseil
English equivalent: Sleep on it
Literal meaning: The night brings advice
Facing a quandary? Not sure whether you should tell your parents that you accidentally ruined or broke one of their ornaments?
We’ve all been there.
That’s why learning French proverbs like this will help you break the news in the right way.
La nuit porte conseil means “the night brings advice”. However, the English equivalent is “sleep on it”.
In this sense, while you’re clutching that broken ornament and deliberating whether you should tell your parents straightaway, you might tell yourself:
La nuit porte conseil. J’attendrai le matin pour leur dire.
13. Il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis
English equivalent: Wise men change their minds but fools / idiots do not
Literal meaning: It’s only fools / idiots who don’t change their minds
Open mindedness is crucial in certain situations, particularly if you’re having a philosophical debate with someone in a philosophy class.
A scathing, yet accurate retort that you might receive if you fail to yield or partially accept another person’s viewpoint is this French proverb that you should learn is:
Il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis.
Commit these French proverbs to your memory and impress French native speakers
With a few French proverbs in your repertoire, you’ll impress French speakers.
What is the best way to memorise French proverbs?
Here are a few tips for learning French proverbs:
- One of the best approaches that might help is to visualise what the words in each French proverb describe. When you create a visual image of these French proverbs, you can infer a metaphorical meaning that conveys the essence of the proverb.
For example, let’s take the French proverb: petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid. We might imagine a little bird creating a nest little by little, which is quite hard work.
We might then create a second visual image of this French proverb and apply it to a daily struggle, which can help us to remember the meaning of the proverb (that small steps in the right direction mean you’re on the right track).
- You might alternatively decide to use a French book on proverbs to take a deeper look at their meanings and try to memorise them little by little, or download a French app that focuses entirely on French proverbs to expand your knowledge.
- You could create flashcards that feature the French proverb and their English equivalent on either side. Practice with the flashcards to start memorising the French proverbs more efficiently.
Over time, you’ll soon start using these French proverbs in your conversations naturally.
Know any other French proverbs?