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FRENCH LANGUAGE

How the French really use ‘voilà’

It is one of the most widely-used French words, but not always in the way that English-speakers expect.

A waiter in Paris carries food to the table. Many voilà's are likely to be exchanged.
A waiter in Paris carries food to the table. Many voilà's are likely to be exchanged. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

Even people with an extremely limited grasp of the French language will have heard the word voilà

In English-speaking countries, we tend to assume that voilà is used to emphasise some spectacular action. We might imagine a waiter lifting the lid of a silver platter, announcing “Voilà“, to unveil an exquisite dish. Or perhaps we imagine a bedazzled, curly-moustached magician uttering this word as he pulls a live rabbit from a hat. 

But in France, although it can be used in this sense, it’s far more commonplace and has a variety of far more mundane uses. 

Once you listen for it, you will hear it everywhere; at work, in shops, restaurants, cafes, schools, you name it – whether as a curt and compact ‘vwa-lah’ or a long drawn-out ‘vwaaaa-lah’. 

Literal meaning 

Voilà is essentially a combination of two words: voir (to see/look) and (there).

So literally speaking, voilà is an instruction. When you use it, you are telling people to ‘look there’.

READ ALSO Oh là là – How to really use the best three words in French

So you can use voilà to draw attention to something that you can physically see. 

Voilà, le canal St-Martin – Look, the St Martin canal 

Voilà, mon ordinateur – Look, there’s my computer 

But there are plenty of other, slightly less literal, uses of voilà.

Voilà in customer service 

Voilà votre monnaie (here is your change) is perhaps the most common usage of voilà, frequently heard in shops, bakeries, restaurants etc. 

The word can in fact be used in most contexts, when giving something to someone.

Voilà, le pull que tu m’as prêté la semaine dernière – Here, take the pullover that you lent me last week 

Voilà to replace C’est 

Voilà can be used more or less interchangeably with c’est (it is). This is far from the most common usage of the word, but it is one to listen out for. 

Voilà où il habite maintenant – This is where he lives now

Voilà ce que nous devons faire – This is what we need to do

Voilà pourquoi je suis parti – This is why I left

Voilà as a conclusion 

Voilà, often in combination with bon, can be used as a verbal marker to signify that you are ending a conversation, or have said everything that you need to say. 

Bon voilà – So, there you go… 

On va commencer avec ma présentation, suivi d’une visite du jardin et puis le déjeuner, voilà – We will start with my presentation, followed by a visit to the garden and then lunch. That is all. 

C’est pour cela que je souhaite habiter en France. Voilà – In conclusion, that is why I want to live in France. 

READ ALSO ‘Sacre bleu!’ Do the French really say that?

An expected result

Voilà can also be used when an expected action, task or realisation is completed. For example, you could voilà if you are waiting in the cold for a train to arrive ages and it finally does. This is where you would stretch out the final syllables, perhaps to express relief: ‘vwaaa-lah’. 

Parents often use voilà when talking to their children as a kind of ‘I told you so’. 

Non, arrête, c’est trop lourd pour toi, tu vas le faire tomber *OBJECT CRASHES*… et voilà ! – No, stop, it is too heavy for you, you will drop it *OBJECT CRASHES*… There you go! 

Et… quoi…

You can pretty much always add et (and) before the word voilà like so: et voilà

Equally, when using voilà at the end of a sentence, particularly in an informal setting, you may hear people say voilà quoi

In both cases, the meaning of the word does not actually change, you’re just adding extra emphasis with the et or the quoi.

Pronunciation

And if you want to know how to pronounce it, check out France’s 2021 Eurovision entry. It’s entitled Voilà and the chorus goes; 

Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà qui je suis
Me voilà même si mise à nue j’ai peur, oui
Me voilà dans le bruit et dans le silence

Here, here, here, here’s who I am
Here I am even scared and naked, yes
Here I am in the noise and in the silence

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LEARNING FRENCH

The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

Listening to French radio or podcasts or watching TV shows in French is a well known route to improving language skills. So we asked our readers to spell out a few of their favourites.

The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

News programmes, quizzes and culinary reality show Top Chef were among the must-watch French TV shows for anyone keen to improve their language skills, while talk radio and local stations were also top tips from readers of The Local in response to a recent questionnaire.

Streaming video on demand services or DVDs were also among the recommendations, thanks to the ease with which programmes could be rewound and replayed. 

But the most common advice was to make liberal use of subtitles.

News channel France 24 was recommended by reader Seb Rocco, from Montpellier, who suggested that French learners could, “listen in French with English subtitles, or in English with French subtitles”.

Patricia Hobbs, from Lot-et-Garonne, suggested watching French news programmes with French subtitles, going so far as to say “in fact anything with subtitles in French”, to be able to match the sound to the spelling.

As well as M6’s Top Chef, the hugely popular comedy drama Dix Pour Cent, available on Netflix, was recommended for its help developing – ahem – more colloquial French, for which the Canal Plus series La Flamme also got a nod. 

Blood of the Vine on Amazon Prime, Arte TV’s 3x Manon and another Netflix series, Family Business, also got honourable mentions in our survey for helping French learners develop their language skills.

“DVDs with multilingual soundtracks are your friend,” Mike Gibb, who divides his time between Paris and London, wrote. “Play them in French, and if there are sections you don’t get, you can replay them a few times … and the English soundtrack is always there to give extra hints. 

“Most classic films, in black and white, or [from the] golden age of Hollywood will come with multiple soundtracks by default. For the rest, buy English-language originals from amazon.fr to find the versions with French dubbing.”

New Yorker John Hart added: “I like watching TV and movies that have been dubbed into french. Dubbed dialogue is often clearer, and sometimes simpler, than in the original language. Netflix is a great resource for this.”

Local radio stations were also highlighted as great resources for language learners. “[It’s] great to get a feeling of your region, the dialect, and of course news about events, recipes et cetera,” Dora Biloux, who lives in the southwest Occitanie region told us. “Learn the language and get information at the same time.”

She also recommended full immersion in French TV. “Ditch your dish and go for full on French TV – maybe with a package of some english language series, to ease the initial pain.”

And she – wisely – suggested listening to audiobooks. “Get an audiobook in a French translation of an English book that you know well.”

Other readers recommended France Inter radio, and news and talk radio in general.

As for podcasts, recommendations ranged from dedicated educational French language services to RFI’s “Journal Monde” and “Journal en Français Facile”, France Culture’s “Le Pourquoi du Comment: Économie et Social” and “La Question du Jour”, and Bababam’s “Maintenant Vous Savez”, France Inter’s ‘Popopop’ and ‘Autant en emporte l’histoire’, France Culture’s ‘Les Pieds sur Terre’, and Bababam’s ‘Home(icides)’ True Crime.

Keep an eye out for “Talking France,” The Local’s podcast that will be back up with new episodes starting at the end of May. We’ll help you learn some French!

Got any of your own recommendations? Tell us in the comments below, or send an email to [email protected]

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