Quels sont les cinq sens ? (What are the five senses?). In French, these are as follows: La vue (sight), l'ouïe (hearing), le toucher (touch), l'odorat (smell) and le goût (taste). These are all verbs of perception whose purpose is, logically enough, to describe a perception, sensation or feeling. In this article, we will review vocabulary groups for each of these five senses. This will help you learn how to express perception in French with confidence, and enhance your vocabulary.


L'Ouïe (Hearing)


The ears (les oreilles) allow us to hear (entendre) sounds (les sons). We can recognize high-pitched sounds (un son aigu), deep tones (un son grave), loud sounds (un son fort), low sounds (un son faible) and familiar sounds (un son familier). Silence (le silence) is when there is no noise (le bruit).


The verb ecouter (to listen to) specifically indicates that we are paying attention to what we are hearing. It is one of several French verbs that are not followed by a preposition whereas their English equivalents are. In other words, the idea of the preposition "to" is included in the verb itself. However, French learners often mistakenly add a to it, in effect saying "to listen to to something," which is obviously incorrect: 


Correct: J'écoute la radio (I'm listening to the radio).

Incorrect: J'écoute a la radio.


On the other hand, the verb entendre (to hear) refers to the ability to hear. For example:


  • Tous ces chants d'oiseaux sont agréables à entendre (All these bird songs are pleasant to hear).


In addition to ecouter and entendre, let’s review the most common verbs that are used to express “hearing” in spoken French:


When we want to talk about a pleasant sound, we will often use the word bercer (to lull).


  • Le bruit de la mer me berce (The sound of the sea lulls me).


However, when a sound is disagreeable, we can use agresser (to be aggressive towards).


  • La musique est trop forte, elle agresse mes oreilles (The music is too loud, it is assaulting my ears).


The expression avoir ouï dire literally means “to have heard that,” though it is a very formal and literary expression in French. Even so, it can be use in normal conversation.


  • J'ai ouï dire que tu as eu un accident ! (I've heard that you had an accident!)


La Vue (Sight)


The eyes (les yeux) are used to see (voir) the world around us. By means of light (la lumière), we can see colors (les couleurs), shapes (les formes) and size (la taille). When there is no light, we see all in black and white (en noir et blanc).


Voir is the ability to use one’s eyes to see, and it is an involuntary action. For example:


  • Promenez-vous dans les rues de Bordeaux,il y a tant de belles choses à voir ! (Go for a walk in the streets of Bordeaux, there are so many things to see!)


The verb regarder typically means “to look at” (when the object is not moving) or “to watch” (when the object is moving). For example:


  • L'enfant regarde le spectacle avec des yeux grands ouverts (The child is watching the show with their eyes wide open). 


Croiser du regard can be used when two people glance at one another, and it means “to catch someone's eye.”


  • Lorsque nos regards se sont croisés, nous avons été tous les deux subjugués (When our eyes met, we were both overwhelmed.)


When looking at something with enjoyment, we use the verb contempler (to gaze at):


  • Il contemplait le Bassin d'Arcachon (He was gazing at the Bassin d'Arcachon).


Finally, fixer means to look at with intent (to stare):


  • Le chien me fixe méchamment (The dog is staring at me spitefully).


Le Toucher (Touch)


Our skin (la peau) enables us to feel the sensation of touching. We touch various objects (les objets) not only with our hands (les mains) and feet (les pieds), but also with the rest of the body (le corps). The sensation of touch can be soft (doux/douce), silky (soyeux/soyeuse), hot (chaud/chaude), cold (froid/froide), wet (mouillé, mouillée), hard (dur/dure) or rough (rugueux/rugueuse).


Out of all the verbs related to sense, toucher is the most frequently used:


  • Ne pas toucher les peintures (Please don't touch the paintings).


The verb saisir is an example a French word that has a tremendous number of meanings. The most typical one is taking something in one’s hand (to grasp).


  • Elle saisit sa main pour danser avec lui (She grasped his hand to dance with him).


Cogner also has a lot of different meanings. However, in this context, we will only define it as “to bang” or “to knock.”


  • Quelqu'un cogne à la porte (Someone's banging on the door).


Le Goût (Taste)


Our tongue (la langue) and palate (le palais) allow us to recognize the taste of food (les aliments). As a result, we can tell if food is good (bon/bonne), delicious (savoureux/savoureuse), bad (mauvais/mauvaise) or tasteless (fade). Similarly, flavors can be salty (salé/salée), sweet (sucré/sucrée), smooth (suave), sour (acide), bitter (amer/amère) or spicy (piquant/piquante).


The most common verb for eating, besides manger, is probably “to taste” itself: gouter. For example:


  • Goûte, et dis moi ce que tu en penses (Taste it, and tell me what you think about it).


To swallow food is avaler:


  • J'ai faim, je n'ai rien avalé depuis ce matin (I am hungry, I haven't eaten since this morning).


Savourer describes savouring and enjoying the process eating:


  • Elle savoure avec plaisir son chocolat chaud (She enjoys her hot chocolate).


Finally, bouffer is a common way of saying “to eat” that is often used in informal language:


  • Il bouffe trop lentement (He eats too slowly).


L'Odorat (Smell)


We breathe (respirer) through our nose (le nez) and nostrils (les narines).


We can also smell (sentir) odours (les odeurs) with our nose. Some of these odours can be described as enjoyable (agréable), sweet (sucre), strong (fort/forte), aromatic (aromatique), delicate (délicat) or delightful (délicieux).There are also those that are unpleasant (désagréable), agressive (agressif/agressive) and nauseating (écœurant/écœurante).


Here are some other important verbs that express the sense of smell:


Respirer is the most common verb for smell (to breathe):


  • Je respire l'air frais de la montagne (I am breathing in the fresh air of the mountains).


However, when you breathe loudly, you use the verb renifler (to sniffle):


  • Il est enrhumé, il renifle tout le temps (He has a cold, he is sniffling all the time).


There is also a specific verb that is often used for animals: flairer (to sniff).


  • Le chat a flairé l'odeur du lait (The cat sniffed the milk).


To add an enjoyable fragrance to a room can be expressed with embaumer (to fill with fragrance).


  • Les roses embaument le jardin (Roses are filling the garden with fragrance).


On the contrary, an unpleasant smell would require the verb empester (to stink).


  • Il empeste l'alcool (He stinks of alcohol).


Now, let's finish up this introduction to the senses with the verb percevoir (to perceive, to sense). Percevoir is a verb that we can use for every single sense, being that it simply means “to sense”: 


  • On percoit les sons, les couleurs, les gouts, les odeurs et la matiere (We perceive sounds, colours, tastes, smells and matter).


After this, you should be able to recognise and use the vocabulary of the senses in French. However, please keep in mind that you will need to study a bit before you are able to easily recall this vocabulary. Also, remember that mistakes will always be made when learning French, so don’t worry if you make a few. Just remember to learn from them and you’ll be fine.


Hero Images


Hero Image by Golan Levin (CC BY 2.0)