Expressing Age in French is tricky both grammatically and vocabulary wise: I’ll explain the differences between “grandir” and “vieillir”, the different life stages, the tricky French adjectives for old and young, how to ask someone’s age in French, and the difference between “an” and “année”.
1 – General Expression of Age = Avoir + Age in French = To Be + Age in English
First of all, there is a big grammatical trap. In English, to talk about how old someone or something is, you use the construction: “to be + number”.
- He is 5.
In French, we use the construction “to have + number + whatever you are counting”.
- Il a cinq ans – He/it is five (years old)
- Il a cinq jours – He/it is five days old.
- Il a cinq semaines – He/it is five weeks old.
- Il a cinq mois – He/it is five months old.
We always specify whatever it is that we are counting, even when it’s years. You cannot say in French “il a cinq”. You would always say “il a cinq ans”.
To master French numbers, I suggest you study with my free French numbers audio lesson (with plenty of exercises).
2 – How To Say “How Old Are You” in French?
To ask someone’s age, you would say:
- Quel âge avez-vous ? How old are you, using vous.
- Tu as quel âge ? How old are you, using tu and a street French colloquial question form.
- Quel âge a-t-il ? How old is he (formal way of asking)
- Elle a quel âge ? How old is she (casual street French way)
3 – Asking A Woman Her Age in French – A Big Faux-Pas
Asking a woman her age is considered quite impolite in French, especially if you are a man. If you are curious and still want to know, be delicate about it: “est-ce que je peux me permettre de te demander ton âge ?” – this translates literally into “may I allow myself to ask for your age” but it would be the polite way to ask a woman her age in French.
4 – How To Say “How Many + Age Notion” in French?
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If you wanted to ask precisely how many week, months… someone or something was, you would say:
- Combien de semaine a le bébé d’Anne ? How many weeks is Anne’s baby (watch out, remember to use “avoir”, not “être”)
- Ce fromage a été affiné pendant combien de mois ? How many months was this cheese aged?
Learn more about question making with my downloadable French audio lesson (formal way, street way, complex interrogative expression such as “depuis combien de temps” (for how long) etc… asking question is more complex in French than you think, and will unlock your conversation skills).
5 – How To Say Year in French – An versus Année
This is tricky for French students.
“Un an” (masculine, strong liaison with the N making it sound like “un Nan”) and “une année” both translate as “a year”. But they are not interchangeable.
Books will tell you “une année” is a year span, it’s about the duration. I don’t think it’s clear, so I’ll tell you something else, that works most of the time :-)
With a number (except one) use “an” for year.
- Il a trois ans – he is three.
- Tous les deux ans – every 2 years.
- J’y suis allée il y a cinq ans – I went there 5 years ago.
“Année” is mostly used in expressions that you need to learn by heart
- L’année dernière – last year
- L’année prochaine – next year
- Toute l’année – All year long ≠ tous les ans – each year
- Les années quatre-vingts – the eighties
- L’année scolaire – the school year
- L’année d’avant / d’après – the year before / the following year
Memorize these expressions, and this won’t be a problem for you any longer.
6 – How To Say Getting Older in French?
We use specific verbs to say to get older in French:
- Les enfants grandissent (grandir) – to grow up. – children grow up.
- Les adultes vieillissent (vieillir) – to grow old. – adults grow old.
Both can also “rajeunir” – to become/look younger.
7 – Vieux, Vieil, Vieille(s) – Old as an Adjective
Now, even the French adjective for old is problematic. It’s very irregular.
The French adjective “old” goes BEFORE the noun, when most French adjectives go after the noun.
- Vieux + masculine noun, singular and plural (the x is silent)
un vieux chien, deux vieux chiens – an old dog, 2 old dogs
- Vieille + feminine noun (add an S to make it plural)
une vieille chienne, deux vieilles chiennes – an old female dog, 2 old female dogs
- Vieil + masculine noun starting with a vowel or a silent h = the mutant form!
un vieil immeuble – an old building
un vieil ordinateur – an old computer
Watch out! “Un vieil ami” means an old (time) friend. Say “un ami qui est vieux” if you want to say “a friend who is old”…
The pronunciation of “vieil” is the same as the feminine “vieille”.
I will direct you to my downloadable French audio lesson on French adjectives to master this pronunciation and much more.
Be careful that the noun “les vieux” to talk about old-people is pejorative in French. Use instead “les personnes âgées” or “les séniors”.
Instead of calling someone “old”, it may be more delicate to call them “not very young” = pas très jeune, or “of some age” = d’un certain âge.
- Anne est une femme d’un certain âge. Elle n’est plus très jeune mais elle est restée très jeune d’esprit
Ann is a mature woman. She is no longer young, but she remained young at heart (notice we say “young in spirits”in French)
8 – Jeune – Young in French
The French adjective for “young” is also irregular, since it too goes before the noun, but at least it has only one form:
- Jeune + masculine or feminine noun. Add an S to make it plural.
Un jeune chien – a young dog
Trois jeunes chiennes – three young female dogs.
Here also, you’ll use into expressions. “Un jeune-homme” is a young man, so he is young for sure, but it’s also an old fashion greeting : “bonjour jeune-homme”…
Same goes for “une jeune-femme”.
9 – Les Ages de la Vie – Life Stages
1 – La Naissance – birth
- Un bébé – a baby – always masculine. We then talk about “un bébé fille” (girl) ou un bébé garçon (boy)”
- Un nouveau-né – a newborn, masculine.
- Il est né / elle est née – he/she was born
2 – L’enfance – childhood
- Un/une enfant – a child – mostly used in the masculine, but can be used in the feminine as well. No e at the end though.
- Une fille – a girl
- Un garçon – a boy
- Grandir – to grow up and also to grow in size
3 – L’adolescence – teenage years
- Un adolescent, une adolescente – a teenager
- Un jeune-homme – a young man
- Une jeune-fille – a young woman
- Un ado – a teen
- Mûrir – to become more mature
4 – L’âge Adulte – adulthood
- Un / une adulte – an adult
- Un homme – a man (strong liaison un Nomm)
- Une femme – a woman (pronounced fam)
- Vieillir – to grow old(er)
5 – La Vieillesse – old age
- Une personne âgée – an elderly person (une personne being feminine, this expression may refer to men but is feminine)
- Un ancien, une ancienne – an elderly person, very old-fashioned.
- Un vieux, une vieille – an old person – pejorative
- Un sénior – a senior
- Mourir – to die
- La mort – death, t silent
- Il est mort – he is dead / died (t silent)
- Elle est morte – she is dead / died (t pronounced)
Note, in France we talk about “le premier âge” for infancy, and then “le troisième âge” is for retired but physically active people, and we now talk about “le quatrième âge” for people who are old and ill. But we never talk about “le deuxième âge”…