The Casual French Guide: 6 Tips to Improve Your Conversations
If you’ve been studying french for a while, you’ve probably found that you quite often have your nose stuck in a textbook and have been overwhelmed on more than one occasion by all the grammar rules.
Well, all those rules are super important, but now it’s time to chill out and learn some casual French.
Think about the difference in how you speak to your boss and how you chat with your best friends–it’s the latter that you’ll learn from this post.
So pull up a chair and get comfy, it’s time to break some grammar rules and learn how to have fun with your French!
- 6 Tips for Winning in Casual French Conversations
- Resources for Getting to Know Casual French on a More Intimate Basis
- And one more thing...
6 Tips for Winning in Casual French Conversations
1. Using ne in the negative
In formal, written French, the negative is almost always formed one way. Though there are a few exceptions where this rule can be broken in formal French, a negative phrase normally must be made by surrounding the verb with ne and pas.
Check out these examples:
Je ne veux pas. (I don’t want.)
Elle n‘a pas d’argent. (She doesn’t have any money.)
Ils ne vont pas à l’école. (They’re not going to school.)
In casual French, speakers can drop the ne particle in negative constructions. This means that only the pas particle remains, but the phrase itself means exactly the same thing it would if the ne particle had remained.
Check out these phrases translated into casual French:
Je veux pas. (I don’t want)
Elle a pas d’argent. (She doesn’t have any money.)
Ils vont pas à l’école. (They’re not going to school.)
Simple, right? Exactly. The French don’t bother with being meticulous in casual circumstances. Surrounding your verb with both the ne and pas is too much work!
2. Using nous to mean “we”
When studying French, learners are often taught that on means “one” and nous means “we.” On probably seems silly to English speakers when we think of it that way:
On va à la bibliothèque. (One goes to the library.)
I mean, who uses the pronoun “one” besides the Queen?
In any case, French speakers use the pronoun on (one) to replace the pronoun nous (we) in casual circumstances.
It’s almost like when speakers use the pronoun tu (you, informally) instead of vous (you, formally) when addressing someone in a situation that doesn’t need the utmost formality.
Check out these examples below:
Nous devons aller au magasin (We have to go to the store) becomes…
On doit aller au magasin.
Nous sommes allés à la fête de Marie (We went to Marie’s party) becomes…
On est allés à la fête de Marie.
You can see that the meaning is the same. There’s only one thing you need to watch out for: Even though on is taking on the meaning of nous in casual French, you must still conjugate the verb properly.
If you use on, you cannot use the nous ending. You must conjugate the verb with the on pronoun.
3. Keeping je and il y a intact
As with the ne situation, casual French can’t be bothered with pronouncing every single letter in a word in the way that formal French wants to.
In casual French, the word je (I) shortens to j’ in front of consonants and vowels instead of just in front of vowels like it does in formal French.
The best part: This is completely acceptable, and there is no change in meaning!
Check out these examples:
Je suis heureux (I am happy) becomes…
Je veux boire du lait (I want to drink some milk) becomes…
J’veux boire du lait.
It’s also interesting to note that when je (I) shortens to j’ in front of suis (am), its pronunciation becomes [fluentu-tts engine="neural" voice="Lea"]shui [/fluentu-tts].
And the same thing happens to il y a (there is).
In casual French, speakers drop the il of this phrase and shorten it to only the y a. Despite how odd it might sound at first, the phrase still remains completely comprehensible:
Il y a un livre sur la table (There is a book on the table) becomes…
Y a un livre sur la table.
4. Using ceci, cela, etc.
In formal French, speakers use indefinite demonstrative pronouns to denote what object or thing they are talking about.
For example, instead of saying Je veux cette tasse (I want that cup), they might say Je veux cela (I want that one over there).
I would go on to explain what each indefinite demonstrative pronoun means and where you should use each one, but in casual French, it doesn’t matter.
(But if you wanted to know, ceci is for things that are close by the speaker and cela is for things that are farther away.)
In fact, replace all of them with ça (that)!
Now, in all my years of learning French, I have never seen one French teacher who could keep the veins in their forehead from bulging when a student used ça instead of the proper indefinite demonstrative pronoun, but in casual French, it’s completely okay.
Je veux cette tasse (I want that cup) would become…
Je veux cela (I want that) in formal French.
Je veux ça (I want that) is what it becomes in casual French.
One exception to take note of, though, is the expression ceci dit or cela dit (that being said). In this case, you can’t say ça dit. Well, you can, but it’ll sound weird.
5. Est-ce que… ?
In formal French, there are two main ways to make questions (though there are more). For questions that require a yes or no answer, take the statement in the declarative form and add Est-ce que in front of it.
It looks something like this:
Vous parlez avec Jacques (You speak with Jacques) becomes…
Est-ce que vous parlez avec Jacques ? (Do you speak with Jacques?)
There is also another way: inversion.
Take the subject of the sentence (vous, in this case) and the verb of the sentence (parlez, in this case) and invert them.
You get something like this:
Parlez-vous avec Jacques? (Do you speak with Jacques?)
But why be so complicated? When using casual French, there’s no need for est-ce que or inversion, simply say the declarative phrase with a rising intonation like you would ask any other question:
Vous parlez avec Jacques ? (You speak with Jacques?)
6. Use fillers
- ‘Fin (well, but, anyway) — most often used in the middle of sentences, when the speaker pauses to add another thought to a sentence or round off an idea.
Je sais que John veut bien aller au spectacle ce soir …’ fin, il veut vraiment voir la fille qui travaille au bar! (I know John wants to go see the show tonight…well, really he wants to see the girl who works at the bar!)
- Quoi (you know, yeah, right) — it’s used to emphasize what the speaker is saying, often on the end of a sentence.
Mon dieu, il fait chaud aujourd’hui. Mais c’est l’été à Paris, quoi. (Wow, it’s hot today—but that’s Paris in the summer!)
- Tu vois (c’mon, really) — used to emphasize what you’re saying by asking the listener to confirm that they understand. It’s used much more frequently in the middle of sentences than it is tacked on the end.
J’ai hâte de finir mes études! (I can’t wait to finish school!)
Mais, non, Alex, tu vois, l’université, elle est vachement mieux que le boulot! (No, Alex, c’mon! School is so much better than work.)
- Là (there) — a point in time or a specification of a person you’re talking about. It’s used to quickly refer back to someone or something that you’ve already discussed before.
Le resto, là, il n’est pas superb. (That restaurant isn’t very good.)
C’est dommage! (What a bummer!)
- Bref (basically, anyway) — used to round up a long, winded conversation and make the final point or summarize what the speaker just said. It’s used at the beginning of a sentence, and is sometimes paired with bon (well).
*Ten-minute story with too many details about missing a train while traveling*
Bon, bref, je suis arrivé en retard, quoi. (Well anyway, I arrived late, obviously.)
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Resources for Getting to Know Casual French on a More Intimate Basis
Though the best way is to find a French friend to practice your casual language skills with, there are also a number of casual French guides available.
Check these ones out:
“Contextualized French Grammar: A Handbook” by Stacey Katz Bourns
“French Slang: Do you speak the real French? The essentials of French slang” by Mr. Frederic Bibard
“Dirty French: Everyday Slang from “What’s Up?” to “F*%# Off!” by Adrien Clautrier and Henry Rowe
You can also see and hear a lot of casual French in action if you watch French TV shows and movies on Netflix, or even French YouTube videos. It especially helps to watch with subtitles, in case you hear something you don’t recognize right away.
With the resources above, you can get exposure to lots of informal French.
Again, know that breaking the rules in casual French won’t affect your ability to make yourself understood.
Native French speakers have been breaking them for…well, forever!
And one more thing...
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