Ace French Oral Exams: Top Tips for Conquering Listening, Pronunciation and Other Key Skills
You stare at the class syllabus in shock.
There’s just no escaping it: Your French oral exam, once a faint shadow months in the future, is now a looming storm cloud mere weeks away.
You can avert that dark cloud and bask in the sunshine of academic success, because I’m going to take you step-by-step through a cunning plan for test-taking success.
I’ll give you strategies for tackling every aspect of your French oral exam, from listening comprehension and vocabulary to speaking confidence.
- 1. Auditory Comprehension
- 2. Pronunciation
- 3. Foundation of Essential Words
- 4. Subject Matters
- 5. Comfort Level and Confidence
1. Auditory Comprehension
Chances are, you’ll be engaged in a dialogue with your professeur (professor) or enseignant (teacher).
Before you open your mouth to dazzle the world with your French-speaking brilliance, open your ears to make sure you’re taking in all the important instructions, questions and comments.
Make sure you understand questions properly
Without understanding what you hear, you will be unlikely to give the correct response. You’ll want to make sure question words are second nature to you when you take your French oral exam.
I’ve devoted a section of this post just to question words and other important conversation words, so get ready to review these in just a few moments.
Listen regularly to authentic French audio
The more often you listen to spoken French, the more you absorb it. As you internalize common French phrases, you’ll be able to more confidently understand them in French conversations—including your French oral exam.
There’s a wealth of French media readily available online, like radio shows, movies and TV shows. Submerge yourself and get your brain used to hearing and understanding French.
That’s why a resource like FluentU is especially useful for French oral exam preparation. On this immersion program, you can watch native French videos like movie clips, news segments and music videos. Videos come with optional French and English subtitles and the ability to click on unfamiliar words to get their definition.
FluentU also has quizzes that give you the chance to speak your answers. Besides this, you can practice shadowing—speak along with the subtitles as the video plays and try to match the pronunciation of the speakers.
Watch your mouth
If you’re not pronouncing words correctly, you may lose points on your exam score.
Sure, your teacher may understand what you’re saying by context—even if you say roux (red) when you mean rue (street).
Nonetheless, you will almost certainly be graded on French pronunciation, so part of your preparation should be fine-tuning your French accent.
Take advantage of pronunciation drills
Here are a few resources for improving your pronunciation in French:
- This detailed guide to French pronunciation covers some of the biggest potential faux pas for anglophone students of French, including the uvular “r,” the tight “u” sound, liaisons between letters and nasalized vowels.
- Vowels are one of the more challenging aspects of French pronunciation for English speakers. Here’s a thorough breakdown of French vowel sounds and resources for pronouncing them.
- French learners tend to get confused about silent letters, which are especially frequent at the ends of words. Using a guide to French spelling will help you sort through the many places silent letters are used in French.
- To become more aware of similar sounds in French, try these French tongue twisters.
- Give the apps and websites featured in your very own French Language Lab a go—along with the suggestions for practicing specific sounds at the end of the article.
Several of the programs above allow you to record audio and play your attempts back. You may even be able to compare them to recordings of a native speaker.
A few of them will rate your accent on a scale that starts at “Tourist” and peaks at “Native.”
3. Foundation of Essential Words
No matter where you are in your French journey, it can’t hurt to review the basics.
Build on the foundation of these interrogatives and common conversational words. If you know them comme le fond de votre poche (like the back of your hand; literally, “like the bottom of your pocket”), they can keep you on track even if you get nervous during your French oral exam.
Get familiar with question words
Like English, French also has its own set of commonly-used question words:
- Qui…? — Who…?
- À qui…? — To whom…?
- Avec qui…? — With whom…?
- Pour qui …? — For whom…?
- Où…? — Where…?
- D’où…? — From where…?
- Combien…? — How many…?
- À quelle heure…? — At what time…?
- Quand…? — When…?
- Pourquoi…? — Why…? [usually answered with Parce que (because)]
- Comment…? — How…?
You can use Quizlet to refresh your memory on these concepts, through flashcards, matching games, written tests and other tools to reinforce these important words.
Learn conversational game-changers
Here are a dozen or so basic conversational words that can change the meaning of a sentence.
- Quoique — Even though, although
- Cependant — However [when used at the beginning of a phrase]
- Pourtant — Yet [in the sense of “However”]
- Mais pourtant — Nevertheless, but even so
- Alors — So; then, at that time
- Alors que — Just as
- Jusqu’alors — Up until then
- Malgré — Despite, in spite of
- Malgré tout — Despite everything
- Même si — Even if
- Quand même — Nevertheless, all the same, by the same token
- Donc — So
- Ainsi — Thus, in this way
If you feel at a loss about how to move from one idea to the next, these French transition words will smooth your path. They’re great for structuring a conversation, covering everything from “first of all” to “on the other hand.”
You can get more practice with these and related conversational terms through these exercises and games.
And if you’re asked to express votre avis (your opinion), you can’t beat this list of phrases used for agreeing, disagreeing and politely expressing your point of view. Just heed the warning not to use the last six expressions in polite company.
4. Subject Matters
Study topical vocabulary
Make good use of the resources your teacher provides, such as vocabulary lists or lists of suggested topics.
You can practice topical vocabulary in unexpected ways. For example, word searches often challenge you to hunt for target lists of related words.
Search for online articles that focus on specific sets of words, such as vocabulary for springtime, describing people, clothing, cooking—or conversational classics like the weather and your family.
Also, get more use out of words you already know by transforming them with suffixes and prefixes.
Lean on your English vocabulary by brushing up on English-French cognates. Just watch out for faux amis (false friends, or false cognates), which are similar-sounding words that don’t mean what you think they do.
Watch topic-specific videos
To fill out your lexicon and deepen your cultural understanding, use topic-specific videos like the ones you’ll find on YouTube and other online platforms. Make sure you filter through the content carefully and focus on the ones that would genuinely benefit your French studies.
Once you know the topic you have to speak about, research it through videos on these excellent websites.
You’ll be less likely to get stuck on an unfamiliar word or phrase if you’ve taken time to absorb the vocabulary these videos offer.
And with a deeper pool of vocabulary to draw from, you’ll feel more self-assured on your oral exam.
5. Comfort Level and Confidence
Increase your comfort level and confidence by practicing talking in French.
In a pinch, you can even talk to your pets in French. After all, they’re attentive and non-judgmental, which is exactly what you need when you’re feeling uncertain.
Once you gain a little confidence by rehearsing in front of a mirror or pouring your heart out to Fido or Fifi, think about finding a conversation partner.
Record yourself speaking
If you’re still feeling shy about your French speaking, practice your prepared speech or answers to oral exam questions while recording yourself on your mobile device. When you review the footage, you can pick up on areas where you hesitate or give weaker answers.
Even if your video is not perfect, just remember that you never need to show it to anyone else. Its main purpose is to build your confidence by helping you become more comfortable speaking French.
Get tutors or conversation partners
Concerned that your French conversational skills are not as strong as you’d like? You can employ a tutor or conversation partner to get guided speaking practice.
There are several online services that will pair you with a remote French tutor. Your school may also offer peer tutoring or coach classes run by French teachers.
If you want a less formal arrangement, you can find conversation partners on language exchange sites like Conversation Exchange or HelloTalk. These are usually native French speakers who will be happy to practice French with you via chat, call or even video, usually in exchange for a few moments of English-language conversation.
Practice with classmates
Since your classmates will be taking the same oral exam as you, why not help each other out?
Speak in French with your classmates over lunch—or quietly during study hall. Take turns asking each other mock exam questions.
Join a club
Participate in Alliance Française, an organization dedicated to fostering French culture and conversation in the United States and around the world. There may even be a chapter that meets regularly at your school or a nearby college.
French conversation Meetup groups in many big cities and small towns let you practice speaking French in the comfort of a café, library or restaurant.
So leave la nausée (the nausea) to Sartre. Armed with these five fundamentals for acing your French oral exam, you can ditch your nervousness and confidently prepare for your upcoming test.