You stare at the class syllabus in shock.
Sweat beads on your forehead. Your palms become moist. You start to shake.
You feel seasick, even though you’re on dry land.
You frantically flip through the weekly calendar on your smartphone’s screen, hoping there’s been some sort of mistake.
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.
Fear not! You can avert that dark cloud and bask in the sunshine of academic success.
Stay calm, take a deep breath, and tell that cat to give you back your tongue. We’re going to take you step-by-step through a cunning plan for test-taking success.
5 Fundamental Skills for Acing Your French Oral Exam
1. Auditory Comprehension
As you prepare to take your French oral exam, you’re likely to be focused almost exclusively on the speaking you’ll need to do. Chances are, however, you’ll be engaged in a dialogue with your professeur (professor) or enseignant (teacher).
So, 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.
Answer the right questions.
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.
We’ve devoted a section of this post just to question words and other important conversation words, so get ready to review and practice these resources in just a few moments.
Tune up your ears with FluentU.
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 within the context of any French conversation—including your French oral exam.
There is a wealth of French media readily available in this digital age. Submerge yourself and get your brain used to hearing and understanding French!
Resources like FluentU videos are especially useful for French oral exam preparation.
FluentU takes authentic videosreal-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Watch your mouth!
Pronunciation is important. 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.
Practice your pucker with these resources.
Here are a few resources for self-checking and improving your pronunciation in French:
- French Pronunciation Awareness 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. For a breakdown of French vowel sounds and resources for learning to pronounce them, be sure to check out this thorough guide.
- Silent letters can also trip you up. French learners tend to get confused about which letters to pronounce, as there are frequently silent ones—especially 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… so you can know when to enunciate, and when to just smile.
- To become more aware of similar sounds in French, and to teach yourself to carefully slow down through tricky turns of phrase, try the hairpin curves of these French tongue twisters.
- If you want to go digital in your quest for improved French pronunciation, give the apps and websites featured in your very own French Language Lab a go—along with the suggestions for practicing specific sounds in systematic ways, which are listed at the end of the article.
Several of the highlighted language programs 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 the software resources 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.
Master the French Inquisition with this question word chart.
Like the five Ws (and “how”) in English, French has its own set of commonly-used question words.
|French Word(s)||English Translation|
|À qui…?||To whom…?|
|Avec qui…?||With whom…?|
|Pour qui …?||For whom…?|
|À quelle heure…?||At what time…?|
|Pourquoi…?||Why…? [usually answered with Parce que (because)]|
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. You can hear their pronunciations in the Learn section.
Learn these conversational game-changers.
Here are a dozen or so basic conversational words that can change the meaning of a sentence. Think of them as road signs: Stop, Yield, Caution, etc.
|French Word(s)||English Translation|
|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|
|Ainsi||Thus; In this way|
If you feel at a loss when it’s time 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 this list of springtime vocabulary, this collection of words to describe people, this wardrobe full of clothing words, this recipe for culinary conversation—or these conversational classics, talking about the weather or your family.
Also, get more use out of words you already know by learning to transform them with tools like 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), lest you fall into the trap of similar-sounding words that don’t mean what you think they do.
Expand your horizons with videos.
To fill out your lexicon and deepen your cultural understanding, use topic-specific videos like the ones you’ll find on FluentU or YouTube. 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 while answering topical questions on your oral exam.
5. Comfort Level and Confidence
Practice makes prepared.
Increase your comfort level and confidence by practicing talking in French.
There are several different ways you can do this, and you can start slowly.
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.
A Selfie Studios production: Practice with recordings.
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 with yourself as a French speaker.
Don’t be shy—ham it up and have fun!
“Put me in, coach” for when you need that extra help.
If you’re concerned that your French conversational skills are not as strong as you’d like, employ a tutor or conversation partner to get guided practice speaking French.
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 sites like Conversation Exchange or the Mixxer. These are usually native French speakers who will be happy to practice French with you via Skype or other remote communication tools, usually in exchange for a few moments of English-language conversation.
Stay classy by practicing 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.
Get even more practice by joining the 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.