Imagine you’re talking to your best friend, telling them a hilarious story about something that happened the night before.
Your story is flowing, but your words start to fall over themselves as you try to remember a specific detail.
Your sentences become littered with utterances to fill the space (“like,” “uh,” “um,” “well,” “you know” and more).
But this sounds completely natural, and your friend identifies these little words and sounds as filler and ignores them.
The French have filler, too, and it makes appearances in conversation just as often.
The simple fact that filler shows up in almost every sentence in everyday language means that being able to identify and use it will put you one step closer to mastering informal and conversational French.
It’s important to understand these nuances, because it’s the details that will make the difference between being able to speak French well and becoming completely fluent.
So let’s look at how to pick out and hear these fillers so you can…you know, recognize them.
Soon, you’ll start incorporating them into your own sentences as you…um, well…pause.
How to Train Yourself to Hear Filler Words
Listen to what words people use when they pause
This may be the most obvious piece of advice, but if you begin to pay close attention to the pauses in people’s sentences, you’ll start noticing the words they fill that space with. Everyone talks at a different pace and inserts these words at different moments, but you’ll almost always hear a word or two in the middle of a sentence—or even in between—when the speaker is regrouping between thoughts.
Pay attention to the beginnings and ends of sentences
Another one of the most common placements for filler words is at the beginnings and ends of sentences, when people like to tie up with a commonly used filler or set up the tone by starting with one. This is probably one of the easiest ways to pick them out, too, since the ear often catches what is said when a sentence ends.
Get into the habit of listening to informal French
Once you’ve prepared your ears to listen for these words, start listening to informal French often so that you start to get used to the pace of conversation and can begin to listen closely to identify fillers.
You can get a head start on informal French with the informal and spoken French e-book from IE Languages. It comes with audio files and provides examples of some of the characteristics that set spoken French apart. It’s a good resource for familiarizing yourself with more casual language and can help prepare you for listening to it in the wild.
A little later in this post, we’ll look at some links to some of the best authentic resources out there for listening to informal French and getting the hang of these little words.
But, first what are some examples of French filler, anyway? What are you looking for when you look for filler?
Common French Fillers
There are a lot of fillers out there, but here are some of the most common ones you’ll hear in French to start you off.
Deriving from enfin, which means “finally,” ‘fin is most often used in the middle of sentences, when the speaker pauses to add another thought to a sentence or round off an idea. Of course, it can be used (and frequently is used) in any part of the sentence, and is probably one of the most commonly heard fillers, since it can really be used to mean anything from “well” to “anyway” to “you know what I mean”!
English equivalents: “well,” “but,” “anyway”
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!)
Most French learners will quickly identify this one as translating to “what,” but this question word is often tacked on the end of a sentence as a word that almost means nothing at all. It’s often used to express definitive truth in whatever the speaker is saying—almost like saying “right?” in English, except a little more subtle. Mainly, it’s used to emphasize what the speaker is saying.
English equivalents: “you know,” “yeah,” “obviously,” “right,” “hey”
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!)
In English, it’s very common to use a word or phrase that emphasizes what you’re saying by asking the listener to confirm that they understand. In French, that is almost always tu vois, or “you know?” It’s similar to quoi in the sense that you use it to mean “you know?” but it’s used much more frequently in the middle of sentences than it is tacked on the end. Tu vois is literally translated as “you see” but its meaning is much closer to “you know” in English.
English equivalents: “you know,” “right,” “c’mon,” “really”
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.)
In more formal French, là is used to refer to a place and translates roughly to the English word “there.” In informal French, it’s used in much the same way, but the place gets much more abstract. Là could be a point in time or a specification of a person you’re talking about. It takes many different turns, and is quite similar to quoi in how loosely it’s thrown around within the sentence. Mostly, though, it’s used to quickly refer back to someone or something that you’ve already discussed before.
English equivalents: “there,” “the one I already referred to,” “which you know”
Le resto, là, il n’est pas superb.
(That restaurant isn’t very good.)
C’est dommage !
(What a bummer!)
This is, perhaps, my favorite French filler word of all time. It’s used much in the same way that English speakers use the word “basically,” but it can also be substituted for “anyway.” Its main purpose is to round up a long, winded conversation and either make the final point or summarize what the speaker just said. It’s almost solely used at the beginning of a sentence, and is sometimes paired with bon, which, despite the fact that it means “good,” will translate to something like “well” when paired with bref.
English equivalents: “Basically,” “Anyway,” “In summary”
*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.)
Great Resources for Getting the Hang of Filler Words
You know how to identify them, you know which ones are most popular—so how can you get a jumpstart on getting a handle on them and using them yourself? Here are some great resources for learning and practicing using fillers in conversation.
In-person and verbal practice
Get a language partner if you can, because someone who speaks French fluently and is completely familiar with fillers will no doubt provide the best practice you can get. The ideal here is to get more than one language partner, because, just like English speakers, everyone has a different way of speaking.
Identify how they’re using filler words, where they’re placing them in the sentence, and then compare with someone else’s usage of these little words. Then, start adopting the way they speak and keep the word placements that feel most natural to you. That way, you’re personalizing your informal French and making it the way you talk!
Speaking of which, FluentU is a great way to customize your learning of French, filler and all. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Because the content you find here is authentic (that is, the same stuff native speakers watch every day), it’s chock-full of filler. And unlike in subtitles for movies or TV, where filler may often be cut out, FluentU gives you complete interactive captions that show exactly what’s being said, so you can see that filler in action.
Radio and podcasts
France Inter is a great resource where you can find relevant, casual podcasts to listen to. There are so many great podcasts on France Inter, but start with those that have a lot of conversation and characters rather than the ones with just one host.
“Là-bas si j’y suis” is a great one, since it’s a news podcast that includes many different voices all throughout the show.
Another is “Le Masque et la plume,” which gathers a lot of different arts and culture experts around a table and asks them to voice their opinions on the newest books, movies and television shows.
And “La bande originale” brings a successful entrepreneur, artist or creator onto the show to discuss—with many others—their latest endeavor or success.
French television is probably one of the best ways to get used to conversational French. Canal+ is a great go-to site for finding the most popular and interesting French TV shows.
But perhaps the best choice for French television are talk shows, which, just like radio talk shows, will have hosts and guests laughing, speaking casually, talking over each other and using a lot of filler words. Some of these shows include “Apostrophes” (which is now off the air, but still applicable), “On n’est pas couché” and “Ce soir (ou jamais!).”
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