Remember starting math in middle school?
You’d spent years learning basic math with numbers, and how did your teachers reward you?
By introducing letters into the process, right? Talk about a buzzkill!
There might come a time when you feel the same way about French.
After all, it’s challenging enough putting all that work into learning to understand French, and understanding it to any degree feels like quite an accomplishment (as it should!).
But then you want to speak French, and it feels like you’re right back at square one.
If you ever want to use French in real life, though, knowing how to hold a conversation is critical.
So instead of getting discouraged, let’s take the bull by the horns.
Before you take one more step in improving your French listening, reading and writing skills, let’s start working on your French conversational skills right along with them.
The Advantages of Diving into Conversational French Right Now
Regardless of how good your French is in any other area, there’s a definite benefit to not putting off focusing on conversational French for even a day longer. When you do take the plunge into speaking in French, you’re sure to notice the following benefits.
Your listening comprehension will improve
Unlike watching movies, participating in a real conversation forces you to understand what’s being said, which will help you improve your listening comprehension, and the importance of good listening comprehension can’t be stressed enough.
For example, say you’re in a gare (train station) and you hear the announcement that your train’s boarding. If you can’t understand the spoken French, your vacation to Rennes may end up taking place in Reims! (Granted, your destination will be on your ticket, so that may not be the best example, but you get my point.)
You’ll wind up meeting people
Conversation is inherently social. In fact, it’s the only aspect of learning French that actually requires partners, so it’s a great excuse to meet people.
It’s also not difficult to meet people for the purpose of French conversation. You have many options for finding conversation partners, including native speakers, such as websites like Language For Exchange.
You might also get in touch with other learners via local Meetup groups that meet regularly in your area for French conversation. If you live in a college town, you’re in luck. Most colleges have a French speaking club, often open to the public. Just look around on the websites of local schools and organizations.
You’ll be able to “test” what you know
Like with the train boarding analogy for listening comprehension, trying to carry on a conversation in French is maybe the best way to objectively evaluate how well you actually speak (and know) French. You’ll realize pretty quickly if the conversation is flowing smoothly or if you need more practice. Your pronunciation doesn’t need to be perfect, but your goal should be to speak on a variety of subjects at a normal speed and without too many hesitations.
Your pronunciation will improve
Conversing with a partner, especially a native, can provide real-time feedback. If you mispronounce something, your partner will be more than happy to let you know. In my experience, I remember how a word is pronounced better by trying to say it than by reading its phonetic spelling. Similarly, since French speakers use their mouths differently when speaking, you’ll end up “training” your mouth to pronounce French words.
Learn Conversational French: 3 Savvy Steps to Speaking Stardom
So you know you need to get started on conversation, and you know how to get a language partner. But what about beyond that? What should you actually do?
Here are three simple steps to get you started. They’re not the kind of steps that you necessarily need to do in order, but they all require your attention if you want to get off on the right foot with French conversation, so don’t neglect any of them!
Step 1: Listen carefully for Francophone intonation, accentuation and regional dialects
It’s impossible to cover every facet of French pronunciation in one article, but here are a couple basic points you’ll want to keep in mind before, during and after having a French conversation.
- Intonation and accentuation are very different in French.
Intonation is the variation in pitch of spoken language. Declarative and imperative sentences (statements and commands) in French are similar to English in that they end with falling intonation.
Similarly, interrogative sentences (asking a question), like in English, end with a rising intonation.
The biggest difference is probably found in exclamative intonation. In French, exclamations show a fall in pitch at the end.
Accentuation is the stress placed on a particular syllable in a word. The main difference between French and English accentuation is that, in French, the accentuation is placed on the final syllable of the word, whereas in English the placement of stress is more variable. Thus, Paris is pronounced PAR-is in English, but Pa-RIS in French.
More detailed explanations of accentuation, such as this one from the University of Texas, are widely available online.
A great way to get a feel for how to vary your pitch and accentuate syllables is to find slow-paced dialogues such as this Marguerite Duras film, listening carefully for what’s described above.
French instructor and YouTube contributor Rachèle DeMéo offers a brief but good summary of pitch and accentuation.
- There are lots of different accents and regional dialects.
Each region of France has a different accent. Not even considering the language of other Francophone countries, that’s a lot of accents!
It’s hard to describe them without using examples. Here’s a YouTube video that gives examples of 28 French accents.
They’re often very different from each other, a situation comically summarized in the film “Bienvenue chez les Cht’is,” and learners generally find some accents easier than others.
Step 2: Learn the subtle differences that separate native speakers from learners
Even if you master accentuation and pitch, there are many subtle aspects of spoken French that aren’t described in textbooks, so let’s get specific! Here are a few things you’ll want to be aware of.
- Non-verbal gestures in France are different.
We often speak with our hands, facial expressions, etc. In fact, this mode of communication is so pervasive that we don’t even think about it, but there are literally hundreds of gestures we use when speaking. By growing up in a certain culture, speaking a certain language, we never have to learn these things explicitly.
French is no exception. Knowing as many gestures as possible is great, but as a non-native speaker, it’s almost impossible to memorize every one. As with accents, though, actually witnessing the gestures in action is probably the best way to learn them. YouTube’s “French from Beginners to Advanced” offers one of the best summaries of the main hand gestures.
- Interjections are different, too.
In English, we say “ow!” if we feel a sudden pain, or “darn!” to express dissatisfaction. In spoken French, interjections add flavor to a conversation. Though you could get by without them, learning them will serve to “refine” your French.
Several are used frequently, like those in this BBC article, but there are many others, as Wiktionary shows. The interjection bof is especially useful. It’s sort of a catch-all that can have several meanings, like “so what,” “hmm” and “whatever,” among others.
- There are even more particularities in conversational French.
There are other particularities in spoken French that can’t really be categorized; you just have to hear them. Here are a few to listen for, though.
French people will often pronounce the word oui (yes) while inhaling or blowing air.
In another example, je ne sais pas (I don’t know) undergoes several stages of simplification, from the original form to je sais pas to sais pas and finally to chépa.
Similarly, il y a (there is/are) is often reduced to y’a or y’a pas.
Je suis (I am) simplifies to chui.
Ne t’inquiète pas (don’t worry) becomes t’inquiète.
Tu es (you are) morphs into t’es.
Oui is often pronounced ouais (think “yes” vs. “yeah”).
Certain words or uses of words are only spoken, never written. For example, when hesitating, French people say euh, much like how we say “um.”
Sentences that make a general declarative statement are often ended with quoi to add emphasis:
La poésie, c’est ma vie, quoi ! (Poetry is my life!)
Spoken French has so many particularities of this type that it would take a dictionary to describe them all. Just keep in mind that the above manner of speaking, although widespread, is informal and may not be appropriate for more formal settings.
You can continue your education on informal French with this e-book on informal and spoken French from IE Languages. It includes plenty of audio examples, so you can verify your comprehension of spoken peculiarities and be ready when you hear them in the real world.
If you’re still working on building up your understanding of French vocab and grammar, using learning materials that give special consideration to spoken language can help. French Today offers audiobooks and lessons that teach vocabulary and grammar concepts but do it within the context of how natives really talk.
Step 3: Overcome your fear of speaking aloud
Since conversation puts a learner on the spot, it’s often a stressful experience. Adding to the sense of performance anxiety is the fact that many standardized French tests, like those mentioned by the “Centre international d’études pédagogiques” (International Center of Pedagogical Studies), include a spoken component.
Not only does it make things easier for you if you can lower your stress level, but it’s actually better for your learning, so it’s important to actually make it a priority. Everyone has different ways of becoming more comfortable speaking, but I’d thought I’d share some of my ideas.
- Speak aloud in private.
You can read aloud, repeat what you hear in movies or just talk to yourself. It will make you feel more comfortable if nobody’s around. Admittedly, you’ve probably heard this before, but that’s because it works!
For me, this strategy takes two forms: Either I read a book or other publication aloud, or if I’m up for a challenge, I repeat a character’s dialogue in a film. This last strategy forces you to speak quickly enough to keep up with the film. If you don’t have much time for books and movies, you can speak aloud to yourself in daily situations like following a recipe, driving to work, etc.
- Use the protection of a computer screen.
If you’re intimidated by speaking in person with conversation groups, you can start by finding partners on websites like those mentioned above for private Skype sessions. They know you’re there to learn, and they’re not going to criticize you.
If you feel like you really need someone to work with you on your speaking in depth, Verbling is a great place to find the perfect online teacher. You can browse through a ton of detailed profiles before selecting someone, and meet with them using the video technology right on the site.
- Mistakes are unavoidable, so make big ones!
You’re not doing yourself any favors by “hiding” incorrect pronunciation. Don’t be afraid of pronouncing something the way you think it should be pronounced. That way, if you’re wrong, it will be easy for your conversation partner to correct you. Remember, they’re there to help you.
If you follow the above steps, you’ll be learning to speak French, not just understand it.
It may sound harsh, but as great as passive learning is, at some point you’ll have to dive into the deep end.
If you ever want to travel or work professionally in a Francophone environment, you’ll be communicating verbally in French daily.
Fortunately, as you can see, there are lots of great resources and strategies to help you move from passively listening to actively speaking!
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