You’ve picked up some French slang and have been busy studying the subjunctive.
You’re even watching French TV in your spare time!
And now you’re ready to mix it all together and put that knowledge to good use by talking with some real live French-speaking human beings.
But you’re feeling nervous and aren’t sure where to start.
Not to worry! Here are 11 tips to get you going, and to help you improve your French through conversation.
11 Tips to Help You Learn French Through Conversation
1. Ask questions to increase conversation confidence
Whether it be a mere “Où est le métro?” (Where is the metro?) or “Quelle heure est-il?” (What time is it?), asking simple questions to a friendly French person in the “rue” (street) is an easy confidence builder. It allows you to control the interaction as you limit the number of expected responses potentially offered by the helpful Harry before you.
Despite being familiar on paper, aurally identifying where one word ends and another begins can be very frustrating for a first time francophile. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that you already know the answer to, since at the start it’s all about tuning your ears to the French flow and rhythm.
2. Participate in “Franglish” conversation meetups
Franglish is a term you will encounter a lot in your endeavor to speak French. As the word suggests, it combines French and English but in a speed dating atmosphere where you exchange languages rather than numbers. These meetups occur in various locations across the world, but predominantly within France and England.
The quick partner turnover and jovial disposition of these events makes it a friendly initiative to have you chatting. Not only can you boycott the conversation jitters associated with lengthy time expectations, but you can also feel at ease with the often low practicing level of the other attendees. Usually, these scenarios will comprise of the basic getting-to-know-you spiel, guaranteed to build the conversation confidence needed for any novice chatter.
3. Find French conversation exchanges
If you have packed your bags for Paris, there is absolutely no better way to practice your communication than by meeting locals. It will cost you no more than a coffee or picnic necessities; making friends has never been so linguistic.
These are similar to Franglish parties, but often have more freedom to explore the language, culture and person. It is important to take advantage of the various opportunities that inhabit the country! Just be sure to spend plenty of time on each language to make it mutually beneficial. Who cares if their English is more advanced than your French (often the case)? Luckily your partner should be more interested in your “How do you do?” than your “Comment allez-vous?”.
Don’t know where to look for potential partners? Here’s a collection of the best sites and places to find both virtual and real-life French conversation partners!
4. Become involved in the French community
Once you have grasped the fundamentals, conversing with a purpose will increase your fluency rapidly. Working with children, the elderly or those less fortunate are effective portals for French conversation. Often these demographics speak slower, can be more patient and are less intimidating when making a faux pas. Organizations such as “Les Restaurants du cœur,” “la Croix Rouge” (Red Cross) and au pairing can be good places to start.
The Alliance Française is another active organization that operates in many major cities worldwide. It brings some much needed ooh la la into your native world with classes and events, so be sure to contact them to stay in the loop.
5. Attend public speaking events
Public expositions are another interesting way to improve your conversation. Not only do they provide a theme for you to understand and comment upon, but will broaden your vocabulary within that theme. Sit-in radio shows, author panels and theater performances are just a few of the many events available. Obviously this will expand your listening aptitude, but the opportunities to ask questions will further your progress as well.
Contact your local French society, cinema or Alliance Française to find out the relevant events for you. If you are more isolated, access online podcasts and videos through French radio websites or FluentU.
These videos are a wonderful alternative to public speaking events. While you might not be able to ask questions after like you would at a live show, the bilingual subtitles allow you to fully engage with the content on the platform. The subtitles also have a built-in dictionary, so you never miss a talking point.
See for yourself with a free FluentU trial.
6. Use music, films and e-books to promote listening skills
Manipulating entertainment to increase your language know-how is a tried and tested method. The combination of listening and reading – whether through lyrics, subtitles or a book – makes identifying spoken words much easier. As per point one, making these identifications in real life are often difficult, yet are a key aspect to conversation fluency.
Additionally, having the option to repeat what you just heard is also extremely helpful. As a beginner you may want the English translation in order to understand the context, but it is very important to switch to French as quickly as possible for the most benefits.
7. Differentiate between similar sounding words
Listening to a native speaker babel at a hundred miles an hour can be deterring, particularly when many words sound the same. For example:
“un” / “on“ (one / us)
“quand“ / “comme“ (when / like)
“sous“ / “sur” (under / on)
“son” (“his/her” or “sound”), “sont” ((they) are), “sent” ((he/she) feels), “sommes” ((we) are), somme (sum) and “kill me now”! (Just kidding on that last one…)
Recognize the words you find difficult and listen to them over and over again. This could be the difference between hearing “merci beaucoup” or “merci beau cul” …in other words, “thank you very much” or “thank you nice bum.”
8. Don’t rely on English expressions
Just like depending on your google translator to speak, directly interpreting English expressions and slang into French will often sound like a dyslexic jargon to a Parisian’s ears. Like any language, French boasts a variety of colloquialisms unique to their history and lifestyle.
Don’t start rambling about flying pigs or beating around the bush; become familiar with the local lingo before you take your French to the streets.
9. Know your “frenemies”
As you will have noticed, there are common words between both French and English – but this doesn’t always make it easier.
To say “Je suis excitée!” (I’m excited!) may seem like a perfectly reasonable way to describe your feelings toward your birthday, a new job or a holiday. However, “excitée” is but one example of a fake friend, because in the French language it is usually used only for sexual excitement. A very important frenemy to keep an eye on!
10. Fill the empty silence
We all have moments of lapse even within the comforts of our mother tongue. What do you say to fill the silence while you rack your memory for the next word? In English we might expel a much needed “ummm” or “so yeaaah,” but in French these noises won’t help you sleep at night.
Instead, when your mind goes blank, fill up your sentences with a typical “oui mais…” or a basic, “euh…“. Defaulting to the everyday language mannerisms makes you feel more authentic and less inhibited.
11. Practice pronunciation
It is no secret that foreigners can sound less language of love and more gurgling garbage disposal when trying to speak fluent French. This is a huge confidence buster in the realm of conversation. Choose words you can pronounce that include the sounds you find most difficult and make it a mantra.
The ominous rolling “r” is infamous for identifying English speakers, so take a word you know like “regard” (look) and repeat it when struggling with a more complex word like “rentrerai” (I will return).
The tongue acrobatics required to form a lot of the French phrases seem a struggle at best, but as the cliché goes, practice makes perfect and soon you, too, will be chatting with the best of them.
The key to mastering the art of French chit chat lies within confidence, comprehension and pronunciation. To tour the latter two aspects fully, log into FluentU and build your confidence. Take every conversation opportunity and practice, practice, practice!
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