Want to speak casually cool modern French?
Then you’re ready to take your colloquial French up a notch.
You’re already working on mastering French slang.
The next step is to consider pronunciation!
You’ve probably already learned quite a bit about French pronunciation in school, but what you’re learning is standard pronunciation, the way that the Académie française wants words to be pronounced (look it up if you’ve never heard of it—they’re the defenders of the French language, complete with swords!).
But the reality is that French, like all languages, is constantly evolving and changing. There are many expressions and words that aren’t pronounced the way you learned in school
You may know these words on paper, in French books and even from the lips of your French teacher, but they’ll still elicit a big “huh?” from you when you hear them on the street in conversation.
Lucky for you, you’re about to become an expert.
Learn Spoken French: 10 French Pronunciations You Won’t Learn in School
Disappearing Sounds and Words in French
French is a very phoneme-rich language.
A phoneme is a sound that creates meaning. For example, the sounds p and b are distinct phonemes in English, meaning that pat and bat are different words.
In French, many of these sounds are vowel sounds.
One of the toughest phoneme distinctions for English speakers to get a handle on is the difference between the two rounded vowels—the front rounded vowel sound in tu and the back rounded vowel in tout.
In English, there’s no front rounded vowel sound, so this distinction can be quite difficult to master.
1. Un bon vin blanc. (A good white wine.)
That being said, even with the richness of the French phonemic system, French is starting to lose some of its meaningful sounds.
One of the easiest ways to see this is by examining the four French nasal vowels, which you can hear in the sentence: Un bon vin blanc.
Traditionally, these four sounds are distinct nasal vowels, and yet the sound in un and the sound in vin are starting to become one and the same in much of France. If you travel to certain regions, you might notice that not only can you not hear the difference, but the speaker can’t either.
So if you’re not pronouncing a difference between these words, don’t worry—you just sound more French!
2. Ce n’est pas. (It isn’t.)
In many cases, the disappearing sounds in French are actually disappearing words.
One of the most prominent disappearing words in French today is that double negative so many of us slaved over when we were first learning French: the ne that comes before the verb.
That Ce n’est pas becomes C’est pas.
The important thing to remember with this ellipsis of the ne is that it’s only done orally. You should still always write the ne. Just neglect to pronounce it when you’re speaking and you’ll be sounding very French indeed.
3. Bien, je ne sais pas. (Well, I don’t know.)
Ben, chépa. Start practicing, because this is how the very common above sentence is pronounced by French people today.
While bien is still pronounced with a diphthong in most cases, when it’s used as we use “well…” in English it becomes ben.
And as for je ne sais pas, why use four syllables when you can use two? The ellipsis of the ne in this sentence has become so practiced and frequent that it’s been contracted to chépa…and some French teenagers even write it that way. But don’t make everyone around you shudder—keep this contracted version of the sentence to your oral pronunciation alone, s’il vous plaît.
4. Il y a. (There is/are.)
While there’s no hard-and-fast rule for removing il from a sentence, the phonetic closeness of the sound in il and that in y has turned this common phrase into one with one fewer syllable: Il y a becomes something closer to ya—which is about a syllable and a half, if you can manage it.
Try saying eeya and reduce the ee as short as you can, and you’ll be getting pretty close to the way that most Parisians pronounce this sentence.
French Words and Sounds That Are Likely New to You
While many of the above sentences were likely familiar to you—just maybe not in their reduced forms—the following sounds and phrases are likely unfamiliar, and many might seem just plain strange.
Welcome to the world of the French onomatopoeia.
You remember learning about these in elementary school, right? Words that sound like what they do, like bang, clang and ring. If one can say that Italians talk with their hands, one can definitely posit that French talk with onomatopoeias.
How was your day? Bof. Is the food good at that new restaurant? Bof.
This is something like meh, but it’s used far more frequently than just in Internet lingo.
Bof is essential to one of the most frequent French past times—the art of râler, or complaining artfully. This noncommittal expression of subtle displeasure is key to giving off that French air of insouciance.
Remember up top when we said that bien could be shortened to ben in certain cases? Well ben has also become its own term altogether, used to fill silences so that no one cuts you off (quite similar to the practice of using “like” in English).
The benefit of ben over “like” is that, because it’s a vowel sound, you can hold it as long as you can exhale.
“Que penses-tu de mon nouveau copain ?” (What do you think of my new boyfriend?)
7. Tac, tac, tac… et… hop !
If you’ve ever asked a French person for directions, then you know that the choreography and sound effects of the answer are just astounding.
Most French people, whether there’s a map in front of them or not, will use the sound effects above to show you how to get from place to place—landing at hop as the final destination.
This isn’t to say that the destination will necessarily be easily to find, but the directions sure will be entertaining.
8. Hop, hop !
As above, hop in this case isn’t pronounced as it is in English, but rather as ohp.
The meaning in this case is sort of a “let’s get going” or “up you get” idea. In fact, there’s even a regional airline called Hop! that uses this meaning of the word as the entire dialogue of its advertisements.
9. Hein ?
Remember growing up when your mom told you to say “Pardon” or “Excuse me” instead of “What?”
Well hein is the French equivalent of that “huh?” that teenagers are constantly dropping. It’s not necessarily terribly polite, but it’s definitely something you’ll hear around.
As for the pronunciation, it might not seem too obvious at first glance—and it’s quite hard to transcribe in sounds that Americans might find familiar. Remember those nasal vowels from un bon vin blanc? The closest you’ll get is the in sound in vin.
A Bit of Both
There’s an expression—one of several—that doesn’t quite firmly fit into either category. It stems from the fact that certain Internet slang expressions have started being used in day-to-day speech—from English loanword lol (pronounced loll) to the French equivalent mdr, short for mort de rire (dying of laughter) and pronounced em-deh-er.
But this one definitely takes the proverbial cake.
Osef is pronounced oh-zeff but is actually an acronym for On s’en fout (no one cares).
In some circles, a slightly stronger f-word is implied, but there’s no need to get into that here.
The most important thing to know is that by using this word, a word that turns an entire sentence into a two-syllable term, you’ll be firmly integrated into modern French conversational pronunciation.
Feeling more French already? Good!
Now that you’re somewhat familiar with these French pronunciations, you need to seal them into your brain with practice, practice and more practice.
To hear these words and expressions pronounced in true French fashion by native speakers, head on over to FluentU.
The interactive subtitles, tailor-made vocabulary lists and multimedia flashcard decks will help you learn French actively while watching your favorite authentic videos, giving you an extra boost in French reading and listening practice. Sign up for a free trial and see for yourself.
Don’t let these real-world French pronunciations slip out of your mind when you’re so close to sounding like a native! Get practicing today, and get a few steps closer to speaking like a Parisian.
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