Five Ways to Sound More “French”

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Many French students remark upon their first visit to France that spoken French is very different from what they have been taught in school. Indeed, spoken and informal French make major departures from the formal way of writing and speaking that is taught in French lessons. So, if you want to “sound more French” and when you speak, follow these five tips to better understand the language when it’s spoken and to add some fluency, richness, and a certain je ne sais quoi cool to your own conversation.

Calm

1. Switch up the word order in questions
The word order for questions in informal spoken French is far easier than the inverted or est-ce que forms generally used in more formal spoken and written French. Simple sentence structures consist of subject + verb + question word or question word + subject + verb.

Example: Rather than saying, Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? [What are you doing?], you can simply say, Tu fais quoi ?

Or, instead of Pourquoi as-tu dit ça ? [Why did you say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça ? For emphasis, you might even add, Pourquoi t’as dit ça, toi ?

The meaning is exactly the same regardless of the word order, but you achieve a more comfortable and casual register.

2. Use on instead of nous
The third-person singular pronoun, on, is used much more often to mean “we” than nous. For example, On peut y aller ? [Can we go?] would be far more common in spoken French than Pouvons-nous y aller ? Or, Est-ce que nous pouvons y aller ?

The French on can also assume the same role as the impersonal “you” in English, when the second-person pronoun is used for an indeterminate subject. For example, On peut pas apprendre tout en un jour. [You can’t learn everything in a day.].

Similarly, on also takes the place of the English indefinite pronouns “every one” and “everybody.”  One excellent example that resonated throughout France during World Cup matches this summer was: On y croit. On est tous là derrière vous. [Everyone believes in you. We’re all behind you.].

Ne3. Drop the ne in negatives
Although the ne in negatives should always be written for the ne + verb + pas construction, it is very rarely used in informal speech. Many first time visitors to France are shocked by the seemingly blatant disregard for this elementary grammar rule, but quickly come to find it is merely part of the savoir dire [learning how to say things] of spoken French.

Some examples you might overhear while nestled next to your French neighbor at a café include: Ça va pas ! or C’est pas normal ! [Both meaning “That’s not OK!”] or Je peux pas aller au cinema ce soir. C’est pas possible. [I can’t go to the movies tonight. It’s not possible.].

Similarly, other negative constructions, such as ne + jamais, ne + rien, ne + aucun, and ne + personne, drop the ne that precedes the verb. For example, Il n‘y a personne qui veut m’aider [No one wants to help me.] becomes Il y a personne qui veut m’aider.

4. Drop the “u” in tu + verb starting with a vowel
In spoken French, the most common contractions with tu are t’as and t’es, which replace tu + as and tu + es.

For example, T’as fini de manger ? [Have you finished eating?] or T’es fatigué ou quoi ? [Are you tired or what?], or even T’as rien compris ! [You didn’t understand anything!].

Add these tu contractions to your spoken French and you will quickly realize how much it speeds up your rate of speech.

5. Use fillers in conversationEiffel
Adding fillers and interjections to your spoken French will add a layer of richness and ease that will make your French sound more idiomatic and, well, “more French.”

Here are some common fillers, transitions, and interjections that you will certainly overhear when natives converse, and that you may slowly add into your conversations for a certain je ne sais quoi.

  • Quoi [literally “what,” but really meaning, “you see” or “you know”] is the most common filler in everyday speech. It can be used to add emphasis or to show impatience. It is usually said at the very end of the sentence: On bosse le soir et puis c’est dur quoi !”[You work in the evening and then it’s hard, you know.].
  • Hop là ! [Whoops!] Drop something? Almost fumble? It’s time for an hop là !
  • Alors [so] can be used in either a positive or negative sense as a filler or logical link in conversation: Alors, on va boire un verre ? [So, do you want to get a drink?] or Il n’est pas venu..et alors? Ce soir on fera la fête quand même.* [He didn’t come, but so what! We’ll still party tonight.].

These are just five little ways to get you started on your way to more fluent and idiomatic French, but you will quickly notice how such small words — or even sounds — will speed up your speaking rate and dramatically improve your comprehension. Bonne chance!

BavardonsWant some real practice? Learn more in a specialized, spoken language French class like Bavardons!

 

Images borrowed from:
About.com
French Today
Keep Calm
Media Tactiques
Russian Council

*Editor’s note: Punctuation was modified to correct meaning.

About

Erin Lyons is an English, French, and Italian Translator and earned her MA in Translation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and her BA in Romance Languages and Literatures from the University of Chicago. A francophile since her father first took her to Paris, Erin also studied at the Université Montpellier III - Paul Valery and has worked in France and Italy on and off over her career. « Que sais-je ? » ("What do I know?"). Not much, but Montaigne has all the answers.

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38 thoughts on “Five Ways to Sound More “French”

  1. Great post! We make similar changes in English without even realizing. But it’s still so helpful to read about these in black and white. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Chloe. Yes, much like the French, we make many changes in our spoken, colloquial English without even realizing it!

  2. Rule no 6. Do use the prepositions “y” and “en”, e.g. t’en veux? T’y vas pas?, even if you don’t know to what they refer exactly.

    Forgetting these immediately gives away most English speakers (because these preps don’t exist in English).

    Reg. rule no. 3: it’s not a “blatant disregard for an elementary grammar rule”. It’s just a grammatical transfer of meaning as any trained linguist would confirm. Unlike in other Romance languages where the meaning of negation is essentially conveyed by the Latin adverbial root, its potential load is conveyed by the adverbs “pas/plus/point/pis/etc.” (which used to be there only to reinforced the “ne”).

    So by all means drop the “ne”, but never forget the “pas” because that’s where the negational meaning stands!

      1. Yes, these are really good points about the “y” and “en,” which tend to be a bit of a struggle for native English speakers.

  3. Hein?

    So, I’d like to make a precision? For informal discution, the interogative pronoun take the position according to its function in an affirmative sentence (Sujet +verbe + complément) :
    T’as fait quoi?
    Qui a fait ça?
    Tu va où?
    Il a donné quoi à son chat?
    Il a donné de la patté à qui?
    qui a donné de la patté à son chat?

    Ne may be drop in some case of negation… but far to be possible in any case, cus the Ne get the stress of the negative sentence … even informal if you blame someone using a negative sentence ne cannot be omited.

    1. This is a good point, Benjamin. Although, the first point was mostly to point out that the “qu’est-ce que” and “est-ce que” constructions are generally dropped in informal, spoken French. Also, great point about the need for “ne” when blaming someone or stressing the negative construction.

  4. In the 5th category, the 3rd point, “Il n’est pas venu, mais alors ce soir on fera la fête quand même” it doesn’t work. You can delete the “alors”.

    Other expressions can be used, and it depends in which part of France you are. In the south, they have got different pronunciation and expressions.

    But in the North, you can say “ha bon !” or “ha bon ?” [Really ! or Really ?]

    You can also say “Hein !” or “Hein ?” (same pronunciation than the number one “un”).
    – It means “What ?” if you want the person repeat.
    – It means “isn’t it, don’t you, aren’t you, etc.” when you put it at the end of the sentence. When you want to know the opinion of the other.
    Example : “C’est bon, hein !” [It tastes good, isn’t it ?]
    It replaces the “n’est-ce pas” which also ask the opinion of the other person, but seems too polite, and rarely used in France.
    You mustn’t use it when you’re talking to your boss !

    And you’re right with the image “sh comprend pas” because the “ne” is deleted, and the “je” is replaced by ” j’ “.
    And the j’ + the next word makes this sound : sh
    -> shcomprend pas.

  5. One of our Facebook commenters wondered about the “sh” in the image, noting that the alteration sounds more like just a slurred “je”, but not a true English “sh.” While it’s true that a French “j” is pronounced more softly (like the “si” in the English words or “fusion” or “visionary”) than an English “j” (as in words like “jungle” or “jiggle”), the use of “sh” here is quite accurate in the slurred form.

    If you listen closely, it is made just slightly further back on your palate than you may be thinking — more like in the word “shudder” than in the word “shoe.” Try saying the two English words out loud while paying attention to where your tongue hits the roof of your mouth; the French sound is more like the former! =)

  6. 5 good ways to sound more french indeed, very good job!
    Asking a question in French is especially based on intonation. Forget the inversion verb – subject in familiar dialogues; that’s never used! Knowing that we hardly ever pronounce the negative “ne” and that the “je” is mostly pronounced “sh”, “Je ne sais pas” becomes “Chépa” (!)
    Notice: You changed subjects in the example of point 1: “Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça?” becomes “Pourquoi il a dit ça, (lui)?”

    1. Thanks, Max… yes the change in subjects has been pointed out in several comments, but thank you for the correction.

  7. For fillers, I’d also add: de cout and puis.

    En plus, on utilise les mots nul, comme carremont, clairemont, franchement, etc. etc. Et les mots comme mec, meuf, pute et man.

  8. Hi there! Loved the post. As an American living in Paris is it finny to read this, wishing I knew it before I moved to France!
    -Lauren

    P.S. I saw a little error;

    “Or, instead of Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça ? [Why did he say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça ? For emphasis, you might even add, Pourquoi t’as dit ça, toi ?”

    Here you first use “a-t-il” [he] but then switch to “t’as” [you]. Instead it should be “Pourquoi il a dit ça, lui) ?” n’est-ce pas? :)

  9. Or, instead of Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça ? [Why did he say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça ? For emphasis, you might even add, Pourquoi t’as dit ça, toi ?

    This doesn’t make sense. First you go from the pronoun he and then to the pronoun you. You need to keep some consistency.

  10. I thought “hop là” was more of a “Done! That’s that!” expression, and “Oh là” was the equivalent of “oops,” or “oh no.”

    1. “Hop là!” certainly can be used in the sense of “oops.” For example, if you have a small pet you almost step on, you might say this as you sidestep them, as in “woah there!” Or a for a child who almost runs their trottinette into a bench, “‘Hop là!’ You just missed it!”

      Perhaps others have some examples for additional contexts!

  11. I may be wrong, but in the following:

    “Or, instead of Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça ? [Why did he say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça ? For emphasis, you might even add, Pourquoi t’as dit ça, toi ?”

    In the “spoken” version in this example, isn’t the meaning changing to “Why did you say that”, and not remaining the same “Why did he say that” as the original version?

  12. Qu’est-ce qu’il y a une faute de frappe dans le premiere partie? Ce devrait être écrit: <> [Why did you say that]. “Or, instead of Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça ? [Why did he say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça? For emphasis, you might even add, Pourquoi t’as dit ça, toi?” Et puis, est-ce qu’on pronounce <> (plutôt que <> dans le tableau <>)? Ou bien, on doit dire <>? Les trois options, lesquelles sont plus courant en France? Merci!

  13. Est-ce qu’il y a une faute de frappe dans le premiere partie? Ce devrait être écrit : “Pourquoi as-tu dit ça?” [Why did you say that]. “Or, instead of Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça ? [Why did he say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça ? For emphasis, you might even add, Pourquoi t’as dit ça, toi ?” Et puis, est-ce qu’on pronounce “ch” (plutôt que “sh” dans le tableau “Je ne comprends pas”? Ou bien, on doit dire “Jen comprends pas”? Les trois options, lesquelles sont plus courant en France? Merci par advance!

  14. Very interesting, I think my students will like it.
    Small mistake (or typo?) though:
    “Or, instead of Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça ? [Why did he say that?], just ask, Pourquoi t’as dit ça ?”
    It should be “pourquoi as-tu dit ça ? (why did you say that?)”, you should use the same pronoun in both sentences if you want them to have the same meaning :)

  15. hum… “Pourquoi a-t-il dit ça?” becomes “pourquoi il a dit ça?” and not “pourquoi t’as dit ça?”
    the rest is pretty accurate :)

  16. It’s hard to take this seriously when the picture you have up “Sois calm et parle français” has a mistake in it (calme not calm in French). It should also probably be “Restez Calme et Parlez français”

  17. It’s “On y croit” though, not “crois”.

    Agreed with what was said in the previous comments about “quoi”, please dont use it, it’s the most irritating thing ever.

    “Hop là !” is only used when something’s just been finished, to emphasize that you’re done with it. It doesnt mean “Oops” at all. “Oops” would translate to “Oula !”

  18. Another tip, “je ne sais pas” or “je sais pas” is usually said “sh’ai pas”. I’m French and one of my English teachers told me that he thought “shaipas” was a word during his 2 first months living in France!

  19. As an expat living in french speaking Switzerland I can verify that all of the Authors points are 100% correct.

    In fact I was laughing and so was the swiss/french person whom sent me the link.

    I learned french mostly from conversation (rather than in a school focused heavily on grammar)

    I think it may actually be beneficial to learn this way because I speak fluently and I speak the “dialect” for lack of a better word. However, knowing the more formal grammar is really important in more formal settings, and the more formal way is used in business settings rather than ‘quoi’ etc you would never use this in a meeting it’s simply too casual. Same goes for the other points.

    The spelling and correct grammar can come later, if you are fluent it gets you a lot further than knowing all of the rules of grammar and having to reflect on each rule as you speak.

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