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.
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.].
3. 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 conversation
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!
Want some real practice? Learn more in a specialized, spoken language French class like Bavardons!
*Editor’s note: Punctuation was modified to correct meaning.