When you learn a language, you start with grammar, vocabulary, the French tenses, basic French phrases… It’s all very well for beginner French lessons, but if you want to speak French fluently you will need to go further. To become truly bilingual, you need to get a feel for the language, become immersed in it. Step up your French speaking skills with these tips.
The French Language: French Dialects
When studying French, it’s important to remember that there is not just one form of French. France itself has a number of regional dialects. France has been such a centralised country for so long that it’s easy to forget that there is more than one language spoken there, and that these local languages influenced the French spoken in that region.
Local French dialects
Many of the local languages are dying out. Only the elderly are left who learned them as a first language, though there are efforts to revive them.
In Lyon and the region of Savoie, a Romance language called Arpitan was spoken and influenced the local French in different ways, so that the parler lyonnais and the parler savoyard are two different dialects. In the south of France, it’s the Langue d’Oc that influenced the local patois.
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Elsewhere, such as in Brittany and Alsace, they don’t speak Romance languages. Breton is a Celtic language (Breton) and in Alsace they speak German (or rather, a dialect called Alsatian).
In Lorraine, you have influences from two different sources: Lorrain, a langue d’oil (like Arpitan and French), and a Franconian German dialect.
The French of Belgium and Switzerland
France is not the only French-speaking country in Europe. Both Belgium and Switzerland have French as one an official language.
The French spoken in Belgium is in some ways more archaic than French French, and also has many influences from Walloon, a langue d’oil spoken in Wallonia and parts of norther France (and a region in Wisconsin, USA).
In Belgium, they pronounce the “eau/au” sounds slightly differently from the “o” (the first is more rounded and closed, more like the English “o”, whereas the second strays more towards and “ah” sound), just as “ai” and è and “un” and “in” are differentiated - whereas in Metropolitan France they barely are. There are also a certain amount of differences in vocabulary, the most well-known of which is the use of “septante”, “octante” and “nonante” for 70, 80 and 90 ( instead of soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingts dix).
This difference in the numbers is also common in Switzerland. While the Swiss accent is not very pronounced and a Swiss will have no problem to understand a Frenchman, the reverse is not always true, as Swiss French has a number of particularities and phrases borrowed from Arpitan. In fact, Swiss French is fairly similar to the parler Savoyard.
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Due to French colonialism, various forms of French are spoken throughout the globe. Quebec, which used to be a French colony before it was ceded to England in 1713, is a Canadian province where most of the inhabitants speak French. There are some significant differences in pronunciation, so that French people often don’t understand Québec natives.
Many West African countries retain French as an official language, and speak either Metropolitan French or some form of Créole French incorporating elements from their local languages.
The same is true for Caribbean islanders (on Haiti, for example) and the inhabitants of many Oceanic islands, all of which used to be French colonies. Many of them have evolved French Creole languages with their own grammar and vocabulary.
How to Speak Fluent French Fast
Unless you are moving to Québec or French Guyana, you will probably want to learn the French language as it is spoken in Paris.
Taking French lessons to improve your French
If you want to learn French for beginners, it is better to start with a French class, whether you learn it with a formal French course or a private tutor.
The advantage of going to a language school is that you will find companions in your quest to understand French verbs, use the right pronoun and say “hello” in the language of Voltaire. They can help you in memorizing your French vocabulary, quiz you on the past tense of “je suis” and show you that other people have trouble with the linguistic convolution that is the French language.
However, you will not be able to set the pace, and while a good teacher will certainly help you, they won’t hold up the rest of the class until you understand a certain point of French grammar perfectly.
However, it you take a private tutor - for example, from the great selection of French teachers near you here at Superprof - you will be able to take online french courses through Skype or other video services, progress at your own pace and review what you have learnt whenever you need it.
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If taking a French course doesn’t fit into your schedule, or you already speak intermediate or advanced French, you get improve your fluency through French immersion - surrounding yourself with the language. Watch French videos and films (in French), read French magazines and newspapers. All this will help you stop translating French words in your head and simply associate French words and phrases with concepts, things and ideas.
You can try children’s books and series first - the simple sentences and basic French vocabulary will help you learn to read fluently without having to run to the dictionary every two minutes. Then, as you get used to reading in French, you can up the complexity with Young Adult, then adult books and films. Or try watching movies you know really well with the French audio track on. That way, you won’t have to worry about figuring out the plot and can focus on learning new words.
Or try keeping a language diary. At first, you won’t be putting much in it: basic French words to make up a to-do list, or a note on the weather. As you progress, you can try describing your thoughts and feelings in French, make notes on what you want to ask your French tutor next session and write small essays on current events. Anything that will keep you practising!
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Practise Speaking French With These Easy Tips
You can also up your language skills and better your listening comprehension of French by listening to French audio books and podcasts, and French music. Having the language constantly in your ear will help you understand French expressions and expand your vocabulary beyond your phrasebook.
But the best immersion is a complete one. Traveling to France or another francophone country is really the best way to come into contact with those for whom French is a mother tongue.
You can take immersion holidays that let you attend a French class in the morning and play tourist in the afternoon. Or you can live in France for months by doing a stint as an au-pair or take part in a student exchange programme. These often also offer French courses of some sort to accompany you as you improve your French conversation and understanding by interacting with the natives. It’s the best way to understand French culture and learn to speak like a true Parisian.
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If you can’t travel, you can try to find a language partner - a native speaker wanting to improve their command of the English language. You will do a sort of language exchange - you will speak English to them for half a session, speaking first entirely in one language, then the other. Or you can do complete sessions in each language - however you decide to arrange it. Talking with a French person will help you acquire a less formal vocabulary, get more fluent when talking, improve your confidence when speaking French and, quite simply, teach you to communicate in another language. You can also text with them or find a way of learning French online through video chat or other options.
You can also practise your oral French through various language apps (some offer a microphone option so you can hear and improve your accent) or simply speaking French to yourself, your cat and anyone else who will listen. Make up shopping lists in French. Comment on what you are buying, plan your day while speaking aloud - do everything you can to actually say French phrases and get them from a dormant, inactive vocabulary into an active one.
Speak French Right: French Pronunciation
We all think we know how French is pronounced. From Hercule Poirot and his petites cellules grises to Inspector Clouseau to the cast of “Âllo! Âllo!”, we have all heard English actors pretending to be French speakers who are speaking English.
But what does one really pronounce French and how can you learn it?
First of all, there is no single French accent, just as there is no single English accent. But, like in British English, there is a sort of standard French pronunciation you will find on the news and in films.
So, how do you go from an obvious rosbif to a vrai francais?
French Vowel Pronunciation Guide
One thing to remember is that, no matter what the accent, most English vowels are diphthongs - that is, they are not pure vowel sounds, but several.
Take a moment to really listen. In most standard English accents, the “a” in “are” is a pure vowel, whereas the “u” in “pure” will generally have a very slight “y” sound at the beginning.
French language courses will often give you examples of how French is pronounced, but will generally neglect to explain to you what you are doing wrong. Apart from the difficulties inherent in sounds that don’t exist in English such as the nasal vowels “an” and “on”, that are pronounced through the nose, the biggest hurdle in speaking recognisable French are those vowels.
This post has a pronunciation table to help feel your ways toward the right way to say your French vowels, but the best way is to really listen to a native speaker speaking and trying to imitate him. Learn to really feel what your mouth, tongue and throat are doing when talking, and see how modifying one or the other affects the sound. Don’t hesitate to record yourself - most smartphones have a recording function and of course they have a built-in microphone - or practice in front of a mirror.
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Additions to the French Alphabet
To make things even more complicated, the French alphabet has a few additional signs.
French has three different accents on the vowels. The first, the accent aigu is only used on the E “é”. The other two, the accent grave è and the accent circonflexe ê can appear on other vowels as well. Just like the German diaeresis or Umlaut, they modify the value of that vowel.
Only one consonant has an added symbol in French: the ç, or “c cédille”, indicates that the C should be pronounced like the English S, not K.
The Insidiousness of French Consonants
Apart from the fact that certain letters of the alphabet are pronounced very differently (the W, for example, is pronounced like a V, the I like an E etc…), some consonants at first sound like they are pronounced the same, but are formed slightly differently in the mouth.
One reason an English speaker might still sound foreign even though he has his vowels right could be the R.
Whereas you might as first be tempted to roll it with your tongue like an Italian R, the French R is rolled in the back of the throat, like a growl or the purring of a really big cat. Try to roll a standard English R (the Scots and Irish have to figure it out for themselves). If you like French music, try listening to Edith Piaf. She rolls her Rs rather theatrically, but you might understand the difference between the French and Italian Rs a little better.
Even more insidious is the L. This liquid palatal consonant is one of the most varied consonant sounds in European languages (and elsewhere), but also one of the most subtle and difficult to differentiate. You may not hear the difference when someone demonstrates, but it will definitely affect your French accent:
- For the English L, the tongue presses against the palate just behind the teeth.
- For the French L, press it a little further back in your mouth. If you listen very carefully, you will notice a slight difference in the quality of the sound.
Learning to Speak French: Perfecting Your French Accent
But simply getting the pronunciation of the various sounds of the French language right is not enough to speak with a genuine French accent.
If sounds are the atoms of a language, rhythm and intonation are the molecules that form a whole. There are certain rules that govern how you accentuate words and sentences, and that is the last polish you need for true mastery of the language.
The rhythm of words
Take a moment to really listen to the language. Notice how some syllables in words are accentuated more than others? Every language has its own way of stressing words.
When listening to English, you might notice that words are stressed differently: DOCtor, but LaBORatory. However, most words in English are stressed on the first syllable.
In French, however, it is always the last syllable of a word that gets the stress. Because words are not always the same length, French speech sounds more musical, whereas English is more rhythmic.
|English word (with stress)||French translation (with stress)||Number of syllables (French)|
The rythm of the French sentence
French is often considered a very musical language, whereas English is more rhythmic. While, as we have seen, there are no absolute rules to stress in English words, they do tend to be stressed more at the beginning, with longer words having more than one stress.
Together with the small words such as articles and pronouns, which tend not be stressed in a sentence, the natural rhythm of the English language tends towards a ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, a fact exploited by many poets, including Shakespear (to BE or NOT to BE).
But because of the relative fluidity of stress inside words, English is also more fluid on what WORDS can be stressed in a sentence; but even here there are rules: one of the big differences between British and American accents is word stress.
French sounds more musical than English because there is more ebb and flow in the stress of syllables within a sentence since, as we have seen, the last syllable of a word is stressed no matter how long the word. But is is also musical because, over the whole sentence, the last word is stressed the most - like a note held at the end of a musical phrase.
So while an ENGLISH sentence might be stressed in various places,
Une phrase en francais sera toujours stressée sur le dernier MOT.
I am GOING shopping.
Je vais faire les COURSES.
Luke, I AM your father.
Luke, je suis ton PÈRE.
Learn To Speak French Slang
In French class, you are taught a rather formal version of the language. French teachers usually don’t teach you any oaths nor French slang. However, as soon as you make it to France, you will be confronted with sphinxlike sentences such as:
- “Écoute, j’me barre, j’ai rendez-vous chez l’toubib.”
Listen, I’m going now, I have an appointment at the doctor’s.
- “J’ai la dalle. Je pourrais bouffer sans arrêt.”
I’m hungry. I could eat all the time.
- “T’as vu la nana? J’la kiffe, elle est trop sympa.”
You see that girl? I love her, she’s so nice.
Slang words in French come from various sources:
- A few come from regional languages
- others from English (être scotché à quelquechose, to be glued to something; from Scotch tape)
- some are shortened versions of common words, like “mimi”, cute, from “mignon” - c’est trop mimi! It’s so cute!
- a few are shortened forms of longer expressions: “ta gueule!” for “ferme ta gueule!” “close your trap!” (”gueule” is the word used for the mouths of animals)
- or re-imagining of words with the addition of suffixes or prefixes, like “microbus”, “tiny”, a twisting of “microbe” or “germ” with a pseudo-Latin ending.
Two of the most common sources of French slang, however might be a little surprising:
- A lot of everyday French expressions, such as “toubib” (doctor) and “kiffer” (to like) come from the Arabic, brought back from Algeria and other North African countries such as Morocco first by soldiers, then by immigrants.
- Others are in verlan, a sort of French pig Latin. Thus, a woman can be a “meuf” (femme->me-fe->meuf) and a man a “meuh” (from “homme” -> me-ho -> meh) or “keum” (from another slang expression for a man, “mec” -> cem -> keum). You might listen to zikmu (music) or go out in a car that’s cheum (moche, ugly) with a meuh whose driving is “complètement ouf!” (fou, crazy).
So when you learn to speak French, dare to step out of the classroom and listen to French music, watch French films and speak with French people: whether it be one of our private Superprof tutors, a language exchange partner or the new “potes” (friends) you made during your stay in France or Belgium or Switzerland. This is only way you can bring your French skills from: “French as a foreign language” to “bilingual”.