When you learn French, the first time you leave the classroom and talk to real native speakers, you might be in for a shock because you probably don’t understand much of what they say.
This is because the way people speak in real life is different from the way they’re ‘supposed’ to speak. And it’s not just about the speed. Words change, words disappear and all kinds of other stuff happens.
Adapting to this will take time and practise, but to give you a head start, in this post you'll learn about some of the things you can expect when faced with real spoken French.
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Before talking about French, let’s look at spoken English. Think about how you would say this sentence in an informal situation: ‘I don’t know yet, but I’m probably not going to go’.
Of course, it depends on where you’re from, but it could easily come out sounding more like ‘dunno ye’, bu’ um prob’ly no’ gonna go’, and this highlights several of the ways informal spoken English differs from the written or formal spoken versions.
First, the subject pronoun ‘I’ is dropped and the ‘t’s have disappeared from the ends of words.
Other words have been shortened, ‘swallowed’ or combined – ‘probably’ becomes ‘prob’ly’, ‘don’t know’ changes to ‘dunno’ and ‘going to’ is now ‘gonna’. Also, notice the pronunciation of ‘I’m’ has changed to ’um’.
Quite a difference, right?
But there’s more. Sometimes, we choose different words (“mate” or “buddy” instead of “friend”). We use incorrect grammar, we hesitate or change what we are saying mid-sentence, creating illogical structures, and we use slang or idioms. And that’s before we even get into regional variations in pronunciation or vocabulary.
The point is, spoken English is not just ‘normal’ English spoken faster – the language changes in many ways. And of course, the same is true of any other language, including French.
Dropping Ne…Pas In Negatives
Anyone who learns French knows we make negatives by placing ne before the verb and a negative word (pas (not), rien, (nothing), personne, (nobody), etc.) after the verb, like this:
- Je ne l’ai pas vu (I haven’t seen it)
- Je ne lui dirai rien (I won’t tell him anything)
- Il n’y a personne (There is nobody/nobody is there)
However, in spoken French, the people often drop the ne. In fact, in informal spoken French, French speakers rarely use it, so these sentences become:
- Je l’ai pas vu (I haven’t seen it)
- Je lui dirai rien (I won’t tell him anything)
- Il y a personne (There is nobody/nobody is there)
The third example might seem strange since personne alone means “person”, so without the ne, the sentence seems to mean “there is person”. However, from the context, it unambiguously means “there is nobody” because nothing else would make sense.
There are a few other peculiarities, and one you will probably come across is this:
- Ne t’inquiète pas ! (Don’t worry!)
According to the ‘rules’ we’ve just seen, in spoken French, you can drop the ne, giving you:
- T’inquiète pas ! (Don’t worry!)
However, in very informal French, this expression can be shortened further by also dropping the pas, like this:
- T’inquiète ! (Don’t worry!)
The meaning is still “don’t worry” (if you wanted to tell somebody to worry, it would be inquiète-toi), but this short form might seem a little disconcerting the first time you hear it. The best advice is just to accept it as it is and not to worry about it too much!
Bear in mind too that this is a special case – you can’t follow this pattern with other words.
Pronunciation Changes In Spoken French
Just like in the English example at the start of this post, it is common for words and sounds to be swallowed, transformed or even omitted in spoken French. This can make it difficult for beginners because they are trying to hear words that aren’t there.
For example, the il at the beginning of il y a (there is/are) or il faut (it’s necessary) is often not pronounced. So all you hear is ya or faut.
Similarly, de is often shortened after certain sounds like pas, and le might also be swallowed to the point of almost not being pronounced at all.
Put this together with the omission of ne, and a sentence like
- Il n’y a pas de lait dans le frigo (There isn’t any milk in the fridge)
can sound more like
- Ya pad lait donl’frigo
In the same way:
- je me can be squashed together as j’me
- tu es (you are) becomes t’es
- and tu as (you have) is shortened to t’as.
Before certain sounds, je is not only shortened but also changes to something more like the English ‘sh’. This means je suis (I am) often sounds more like shwee, and je ne sais pas comes out as shépa. This is a bit like the French version of “dunno”!
Other Common French Words That Change In Spoken French
- maintenant (now), which is pronounced ma’non
- ce que (what, that which), pronounced ske
- and s’il te plait (please), pronounced steplé
- Peut-être (perhaps) often comes out as ptet or even just tet
There’s no space to give a complete list of all the possible changes. But at least you can see how it works. And how similar it is to what happens in English. And by being aware of this, you can begin to train yourself to hear what people really say and how they really pronounce things.
In turn, this will help improve your French listening skills. And will also help you speak more like native speakers rather than carefully pronouncing every syllable in a way that no native speaker ever would except in very formal situations.
On Instead Of Nous
Another change you can’t fail to notice – and one that actually makes things easier for learners – is the use of the French subject pronoun on instead of nous to mean “we”.
The pronoun on is the equivalent of the English impersonal “one”, as in “one tries one’s best”. And in French, you can use it in the same way.
However, in spoken French, it is also almost always used in place of nous, like this:
- On va partir cet après-midi (We’re going to leave this afternoon)
In informal speech, the nous form is almost never used. And as you may realise, this makes your life easier because you don’t have to remember the nous form of the verb. The on form is the same as the il/elle form, so you just use that instead.
When used this way, think of it as meaning “we” – try not to translate it in your head as “one” because this is not what native speakers are thinking when they use it.
In fact, this usage can lead to some rather strange constructions, like this:
- On sait pas, nous (We don’t know)
Here, on is used with the corresponding form of savoir (to know) to mean “we don’t know”, but then nous is added to the end to reinforce the idea of “us”. The idea the speaker might be trying to express is that “we don’t know (but someone else might)”.
Again, this might not seem a particularly logical way to say something since literally, it means “one doesn’t know, us”. But this is how people really speak French, so don’t expect it to follow the rules you learnt in your textbook!
Lazy French Grammar
Something else that’s different from your textbook is that native speakers don’t always follow rules of ‘proper' grammar, preferring easier, ‘lazier’ constructions instead.
One example is when asking questions. In French, there are several ways to form questions, and here are two:
- Est-ce que tu veux une tasse de café ? (Do you want a cup of coffee?)
- Veux-tu une tasse de café ? (Do you want a cup of coffee?)
These are the ‘correct’ forms you will learn from your book, but in informal speech, it’s probably more common just to use a rising intonation to change the statement into a question, like this:
- Tu veux une tasse de café ? (You want a cup of coffee?)
We do this in English too, but it’s much more common in French – so if you’ve ever spoken to French people in English and noticed they use this construction a lot, now you know why!
Another thing you might hear is the ‘lazy’ use of tenses, especially the French future tense.
You might know that in French, the correct form is like this:
- Je te dirai quand j’arriverai (lit: I’ll tell you when I will arrive)
In French, you use the future for both parts of the sentence whereas, in English, we only use “will” in the first half.
In spoken French, though, you will often encounter the same sentence structure as in English – or sometimes even just with the present tense for everything:
- Je te dis quand j’arrive lit. (I tell you when I arrive)
This is not technically ‘correct’, but it’s quite common, so don’t be surprised if you hear it!
Vocabulary Changes In Spoken French
As in English, French also uses different vocabulary in informal situations. For example, you will often hear younger people talking about their pote (mate, buddy) instead of their ami or copain (friend).
Similarly, homme (man) can be replaced by mec (bloke, guy) and travail (work, job) is often called boulot –or even more familiar, taf.
A familiar word for nourriture (food) is bouffe, bouffer means “to eat” and “wine” can be referred to as pinard.
However, be careful when using words like these because they are normally used for less sophisticated food and drink. If you are invited to somebody’s house and call their food bouffe and their wine pinard, you are likely to cause offence – translating them as “nosh” and “plonk” will probably help you understand why.
There are plenty more, but these should give you an idea of what to expect. Just like in English, these are common everyday words you will hear in informal situations. Just be careful about using them, though, because they might not always be appropriate.
There’s another type of vocabulary that’s worth a small mention, and that’s what’s known as verlan. This is a type of language usually used by younger people, and it consists of words said backwards.
To give you just a couple of examples, femme (woman) becomes meuf while fête (party) is changed to teuf. The word verlan itself is derived from l’inverse (inverse) said backwards, and there are many other examples.
Don’t worry about it though. You don’t need to figure out the meaning – and usually, you won’t be able to.
Rather, it’s a bit like Cockney rhyming slang in that there are just set words that people use. Just as we know “have a butchers’’ means “have a look”, we know that teuf means “party”.
You don’t need to know the origin of “have a butchers’’, and you don’t need to know that teuf comes from fête to know what people are talking about.
Also, remember that verlan is mostly used by teenagers or young people, so it might sound strange coming from someone slightly older. As always, make sure you understand when and where words like this are appropriate before you start using them so you don’t end up looking silly.
Immerse Yourself In Spoken French
The key to understanding real-life spoken French is practice. The more you hear, the more you’ll get used to what people say and how they say it, and eventually, you’ll stop listening for words that aren’t there.
It might not seem easy at first, but if you stick at it, you’ll soon find that your comprehension begins to improve quickly. So immerse yourself in real spoken French by watching French movies or listening to podcasts in French.