How to Sound like a Native French Speaker
Once you are sufficiently confident about your standard French verbal communication, you may feel ready, while visiting France, to sprinkle your conversation with a few colloquialisms. Don’t expect, however, to give the impression that you are a local. Only the truly bilingual, or non-native speakers with half a lifetime’s practice, can carry off such a feat. However, by interspersing your dialogue with a few slang terms or up-to-the minute expressions, you can at least imply that you are quite comfortable speaking French and don’t require to be spoken to s-l-o-w-l-y in words of one syllable with a raised voice. Here are some terms and forms of expression you could use.
7 years ago
How to Sound like a Native French Speaker
• Informal negation
One of the first things you notice about casual French conversation is that syllables and short words are often run together rather than being pronounced distinctly. At the same time, apparently unnecessary little words like the ‘ne’ of negation are often omitted altogether. So a four-word and four-syllable expression like ‘Je ne sais pas’ (I do not know) can often become ‘J’sais pas’, with the ‘j’ sound almost indiscernible, accompanied with an expressive shrug of the shoulders. Try it, and imagine yourself saying ‘Dunno’. The ‘ne’ is also often omitted in other negative structures: Quelle heure est-il? J’ai aucune idée (What’s the time? I’ve no idea). Avoid omitting the negative in written French though: it’s only for informal speech.
• Asking questions
In the early stages of French study, many students begin by learning to form questions by using the rather elaborate ‘est-ce que…?(literally, ‘is it that…?’) construction followed by a positive statement: Est-ce que vous avez des croissants? – Do you have any croissants? However, they soon progress to the shorter and less formal inverted question: Avez-vous des croissants? Then, once in everyday contact with French speakers, they quickly drop this in favor of the locally preferred ‘Vous avez des croissants?’, accompanied by a raised intonation at the end of the query and an appropriately questioning facial expression.
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• The good, the bad and the ugly
In French these words are the well-known ‘bon’, ‘mauvais’ and ‘laid’, but the French themselves don’t confine themselves to these three adjectives any more than English speakers do. ‘Formidable’ (meaning ‘great’, not ‘formidable’) has been around for a long time: C’est formidable! – That’s great! ‘Chouette’ is also a popular way of approving of something: Elle est chouette, cette robe – This dress is nice. The franglais terms ‘cool’ and ‘super’ are also in common use, as is ‘extra’ (terrific, great), although the latter is perfectly standard French and is regularly applied to a good wine: ‘un vin extra’. If you want to avoid over-using the adverb ‘très’ (very), you can select from the colloquialisms ‘drôlement’ (literally ‘funnily’, but often used as the adverb of degree ‘really’, ‘awfully’), ‘follement’ (‘foolishly’, strictly speaking) and ‘vachement’ (derived, it seems, from ‘une vache’, a cow: C’est vachement chouette – It’s really nice.
• Expressions of annoyance
If something really upsets you, it’s frustrating not to have the appropriate words at your disposal to express your disgust. Try these: ‘J’en ai marre‘ (I’m fed up, I’ve had enough); ‘Je m’en fous’ or ‘Je m’en fiche’ (I don’t care, I don’t give a damn). Also, whilst spending time amongst French speakers, you may often hear both ‘Merde!’ (S*t!) and ‘chiant’ (C’est chiant qu’elle puisse pas venir – It gives me the s*ts that she cannot come), so you need to know exactly what they mean in order to decide whether or not you will use them yourself.
• Miscellaneous colloquial words and phrases
Here are some words that may puzzle you when you first hear them: les gosses (kids); les flics (cops); ma caisse (my car); Ce n’est pas grave (It doesn’t matter); Chapeau! (Hats off! Well done!); Ah bon? (Is that so ? Really?); Et patati et patata (And so on, and so on. Blah, blah, blah); Je n’y suis pour rien (It’s got nothing to do with me). All of these words and expressions, like many others that you will hear, will be instantly memorable just because they are unfamiliar: once heard, never forgotten, but don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation from the person speaking if you’re not sure.
With the exception of the those last two colorful expressions of extreme irritation already mentioned, most of the above terms are quite inoffensive and can be used in any company. Do resist the temptation to use swear words or lighthearted insults unless you are absolutely sure what they mean and you have judged your hearers correctly: what counts as humorous in one language may be obnoxious in another. Finally, unless you are certain you can pull off the use of French colloquialisms without appearing to be self-conscious or trying too hard, stick to the standard French you learned in the classroom. Once you are ready to use colloquialisms, they will surprise you by tripping off your tongue when you least expect it.
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