I believe that basic conversational French is really quite easy because it usually follows simple patterns that are quickly mastered. However, it is very important to realize that things can get very complicated if the the subject is complex and you are required to give detailed explanations or narrations.
Dialogue patterns for conversational French
Here I want to look at some fundamental patterns that you are sure to encounter if and when you take the plunge into immersion and actually visit a French-speaking country. You have to eat. So, you visit a local bakery (une boulangerie). You take a ticket with number 22 from a dispenser near the door, and soon an attendant calls out your number.
01–Le numéro vingt-deux, le numéro vingt-deux. On sert le vingt-deux.
02–Le numéro vingt-deux, c’est moi.
03 –Bonjour madame / monsieur. Qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut ?
04–Bonjour mademoiselle, bien, je voudrais un demi pain de campagne, six croissants au beurre et six croissants aux amandes.
05–Très bien. Je fais trancher le pain ? (Very well, do you want the bread sliced?)
06–Non, ce ne sera pas nécessaire.
07–Voilà. Désirez-vous autre chose ?
08–Non, c’est tout pour aujourd’hui.
09–Très bien. Passez à la caisse. Voici un pain de campagne, six croissants au beurre et six croissants aux amandes pour madame. Merci, madame, et bonne journée !
10 –Bonne journée à vous, mademoiselle.
11 — (le caissier) Avez-vous besoin d’un sac ? (the cashier) (Do you need a bag?)
12 –Non merci, j’ai déjà le mien. (No thank you, I have my own)
13–Bien, cela vous fait douze dollars, s’il vous plaît. (That will be 12 dollars, please.)
14 –Voilà vingt.
15 –Très bien, je vous rends huit dollars. Merci, madame
16–Merci à vous, mademoiselle.
Think patterns and variations
This kind of interaction can be divided into three parts. There is the opening, lines 01-03. Then there is the actual discussion, lines 04-15. And finally, the ending, lines 15-16.
When looking at this dialogue, think of it as a pattern that can have many variations. For example, the store may not have a number system and you basically have to get in line. So, the opening sentences will become something like:
01–Au suivant, le suivant ? C’est à qui ? (Next, next. Who is next?)
02 –C’est à moi. C’est mon tour. (It’s me. It’s my turn.)
There are endless variations and complications that may occur. Maybe there is no “pain de campagne” today. You would hear something like this:
05-Je suis désolée. Il n’y a plus de pain de campagne. J’ai un pain au levain qui est tout frais. Il vient de sortir du four. (I’m sorry. We’ve run out of pain de campagne. We do have a pain au levain that very fresh. It has just come out of the oven.)
There are, of course, many ways of saying the same thing. Although you will at some point hear line 03 as written above, here are some variations: Qu’est-ce-il vous faudra ?/ Qu’est-ce-il vous faudrait ? / Qu’est-ce que je vous sers ? / Je vous écoute. / Vous désirez ?
Do not use, “Que voulez-vous ?” This sounds harsh and rude as in “What do you want ?” If you wanted to get fancy, you could say : “Madame veut ?” or “Madame désire ?”
In line 04, you could use: j’aimerais / je veux / je désire / donnez-moi.
This is simple French. Every thing is in the present tense. No subjunctives. No unusual verb conjugations. Short sentences in simple word order. Here are some other things that are typical of this genre of conversational French.
1. Notice how many items are repeated: merci, voilà, bien, c’est. See how those key verbs: être, avoir and faire are very common. Spoken French is very repetitive.
2. This dialogue follows a question and answer format. Most of the time it’s simple yes / no answers, but speakers typically add a little explanation
3. Although this is very simple French, all the major elements of French grammar are present. Different ways of asking questions. Indirect object pronouns; omnipresent key prepositions de and à; personal subject pronouns with very common verbs; use of the impersonal verb falloir in different conjugations.
4. Notice how politeness is rendered by the use of madame, monsieur, mademoiselle and the formal vous form. Watch out for that common mistake of mixing up the tu and vous forms.
With this pattern in mind, let’s buy a cake instead. Here is a sample dialogue starting at line 04.
04–Bonjour monsieur, je voudrais un gateau.
05–Bien, lequel ? (Well, which one?)
06–Celui-là, au fond. (That one, in the back.)
07–Celui-ci ? (This one?)
08–Non, l’autre, à votre droite. (No, the other one, to your right.)
09–Celui-ci alors. (This one, then)
10–Oui, c’est ça. Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (Yes, that one. What is it?)
11–C’est une mousse aux fraises. Elle est délicieuse.
12–Oui, je n’en doute pas. C’est combien?
13–Celle-là fait 16 dollars. La plus grande est à 20 dollars.
14–Bien, je vais prendre la petite.
15–Très bien, je vous l’emballe. Voilà, passez à la caisse. Merci et bonne journée.
16–Merci à vous, monsieur.
In this sample, there are a couple of interesting grammatical items. Notice, for example, the pronouns. “lequel, celui-ci, celui-là. celle-là”
Notice how in line 11 the shop attendant points out that the cake in question is actually is a mousse; the grammatical gender changes from masculine (le gateau) to feminine (la mousse). Thus, “Elle est délicieuse” and “Celle-là.”
Whether it’s buying bread, cake, wine, cheese, ice cream, shoes, fish or pretty much anything, the verbal interaction follows this basic pattern. The only thing that changes is the vocabulary.
This is a specific genre of verbal interaction. It is not a job interview, dinner table small talk, a speech, a lecture, a visit to the doctor or a formal presentation.
That said, much of the grammar that is used in these dialogs could be transposed to other forms of speaking. Although the grammar is relatively simple, it covers all the major patterns found in everyday spoken French.
How to use these dialogs for your conversational French speaking skills
I strongly recommend you practice saying these dialogs aloud at least 25 times or more over the course of a week or two, preferably with the help of a native speaker. This accomplishes three things.
1. You will develop a feel for the fluent pronunciation of French. This is probably the hardest part in all this.
2. These dialogs can be put to good use immediately. You have something to say. After a week or two of French, you could master these dialogs and be quite functional in this sort of context. This will do wonders for your self-esteem. Although somewhat limited in range of expression, you will be able to hold a useful French conversation.
The next step is to get a better understanding of the underlying grammar and acquire more vocabulary in order to be able to modify the dialog to your specific needs.
3. As simple as it may be, the underlying grammar of this dialog is the foundation of all spoken French. Everything you learn here will be reused elsewhere.
So, in essence, you are killing two birds with one stone. You are learning to speak real conversational French fluently and correctly and at the same time you are acquiring grammar elements and pronunciation skills hat you will be able to reuse in other contexts.