What’s in this example of real-life French conversation?
In this installment in the series of examples of real French conversation, I want to have a close look at a certain variety of unscripted spoken French from Quebec.
I chose this excerpt for two reasons. First of all, it is a good example of how to explain things and give advice in excellent spoken French. The main speaker here is explaining how to prepare for a job interview. It is interesting to see how she is able to connect a series of phrases into a coherent explanation of what to expect in this kind of situation. This should be of particular interest to learners who have to answer questions with some kind of explanation.
The second more technical reason for choosing this excerpt is the use of the subject pronoun “on.” It is used 13 times, followed by “nous” (twice) and “ils” (once).
This personal pronoun has the very unusual ability in French of being able to replace all the other subject personal pronouns. In modern spoken French, “on” has nearly completely replaced “nous.” For example, “on pense que” and “on va faire…” are much more common than “nous pensons que” and “nous allons faire…”
In this recording, however, “on” is used more like the English indefinite pronoun “one” when referring to the people preparing for job interviews. “On est nerveux toujours” is the equivalent of “one is always nervous.” In modern spoken English most people avoid this use of “one” because it is often perceived as very formal or old-fashioned. Very often, “you” or “people” will replace “one.” Here are the various options:
On est nerveux toujours.
One is always nervous.
You are always nervous.
We are always nervous.
People are always nervous.
Also note the extensive use of the pronoun “ça” (it, that). This is very frequent in spoken French and perhaps more in Québécois than European French. Although in theory it is the abbreviation of “cela,” it really has taken on a life of its own. Common phrases are “tout ça” (all that) and “c’est ça.” (that’s it, that’s right).
(1) The recording is not very clear. This could be “de nouveau” or “à nouveau.” I think it’s the latter because of other recordings. Both forms mean “again.” A more idiomatic translation would have been “Monique Bourgeois, welcome back.”
(2) The speaker uses a more formal futur proche “nous allons parler” instead of “on va parler.”
(3) “tout en restant soi-même” is literally “all in remaining oneself.” Here the “tout” has more of the meaning “all while” or “at the same time.”
(4) Many speakers would have said simply “évidemment.” Here the speaker might have been influenced by the pattern in “bien sûr”, “bien entendu.”
(5) Notice how the speaker repeats the last part of the other speaker’s sentence. This a very common and effective strategy for keeping the conversational flow going.
(6) This first use of pronoun “on” sets the tone for the conversation. Unlike its common use for “nous,” here it is used more in the generic sense of “people.”
(7) “toujours” usually goes before the adjective “nerveux” but it can be used afterwards, There may be a slight nuance in meaning,
(8) The “bon” here is a common filler like “ben.” “bah.” “bien.”
(9) The speaker starts with the very common “c’est” then is not sure how to continue.
(10) The filler “bon” is used here to gain some time.
(11) Note here how the speaker starts by repeating the ending of the other speaker.
(12) The “pis” here is a Québécois pronunciation of “puis” meaning “then”
(13) The pronoun “y” refers to “entreprise.”
(14) Notice how the negative marker “ne” has completely disappeared here, as in most of the similar positions.
(15) Notice of course the use of the preposition “à” that will go with the verbe “s’attendre”, i.e. “s’attendre à.” Note as well that the speakers talks about two sources of nervousness. These two sources are “à qui” and “à quoi.”
(16) The verb s’attendre comes of course from “attendre” (to wait). But here the pronominal or reflexive use “s’attendre à” means ‘to expect.’ For example, “je m’attends au pire” means “I expect the worse.”
(17) The speaker has been using the pronoun “on” all along but uses “nous” as the object pronoun.
(18) Notice the intonation in the voice of the speaker when she recites the list of situations. Very important.
(19) The pronominal verb “se prendre” from “prendre” (to take) is used with “y’ which is normally a pronoun referring to a location. Here we have the common idiom “s’y prendre” (to do something, to handle a situation, to begin.) A typical usage is: “il (ne) sait pas comment s’y prendre” (he doesn’t know where to begin.)
(20) The word “petit” has nearly completed disappeared here, leaving a sort of stub “ti” that in Québécois is generally pronounced more like “tsi.”
(21) Note the use of the conditional “on serait” where the “on” is used as the indefinite pronoun. It could be translated as “you would be surprised to see” or “it’s surprising to see.” Notice the preposition “de” after “on serait surpris” where English uses “to.”
(22) The pronominal or reflexive verb “se présenter” here means “to show up” but usually means “to introduce oneself.”
(23) Here “hallucinant” does not translate as “hallucinating.” The meaning is more like “amazing”, “frightening” or “surprising.”
(24) “et tout ça” is a kind of tag thrown in at the end of a sentence and generally means “and so on” or “and all that.”
(25) “comme ça” can have various meanings depending on the location in the sentence. Here it means “just like that, without any preparation.”
(26) For those not familiar with Quebec culture, the “dépanneur” is a small corner store that sells a bit of everything and is open late. In some places the word used is “convenience store”, “bodega” or “7-Eleven”
(27) Here the speaker first says “à peu près” (more or less) and then adds “exactement” (exactly). Has she changed her mind or does the “exactly” refer to “more or less?”
(2 ) Here she starts off with “c’est évidemment” and then decides to drop the “évidemment” and then starts over with “c’est une erreur…”
(29) Another example of the tag “et tout ça” (and so on).
(30) This “Se préparer, ça veut dire quoi?” is a very common construction that illustrates how “ça” is often used as a subject pronoun. Note also that “veut dire” from “vouloir dire” is an idiomatic expression for “to mean.”
(31) “qu’est-ce qui” could be replaced by simply “ce qui” but not “qui” alone which would have required that the following verb be made plural.
(32) Remember that “sensible” in French means “sensitive” or “touchy.” Une “question sensible” is a touchy question. “Une dent sensible” is a sensitive tooth.
(33) Note the pronunciation of “plus” that varies between “plusse” and “plu.”
(34) The speaker adds “le poste” to remind listeners that she has just been talking about the position. She maybe feels that it wasn’t very clear. Then, she’ll go on to talk about “l’entreprise,” the company.
(35) Here the speaker hesitates over the choice of the verbs “savoir” or “connaître” that both mean “to know.” Even native speakers hesitate about such things. I would have chosen “savoir,” but the speaker may have been thinking more in terms of “finding out” and preferred “connaître.”
Three steps to improve your spoken French with this recording
Besides familiarizing yourself with the sounds of an educated Québécois accent, there are a three main things that you should do to improve your own spoken French.
Repeated listening and voice overs
With the transcription, the translation and the notes, you have all you need to really understand this excerpt in depth. You should listen to it many times over a few days until you feel you can start repeating it in your head. Then attempt short voice overs for certain passages. This is great for intonation and developing natural delivery.
A source of speaking ideas
Without necessarily copying everything word for word, you can find all sorts of expressions and formulations that you can adapt and add to your repertoire. Here are some suggestions:
tout en restant soi-même
comment s’y prendre
on n’a aucune idée comment ça va se passer
se préparer, ça veut dire quoi? Ça veut dire…
c’est évidemment une erreur à ne pas commettre
Role-playing with the transcript
If you can work with someone, you should try to play the role of the main speaker and try to spontaneously use as much of the material in the transcript as you can. You don’t have to reproduce the text exactly. It’s more a question of trying to give similar answers with a combination of your own words and those of the recording. This should be done a number of times until you feel really at ease doing the whole thing. You will soon see an improvement in your French conversation skills.
1. How to use the awesome pronoun ça
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.