Continuing our examination of how real French conversations work, we are going to have a look at some details of the language used in this excerpt. As I hope to show, when you actually see a French conversation written out, you generally see that there is nothing complicated about it. Compared to written French, it is actually very straightforward.
General observations on this French conversation
The original title of this recording is, “Comme un poisson dans l’eau” (Like a fish in water). This expression could be translated is “to be in one’s element.” It is often used in the phrase “heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau” (happy like a fish water.) Here the title refers to Lauranne, the young woman interviewed and member of a synchronized swimming club.
I chose this example of French conversation from France for a number of reasons. First, the speakers are talking about events past and make extensive use of the various past tenses. You will note in particular the contrast between the passé composé to describe fixed events, e.g. “…j’ai appris à nager vers quatre, cinq ans.” and processes or duration, e.g. “…je voyais ces photos et ça m’a toujours fait rêver.”
The use of these past tenses can be difficult for English-speakers because it is so different from English usage.
Second, the very common pronoun “on” is used in a number of interesting ways, It typically replaces “nous,” but there seems to be cases here where it replaces “vous” and “je.”
Third, in this recording there are lots of examples of words used as fillers or what are called conversation markers:”bah”, “bon”, “alors”, “voilà” and “ah.”
Fourth, there many examples of the very common pronoun “ça” (that) that appears in all French conversations.
(1) Here “alors” is used as a kind of starter like “well” in English instead of its usual meaning of “then”, “therefore.”
(2) “Bon” is used here and thoughout much of this dialogue as a marker or filler word. Note the interesting construction of “on est en pleins Jeux Olympiques” where the “on” refers to undefined people. The “en pleins” is a great way of saying “in the midst of.” One could say things like: On est en pleine campagne électorale; Elle est en pleine crise; Ils sont en pleine guerre.
What is odd here is that the speaker is saying “en pleins Jeux Olympiques” when in fact the games had not yet started, as she points out in the following words.
(3) Remember the liaison in “Jeux-z-Olympiques.”
(4) The pronoun “ça” here refers to “Jeux Olympiques.” The speaker, having realized that her formulation of “pleins Jeux Olympiques” was a bit exaggerated, corrects this by saying “enfin, ça démarre.”
(5) Note here that Lauranne says “la natation synchronisée” and not “natation synchronisée” because French, totally unlike English, does not tend to drop the article when speaking of things generically. So French says: “Il a les cheveux noirs” whereas English says: “He has black hair.”
(6) “Voilà” could refer back to “la natation synchronisée” or is simply just a filler.
(7) The construction “Mais moi en fait” is a very French construction where the speaker starts out referring to herself, the subject of the sentence that later will continue with “j’ai pas dû” and then inserts “la natation synchronisée” in the middle.
(8) The “bon” here is a pure filler whereby the speakers reconnects with the initial subject of the sentence and continues with “j’ai pas…”
(9) Notice in “j’ai pas” that the negation “ne” as in “je n’ai pas” has completely disappeared. This is the case in nearly all spoken French in general and in this recording.
(10) The “en” refers to “la natation symchronisée.”
(11) The speaker changes her mind about the sentence after “parce que…” and decides to say something else.
(12) Here the “alors” is basically a filler as we said earlier.
(13) Notice how the speaker says “dès que j’étais enfant” without the article “un” in front of “enfant.” English would normally say “when I was a child.” For example, French says: “Son père est juge.” where English would say: “Her father is a judge.”
(14) This is the first of many “bah” a variant of “ben”. “bien” or “bon”, all used as fillers.
(15) “quand même” here means something like “all the same.” The entire sentence could be translated by: “It seems a bit young all the same.”
(16) Hyères is a pretty town in southern France. Notice how “bon” is used as a filler here.
(17) The contruction “Et enfant” at the beginning of this phrase corresponds to the English “And when I was a child.” This is a neat construction that is widely used in things like: “Adulte, j’ai voulu apprendre le piano.” (When I became an adult, I wanted to learn how to play the piano.)
(18) Here the “on” refers to “nous” and actually more to the parents of Lauranne. Notice how she uses the plus-que-parfait “we had spoken to the coach” to imply that somehow this meeting with the coach had taken place around the time when they were looking at the photographs. The passé composé could have been used as well.
Notice that Lauranne directly quotes the answer of the coach in the present tense because she is reproducing exactly what the coach said.
(19) The “on” here refers to people in general and not to “nous” as with the previous “on.”
(20) There is a bit of ambiguity here because Lauranne says “I had to wait ten years” when in fact she wants to say that she had to wait until she turned ten. To be more exact, she could have said, “j’ai dû attendre d’avoir dix ans” or “j’ai dû attendre mes dix ans.”
(21) Notice the present subjunctive after “il fallait que.” Although it is spelled differently, this subjunctive form sounds identical to the present indicative “j’ai.”
(22) In response to Anne’s exclamation, Lauranne says “, it’s OK, it’s nothing special.”
(23) Notice in “Sur terre” that there is no article where in English we would normally say “on the ground.” On the other hand, “sur la terre” would probably refer to the planet earth.
(24) CM2, CM1 refer to the last two years of the French primary school system.
(25) “Comme ça” in French can have a number of distinct uses. Here the whole phrase means “something like that.”
(26) In this series of “on” Lauranne could be referring to herself or to children in general who want to join the swimming club. Notice here as well that “épreuve de natation” does not have an article in front, i.e. she does not say “on avait une épreuve de natation.”
(27) “gymnastique-danse” is an example of a modern trend in French to create new words by joining them simply with a hyphen.
(28) Note the use of the verb “intégrer” in the sense of “join” or “become member of.”
(29) “Dis donc” is a way of expressing surprise or amazement.
(30) This “tu te dis” is a reflexive or pronominal form of “dire” where the speaker is about to quote the other person.
(31) This “Mais non mais” is simply an idiomatic way of reinforcing what she is about to say, i.e. that the pictures were magnificent.
(32) Instead of saying “Les photos étaient magnifiques.”, Lauranne says “Les photos, elles étaient magnifiques.” This is a common construction and serves to highlight the subject, “Les photos.”
(33)”Hum” is a way of saying “yes.”
(34) “Mince” is often a euphemism for “merde” (shit) which can be a bit vulgar. Here the speaker is referring to the fact that the pool was closed.
(35) Note that the pronunciation of “plus” varies between “plusse” and “plu.” I’ve written as post on the pronunciation of plus.
(36) L’école Polytechnique or Polytechnique is the probably the most prestigious institution of higher education in France and is located just outside Paris.
(37) Interestingly, the students of Polytechnique are called “élèves” a term usually reserved for students in the primary school system.
(38) Although the speaker Anne is referring to past events, she uses the present tense here: “Ils nagent mal ?” (They swim badly?). Note how Lauranne in her answer uses the imparfait systematically.
How to improve your own French conversation with this recording
In addition to the valuable ear training, the are a number of things that can be done with this recording.
Repeated listening and voice overs
With the transcription, the translation and the technical 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 accent, intonation and developing natural delivery.
A source of vocabulary 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:
on est en pleins Jeux Olympiques.
comment ça s’est passé ?
dès que j’étais enfant.
quelque chose comme ça.
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 using 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 ability to speak French correctly and fluently