How a French conversation works
When you look at the transcript of this and any unscripted French conversation, you notice that spoken language seems sort of disjointed, like a series of short sentences strung together. This is one of the main differences between spoken and written language. People often speak in short phrases. They stop and hesitate; they may change their mind in midstream; they backtrack and repeat something; they will insert phrases in the middle of others or go off on a tangent, and they even make mistakes that they don’t always correct.
In other words, spontaneous spoken language is not like the carefully constructed and edited sentences of a book, a newspaper or a magazine.
The language here is quite formal. The speakers are relaxed. Note that the VOUS verb form is always used. TU is never used. English-speakers should pay special attention to this because they tend to mix up the TU and VOUS verb forms.
Although there are 25 verbs in this extract. two verbs “avoir” and “être” are used 17 times each followed by répondre (6), falloir (4),and demander (4). All the other verbs are used either 2 or 1 times. This is very typical of spoken language. A small numbers of verbs are used very often and a large number much less commonly. The lesson here is to really work on avoir and être.
Note the use of the verb tenses. The imparfait (“je voulais”) and the présent (“c’est) are the most common, followed by the passé composé (“j’ai dit”.) There is no futur simple (“je ferai”). Instead we have only one futur proche (“on va faire.”) There is one plus-que-parfait (“j’avais répondu,”) one conditionnel (‘je dirais”) and a few impératifs (“répondez”.)
Use of the imparfait and the passé composé is often confusing for English-speakers because English works in a different manner when talking about the past.
This excerpt illustrates perfectly how the two forms are used. Very simply put, the passé composé is used to refer to the occurrence of a specific event e.g. “on m’a posé la question (I was asked the question).
On the other hand, the imparfait is used to refer to a state or a process, e.g. “quand j’avais vingt ans” (when I was twenty years old.)
If the speaker had said “quand j’ai eu vingt ans,” that would have meant “when I turned twenty.”
While we are on this subject, I’m assuming that no reader here would ever say “j’étais vingt ans.” This is an egregious mistake that one hears beginning students make.
Throughout the recording you will hear the speakers making short pauses. Often this will be indicated by “euh.” In other cases, they will simply stretch the pronunciation of a word. The main function of these pauses is to allow the speaker to think about what she is going to say next.
Pay particular attention to the intonation that is very characteristic of this Parisian accent with a sharp rising tone at end of words and phrases. At the very beginning of the recording there are some striking examples with “…ans, …entretien, …question”.
Note how words tend to blend into each other. Certain sounds or letters will disappear completely “un petit peu” becomes “un p’ti peu.” The unstressed “e” as in “tenir”tends to disappear.
(1) To ask a question in French is “poser une question” and rarely “demander une question.” Notice here how the speaker uses “on m’a posé la question” to convey the English “I was asked.” Similarly, “I was given” could be translated by “on m’a donné.” This is a common use of that awesome pronoun “on.”
(2) The speaker hesitates briefly after the first “la” to insert the “en fait” and then continues on to “la profession.” A lot of times these little things like “en fait” are rather meaningless and are there to help the conversation flow.
(3) Notice how the “e” in “petit” has nearly totally disappeared. English-speakers in particular should also note that “surprise” takes an “e” at the end because the speaker is a woman.
(4) The speakers starts off with “le” and realizes that it should be “la” because she is referring to “la question.” She then corrects herself with a “la.” Very important.
(5) “Alors” usually means “then” or “therefore.” Here the speaker is using it basically as a sort of starting marker, something like “well” at the beginning of phrases in English.
(6) The speaker hesitates here because she started out with “c’est que” and has to think briefly how to continue.
(7) The adverb “vraisemblablement” is here inserted into the idiom “fait partie.” It can also go at the end. There can be a nuance of meaning depending on the location of the adverb. The speaker also says “première remarque” but never says “deuxième remarque” She has probably forgotten about the number of remarks.
In the same sentence, notice at the end “puisqu’elle vous a été posée.” Notice how “elle” is used here because it refers to “la question.” English-speakers particularly should note how important it is to keep track of the gender of nouns when speaking.
(8) Notice how this speaker has dropped the “l” of “il y a.” This happens a lot in casual or colloquial speech.
(9) The verb “faut” is usually pronounced with “il” to make “il faut” (it is necessary). In the spoken language, the “il” is often dropped.
(10) This speaker pronounces “plus” as “plu” without the “s” sound at the end. Many people do pronounce the “s.”
(11) English-speaking readers en particular should note that in French, it is “répondre à la question” for “answer a question.” A common error is “*répondre la question.”
(12) “avoir envie” is an idiom for “to want” or “to desire.” It is also often used when you have to go to the bathroom, as in: “Excusez-moi un instant, j’ai envie.”
(13) “tout à fait” is a very common way of saying “absolutely” or “totally.”
(14) The speaker says “du fait” when in fact she should have said “de fait.” The two are often confused. “du fait” is usually used with “du fait que..” or “du fait de..” meaning like “given the fact that.” “de fait” is the equivalent of “en fait” or “in fact.”
(15) “qu’on va faire” is the only future tense in this example. This is an example of the “futur proche” where the verb “aller.” is used with a verb infinitive “faire.” This very similar to the English “going to.”
(16) “entendre par là” is an idiom for “to mean by that”
(17) “du coup” is often used at the beginning of phrases to mean “then.”
(18) The speaker hesitates for a moment and repeats the “ma” for ” ma majorité.” The word “majorité” here means “legal age” or 18 in France.
The next step: from understanding to speaking
Although the primary focus of this kind of ear training is understanding conversational French, this material can also work wonders for your spoken French
You’ve listened to the recording at least a dozen times. You’ve, of course, read the translation and the technical notes. By now, you have probably developed a sort of verbal image of the recording. You know what the speakers are going to say and you can probably “see” the words when you hear them.
This, of course, has done wonders for your oral comprehension. You would see this by listening to the rest of the recording. The next step is to use this material to enhance your own speaking skills. Here are a few tips.
Tip number 1: Speaking over the recordings
A great exercise is to do voice overs with the recordings. This means attempting to speak over the recording at the speed of the speakers and without looking at the transcript. This is nearly impossible to sustain, but you can at least try groups of words.
You don’t have to memorize the entire recording. Just choose some phrases that you would like to work on and repeat them until they flow naturally. This will help with your intonation and the articulation of the sounds of French.
Tip number 2: Imitate, imitate, imitate
Another way of using this recording is to look at it as a source of phrases that you can incorporate in to your own speech. Here you have a treasure trove of examples of perfect French for your picking. And complete with the pronunciation to boot. All you have to do now is pick what you like, modify it to your satisfaction if necessary and incorporate it into your speech.
A good example is “j’étais un petit peu surprise” (I was a bit surprised). The “petit” may be difficult to pronounce. No problem. Just drop it for the time being and use “j’étais un peu surpris/e.” Don’t forget to adjust the gender of “surpris/e.”
This phrase can be used in any number of ways like, “elle était un peu surprise,” or “on était un peu surpris par la question.”
Don’t be shy. The key to improving your French conversation skills is to imitate, imitate, imitate. Here are just a few more examples of snippets of this conversation that you can start using now if they are not already part of your speaking repertoire:
“vous avez tout à fait raison” (you are absolutely right)
“on m’a posé la question” (I was asked)
“je voulais savoir comment… (I wanted to know how…)
“que faut-il répondre à cette question ?” (how should one answer this question?)
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Why rack your brains trying to figure out how to put a phrase together when you have it given to you?
Of course, we are not talking about merely parroting this dialogue. Quite the contrary, with a deep understanding of how the whole thing works you are absorbing the underlying patterns that you will subsequently adapt to other situations.
This, by the way, is exactly what native speakers do in all languages. Improving your speaking ability in French conversation is no different. If you see something you like, take it.