The problem: how to decipher unscripted French conversation
I often say, “If you can’t understand it, you can’t speak it.” But to understand real French conversations, you have to first figure out what is being said. Indeed, the number-one complaint of learners when listening to recordings of real French is, “What did they say, it’s so fast?” or “This is way over my head.”
The problem is that most learners are accustomed to listening to the language of their teachers, recordings, movies, podcasts, television programs and songs. But this kind of French is often scripted, that is to say, written out in advance and pronounced by professional voices. The language is generally perfectly formed and well pronounced.
As realistic as this language may sound, it is not the same as unscripted speech. The raw language of spontaneous conversations can be very different.
To address this problem, this blog presents a series of real-life examples of French conversations with detailed transcription, translation and linguistic commentary. In my opinion, this is probably the most valuable part of my blog. This is the French that people actually speak, and I take it apart so that you can see that it is not as difficult as it looks or sounds.
Here are my recommendations for getting the most out of this material in terms of understanding and then speaking French.
Forms of spoken French
I should point out that not all spoken French is in the form of a conversation. There are speeches, lectures, monologues, presentations. commentaries, voice overs, news reports, etc. where only one person is talking. But the most challenging form of spoken French for the learner is the conversation where two or more persons are talking to each other.
Conversations can also be very different: formal interviews, court testimony, arguments, small talk and banter among friends, etc. But in all cases there is interaction between the speakers. This is where the problem lies because there is no time to really think about what to say. Unlike other forms of speaking where there may be some written preparation, conversational French has to be quick and spontaneous.
Step one: train the ear to the sounds of French conversation
The first goal of the real-life example series is to help accustom your ear to the sounds of raw unscripted French conversation of different kinds.
Real-life French conversations often seem quite cluttered and disjointed, especially if there are more than two people present. Voices will overlap. There are interruptions, false starts and repetitions. People change their mind in the middle of a phrase and head off in a different direction. Or they’ll insert a phrase right in the middle of another one. This is probably the biggest difference between scripted and unscripted speech.
At times, it sounds like a stream of sounds. The words run together. Parts of words and entire pronouns are dropped or clipped.
Or people often pause and says things like hmm or in French euh as they are thinking of what to say next. They’ll say ouais or ahan instead of oui. And they’ll insert all kinds of little words like bien, ben, bah, eh bin, bon, tsé, vous savez, écoute, hein, quoi, voilà, non mais and alors that are often there just to keep the conversation flowing. These are what we call flow markers.
We do the same thing in English with words like: “you know”, “ya”, “yeah”,”I guess”, “well”, “I mean”, “OK” and “hmm.”
One striking feature of spoken language is the repetition of certain items. You will hear things like:
Ah, non, non, non, non, non, il n’en est pas question ! (No, no, no, no, no, this will not happen.)
Speakers also use intonation to convey things like surprise, emphasis, anger, irony and sarcasm that a printed text cannot represent. Some people even mumble and mix up their words.
Many people actually make grammatical or factual mistakes that they don’t always correct. Some voices, especially older male voices, can be difficult to decipher. Mobile telephone conversations are often nearly incomprehensible even for native speakers!
Finally, there are often things like names of people or places, cultural and historical references or things that the speakers take for granted.
When you add the presence of regional accents, the results can be bewildering and discouraging for the learner. They often do not know what word to look up in the dictionary.
A detailed transcription of the conversation eliminates most of these problems. It is important here to listen to the recording in small doses while reading the transcript.
Step two: understand the language of French conversations
The second goal of this series of real-life example is to show how the language works beneath all that blurry stream of sounds.This is where the technical commentary comes in handy. I point out all the items that clutter up the conversation and are not necessary to understand the message.
Now we can concentrate on how the speakers are using the language. The interesting thing here is that in the vast majority of cases the language spoken is very simple and much less complicated than anything written. Because talking is a very complex task, speakers tend to stick to simple structures that they use over and over again.
Finally, I also highlight things that may require some explanation for readers who are unfamiliar with local culture or context. In other cases, there will be outright grammatical mistakes where I point out what the user should or could have said.
What to listen for in a French conversation
Although the real-life examples are very different and cover a range of accents, ages, degree of formality and levels of education, there are certain things that are common and very important to listen for.
Listen for the verb
Nearly every sentence in a French conversation will have a verb. Did you know that only four verbs in French, être, avoir, faire and aller can account for about 60% of all verbs in casual French conversations? This astonishing statistic means that if you master these verbs you will get at around six out of ten verbs right. The tricky part, however, is that these verbs are highly irregular and have many different uses and meanings.
But even there certain forms are more common than others. In all the recordings, for example, you should notice that a very large number of the sentences contain forms of c’est… and il y a…
Listen for the pronoun “on” in all the French conversations
In all the recordings of French conversations, you will hear many instances of the pronoun on. After je this is probably the most common pronoun in the French language because it can replace nearly all the other pronouns. You will hear it everywhere. Listen for combinations with those key verbs, as in on est…, on va… or on a… Here is a post on this awesome pronoun.
Listen for the past verb tenses
One of the confusing and difficult parts of French grammar is how to talk about things in the past. This is very different from English verb usage. What you will notice in all the recordings is that in French the imparfait, e.g. on habitait. il faisait chaud, etc. is much more frequent than the passé composé. e.g. on a habité, il a fait chaud.
Very often in English we tend to use what is called a simple past. e.g. “we lived”, “it was hot” where French uses the imparfait. After you’ve heard a lot of these French verb tenses, you will spontaneously start to choose the right forms.
Listen for the pronoun “ça” (this) in all French conversations
The pronoun ça is more widespread and versatile than the English “this” or “that,”.You will constantly hear things like c’est ça, tout ça, comme ça or as the subject of a sentence, as in ça va…, ça veut dire…, ça semble… or ça peut ëtre…
To give you a idea of how this works, here is little sample taken from a fabulous website that provides recordings with transcriptions. This is not a conversation as such; the person is talking about his favourite family vacations:
Une de mes périodes préférées que j’ai passées en vacances, c’était quand j’avais peut-être quinze ans. Avec mes parents, on est partis dans une petite ville du sud-est de la France, sur la Côte d’Azur. Et, euh, on avait loué une petite maison au bord de la mer, et je me rappelle le matin, je me levais tôt avec mon père et on allait pêcher des oursins au bord.. au bord de l’eau. Donc on mettait un masque avec des tubas. On plongeait et on allait, on allait pêcher, euh, des oursins le long des… des rochers.
Ensuite, l’après-midi, souvent on allait en famille à la mer. Mais avant ça, donc le matin, quand on revenait… on prenait une douche, et puis on… on se reposait, on faisait des… des activités, euh, ludiques, euh, à la maison.
Here is a rather rough translation:
One of my favourite vacation times was when I was maybe fifteen. With my parents, we went to a little city in southeastern France, on the Côte d’Azur. And, hmm, we had rented a little house on the ocean, and I remember in the mornings I would get up early with my father and we would go fishing for sea urchins on the shore…on the seashore. So we would put diving masks with snorkels. We dove and went fishing, hmm, for sea urchins along the…the rocks. Then, in the afternoon, often the whole family would go to the sea. But before that, in the morning, when we came back…we would take a shower, and then we would rest…we would play games, hmm, in the house.
All the features of spoken French that I have mentioned are clearly visible. And this is not a true conversation! It gets much more cluttered. But, as you can see, the language itself remains quite simple.
Step three: repeat until the conversations are imprinted in your memory
Once you’ve listened to the recording a few times and studied all the accompanying material, you should keep listening to the recording regularly over a certain period until the material is so familiar that you think you know it by heart. My suggestion is to listen to each recording at least 25 times over a couple of weeks.
After listening to this material often enough, you will develop what I call a deep understanding of the language. You begin to perceive the connection between the words and their meaning. You start to intuitively understand why the speakers are using certain forms. You are no longer thinking about the grammar. You even know what the speaker is about to say.
This is important because you want to engrave those language patterns in your mind so that you will recognize them when you hear them in other circumstances.
Step four: enhance your French conversation speaking skills
Besides improving your comprehension of unscripted French, the ultimate goal of all this is to improve your own speaking skills. You’ve become used to various accents and voices. You can tell what is essential and what is not. You know how a conversation flows. You understand the grammar. Now let’s apply this to developing your own voice in French.
Although I provide some recommendations with each recording, you have to choose what you feel is appropriate for you. There are different accents, voices, ages, levels of education, and speaking styles. I believe every recording has something that you can take away for your own use. Here are three things to consider:
1. Voice overs for accent and fluency
If you’ve listened to the recordings often enough, you will start to develop what I call verbal visualizations or verbal images as you anticipate what is going to be said. The next step is to try speaking over the recording while imitating the articulation, intonation and rhythm of the speaker.
This must be done in very small doses if you want to get anywhere close to native speed. In the beginning you will probably not be able to say more than a word or two at the beginning of a sentence. Some words will be more difficult than others. You don’t have to be able to do the entire dialogue. The goal here is to develop an ease of speaking.
This exercise will do wonders for your overall speaking skills.
2. Borrow and imitate for accuracy
Unless indicated otherwise, all the material presented here is good French that can be incorporated into your speech. Do keep in mind that some of the material is very informal or colloquial and may not be appropriate in more formal contexts.
One suggestion is to start using those fillers and conversation markers that native speakers use. As long as you don’t overdo it, you could use things like ben, bah, alors, vous savez that you see in the transcripts. Native speakers use them to help the conversation move along and to pause briefly while they are thinking of what to say next. You can do the same.
Here you also have a source of phrases and expressions in real use and complete with pronunciation. It can’t get any better than this . If you see something you like, just make it your own and start using it right away.
For example, you hear, on est en pleins Jeux Olympiques. The Olympic Games may be long gone but you can take that phrase and make it in to: on est en pleins préparatifs pour la prochaine saison. on est en pleine nature, on est en pleine forme, etc.
3. Role playing for French conversation skills
If you can work with a language tutor or buddy, a great exercise is to imitate a dialogue without listening to the recording. You know the material and what it sounds like. The goal is not to exactly reproduce the recording. The idea is more like to try to develop an ease of speaking using the material available and whatever changes you make as part of your own speaking style. In the beginning you may want to read the text closely then leave it aside and try to improvise.
I truly believe that these recordings and the accompanying material are a gold mine for learners who are seriously interested in speaking French well. This is a form of virtual immersion. Here you have native speakers using the language naturally. All you have to do is train your ears and then pick what you want to use. Your French conversation skills will improve considerably.
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.