How To Speak French Idiomatically

Today’s post is about an important theme in my blog: how to speak French idiomatically.  But what exactly do I mean by speaking a language idiomatically?

When I talk about idiomatic French or speaking idiomatically, I refer to those words and constructions that a native speaker would spontaneously use in the same circumstances. There is a range of possibilities that speakers can choose from. At the same time, listeners are also familiar with these possibilities and, in a sense, know what to expect.

This is not new for us because this is how we function in our native language.  Doing it in French is another matter.

A big problem for adult learners is, of course, the presence of a first or primary language.  This colors everything, our pronunciation, our grammar, our choice of words and how we put them all together. That’s why we sound weird or awkward in French. It’s very frustrating because we know what we want to say but not how to say it well in French.  So we end up stuttering, searching for words and speaking in a clumsy manner. That’s the challenge: how do we go from sounding weird, clumsy or awkward to sounding natural or idiomatic?

A major step in the right direction is to acquire what I call a deep understanding of how spoken French works.  This is a theme that I develop in the studies of the real-life recordings in this blog. If you’ve looked at any of these, you know that I use a detailed transcription with linguistic commentary to explain why users say what they say.  The next step is to incorporate these insights into your own speech.

In this post, I want to revisit this idea with just one example. My goal here, as always, is to show how French naturally conveys meaning and how we can use this knowledge to improve our own speaking ability.

The other day I went to a play and heard a line that struck me as being a quintessential example of idiomatic French. Here is the line (1) with a literal translation (2) and my attempt at an idiomatic translation (3) into English. Feel free to use your own translation.

1. C’est une perle, cet enfant-là; on n’en dit que du bien, que du bon.
2. It’s a pearl, this child there; one of it says only of well, only of good.
3. That kid is such a sweetie. People have only the nicest things about him.

We see how the literal translation in 2 from French is nearly incomprehensible.  It does give us an idea, however, of the kind of mistakes a beginner French-speaking learner would make in English.

When we say we understand French, we are in essence going from 1 to 3.  That’s hard enough, but the real difficulty is how to go from 3, our idiomatic English – or whatever native language – to 1, a formulation in idiomatic French.

Obviously a literal translation of 3 into French along the lines of 2 is a recipe for disaster.  But that is exactly what beginners attempt to do.

Now, what makes 1 so idiomatic?  Why is it such very typical way of speaking in French? Let’s deconstruct it piece by piece and see how it works.

C’est une perle

être (to be) is the most common verb in French and c’est (it is) is its most common form.  You can then tack on any number of things such as a noun (une perle). Here are some more examples: c’est un ange,  c’est un délice,  c’est un plaisir.

cet enfant-là

Notice in passing the use of cet instead of ce before enfant that starts with a vowel.  There are two things to notice here. Firstly,  is tacked on to enfant to emphasize a certain distance. This is a example of something I discuss in a different post.

Secondly,  there is this kind of inverted subject structure where the real subject comes at the end of the phrase. Here are some similar examples:

C’était un délice, ce gateau-là, (It’s a treat, this cake.)
C’est un ange, ce garcon-là. (That young man is an angel.)

on dit

“on” is what I call an awesome pronoun because it can replace all the other personal pronouns, as I show in this post. In this example, it means something like “everybody” or “people.” Here are some more examples:

On t’appelle au téléphone. (You’re wanted on the phone.)
On dit qu’il va pleuvoir. (The weather forecast calls for rain.)


I have a post on this awesome pronoun. Here it refers to “cet enfant-là,
Here are some more examples:

C’est gentil de ta part, je m’en souviendrai, (That’s kind of you, I’ll remember that.)
N’en parlons plus. (Let’s forget it.)
Je n’en sais rien. (I don’t know a thing about this.)

ne…que (n’en dit que)

This “ne…que” means “only” and is actually more common that the adverb “seulement.”  When you think of translating “only” into French, think of “ne…que” first. Here are some examples:

Il ne reste que trois billets. (There are only three tickets remaining.)
Je n’ai pas que ça à faire. (That’s not all I have to do)
Il n’est que trois heures. (It’s only three o’clock.)

du bien,… du bon

(Most people would say only “…du bien” and drop “…du bon.” I think the latter was included more for poetic purposes than actual meaning.)

Notice that here we have “du bien, du bon” and not “de bien,… de bon” because this is the partitive construction, a rather tricky feature of French grammar that I discuss at length in a post. This form of the preposition de, de la, des is used where in English we could use “some” or “any”, as in:

Voulez-vous du beurre ou de la moutarde ?  (Would you like some butter or any mustard?)
J’ai du pain, du fromage et de la confiture. (I have bread, cheese and jam.)

From deep understanding to speaking French idiomatically

We’ve looked under the hood of this example and we understand how the component parts fit together. How does this help our ability to speak French idiomatically? There are two things to keep in mind. First, we need massive exposure to the language, and that means all the usual things like immersion, Internet, reading, classes, language exchanges, etc. All the constructions in this example will pop up regularly because they are so widespread in the language.  You’ll see or hear them everywhere.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this example could be seen as a template or model phrase because it embodies so many key features: two of the most common verbs in French with some common vocabulary and common constructions.  Repeat it aloud or in your head 50 times or until you can say it perfectly.  Then try to use it or some form of it as soon as possible.  Make up variants like:

C’est excellent, ce livre-là, on n’en dit que du bien. (That book is excellent, it’s very well liked. )
C’est très bon, ce spectacle-là, tout le monde en parle. (That show is great, everybody is talking about it.)
C’est bon, ce film-là, on en dit beaucoup de bien.  (That movie is good, people are saying good things about it.)

In the last example, note that it is “beaucoup de bien” and NOT “beaucoup du bien.

All these examples are basically variations on the underlying patterns that we have seen.  The theory is that if you learn one good example really well, you ultimately have access to all the others.

This is course is exactly the idea that underlies the language wall chart calendars that I produce for French, Spanish and English. The calendars take this idea to a higher level by grouping the examples by grammatical or vocabulary theme. And instead of working with one example, you can work with many examples simultaneously. Plus all of this is displayed before your eyes for you to memorize.

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