Most French students have learned to speak French like they would write in French. For a long time, French textbooks were the main way to learn French, and French literature was the way to practice what you had learned.
Nowadays, most French learning methods feature audio. But the vast majority still uses a very classic way of speaking French and only features overly enunciated French pronunciation.
Unfortunately, the spoken French taught to foreigners is a fiction. It’s not the way we speak French today, and that’s why so many students cannot understand French people when they speak French.
First, I’d like to define a bit more what spoken French is.
Spoken French vs Classic French Pronunciation
Let’s take an example: here are 3 ways to pronounce “I don’t know” in French.
Let’s analyse the various French pronunciations.
- Je ne sais pas. First I said the phrase in an overly enunciated way, pronouncing every single word the way we would write.
This is the way most French teaching method would teach you to say it.
However, that’s not how most French people would pronounce it today.
- [jeun saypa] Then I used a spoken French pronunciation, and glided the je and the ne together.
This is what I call “a medium gliding” – it’s still quite enunciated and a tad formal, but it’s common.
- [shaypa] Then I said it the way I would probably say it most of the time when I speak.
The je becomes kind of a sh sound and the ne totally disappears.
This is a very common casual French pronunciation, which students seldom learn.
What Affects the Way People Speak French?
There’s no ‘universal’ way to speak French. The same way spoken English differs from one person to the other, one region to another, the way the French speak French varies a lot.
Many factors will affect the way people speak French:
- the context of the conversation (business, casual, formal, intellectual…),
- geography (country, regional accents – for example in the South of France, French people still pronounce the “e” quite distinctly.)
- age : young people tend to apply more glidings and use more slang when they speak than adults.
- whether you are trying to sound smart or cooooool…
Why is spoken French seldom taught in French classrooms?
Many teachers of French as a second language complain that their – often imposed – curriculum concentrates too much on written French. Unfortunately, French tests are still very much based on grammar and French verb conjugations, and these are mostly drilled in written form.
When they try to complement their French textbook with audio, it’s either audio made for students featuring an overly enunciated French, classic sentence structure and vocabulary, or authentic French material which is usually way too complicated to understand for their beginner/ intermediate students.
If only someone had developed a French learning audio method recorded in both classic and modern French enunciation… But I digress…
Spoken English versus Spoken French
Let me reassure you: we have exactly the same problem in France with the English language. In our English language classrooms, we learn to write I am not going to. And most French people learn to say [I-am-not-going-to] when any English speaker would say [I’m not goin’ to]…
Nothing prepares French people for extreme glidings such as [I ain’t gonna] but even if a foreigner may not want or need to speak this way, this extremely glided pronunciation is common in Hollywood movies and series. So a French speaker learning English should learn to understand it.
An Important difference
There’s an important difference between French and English : in English, people tend to speak the same way in every context. In a formal context, you may use a more upscale vocabulary, but your pronunciation would more or less remain the same whether you’re speaking at a business meeting or at home with your friends.
A French person doesn’t always pronounce words exactly the same way.
We usually use a more glided pronunciation in a relaxed context, like saying [shaypa], and enunciate more in a more formal context, and say [jeun saypa].
What French pronunciation should I use?
The French pronunciation you choose should depend a lot on how you speak in English… Are you more classic or modern? What’s your age? As I said above, younger people tend to apply stronger glidings.
In general, I suggest students use moderate glidings. If a beginner or intermediate French student, who may not yet have a perfect French accent, was to use very strong French glidings, it may sound quite weird.
However, it’s important that you understand both modern French and traditional French pronunciation. This is why my French learning method is recorded at several speeds and levels of enunciation.
Now let me explain some common spoken French glidings.
This is not an easy lesson to write, because French pronunciation evolves all the time, and there are no rules per se. So I’m going you some examples, with audio recordings. For more example of enunciated French versus spoken French pronunciation, I invite you to sample my French phrasebook: the sentences are recorded twice so you learn both the classic and modern French pronunciation.
First let’s see what happens to pronouns and the negative in everyday spoken French.
Je, Tu, Il(s), Elle(s) Spoken French Pronunciation
Please press on the audio player to hear my audio recordings.
- Je becomes kind of a “sh” sound.
Enunciated French: Je suis (I am)
Spoken French: shui
Enunciated French: Je parle (I am speaking)
Spoken French: shparl
- Tu becomes t in front of a vowel
Enunciated French: Tu es d’accord ? (do you agree?)
Spoken French: té dacor ?
Enunciated French: Tu imagines (you imagine)
Spoken French: timajin
- Il, elle (singular), ils and elles (plural) become i and è + a consonant (not a vowel)
This is quite an extreme gliding and I don’t encourage you to do it, but you need to understand it.
Enunciated French: Elle regarde (she’s watching)
Spoken French: èrgard
Enunciated French: Ils parlent (they’re speaking)
Spoken French: iparl
Is the Ne Pronounced in Spoken French?
In spoken French, the way we pronounce the written “ne” of the French negative form is really affected. We either glide it, or it totally disappears.
Pronouncing the “ne” – medium way.
If someone speak in a natural, but quite enunciated way in French, the “ne” of the negative will glide with “je, tu, nous and vous”.
- Enunciated French: Je ne parle pas
Spoken French: jeun parlpa
- Enunciated French: Tu ne parles pas
Spoken French: tun parlpa
- Enunciated French: Nous ne parlons pas
Spoken French: noon parlonpa
- Enunciated French: Vous ne parlez pas
Spoken French: voon parlépa
This is a medium gliding. Actually in most of France nowadays, it would be extremely rare to pronounce the ne without gliding it a bit (yet as I said above, there are different French regional accents).
So, I strongly encourage you to apply this medium gliding.
Would you like more examples? Check out my free lesson on the conjugation of être – to be in French – with 450 audio recordings! You’ll understand why I say French students should learn French verb conjugations with audio !
When the French “ne” disappears
Now, quite often in spoken French, the “ne” and even the “n’” totally disappear.
This is very, very common in spoken French pronunciation.
Let’s hear how the verb “parler” in the present indicative negative would be pronounced.
Press on the audio player and you’ll hear 3 pronunciations:
- the overly enunciated pronunciation like you probably learned it in school or with a traditional French learning method,
- then the medium glided pronunciation like I encourage you to speak,
- the common modern French pronunciation like you’ll hear it in France today.
- Je ne parle pas = jeun parlpa – shparlpa
- Tu ne parles pas = tune parlpa – tuparlpa
- Il ne parle pas = een parlpa – iparlpa
- elle ne parle pas = ènn parlpa – èparlpa
- Nous ne parlons pas = noonparlonpa – nooparlonpa
- Vous ne parlez pas = voon parlépa – vooparlépa
- Ils ne parlent pas = een parlpa – iparlpa
- Elles ne parlent pas = ènn parlpa – èparlpa
My beginner level French method features a realistic story recorded 3 times to feature overly enunciated, normal and modern spoken French pronunciation.
French Today’s audiobook method is the only French learning method to teach both traditional and modern spoken French pronunciation, and still provide level-adapted grammar structure to gradually prepare to successfully interact with French people.
Let’s carry on with our exploration of spoken French.
What Happens With Small Words?
Just like with “ne” and “je”, other small words in “e” are likely to glide in spoken French.
How to pronounce “Se, ce, te, me, que, de, me” in spoken French?
Se, ce, te, me, que, de, me… They all glide in spoken French: the “e” will not be pronounced and the consonant will glide with another French vowel.
Let’s take some example
- The “il” and the “te” both glide becoming “it”
Enunciated French: Il te parle (he is talking to you)
Spoken French: itparl
- “Que” becomes a K sound that starts the following word.
Enunciated French:Je veux que tu lui parles (I want you to speak to him/her)
Spoken French: shveu ktu lui parl
- When followed by an S sound, the “que” and the following word combine to sound like an X sound
Enunciated French: Je n’ai pas que ça à faire (I have other things to do)
Spoken French: jé paxa-a fèr
- “Qu’est-ce que” is pronounced Kèss
Enunciated French: Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? (What are you doing?)
Spoken French: Kèss tu fay
- The “ce” part of “est-ce que” always glides.
You will hear “S keu”, or “S kil”, “S Kèl” when followed by “il(s)” or “elle(s)”
Enunciated French: Est-ce qu’il fait beau ? (Is the weather nice ?)
Spoken French: S kifèbo
- The “de” often glides or even disappears
Enunciated French: Pas de problème (No problem)
Spoken French: pad problem
Enunciated French: Tout de suite (Right away)
Spoken French: toot suit
I realise this is really new to many of you reading this lesson. So how can you learn this? Repeating short phrases is not going to help much because you need to get accustomed to the flow of it all in French. The best way to learn the right French pronunciation is to learn it in the context of a story.
French Today’s French learning method is illustrated by an ongoing bilingual novel recorded once in overly enunciated French, then in modern spoken French, and focuses on today’s everyday French language.
Learn French easily at home and on the go on any device!
How to pronounce object pronouns in spoken French?
The pronunciation of French object pronouns (me, te, le, la, lui, nous, vous, les, leur) is quite different between overly enunciated French and normal spoken French
- “te” becomes a [t] sound.
- “le” becomes a [L] sound and often totally disappears,
- “lui” becomes a [ui] sound and often totally disappears.
- “la” may also totally disappear.
“Nous” “vous” and “leur” don’t change much, but other words like “ne” or “je, tu, il(s), elle(s)” may contract with them and affect the way you think the whole sentence should sound…
Overly enunciated French pronunciation: Je le donne à Pierre – I give it to Pierre.
Common gliding: Jeul donne à Pierre
Extreme gliding: Jleu donne à Pierre
Now let’s make a more complex sentence:
Overly enunciated French pronunciation: Je ne le lui donne pas – I don’t give it to him/her.
Enunciated French pronunciation: Jeun le lui donn pa
Common gliding: Jui donn pa
Extreme gliding: Ji donne pa (I don’t encourage you to copy that one)
To know more about the modern glided pronunciation of the French object pronouns le, la, les, lui, leur pronunciation I’ll let you follow the link to another lesson I dedicated to that subject… There’s just too much to say!
Expressions in Spoken French
Because we say them so much, the pronunciation of common French expressions is going to be quite different in spoken French.
So different that if you only learned the written form, or the overly enunciated way to say these expressions, you will probably not understand them if you heard them in a natural French conversation.
What’s the Modern Pronunciation of”Il y a”?
“Il y a” is probably where the difference between the enunciated and the modern spoken French pronunciation is the most blatant.
Please click on the audio player to hear my recording.
First the enunciated pronunciation, then then regular spoken French pronunciation.
- Enunciated French: Il y a (there was)
Everyday Spoken French: ya
- Enunciated French: Il n’y a pas (there isn’t)
Everyday Spoken French: yapa
- Enunciated French: Il y en a (there’s some)
Everyday Spoken French: yan na
- Enunciated French: Il n’y en a pas (there isn’t any)
Everyday Spoken French: yan napa
- Enunciated French: Il y aura (there will be)
Everyday Spoken French: yora
- Enunciated French: Il y a eu (there has been)
Everyday Spoken French: ya u
Politeness expressions – spoken French pronunciation
The modern pronunciation of French politeness expressions will probably surprise you.
- Enunciated French: Je t’en prie (you’re welcome using tu)
Everyday Spoken French: shtan pri
- Enunciated French: S’il te plaît (please using tu)
Everyday Spoken French: ste plé
- Enunciated French: Il n’y a pas de quoi (it’s nothing using tu)
Everyday Spoken French: yapad koi
- Enunciated French: Non (no in French)
Everyday Spoken French: nan
- Enunciated French: Oui
Everyday Spoken French: way (we spell it “ouais” – a common way to say yes in French)
Now that we’ve talked in length about the modern spoken French pronunciation, let’s see the French vocabulary used in spoken French.
What Is French Slang?
Slang has mostly to do with French vocabulary.
The traditional French slang is called “l’argot”, and many words of “argot” are used colloquially in spoken French throughout generations.
Like in other languages, French slang terms can easily become outdated… Some slang terms can be really vulgar, or even be insults… So be careful when using French… You should be sure of the meaning and only use slang in the right context and with the right crowd.
Examples of modern French slang
“Le parler d’jeunes” is the brand new French slang – new expressions are added every year!
Spoken French: Comme je me suis mangé la gueule !
Man, I totally wiped out!
Formal French: Ah la la, je suis vraiment tombé fort !
What is verlan?
“Le verlan” is a common French slang practice consisting of inverting the order of syllables in a word.
Spoken French: Z’y va.
Go for it!
Formal French: vas-y.
Spoken French: Cimer.
Formal French: merci (click her for more ways to say thank you in French).
What is franglish?
“Franglish” is a mix of French and English words used with a more or less correct French accent and meaning in French.
Spoken French: On a brainstormé toute la journée au bureau.
We brainstormed all day at the office.
Formal French: On a bien réfléchi ensemble toute la journée au bureau.
French slang based on foreign words
Other foreign languages influence the French language, in particular Arabic.
Spoken French: Je la kiff.
I’m attracted to her.
Formal French: Je la trouve très attirante.
So there are definitely several layers to mastering French Vocabulary!
Are You Learning The Right French Vocabulary?
It’s important that students get a feeling for the vocabulary words they are learning.
Lots of people like to listen to French songs and learn some new vocabulary this way. It’s fine, but be aware that if you are in your fifties, you may not want to sound like a twenty year-old rap singer…
On the other hand, I hear too many students who learn French with traditional French literature from the 19th century and use words or expressions that are absolutely outdated now.
So, it’s important that you learn not only French vocabulary, but also the context in which it is best used. To achieve this, there is nothing better than learning French within the context of a story.
And this is only for the vocabulary part…. Now let’s see how French grammar changes when we speak French.
Spoken French – Questions & Grammar
Many grammatical constructions such as asking questions also change in modern spoken French.
- What’s your name?
Formal French: Comment vous appelez-vous ?
Spoken French: Vous vous appelez comment ?
- Why are you going to France?
Formal French: Pourquoi allez-vous en France ?
Spoken French: vous allez en France pourquoi ?
- What are you doing?
Formal French: Qu’est-ce que tu fais ?
Spoken French: Tu fais quoi ?
In modern street French, it’s very, very rare to use inversion. Instead, it’s the tone of your voice that shows we are asking a question: we just say the statement, then we raise our voice.
- Does he live in France?
Il habite en France ?
If we are using an interrogative expression (why, when, who, at what time etc…), the expression will be placed at the end of the street French question.
- At what time do you start?
Tu commences à quelle heure ?
- With whom do you work?
Vous travaillez avec qui ?
This is particularly confusing for students of French who often never studied this way to ask a question in French class, and are totally confused by the word order and therefore freeze when they need to answer in French.
French Today’s audiobook “Secrets of French Conversation” explains in depth all the different ways of asking questions in French, including the very formal inversion, est-ce que, and also the modern spoken French way, all with audio recordings and plenty of exercises.
Now let’s see how even the classical French word order gets affected when we speak French.
Spoken French Word Order
Something else that changes in spoken French is the the typical word order: I can’t really explain it, but we either use pronouns to reinforce the subject, for example:
- Your answer is great
Formal French: Ta réponse est très bonne
Spoken French: Elle est top ta réponse !
Or we feed the info in chunks, without many linking words, as to feed the brain the most important facts first. For example:
- When does the cleaning lady come exactly on Monday?
Formal French: Quand exactement la femme de ménage vient-elle ce lundi ?
Spoken French: La femme de ménage, lundi, elle vient quand
See how in spoken French, you got the key info very clearly:
- “la femme de ménage”
- “vient quand”.
I could also have said
- “la femme de ménage vient quand exactement lundi”,
- “elle vient quand exactement lundi, la femme de ménage ?”
- “elle vient quand exactement la femme de ménage lundi ?”…
There are several possibilities!
It would be extremely hard to teach a French student to mimic these constructions, as there are no rules per se. It’s our French ear that would tell us if it’s possible or not. Yet, the word order is not totally random: I couldn’t move the “word blocks” in many different ways…
So, here again, I don’t suggest you speak this way necessarily. But you need to be able to understand it and therefore learn with a French method with both classic and modern spoken French recordings so you develop an ear for these constructions.
Test Your Spoken French Understanding
Because so many students are in denial (they think they understand French but they don’t actually understand modern spoken French) I actually designed a unique test especially to test your spoken French understanding.
My French test is entirely audio based: all the questions will be presented to you as a recording, and then after each question, you’ll have an answer which I’ve also recorded.
Take my free Spoken French test now!
Spoken French Language And French Mistakes
Unfortunately, some French grammar mistakes are also very common in spoken French.
Believe it or not, but the French Subjunctive is actually hard for French people as well. Nowadays, it’s quite common to hear Subjunctive mistakes. Same goes for past participle agreements.
Some grammatical constructions are also affected. For example, it’s common to hear “la copine à ma soeur” instead of “la copine de ma soeur” (my sister’s friend).
I’m sorry if I sound like a snob, but I think the info is important: there is a difference to be made between:
- the modern spoken French way of asking questions, which most French people uses when they speak French in a relaxed environment, yet considered by some linguists to be poor French,
- and French mistakes, which are… well, not just poor French, but simply real mistakes!
Voilà, I hope you now understand more the difference between modern spoken French – the French you’ll actually hear when you go to France and in modern French movies – and the overly enunciated, overly formal French that you’re likely to have studied with traditional French learning methods.
Both are part of the reality of French today.
I suggest you check out my French audiobook method to learn French the smart way today.