What is Real Life French?

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Real life French is the informal, everyday French language the French speak in France nowadays. How does it differ from the French you’ve been learning?

Real life French is not slang, and it’s very different from the overly enunciated, quite formal French language usually featured in language schools and in traditional French learning methods.

In French in real life, not only does the vocabulary we use differs from formal French, but so does the sentence structure – especially when asking questions. Yet, what differs the most is probably the pronunciation.

How is French Really Spoken in France?

I’ve written a complete guide to everyday spoken French : follow the link to understand the French in real life, the French spoken today in France. My free guide comes with over 100 examples recorded in enunciated French and in real life French so you can easily hear the difference, and includes in-depth explanations on what differs.

As I said above, it’s not only a question of using “argot” – slang in French or a different pronunciation. Lots of things change in spoken French…

Here are some examples taken from my free guide. These examples concentrate mostly on pronunciation. Please press play on the audio player to hear my recording.

  1. The “il” and the “te” both glide becoming “it”
    Enunciated French: Il te parle (he is talking to you)
    Spoken French: itparl
  2. “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
  3. 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
  4. “Qu’est-ce que” is pronounced Kèss
    Enunciated French: Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? (What are you doing?)
    Spoken French: Kèss tu fay
  5. 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
  6. 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

So now you can see for yourself that overly enunciated French and the French language the French speak in real life are quite different… Real life French pronunciation as well as classical French pronunciation are explained in my French audiobook Secrets of French pronunciation.

Secrets of French Pronunciation

In-depth audiobook covering the foundations as well as the difficulties of today’s French pronunciation

(58 Reviews)

More Details & Audio Samples

Now students of French often ask me: ‘does everybody speak French exactly the same way in France?’

What’s Real Life French?

It’s a bit pretentious to talk about real life French because… well there’s not a single ‘perfect’ version of the French language.

For starters, just like in English, the French you’ll hear spoken in France will differ slightly from French spoken in other French-speaking countries. For example, “le déjeuner” means ‘lunch’ in France. It means ‘breakfast’ in French speaking Switzerland.

Not every French speaker has the same French accent. There will be some significant differences of pronunciation between different French speaking countries… You’ll even notice different pronunciations between regions of France.

For exemple, in the Northern part of France, including Paris, the “ne” will be dropped in spoken French, and the “e” of many small words like “je, de, se, ce, me, que, le…” will glide. It’s not so in the Southern part of France where the “e” tends to be clearly pronounced.

So, how can one speak of ‘real life French’? Well, if there’s not one single French language, there’s definitely a difference between the French you are likely to have learned in school, which is still featured to this day by most French learning methods, and the French you’ll hear spoken among French speaking people… no matter where they are from!

What’s NOT Real life French?

For the longest time, foreigners would learn French from French literature. Their studies would concentrate on learning how to read and write French… And if they really wanted to learn how to speak French, well they would travel to France for an immersion in French.

French classes typically still grade students on how well they can write and… conjugate the French verbs.

Then, a few French learning methods with audio and focussing on really useful vocabulary started to surface: the Assimil method started to include audio recordings in the seventies, so did Michel Thomas… They both based the vocabulary on common French words, not just literature.

It was a huge step forward, yet, these methods still taught a very enunciated, formal French… which was already in the seventies and still is nowadays quite different from the French language French people speak in France.

I love this quote which summarises the problem really well.

The spoken French taught in American classrooms is a fiction, based on ideas about how people should speak, not on how they do speak – Waugh Fonseca-Geber of the University of ArizonaClick to Tweet

Why Students Don’t Know Real Life French

When I started teaching French to English speakers back in the nineteen-nineties, I was shocked to see how a typical English speaking student spoke French.

I was in Boston, MA, USA and taught French first at Berlitz language school, and then to adult students I found by myself. Most of these students had studied French for years: some of them were really advanced, read the news in French everyday, and had read French literature.

They could understand written French really well. Yet, the large majority had a hard time speaking French. And they told me they couldn’t understand the French when they spoke in France, or understand modern French movies.

The sad reality is that the methods students typically study with only prepared them for reading/ writing. If the method had a bit of French speaking training, it was always overly enunciated, very formal French: like an extract from a play, or the news in French. Not ‘real life’ French.

My immediate reaction was: ‘what can I do about this ?’

In 1999, I wrote and self-published my first audiobook: the very first draft of the novel now featured in À Moi Paris – my French audiobook method. I wrote a real life like dialogue, and then recorded it at two levels of enunciation:

  1. enunciated French, so students can learn the classical French pronunciation,
  2. and real life French – which I call in my French learning method ‘modern French’.

I tried to have it published but at that time, publishing a book with 3 CDs was… A very big deal ! LOL !!!

I only had a very small site my husband Olivier had put together for us. I knew this would not reach many people and I truly wanted to help people communicate in French. I was lucky to cross path with Laura K. Lawless at About.com. If you are an American in your fifties or older you probably remember her site: it was the biggest site – and really the very first free website – dedicated to teaching French in English.

I gave her my novel and three hours of accompanying audio and she published it for free onto About.com. I’m proud to say that thanks to her site’s visibility, my little audio novel was seen by millions of people every months. “À Moi Paris” was the very first free French audiobook on the internet.

Since then, I developed a whole French learning method around that real life like novel, including very detailed and progressive grammar explanations, and I continue to educate students about the French language we speak in real life.

Fake French vs Natural Slow French vs Modern Spoken French

Here is my YouTube channel… The main video where I explain the difference between “fake” overly enunciated French, natural slower French and faster modern spoken French was published in 2011.

The Explosion of Real Life French Shorts

Now, ten years later, other methods are finally catching up.

YouTube and instagram have been exploding with shorts featuring expressions pronounced in extremely enunciated French and then super fast spoken French.

Here are some examples of what you’ll find on YouTube…

Here is Alexa’s shorts. Her series is actually called “French in Real Life”.

So, yes, these shorts are fun. But they won’t teach you to speak with a natural flow that will sound good in French.

If you blast some super fast, super glided French into an otherwise classic and enunciated way of speaking, it’s going to clash and sound really weird!

If your French vocabulary is formal, and French pronunciation quite enunciated, and you suddenly drop a [ya] or [shaypa], it’s going to sound really weird!Click to Tweet

Here is another example from Français avec Pierre: here, the pronunciation is so exaggerated that it’s actually meant to have the school taught version sound ridiculous.

I think these shorts are useful at raising the awareness that the French you’ll hear in real life may not be the one featured in traditional methods. It’s shocking, it’s fun. Yet, these shorts fail to teach you a middle way to speak: not overly enunciated French and not full blast “street” French either. There’s actually a slower, yet natural way to speak French which is perfect for students who are learning French.

Can You Speak Slower and Still Sound Natural in French?

My students often say: “the French speak so fast”. Many YouTubers are addressing this problem and helping their audience understand fast French.

In this series, Geraldine of Comme une française explains what a French actor is saying and why she pronounce things the way she does. I think this kind of videos are extremely interesting for advanced speakers of French.

However, there’s a way to speak French slowly which is natural, and actually appropriate for students who are starting to learn French. Not everybody in French speaks super fast.

I love the intermediate videos from Inner French. Hugo speaks rather slowly, yet he uses a very natural way of speaking French, with modern glidings etc… He sounds good, yet he’s easy to understand. Why? Simply because it’s the way he speaks naturally (I did speak with him).

Like me, he’s someone who naturally speaks a bit slower and clearly which makes him naturally easy to understand. I believe his videos are a great resource for intermediate speakers.

Hats off to all these YouTubers for all their hard work on producing these free videos. I know from personal experience that video may seem simple, but they take a really long time to produce…

So how can YOU learn real life French?

How Can You Learn Real Life French?

To really understand the French when they speak among themselves, or understand French movies, and in order to maybe get a less formal, more natural French flow yourself, it’s important to train with longer dialogues so you develop a sense for the flow of the language.

The level of the French text is also important. If the text is too hard, full of expressions you don’t know and the pronunciation is totally new… It’s just too much info to handle! That’s why I say Geraldine’s video are awesome for advanced speakers.

Speed is also important. You do need to train to understand ‘fast French’. Yet, let’s not forget you are still learning.

People don’t learn to ski on the black slope. If understanding the French when they speak in real life is the goal, by no mean is it the way to get there.Click to Tweet

What you need is a teaching method that gently and progressively trains you to understand French in real life, yet makes sure you have a strong and solid classic foundation.

I suggest you first download my free French phrasebook: 1100 French phrases recorded in enunciated French and in real life French (both pronunciation still being natural, not exaggerated), and then translated into English. You’ll see that for some phrases, the overly enunciated pronunciation and the modern French pronunciation are almost the same. For others, it sounds completely different!

Then, you may want to check my complete French method to learn how to read, write and speak in French.

If you enjoy learning French language and culture in context, check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided French pronunciation.

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Please react! Leave a comment, make a suggestion, share this article… Your engagement really encourages me to create more free French lessons!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 23+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Most of my audiobooks are recorded at several speeds to help you conquer the modern French language. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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