How to Understand Spoken French – Modern French Language Pronunciation

I’ll explain in details the differences between today’s modern spoken French, traditional book French and point you to a medium way of speaking which should greatly improve both your understanding and pronunciation of the contemporary French language.

1 – Spoken French Versus Classroom French

Many students learn French in school: traditionally, French language classes have a strong focus on grammar, written French and literature, with a few chances to practice spoken French conversations.

“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-Greber – University Of Arizona

French is an evolving language, and even more so than in English, there is nowadays a huge difference between:

  1. written French,
  2. traditional French like it’s taught in schools or spoken by most politicians or intellectuals
  3. and the French everybody (I insist, everybody: me, my mom, my daughter…) speak when in a relaxed environment.

These differences affect the Pronunciation of the French Language, its vocabulary and even its grammar and sentence structure.

2 – Spoken French Versus Inner City French

Now, let me make an important point: when I speak about spoken French, I often call it “street French”, referring to the French everybody speaks in the street: in a relaxed everyday setting.

I’m not talking about the French used by young people of “the hood”, inner city French… yet almost another language of its own, which I myself have trouble understanding sometimes.

3 – Why is Modern French not Taught in Classrooms?

Modern Spoken French is usually not taught in classrooms simply because it is considered “poor” French. Lots of scholars look down on the evolution of a language, and deeply believe that any evolution is actually a retrogression, and weakens the language.

I won’t enter the debate. All I know is that modern spoken French is a reality, and if you want to understand real French people or aim at sounding French yourself, you need to study spoken French and prepare you ear for modern French pronunciation.

First of course, you’d have to understand the difference between traditional French and modern French vocabulary.

4 – Spoken French Vocabulary = Everyday French Slang, “Verlan” and Foreign Words

French is alive: through times and fashion, it keeps evolving.

Of course, there is a strong base of vocabulary which is unlikely to change much.

But then, there is also fashion: an adjective may be used by a generation, then forgotten by the other. Like “swell” in English which was popular in the fifties and is no longer used.

On top of the traditional French slang, called “l’argot” French students now have to cope with:

  1. “Le parler d’jeunes” (Millenium French slang expressions)
    Spoken French: Comme je me suis mangé la gueule !
    Man, I totally wiped out!
    Formal French: Ah la la, je suis vraiment tombé fort!
    Gosh, I fell hard!
  2. “Le verlan” (common French 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:
  3. “Franglish” (English words used with a more or less correct 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.
  4. Other foreign language influences, 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!

5 – Really Modern French Vocabulary is not For Everybody

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.

spoken french pronunciation

6 – Question in Spoken French Grammar

Many grammatical constructions such as asking questions also change in modern spoken French.

  1. Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? = tu fais quoi ?

  2. Pourquoi allez-vous en France ? = vous allez en France pourquoi ?

In modern street French, we no longer use “est-ce que” nor 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.

  • Il habite en France ? Does he live in 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.

  1. Tu commences à quelle heure ? At what time do you start?
  2. Vous travaillez avec qui ? With whom do you work?

This is particular 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 street French, all with audio recordings and plenty of exercises.

7 – Spoken French Word Order

Something else that changes in spoken French is the word order: I can’t really explain it, but we either use pronouns to reinforce the subject, for example:

  • Spoken French: Elle est top ta réponse !
    Your answers is great
    Formal French: ta réponse est très bonne

Or we feed the info in chunks, without many linking words, as to feed the brain the most important facts. For example:

  • Spoken French: La femme de ménage, lundi, elle vient quand exactement ?
    When does the cleaning lady come exactly on Monday?
    Formal French: Quand exactement la femme de ménage vient-elle ce lundi ?

See how in spoken French, you got the key info very clearly: “la femme de ménage” “lundi” “vient quand”. I could also have said “la femme de ménage vient quand lundi”… That would have been even more to the point. Tere 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. 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.

8 – 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:

  1. the street French way of asking questions, which everybody uses in spoken French when in a relaxed environment, considered by some linguists to be poor French,
  2. and French mistakes, which are… well, not just poor French, but simply real mistakes!

Unfortunately, mistakes in the French language are often link to social class and level of education.

9 – Today’s Spoken French Pronunciation

The modern street French pronunciation is also quite far from textbook French.

Just like in English you’d write: “I am going to give”, but would say: “I’m goin’ to give” or even say: “I’m gonna give”, French people will glide over some words in a lighter or a stronger way.

Street French glidings are not set in stone. However, everybody uses some kind of gliding, at some level .

I may say: “jeun say pas” (gliding over the “ne” of “je ne sais pas” = I don’t know) in one instance, and then say “shaypa” (doing a stronger gliding) five minutes after. Why? I don’t know…

Glidings depend a lot on the context, the person you are talking to, your and their age, regional accents, whether you are trying to sound smart or cooooool…

Age is also a big condition: young people tend to apply more glidings and use more slang when they speak than adults.

Street French is not considered “pretty”. Especially by people who love French, linguists, teachers, people from higher social classes… But it is the reality of French today.

I suggest to my French students that they learn “the middle” way; some glidings, but not total street French. “I’m goin’ to”, not “I gonna”.

However, it’s important that you understand both street French and traditional, therefore also train with “full glidings” to understand the French when they speak in the street, or in movies.

This is why all of French Today’s audiobooks are recorded at several speeds (and gliding levels).

10 – Modern French Pronunciation Examples

Now, let’s see what some street glidings are.

This is not an easy lesson to write, because street French evolves all the time, and there are no rules per say. But I’ll give you some examples.

Subject pronouns Spoken French Pronunciation

  • Je becomes kind of a “sh” sound.
    Je suis = shui
    Je parle = shparl
  • Tu becomes T in front of a vowel
    Tu es d’accord ? Té dacor
    Tu imagines = 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.
    Elle regarde = Èrgard
    Ils parlent = iparl

spoken french pronunciation

Ne Disappears in Spoken French Pronunciation

The “ne” of the negative glides with je, tu, nous and vous.

  1. Je ne parle pas = jeun parlpa
  2. Tu ne parles pas = tun parlpa
  3. Nous ne parlons pas = noon parlonpa
  4. Vous ne parlez pas = voon parlépa

This is a medium gliding. Actually in French nowadays, it would be extremely rare to pronounce the ne without gliding it a bit. So, I strongly encourage you to apply this medium gliding.

Now, in reality, most of the time in spoken French, the “ne” and even the “n’” totally disappear.
This is very, very common in spoken French now.

  • Je ne suis pas = shuipa
  • Ils ne parlent pas = iparlpa

Short Words in “e”  Drop Their E Sound

  • Il te parle = itparl =
    The “il” and the “te” both glide becoming “it”
  • “Que” becomes a K sound that starts the following word.
    Je veux que tu lui parles = shveu ktu lui parl
  • When followed by an S sound, the “que” and the following word combine to sound like an X sound
    Je n’ai pas que ça à faire = jé paxa-a fèr
  • “Qu’est-ce que” is pronounced Kèss
    Qu’est-ce que tu fais – 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)”
    Est-ce qu’il fait beau ? = S kil fèbo ?

11 – Common Glided French Expressions

“Il y a” is probably the common French word where the modern French pronunciation is the most blatant. And this often comes to a shock to poor students of French who were never prepared for that! This is why I dedicated a whole blog article to the modern spoken French pronunciation of “il y a” (pronounced “ya”).

There are also many, many glidings with object pronouns: le and la totally disappears, lui glides. Here again, I wrote an article about the modern glided pronunciation of the French object pronouns le, la, les, lui, leur (this article comes with audio).

Je le lui dis = shuidi

Common French politeness expressions are glided as well:

  1. Je t’en prie – shtan pri
  2. S’il te plaît – ste plé
  3. Il n’y a pas de quoi – yapad koi

11 – Video Explaining Spoken French Pronunciation

This is usually all a big shock to students of French who never heard of this spoken modern French pronunciation. I elaborate on this subject in this video:

You will find much more about modern spoken French pronunciation with audio recordings – along with traditional French pronunciation in French Today’s audiobook Secrets of French Pronunciation.

Then, once you understand the rules of French pronunciation, you’ll be ready to train with French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, to help you master both traditional and modern glided pronunciation. 

You’ll find exclusive mini lessons, tips, pictures and more everyday on French Today’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages – so join me there!