Have you ever felt like the French you learned from class or your books seemed like a totally different language from the one you heard in movies or in France? That’s because the way French people speak and the way they write is widely different!
Being able to understand the locals is one of the main reasons someone learns a language. French can be a little problematic as there are many differences between the written and spoken forms. Below are five main points to take in account.
Spot the silent letters
As if French wasn't complicated enough, there are lots of letters we write but don't actually pronounce. Sometimes, they are used to create another form of the word (feminine noun, adjective, verb...). For example:
- gris (grey)
- grise (feminine form of grey)
But in their basic form, the two are completely silent.
Here are some other examples:
- Haricot /aʁiko/ (bean)
- loup /lu/ (wolf)
- outil /uti/ (tool)
- point /pwɛ̃/ (dot)
- trop /tʁo/ (too much/too many)
- where the "p" can be used to create a liaison
Know your liaisons
A liaison is heard when a word ends with a consonant (usually a "t") and the next word begins with a vowel. When there is a liaison, the silent letter is pronounced and linked to the first letter of the next word. For example:
- petit-ami /pətit-ami/ (boyfriend)
- un examen /ɛ̃n- ɛɡzamɛ̃/ (an exam)
- elles ont /ɛlz- ɔ̃/ (they have)
These liaisons are always done. But some of them have been overlooked by even native French people, like the ones with a "p". For example, trop épais /tʁo epɛ/ (too thick) should be pronounced with a liaison, but some people don't. It's up to you to decide which way you like to speak it best.
Forbidden liaisons: Some liaisons can be made, but they absolutely shouldn’t be. For example: Elle écrit une lettre /ɛl ekʁi yn lɛtʁ/ (she writes a letter). Here, the "t" must be silent.
The same goes for des haricots » /de aʁiko/, you don't say the “s”. However, you have to say it when you say des enfants » /dez- ɑ̃fɑ̃/. It probably looks complicated, but it really isn't. There are a few rules to follow to know if you have to make a liaison or not.
- des hommes /dez- ɔm/ (men)
- des horloges /dez- ɔʁlɔʒ/ (clocks)
If the second word begins with a "h" and has to be after "le" or "la", (like "le haricot"), then liaisons are forbidden. If it begins with a "h", but the article is "l'", then it's a mute “h”, and the liaisons are made. For example:
- le haricot / l’ariko / (beans)
- le héros / l’ero/ (hero)
If there is a verb after a subject, there is no liaison either. For example: le train arrive /lə tʁɛ̃ aʁiv/ (the train is coming). The "n" is silent. There is no liaison after a verb: "tu veux un chien" /ty vø ɛ̃ ʃjɛ̃/ (you want a dog). The "x" is not pronounced. One final note, after "et" (and), liaisons are never made.
There are some exceptions to this rule; such as, there are usually no liaisons after "quand" /kɑ̃/ (when), "comment" /kɔmɑ̃/ (how), and combien /kɔ̃bjɛ̃/ (how many).
Speak with shortcuts
French people make "mistakes". They're, in fact, some sort of evolution in the French language, to make it easier and faster to deliver and understand. This way of speaking is used in a casual setting in real life or on social media, but efforts are to be made for formal occasions, work, or important paperwork.
We usually don't respect the "double negation" rule. We should say je ne peux pas faire ça /ʒə nə pø pa fɛʁ sa/ (I can not do that); but instead, we say je peux pas faire ça /ʒə pø pa fɛʁ sa/.
Be careful though! The "ne" is the part of the negation you have to take off in a casual conversation, je ne peux faire ça is correct, but is really formal.
We also tend to "swallow our words", in several ways. The letter "e" is the victim, most of the time. For example, we should say Je devrais /ʒə dəvʁɛ/, but we usually say j'devrais /ʒdəvʁɛ/. Or sometimes, we simply say je d’vrais /ʒə dvʁɛ/.
When "je" is followed by a word that begins with an "s", like in je suis, (I am), you will hear something close to "chui" /ʃɥi/; je sais (I know), j'sais /ʒsɛ/, or chai /ʃɛ/. As always, this is only used in an informal situation.
Grasp the slang
French people tend to use slang a lot -- whether being among friends or family. A lot of these words can be understood or used throughout the entire country, but some of the slang originated from specific regions. Here are some examples which you will be able to use in real life:
- s’arracher /saʁaʃe/ = to leave
- bidouiller /biduje/ = to tinker with
- les fringues /le fʁɛ̃ɡ/ = clothes
- la teuf /la tœf/ = party
- laisser tomber /lese tɔ̃be/ = to give up
There are a lot more of course, but use them sparingly or you will sound awkward and redundant.
Speaking about slang, some words are used in a very informal manner to talk about other things. For example: "carotte" /kaʁɔt/ (carrot) implies a scam or "un marron" /ɛ̃ maʁɔ̃/ (chestnut) is a punch. Of course, the context will allow you to understand what people are talking about, so this is nothing to stress over.
Every region has a different accent, and dialect. This is true for people of all languages.
The accents are more or less thick (difficult to understand), but you will get used to them pretty quickly. Hearing the same accent over and over again, you might mimic it and sound more native, which is a plus.
The dialects are often spoken by older/middle-aged people rather than young adults or kids, but you may hear some words that are not used in other places. Don't worry about it, even French people sometimes can't understand one another. Someone from Auvergne can have no idea what a person from Normandie is saying, even though they are both native French speakers. Just remember that people take great pride in speaking their dialect so they will love to explain to you what words mean. Don't be afraid to ask.
Written and spoken French are different, but it's nothing a good training can't help you with. Don't hesitate to ask about slang and phrases that you don't understand: nobody expects you to know these. Once you've learned to spot the nuances in a conversation, you will feel more confident in your abilities and your understanding in French will therefore become easier: practice is key!