Do you want to improve your spoken French? Of course you do, you’re reading this page.
But how can you do it? And how does getting a haircut, faking Swedish citizenship, and ignoring your grandma fit into all this?
Let me explain. But first some background.
I speak pretty good French. I’ve been in Paris since 2015, but haven’t taken classes since mid 2015. I mostly learned from real-life situations. On the basketball court, at the bank, on the phone, in an office. And perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned another language before (Swedish). I’m not trying to be a polygloat here, I’m just explaining.
This article sums up 13 tips, tricks, and hacks I’ve picked up over these years. As with pretty much all blog posts on this website, it is based on the latest of my weekly podcast episodes, which you can find embedded below. A big thanks to The Earful Tower’s Patreon members who contributed their words and wisdom to this list and episode. Join the gang and join the discussion here.
As always, you can listen to the podcast version below. Be sure to hit follow for more of the same.
Here’s the list!
1. Repeat everything you hear, even if it’s weird
The other day, a guy was buying a croissant in front of me. Before the receipt was even printed, the man said “Je vous laisse le ticket” (I’ll leave you the receipt). Then he smiled, and left. You can bet that I did the exact same thing one minute later. As listener Kendall Smith pointed out, repeating words is how children learn language skills before they can read. So be like a child. And repeat the customer in front of you.
2. Start unusual conversations with strangers
If you dare, strike up an unneccessary conversation with a stranger. Depending on how advanced your French is, you can start any kind of conversation. The other day, a postman had a lovely hat on it, so I said hello and commented on his chapeau. He looked confused. “Chapeau?” he said. “This is a bonnet.” He walked away and I was glad to have learned a new word and given a compliment. Remember: You’ll never see the stranger again, so don’t be nervous to make any mistakes 🙂 Have fun.
3. Ask one extra question
This is one of my golden tricks. When you buy a baguette, you typically have the exact same conversation every time. One baguette please, here’s the money, thanks very much, have a good day. I challenge you to ask some kind of extra question when you’re in that bakery. Ask about the picture on the wall. Ask what that unusual pastry is in the display. Why not buy something different too, while you’re at it?
4. Listen to Charles Aznavour
I love Charles Aznavour and wish I could have interviewed him when he was still alive. This French/Armenian singer won over the hearts of millions, including several Patreon supporters it turns out, for reasons including his catchy melodies and clear pronunciation. Put on his music, look up the lyrics, try to sing along, and enjoy a fun way to learn. Earful Tower fan Debbie Kwiecinski added that Aznavour is much better for pronunciation practice than Edith Piaf, who over-rolled her r’s. As for Aznavour, if you want to take it to the next level, see point five below.
5. Use Charles Aznavour’s words
This is a top tip: If you can memorize a few quotes from Aznavour’s songs and then drop them into your daily French conversations, you will blow people’s minds. It’s a cultural nod, you’re showing that you appreciate classic music, and dare I say it, you’re even showing that you’re witty (if you can do it well). In today’s podcast episode I referred to the song Formidable, which I’ve embedded below. (Listen to the pod to understand how I used lyrics in conversation.)
6. Solve a problem
In all seriousness, this is probably the one that has helped to advance my French the most. And it’s nice, it’s a tangible thing: when the problem is solved, you’ve done it. This may be disputing a phone bill. Or cancelling a restaurant reservation. Or, if you’re a little more advanced, arguing about how a missing document surely shouldn’t mean your newborn child can’t get a birth certificate. Extra points if you do it on the phone, it’s harder without the facial clues during an in-person conversation.
7. Say that you’re Swedish
If you’re American or Australian or Canadian or British, there’s a really good chance that a French person will detect your Anglo accent and switch to English. Maybe they do it to save time. Maybe it’s because you’re massacring their language and they want it to stop. Who knows why it happens, but it won’t help you improve your French. So when it begins, respond, in French, that you’re Swedish and that you don’t speak English. “Je suis suedois, je ne parle pas anglais”. Of course, if they respond in Swedish then you’re in serious trouble. Tip: Learn something about Abba and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic if you intend to use this trick, it will help.
8. Get a QG
If you’re in France, a good way to take the conversation to the next notch is to visit places more than once. In other words, a regular hang out – or a Quartier General in French. They call it a QG, pronounced like cooj’ai.
On your first visit you can say your pleases and thank yous. The next time you can talk with the staff about the weather, and perhaps buy an unusual pastry. On the third visit, ask the waiter what country they’re from. By then they’ll recognize you and you’re practically a friend. As listener Carl Boehm says, once you start frequenting the same shops, cafes, and bistros, “you naturally begin small conversations and before you know it you’ve got several regular conversation partners. The waiters at the Café St Regis on the Ile St Louis strike up conversations every time I visit”.
9. Get your hair cut
The best way to get a sure-fire 30+ minutes of real-life French is to get your hair cut. You’re a prisoner there, and you can consider it like a French lesson. If you don’t dare get your hair cut (and let’s face it, a lot can go wrong), then just force yourself to do a language exchange with a French person.
I wrote this in my book, Paris On Air. I used to do a language exchange with my neighbour, Stéphane, where we’d start in only English for half and hour then switch to only French, going back and forth between the two until the wine ran out. The only rule was that we could never divert back to our native tongue until the alarm dinged. Lynda Vaughn says she does the same thing. She says: “It forces me to move beyond ‘tourist French’ as I’m having to figure out how to have a ‘normal’ conversation with a friend, but in French”.
10. Don’t worry about your grandma
Regular listener Kathryn Barnett chimed in with this one, saying you should forget all about your grandma if you want to improve your spoken French. Hang on, no, I misread it. She said grammar. She said to forget your grammar. Goodness me.
Kathryn writes: “Don’t worry about the grammar, but try to get the sound and inflection correct. It’s all about communication. Children learn by repetition and gentle correction. They communicate and aren’t self-conscious about mistakes. As adults, we find it hard to do that. So my goal is to improve pronunciation and just go for it! What’s the worst that can happen? I might get myself in a pickle …… but I’d be ‘un cornichon’”.
11. Don’t focus on the other verbs
Friend of the show Shelly Bittler says the following “light switch moment” helped her French improve dramatically.
“At one point I realized that for basically ALL the conversations I was having, I really only needed to know the present, past, and maybe future tense of 2-3 verbs (etre, avoir, and future for aller). I am, I have, I will go, I did, I went, etc. So I memorized those and ignored the rest for a bit, and it got SO MUCH easier. My brain space was freed up from trying to wrap my mind around all of the grammar rules, and I figured out that I could actually say a lot more than I thought I could.
“I ended up absorbing far more other vocabulary, because I wasn’t twisted around trying to figure out the subjunctive. And by the time I got around to having deeper conversations in French, I had become much more comfortable speaking, and they became easier to understand. So my tip: figure out the couple of verbs you need to know for most basic conversation, memorize them, and then use them and stop worrying about the rest.”
12. Watch French shows twice
With such excellent TV shows coming out of France right now, I can empathize with wanting to put on the English subtitles to understand it all. But why not watch it again afterwards, but without the text? Collette Carroll Field recommends using French captions when you’re ready. In any case, avoid anything dubbed into English – watch it in French. “Either way, you’re training your ear on the sounds of spoken French. Then you can practice speaking by mimicking phrases.” New listener Jonas recommends watching films in other foreign languages with French subtitles. That way you’re truly forced to focus.
13. Don’t be afraid to fly solo
While it’s really lovely to be able to rely on your French friend/husband/wife/neighbour… you really need to fly solo sometimes to get ahead. And that includes travelling solo, says Rebecca DiPasquale. “I would say that travelling solo has forced me to use my French more. That is, unless you end up at a party at the Australian Ambassador’s residence, chatting with a bunch of English speakers…”
That’s it! Use these tips and I guarantee you’ll see an improvement in your spoken French. Now, for more of my French language observations, click here for my “30 strange things I’ve learned after four years in Paris”.
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