How to Become Conversational in French - Five Tips for French Fluency
You've started learning French. You memorize new vocabulary words, use flashcards, practice conjugating verbs, study new grammar topics, and then comes the moment of truth: you meet a native speaker. Excited and nervous to show off what you've learned, you start to speak and...freeze. You stumble over words.
How do you say that again? Does the adjective come before or after the noun? Am I even speaking? Can they understand me? Who knew a simple conversation could be so difficult?!
If you've ever studied a foreign language before, you're probably no stranger to this situation and to the difficulties of conversations. Reading, listening, and studying vocabulary and grammar is one thing. But when it comes time to actually speak, it's a whole new ball game.
Fluent, Conversational...Or Both?
When asked what their French language goals are, many learners don't even hesitate to respond: "To become fluent, of course!"
What few learners realize, however, is that what we think of as fluency is in reality a very unrealistic goal. After all, to be fluent means to speak perfectly like a native speaker, right?
Not necessarily. There's a few things to keep in mind:
- First of all, very few native speakers even speak their own language perfectly (feel free to watch any American political debate for evidence).
- Second, it's not easy to define what it even means to speak French like a native speaker or to speak "perfectly."
If we take a moment to stop and think about what we really want, it's probably something like this: to be able to speak in French comfortably and without hesitation.
With this definition in mind, fluency can actually occur at any language learning level, whether you're a beginner or an advanced speaker. It's simply a matter of practicing what you do know and knowing how to talk around things that you don't know.
This is a very common practice of well-traveled "worldly" people. In order to be able to visit a country without distractions and to better blend in, they learn just enough to be able to get by. Then they practice their new vocabulary, and practice it some more. By the time their trip is over, they're able to trick locals into believing that they're native. In other words: they're fluent, with just basic vocabulary and basic notions of grammar.
I have a friend who's an expert at this: He can have a fluent conversation in French, sound great while doing it, and in reality only studied French for a few weeks. His confidence and lack of hesitation in using the little vocabulary he does know makes anyone who listens think that he's been studying for years.
Let's call this type of "fluency" being conversational.
Being conversational is a matter of being comfortable in your foreign language and not needing to search for words when speaking. It's about not letting your insecurity get in the way of your skills. It means focusing on the practical words, phrases and skills that are useful in the majority of interactions and practicing them until you dominate them.
Doesn't that sound like a much better goal than the vague notion of becoming "fluent"?
In order to achieve this goal, there are some great ways to practice and improve your conversational skills and learn to be confident when speaking French. Let's take a look at five great tips:
1. Stay Motivated To Continue Learning French
It's no secret that motivation is crucial when learning a new language. This is one of the main reasons why anyone is able to learn a language
regardless of age, education and experience. Motivation is more important than any one of the excuses you may have for not learning French.
Staying motivated is the number one reason why many have language learning success, and is also the number one reason why some fail. There is no understating how important it is at every step of the learning process, whether you're starting to learn French or polishing up your skills.
Stay motivated. Focus on why you want to learn French, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from it. Learning French is always worth it. This mindset is helpful at every stage of the language learning process. It also really helps to fuel your conversation practice.
2. Create Your Own French Phrasebook
Make your own French dictionary and phrasebook. This could be online, on your phone, or even in a cute little notebook from the Dollar Store.
Every time you hear a new French word or phrase that you think will be useful, write it down in you phrasebooks. Later, when you've got some free time or forget a word or phrase, you can turn to your own portable, personalized French dictionary for help.
Here's what's so great about this:
- It allows you to build up useful vocabulary and phrases that will help you to become more conversational in French.
- Your phrasebook is your own personalized dictionary and guide to the words that will be useful to you.
- It's a way to organize the most practical information from your studies in one place for future use and to focus on things that you will really need when speaking.
- Finally, not only is it helpful for keeping all of your useful words and phrases in one easy-to-carry location, but the very process of writing down French words and phrases helps you to memorize them.
It's a great tool for anyone studying French at any level, and you can even use it to improve your native language!
3. Learn the French Connectors and Fillers
So, when we speak in our native language, we fill our conversations with small or seemingly insignificant words. These words help us to form connections between ideas and fill empty spaces. Well, as a matter of fact, these connectors or fillers actually help contribute to our language fluency and keep us from sounding like textbook-reading robots.
That being said, there are ten categories of connectors that I recommend learning in French:
Fillers e.g. Well... Actually... So...
Eh bien, je ne suis pas sûr.
Openers e.g. That's a good question... I was thinking... So...
Je pensais à une salade de tomates à la mozzarella.
I was thinking of a tomato salad with mozzarella.
Apologies e.g. I'm sorry, but... I've got to be honest with you...
Je suis désolé, mais toutes les places sont réservées.
I'm sorry, but all the seats are reserved.
(Dis)Agreement e.g. Definitely... I completely agree... I don't really agree...
Je suis tout à fait d'accord avec toi sur le choix du restaurant.
I completely agree with you on the choice of the restaurant.
Passing e.g. What about you? What do you think?
What do you think (of it)?
Qualifiers e.g. To be honest... To tell you the truth... Actually... In reality...
Je ne m'en souviens pas pour être honnête !
I can't remember to be honest!
Switches e.g. By the way... Oh, I forgot to tell you...
À propos, as-tu pensé à réserver l'hôtel ?
By the way, have you thought of booking the hotel?
Quotes e.g. Recently, I heard that... They say that...
On m'a dit que ton frère était malade.
I heard that your brother is sick.
Closers e.g. Overall... Basically, that's it... In the end...
En fin de compte, nous avons bien fait de prendre le train.
In the end, we did well to take the train.
Elaborations e.g. More specifically... In other words...
En d'autres termes, je dois annuler le rendez-vous.
In other words, I have to cancel the appointment.
By learning these connectors and making them a part of your speaking, you accomplish two great things:
- You sound more fluent and feel more confident in being able to speak French how you think,
- You buy yourself more time to think by using the appropriate fillers!
Seriously, give it a try! Remember, though: don't try and learn them all at once. Pick the most practical and add them to your speaking little by little. Oh, and don't forget to write them down in your phrasebook!
4. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Once again, we return to the old cliché: "practice makes perfect." Never has it been more true than when learning French. Here at Rocket Languages, though, we like to think of it as "practice makes fluent."
Imagine you dedicate two hours a week to studying French online, and then you turn off your computer (and brain) and leave your French aside until next week. If you're like us (and most normal adults), everything you learned the previous week will either be lost or require a long review. This pattern can be repeated the next week, and the next week, and the next week until... Well, give it a good 10 years and you'll be able to order a second beer on vacation in Montreal.
Just because you have limited time to dedicate to learning French doesn't mean that you don't have time for practicing French.
Here are some ways you can practice:
- Tell your family or friends about what you learned after your class or study time.
- Practice with a native friend or coworker over coffee or lunch.
- Try and read the French on the back of your household items or food labels (if you can find it).
- Talk to yourself in French. Repeat words, sounds, phrases and sentences in your mind.
- Look around you and recite the vocabulary words for the items that surround you.
Overall, there are so many ways that you can make practice a part of your daily life.
If improving your speaking is your goal, try to practice speaking at least 2-3 times per week (although once a day would be ideal!). Before you let this idea scare you, let's take a look at a few excellent ways to practice speaking:
- Speak with native speakers. Don't let their perfect accents scare you. Native French speakers are almost always more than happy to help you learn their language, whether it be online (via Skype or another chatting service), over the phone, or in person. If you meet a native French speaker, don't be shy. Ask them for some help!
One idea is to invite your native friend for a drink in exchange for practice. It's a cheap way to get a great, live practice, and you'll probably end up learning even more than in a classroom! If you're not sure how to find native French speakers near you, search for local groups at the library, schools, language centers or online.
- Speak with other learners. You're not alone, so don't be a French-learning loner. Sure, maybe you're the only person you know who is studying French in your immediate circle, but you definitely aren't the only person in the world. Odds are that if you're reading this article, you're no stranger to the internet and all the resources it provides for learning new things and meeting new people. Search for others who are learning French in your area. Start by checking out the local schools, universities, language academies and libraries and start a study group. Of, if you prefer, search for other French learners online and set up weekly Skype, Hangout or phone chats.
Meeting and interacting with other people who are also learning French can help make your learning more fun, keep you motivated, and provide you with conversation partners who can teach you things you can't teach yourself.
- Talk to yourself. Believe it or not, you are your own best French practicing buddy. It's easy to forget how much time we spend in our own inner dialogues in our native language on a daily basis. This dialogue can be turned into wonderful practice simply by translating it into French!
Talk to yourself--either out loud or in your head--in French as much as possible. Do it in as many different situations as possible. It'll help you to put your French knowledge into use and will better prepare you for conversations with others. It really works!
- Imitate speeches and songs. This is a great little trick. To practice your overall French fluency and pronunciation, go online and find a speech or a scene from a movie or series in French. First, watch it to become familiar with its meaning. Then, little by little, play the scene and pause it while imitating the speech. Repeat what the actor or speaker says word for word.
Before you know it, you'll be speaking with the rhythm and pronunciation of a native and learning new vocabulary and phrases while doing so! The same can be done with singing, which is a great excuse for you vocally gifted people to get out and sing some French karaoke... Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?
Overall, the key is to practice French as much as possible with as many people as possible. This will help you to adapt to a variety of different dialects, accents, and speaking styles. It not only will make it easier to understand different people, but also to communicate with them in a variety of different situations.
5. Record Your French Conversations
Our final tip is another interesting conversation hack: recordings. By using your phone or a recording device (or even a camera for you adventurous types) you give yourself the valuable opportunity to review your French conversations and find ways to improve. There's a few ways you can use this recordings:
- Look up words that you weren't able to remember during the conversation,
- Discover good ways to introduce fillers and connectors into your speech,
- Improve your pronunciation,
- Ask a native speaker to help identify your problems and teach you to fix them,
- Fine-tune your overall conversational fluency.
On another note, recording yourself speaking also helps you to become less nervous when speaking. After all, very few people enjoy being recorded or filmed, and the very thought of it usually makes us uncomfortable. If we get used to it, however, speaking French with a native speaker seems like a piece of cake!
Overall, learning French and becoming fluent is easier than you think. All you need is to be confident in what you do know and comfortable in using it when speaking.
There are many ways to improve your fluency and conversational skills in French. With motivation, dedication, and plenty of practice, you'll be speaking fluently in no time!