The hardest part of getting fluent in a foreign language is not learning the grammar rules and vocabulary, but applying them. It’s one thing to know that “je suis” means “I am” when in front of a test or quiz in a classroom, with some time to reflect; quite another to recognise its meaning when trying to fill out a form in French or hearing a Parisian’s garbled “ch’uis”.
So how can you improve your oral French and better understand spoken French?
Have French Conversations Abroad - in France, Ideally
Obviously, going to France is a good idea if you want to learn to speak French. In fact, prefer France (or Belgium) to other French-speaking countries because they are notoriously deaf to anyone speaking anything BUT French. Once you have made an effort, though, you will find that the younger generation can usually speak English if it’s a complicated situation.
But don’t discount places like Québec or French Guyana, where dialects of French are spoken. It won’t be exactly the French spoken in France, but it all depends on what you plan on doing with your French. Will you be moving there for your job soon? Or are you planning on working in tourism? It all depends.
Language holidays are just that. You book a holiday in one of the French-speaking countries, usually get put up with a local family (there is your French immersion right there), take French classes in the mornings and are free to go sight-seeing in the afternoon. Immersion holidays are fairly expensive because of the language courses, but are a wonderful way to spend the summer holidays or take advantage of some time between semesters to learn the French language.
Become an Au-pair
You are between jobs, don’t quite know what to study or just want to experience something new before moving on to the next part of your life? Why not try an au-pair programme?
As an au-pair, you will be living with a local family and helping them with their chores. This very often includes childcare along with household chores, so if you are not a child person be aware that you will be a little harder to place. Some might even ask you to speak English to the children. You will often have to do the shopping, pick the children up, speak to their teachers and otherwise use conversational French on a day-to-day level.
Au-pair programmes vary greatly. Some are purely mediators, matching au-pairs to families and dealing with complaints. Others will offer French lessons in some form or another for their au-pairs, or at least work with a French language institute such as the Alliance Française. Some will offer events to give their au-pairs a chance to get to know each other and find friends to go out with, others will leave you to your own devices - to go out and discover the French culture and practise your French words and phrases on your own.
The following websites offer Au-pair programmes for France:
- AuPair World
- Association Familles & Jeunesse
- This website has a guide on how to become an au-pair in France
Be careful. You will be living with this family for several months. Sometimes, you will simply not be compatible. You need to know that, if there is a problem, the au-pair programme will organise a new family for you or, if need be, send you home without fuss. Take the time to read the comments and critiques on their website or trawl the net for forums and message boards that discuss them.
Take part in an exchange programme
Exchange programmes are not only for students. Some multinational companies offer the possibility of spending time abroad to learn the French language while allowing for a colleague from France to take your place. Don’t hesitate to ask your boss, even if you are unsure of your company’s policy: at worst, you will have shown your readiness to work abroad, which might be noted for future promotion opportunities.
If you are at university, look on their website for exchange programmes, or see if you qualify for ERASMUS. ERASMUS is inter-European, but there are other, more international programmes if you are looking to spend some time in Québec or Pondicherry, India (where French is still an official language for administrative purposes).
Have a French Conversation Here in the UK
You can also meet up with French people right here in the UK. There are French-speaking men and women in Britain who are eager to improve their English, and are willing to teach you French in return.
Check Superprof to get many a French tutor.
You can look for a language partner through websites such as:
The language apps Hello Talk, HiNative or Tandem will also hook you up with someone to text with if you want to practise your French phrases in writing. Or you can speak French online through Skype or other video chats if you can’t find a French speaker near you willing to introduce you to French language and culture.
Make sure your language partner is a native speaker so you have an authentic French accent to listen to. Apart from talking about your day, you can prepare themes to talk about to practise specific vocabulary. This can be greetings, news items, a specific piece of literature, or even oaths - nothing like knowing how to swear to make you feel at home in a language.
Speaking with a “normal” person in casual conversation is also a great way to pick up French slang.
French Listening Practice at Home
Obviously, not everyone can afford to go to France, and your time to practice might not be right for meeting up with a conversation buddy.
But what you can do is listen, listen, listen…
Watch films in French
You can learn to speak French in front of your telly - or your screen of choice. Try watching movies or series in French. By listening to French people speaking informal French (rather than the more formal French spoken in the classroom), you will find your understanding of the language growing.
Start with movies and series that you know. That way, you don’t have to waste time figuring out the plot. Most DVDs and Blue-Rays in the UK have French in their language options; if not, you can order them in French. If you need, put on the English subtitles. Then, after a few months, change the subtitles to French. That will help you recognise words you are not used to hearing said and identify words you might need to look up in the dictionary.
As you advance, you should slowly step away from dubbed films. Eventually, you will be confused by the fact that the lips don’t match the words, and the language is never quite as natural as in a French-language film.
If you are more of a streaming person, Netflix has a selection of French movies and also sometimes offers French audio options, and some of the movies may have a French language option. Some of them are their own production (if you like comedies - which the French excel at - I can highly recommend “Lazy Company”).
Watch French videos on YouTube
If movies are too long for your busy schedule, you can watch shorter French video files. There are a variety of YouTube channels by French speakers. Interested in baking? Learn to make croissants and petits choux in French. Do you like makeup? Get your beauty tips from a francophone. A fan of video games? Watch gameplays in French.
There are a lot of little ways to improve your basic French and get fluent, even if you don’t have a lot of time.
Listen to audiobooks in French
Getting to be bilingual is hard. Maybe you’re on the road too much to watch many movies, and of course you can’t watch even short videos while behind the wheel or out running. But you can listen to French audio files: audio books and podcasts. Try starting with children’s books or books you know really well. The audio files will probably be in a rather formal French, but it will give you a feel for the rhythm of French sentences. Or this app has French audiobooks specifically designed to help you learn French and improve your French accent.
Or you can subscribe to a podcast in French about your interests. There, the French pronunciation will be more common and the language more informal. Or listen to French radio, for example with this app.
Practising French Conversations On Your Own
Nothing you do by yourself will compare to an actual, real conversation with all its meanderings, French slang, funny accents and non-sequiturs. But even if you can’t speak with an actual Frenchman (or woman), you can speak. To yourself.
Yes. At the risk of being mistaken for a crazy person, comment on all you do or are planning to do - in French. You can also keep a language diary help you become fluent in French, but this is different. It means that, instead of thinking: “I need to go to the shops today” you will be saying out loud: “Aujourd’hui, il faut que je fasse les courses.”
It means warning your friends and family beforehand, of course. And it takes some time before you remember to do it more than once or twice a day. But that way you will be exercising forming French sentences not just on paper, but orally. And when the time comes to use it, the phrases will be familiar to you. Just remember: if you can survive talking aloud to yourself where other people might hear, you can definitely survive talking to a real person!
To avoid any such embarrassment, you could take French classes London or Glasgow with a Superprof tutor!
Remember: It’s All Right to Make Mistakes When Speaking French
This is very, very important. It is the single greatest hurdle achieving fluency in French: not even trying. This is a fact: you will probably make mistakes. Yes, you will make them even with sentences you have practised a thousand times.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is:
- You spoke French. To another human being. Yay!
- You shovelled some passive vocabulary (words you understand) into your active vocabulary (words you can say). Another point!
- You aired out your French verb tenses. Even if it was the wrong one, it still counts. Another point!
- You worked on your pronunciation. You sounded like Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther? Doesn’t matter! Your accent won’t get better if you never use it. Another point!
Languages are there to communicate. The first step is to understand and be understood. Perfection is just a series of little steps leading away from there. If you don’t speak, you will never get better.
And another thing: it’s also okay not to understand. Many French speakers talk very fast, and there is a tendency to slur words and sounds together. If you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to say so. You can say:
“C’était un peu vite pour moi. Pouvez-vous le répéter plus lentement?” (That was a bit fast for me. Can you repeat it more slowly?”)
“Je ne connais pas ce mot: [approximiate important word here]. Qu’est-ce-que ça veut dire?” (I don’t know this word. What does it mean?)
Which leads us to another important point.
You don’t need to understand all the words to know what someone is saying.
Again, in italics this time: you don’t need to understand all the words to know what someone is saying.
At first glance, this doesn’t make sense. But, just to humour me, read these lines taken from the poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll (you can find it in: “Through the Looking Glass”):
“And as in uffish thought he stood
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgy wood
And burbled as it came!”
Do you know what “uffish” means? “To whiffle”? “Tulgy?” And what is a Jabberwock, anyway? Of course not. They’re made-up words.
And yet you got the gist: a bloke is standing around minding his own business when something dangerous comes out of the wood. He had better grab his vorpal sword quick! (Spoilers: he does. It goes snicker-snack.)
Important words here are: “stood” and “came” and understanding that the Jabberwock is some sort of creature. Everything else is icing on the cake.
When in dialogue, don’t get too hung up on words you don’t know. As long as you think you understood the general thrust of the sentence, answer and keep the conversation moving. If you got it wrong, you’ll soon find out.
By the way: that’s okay, too. Just laugh, apologise, get it sorted out and keep talking.
To misquote a little blue fish: “Just keep talking, just keep talking, just keep talking, talking, talking…)