Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language gets to a point where they’ve become conversational but don’t sound natural when they speak. I’m not talking about an accent here. I’m talking about speech patterns, word choice and other natural little things that flow out of a native speaker’s mouth. It’s the difference between hearing someone speak and thinking, “Oh, he speaks well for a foreigner” and, “Oh, you can tell he’s been living here for years.” As a foreigner learning French, I’ve picked a few little things along the way and am sharing these tips to make your French sound more natural.
5 Tips to make your French more natural
Back in the day, I had a friend who did the TAPIF program my year (2009-10), who at the time, spoke better French than me. He had a pretty significant accent in French but his French just flowed. It sounded natural and confident and I wanted to be like him.
If you can hold a conversation in French and your level is already intermediate plus, it’s time to start working on sounding natural. Some of these will come, well, naturally as you converse with other French speakers and pick up their habits. Others will have to be practiced and will come with time. For me, I think at first I was so fixated on speaking properly that I felt like I was breaking all the rules by implementing the tips below.
Drop the ne? “Isn’t that wrong?” I’d think to myself.
I figured I was making a bunch of errors in other areas of my sentences that I at least wanted to speak properly and implement the things I did know were correct, like making sure my negative sentences had a ne and a pas. Speaking naturally and properly go hand in hand, so if you don’t want to sound like you learned French from a textbook, listen up!
If we turn to Tom for a minute, his quest to learn English is ongoing and he’s picked up tips to sound more natural in English. Tom used to say, “I am going to go to the store” and pronounce each word beautifully. One day I told him straight up that he sounded like a robot, so just say, “I’m gonna go to the store.” Ever since, he knows that “gonna” sounds more natural in speech than “going to.” It’s the same in French.
And what about your accent? Remember, an accent isn’t a problem at all if you’re able to be understood. Plenty of people speak 100% naturally with heavy accents, so do not stress about that at all!
There are a bunch of tips that can help your French to sound more natural but I’m clipping the list at 5 today.
1. Drop the “ne” in negative sentences
When you’re constructing a negative sentence, normally you bracket your verb with a ne and pas (simplifying this so you get the main idea). It’s the English equivalent of not. So “I don’t like carrots” is written Je n’aime pas les carottes. BUT if you are verbalizing this to someone, you just say J’aime pas les carottes. In informal speech, you can drop the “ne” every time and sound much more natural. Forget what you learned in school!
2. Put some words together. Tu as becomes T’as, etc.
We do this in English all the time when we speak. Gonna, gotta, dontcha, wontcha. Like poor Tom circa 2009, you’ll sound like a robot if you pronounce ever single syllable of every single word. Normally the u is dropped in tu as and tu es so Tu as becomes the contraction t’as and tu es becomes t’es. Remember this is only in speech — you’d always write tu as and tu es if you want it to be proper French. Also, je ne sais pas becomes shay in speech. There are a bunch of others and this will come automatically the more you practice speaking French.
3. Use “on” instead of “nous” when you mean “we”
On is a third-person singular pronoun that you commonly learn with il/elle/on. It generally means “one” does something. But it can also mean “we.” In school, we’re taught that “nous” means “we” and it absolutely does. There’s nothing wrong with using it. When the president addresses the nation on TV, he says nous allons but when we’re speaking to each other casually? Opt for the “on.”
4. Use salut instead of bonjour and au revoir in casual situations
Salut can mean hey (more casual than saying bonjour) but it can also mean “see ya” (more casual way of saying au revoir). When I leave the gym, the staff sends me off with a friendly salut. Be aware of the context though. Salut is fine among friends but in a professional context or with people you don’t know, it’s better to stay formal.
5. Sprinkle in some French sounds as well as common conversational words
So this one is two parts. To sound natural, you first of all need some French language sounds. I cover these pretty extensively (with audio) on this post called “The strange noises French people make” from a few years ago, which is still one of the most-read posts on this site. Throw in one or two only where it’s natural — don’t overuse them or you risk sounding ridiculous. In addition to sounds, you need to know how to use words/phrases like en fait, franchement, c’est vrai que…, ben oui, effectivement. When used properly, they’re super natural and very common in French speech.
*And my bonus tip*
No matter your current level, stand proud and speak with confidence. It’ll take you far. I think I might have mentioned a guy in my French class years ago who spoke with such confidence and conviction that none of us realized he was making tons of errors. Whenever he’d speak, he’d sit up straight, speak loudly and clearly and make eye contact. At the time, my level wasn’t good enough to know about all his mistakes, but my French teacher sure did! What did I learn from this? That speaking with authority makes a load of difference!
What tips have helped you to sound more natural in a foreign language?
P.S. If you’re a native French or English speaker and want a language partner, please head over to this post and leave a comment!