How to Overcome Embarrassment When Speaking French

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Today, we’ll cover together some common situations that might prevent you from feeling confident when you try to speak French… situations that leave you feeling a little stupid.

I’ll also show you some tips on how to avoid them – so you never feel stupid when speaking French again!

Learning goals: This is what you’ll be able to do after watching this lesson

→ What to say when you forgot the word for something in French
→ What to say when you (still) don’t understand what a French person said (and repeated!)
→ What to say when you don’t know how to pronounce a word in French

Bonjour c’est Géraldine, Bienvenue sur Comme une Française. C’est parti !

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0) 3 mental blocks getting in the ways of your French – and how you can overcome them.

Let’s do a quick recap on the content I sent my email subscribers last week.

Mental Block 1: “People will think I’m stupid because I make lots of mistakes in French”
→ Short answer: You’re wrong. No one thinks you’re stupid because your French isn’t perfect. That’s a simple fact.

Mental Block 2: “I need to expand my vocabulary before I try to speak French”
→ Short answer: No way. In a face-to-face conversation, you can easily make up for the few words you’re missing by using what’s around you. Or by using some handy scripts 🙂

Mental Block 3: “I don’t want to bore French people or waste their time because I speak slowly and don’t understand everything they say.”
→ Short answer: French people know they speak fast. And they know how difficult foreign languages can be. They will slow down for you, and you won’t bore anyone. No one will hate you ;).

I understand how difficult it can be, and how embarrassed you can sometimes feel in these situations. I’ve been there myself on occasion when I try to speak English.

And it’s not easy to go past these mental blocks!

You might think: “I get that… But… What can I do about it?”

I’m glad you asked. Here are my top three tips for overcoming those moments when you feel a little stupid or embarrassed when speaking French.

1) You forgot the vocabulary

Sometimes, you just forget a word. When buying something at the bakery, for instance!

You want to order a pain au chocolat, but you freeze because you forgot the word.

This happens! To all of us, even those of use who speak French everyday.

Don’t panic. Here’s what to say instead:

Je voudrais un (= I’d like one…) – and then read the tag !
Or:
J’en voudrais un comme ça, s’il vous plait. (= I’d like one of these, please) – and then point to the pain au chocolat !

In a more general way, pick one of these sentences to rehearse, they’ll come in handy at any time:

  • Excusez-moi, j’ai oublié le mot pour… (= Forgive me, I forgot the word for…)
  • Ça parait fou mais je ne me souviens plus du mot en français ! (= It might sounds crazy but I forgot the word for that in French!)
  • Comment on dit [a chair] en français ? (= What’s [a chair] in French?) (By the way, it’s une chaise = a chair)

2) Not understanding fast spoken French

Let’s say you’re having a conversation with a French person, and they start speaking like they normally do. That’s going to test your fast spoken French comprehension!

You already start to panic because you know what’s going to happen: At some point, you won’t understand. You ask them to repeat what they said. You still don’t understand.

So what do you do NOW?

Here are some sentences you can use:

  • Excusez-moi, je n’ai toujours pas compris. (= Excuse me, I still don’t understand)
  • Vous pouvez me l’écrire ? (= Could you write it down?)
  • Non… Toujours pas. Ça veut dire quoi ? (= …Nope, I still don’t get it. What does it mean? )
  • Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire [fauteuil] ? (= What does [fauteuil] mean? )

(By the way, un fauteuil = a seat, an armchair)

I have a rule of thumb. NEVER let an important piece of information pass you by: directions, health-related information, appointments…

Don’t be shy. Be efficient! French people would rather repeat what they said (again) than continue talking without you understanding.

3) You have NO idea how to pronounce a French word

Lots of French words have a tricky pronunciation. French people know it!

The worst word might be un oiseau (= a bird): it’s a simple, common word, yet no single letter sounds as it should. (It’s pronounced [wah-zo] by the way)

And you’re going to get puzzled by pronunciation at all levels, from beginner-level words to advanced French language. From un oiseau, to un jambon = a ham [janbon, with two nasal vowels] to un coquelicot (= a poppy [kokleekoh]).

And that’s without even considering funny pronunciation mistakes! For instance:
Le cul (= the ass / bottom [kü]) / Le cou (= the neck [koo])
Le canard (= the duck [kannarr]) / Le connard (= someone who’s an asshole [konnar])…

So you might be wary about trying to pronounce a French word you read but never heard aloud before. And sometimes, you have no choice!

Luckily, here are some sentences you can use:

  • Show them the word + Comment ça se prononce, ça ? (= How do you pronounce that?)
  • Comment vous dites ? [Longtemps] ? (= How do you pronounce it? “Lontan” ?)
  • Comment vous prononcez ce mot, là ? (= How do you pronounce that word, there?)
  • Il y a trop de lettres muettes dans ce mot ! (= This word has too many silent letters!)
  • J’ai toujours du mal avec ce son-là. (= I always struggle with this sound.)

And of course, the most effective “trick” of all is… to listen to a lot of natural French conversation, practice, make mistakes, and improve!

Et toi ?

Share in the comments below one situation that makes you completely lose your confidence when you speak French.

Let me know your recommendations for overcoming your French mind blocks in the comments below, too!

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Allez, salut 🙂

Join the conversation!

  • J’étais à Paris et je voulais à emporter un café au lait à ma mère, qui se reposait à l’hôtel. Je ne savais pas comment demander et j’ai essayé de parler de la même manière que nous parlons en portugais (Brésil): je voudrais un café au lait … “voyageant”? La réponse était: oui, bien sûr, un café au lait voyageant (et elle agita les bras comme des ailes). Après la blague, elle m’a appris à parler correctement: un café au lait à emporter. Je n’étais pas fâché. Ici, on dit généralement “je perds mon ami, mais je ne perds pas la blague”.

  • been living in France coming up to 6 years now – i find french difficult – i admit it – my memory is not as good as it used to be (due to a health issue) but i find it frustrating as when out and about, 50% understand me and other half don’t – i find lots of people are correcting my pronunciation french, which i am sure they think is helpful, but i find annoying after a while, i would never correct a person trying to speak english (unless they ask that is) – there is no point correcting how i say ‘tartin’ if i only say that word maybe once every three years 🙂 – i live in the dordogne and recently went to Lyon for a second time – the accent there is very different to where i live – almost like a new language – i found that it was difficult being understood – even simple phrases – i am not that bad, really, but at times like this i just want to give up and speak english – which when i do, they understand me perfectly 🙂

  • been living in France coming up to 6 years now – i find french difficult – i admit it – my memory is not as good as it used to be (due to a health issue) but i find it frustrating as when out and about, 50% understand me and other half don’t – i find lots of people are correcting my pronunciation french, which i am sure they think is helpful, but i find annoying after a while, i would never correct a person trying to speak english (unless they ask that is) – there is no point correcting how i say ‘tartin’ if i only say that work maybe once every two years 🙂 – i live in the dordogne and recently went to Lyon for a second time – the accent there is very different to where i live – almost like a new language – no-one understood me – even simple phrases – i am not that bad, really, but at times like this i just want to give up

  • And now that I come to think of it ..
    I remember telling someone in French ~
    “Oh, tu n’es pas intéressant”, when what
    I was actually trying to express was that
    I didn’t think he was interested in what I
    was saying. That conversation didn’t get
    much further !
    Then there was the time when I was a
    mere 18 years old and decided it was
    ok to address a much older Frenchman
    as “tu” because some young French
    person had told me it was quite acceptable
    to do this !! It helps if you can meet
    understanding people 🙂
    I still shake my head when I think about
    such things, but I think we should try
    to be a bit like children who are not
    concerned about making mistakes, and
    just go ahead and do it anyway.
    In fact I suspect it’s the only way to
    actually make any progress. We learn
    from the things that we get wrong, do
    we not …
    😀 😀

  • L’été dernier, je suis allée au Provence avec mes soeurs (desolée..mon ordinatuer n’a pas la Langue Francais) et ma fille. Nous étions au Resto en train de commander et ma fille a dit qu’elle avait envie d’un oiseau en lieu d’un saucisson… nous avons rit beaucoup! Maisje dois vous dire qu’ elle ne parle pas Francais..c’est seulement ca qu’elle a appris en écouter mes soeurs et moi parler…

  • I recently got embarrassed and flustered because I pronounced « cœur « as « cours » and the person I was speaking to was very confused and couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say. When I realized my mistake, I felt stupid and it really affected the rest of the conversation. I was afraid to speak and make more mistakes. Silly. This lesson really helps me realize I just need to make a little joke of it and laugh at my mistake. Big deal. I should say “J’ai toujours du mal avec ces sons.”

  • Bonjour
    Je marche avec un group français, et comme tu dit Geraldine ils aiment beaucoup m’aider avec ma prononciation. Souvent c’est une situation très marrante spécialement quand j’essai prononcer “grenouille”. Nos randonnées sont dans la campagne et tu peux imaginer il y a beaucoup des fois que je donne l’opportunité à rire ensemble. C’est marrant et bien pour renforcer l’amitié.

  • I was asking for directions in French once and was so proud of my wording and pronunciation… Then they responded and I have no idea even remotely what they said 😂😂😂 I was so focused on saying it right that my mind went blank when they responded is normal spoken French, which was too fast for me.

  • Un moment embarrasser pour moi le premier fois j’étais en France. Après le déjeuner au restaurant j’ai dis au serveur ” merci pour le repas, c’était délicieux et maintenant je suis très plein.” Puis, mon frère, qui habite en France, m’a dit que le mot “plein” n’est jamais utilisé dans cet situation. Est-ce correct?

    • My sister said the same thing years
      ago when she was an au pair in Paris,
      and was having a meal with the family
      she worked for !
      Family’s response ? ~ they were shocked !!
      Solution ? ~ in French it means I’m pregnant 😀

  • C’était très efficace! Le mot le plus difficile : tilleul! En effet. Tous les mots avec le son «  euil». Écureuil (squirrel) est un autre mot difficile Je suis fier de prononcer tilleul maintenant. Mais mon mari continue à le prononcer comme « till you’ll ». Je le trouve ADORABLE! C’est amusante à pratiquer, d’accord?

  • Ma Chérie Géraldine:

    You wouldn’t say “make fun of it” = “se moquer de,” but ” have fun with it” = “s’amuser.”

    À demain.

    Scott

  • Very helpful suggestions, Merci ! My biggest problem is “freezing” of embarrassment in front of my countrymen, American or German friends of whom I know that they speak French fluently – not in front of always kind French people 😔

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