My Top 5 Tips to Be Better Understood When Speaking French (from a Native Parisian)


Tired of people asking you to repeat yourself when speaking French? Worried they won’t understand or switch to English?

It’s okay — most French learners have been there. But you’ve put in significant effort to learn French, possibly for years or decades, and I’m here to assist you in actually using it! I’ll provide valuable tips for improving your French speaking skills in today’s lesson. Are you ready?

C’est parti.

1) Top Tip to be Understood: French vowels pronunciation

In French, “la prononciation” is a broad topic. French vowels have a wide range of pronunciations and are a lesson to start with to be better understood quickly.

a) Nasal sounds

Typical French vowels include les voyelles nasales, the nasal sounds like:
[ɔ̃] “on” – as in Non (= No)
[ɑ̃] “en” (or “an”) – as in enfant (= child)
[ɛ̃] “in” (or “un”) – as in un (= one, a) or le pain (= bread)

These three sounds are different. They don’t sound the same:
–  J’ai besoin de temps. = I need time (“an / [ɑ̃]” sound)
–  J’ai besoin de thon. = I need some tuna. (“on / [ɔ̃]” sound)
–  J’ai besoin de thym. = I need some thyme. (“in / [ɛ̃]” sound)

If you make a mistake, French people will be confused and won’t focus on what you’re saying next or understand what you’re saying.

Click here to learn (and practice) more: Nasal Sounds in French

The extra mile:
These nasal sounds can have wildly different spellings. For example :

Nasal sound “an” :
tolérance = tolerance                        (“an / [ɑ̃]” sound)
embouteillage = traffic                    (“em / [ɑ̃]” sound)
ambiguïté = ambiguity                     (“am / [ɑ̃]” sound)
engagement = engagement           (“en / [ɑ̃]” sound)
anthropologie = anthropology     (“an / [ɑ̃]” sound)

Nasal sound “in” :
moins = less                                          (“in / [ɛ̃]” sound)
Une ceinture = belt                          (“ein / [ɛ̃]” sound)
Un bain = bath                                     (“ain / [ɛ̃]” sound)
imperméable = waterproof          (“im / [ɛ̃]” sound)
sympa = nice, cool                              (“yn / [ɛ̃]” sound)

Nasal sound “on” :
Une maison = house                  (“on / [ɔ̃]” sound)
tomber = to fall                            (“om / [ɔ̃]” sound)
onze = eleven                                 (“on / [ɔ̃]” sound)
Une ombre = shadow                (“om / [ɔ̃]” sound)
content = happy                           (“on / [ɔ̃]” sound)

b) Some French vowels
By “weird typical French vowels,” I also mean:
u [y]                          as in dessus (on top of)
ou [u]                       as in dessous (underneath)
eu [ø]                        as in le feu = fire
eu [œ] (open)       as in le coiffeur = the hairdresser

For French learners, these can sometimes blend. The slight confusion can add up, and you might need to repeat a sentence three times so people can fully understand you. Worse, it can lead to real ambiguity (e.g., dessus and dessous).

2) Take your time and relax

But let’s get back to your conversations.
On top of practising French pronunciation and everything we’ll cover after that, you need to relax. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up pronunciation. The more relaxed you are, the better you practice, and the easier it will become. It’s a positive feedback loop that will help you improve your French!
So this tip isn’t as specific as the others, but it’s probably the most important. Don’t forget to breathe, relax, and play around with speaking French!

3) Scripts: Learn about some “faux amis”

Les faux amis, literally “false friends”, are French words that look just like another English word… except with a totally different meaning.

  • une librairie = a bookstore (not a library = une bibliothèque),
  • un bras = an arm (not a bra = un soutien-gorge)
  • J’ai eu une longue journée. = I had a long day. (not  J’ai fait un long voyage. = I had a long journey.)
  • Martin est très sensible. = Martin is very sensitive. (not Martin est très raisonnable. = Martin is very sensible.)
  • en fait with a “t” sound at the end = actually, (not actuellement = currently)
  • excité = horny (not excited = enthousiaste)
  • blesser quelqu’un = to hurt (not to bless = bénir)
  • la location = a rental (not a location = un endroit, un lieu)
  • un coin = a corner (not a coin = une pièce)
  • une partie = a piece (not a party = une fête) (also, “a room” = une pièce)
  • éventuellement = possibly (not eventually = finalement)
    • Le train va éventuellement arriver. The train might arrive. (not Le train va finalement arriver.)
    • Le train va finir par arriver. = The train is going to arrive eventually.

4) Master some simple tenses

a) Le Futur Proche
Le train va arriver. = The train is going to arrive.
This sentence is in a future tense called le futur proche, near future, a very common tense in spoken French. It’s like saying “is going to”. The train is going to arrive. This future tense is easy to master since you only need to practice your conjugation of the verb aller, to go.

The present tense of the verb Aller = to go

Je vais     Nous allons
Tu vas      Vous allez
Elle va      Elles vont

We form le futur proche with the present tense of the verb aller and the infinitive form of the main verb (aller + infinitif).

Je vais arriver      Nous allons arriver
Tu vas arriver       Vous allez arriver
Elle va arriver      Elles vont arriver

Click here to learn (and practice) more: French Grammar – Le Futur Proche

b) Le Futur Simple
Je visiterai Paris. = I will visit Paris.
This sentence is in le futur simple, Futur Simple Tense. It’s like saying “will” + a verb in English.
We form le futur simple by adding the endings for future (-ai, -as, -a, -ons, -ez, -ont) on the infinitive form of the regular verbs or the future base of the irregular verbs.

Regular 1st-group verbs (in -er):
Visiter = to visit

  • Je visiterai           Nous visiterons
  • Tu visiteras          Vous visiterez
  • Il visitera               Ils visiteront

Regular 2nd-group verbs (in -ir):
Finir = to finish

  • Je finirai          Nous finirons
  • Tu finiras         Vous finirez
  • Il finira              Ils finiront

We drop the final “e” from the infinitive form of regular 3rd-group verbs (in -re):

Prendre = to take

  • Je prendrai           Nous prendrons
  • Tu prendras          Vous prendrez
  • Il prendra              Ils prendront

You get an informal tense that people use in everyday conversations and an easy-to-master template you can use with any verb, and this gives you more space to relax and concentrate on what you want to say and your pronunciation.

c) Le Passé Immédiat
What’s really helpful is le passé immédiat which we form with le présent (the present tense) of the verb venir (to come), the preposition “de”, and the infinitive form of the main verb: venir de + infinitif = I just (did something).

The present of the verb venir (to come):
Je viens            Nous venons
Tu viens            Vous venez
Il vient               Ils viennent

Je viens de manger. = I just ate.
Le train vient de partir. = The train just left.

This past tense is much easier to use than l’imparfait or le passé composé and much less irregular.

Click here to learn (and practice) more: Using “Venir De” in French Conversation

d) Le Présent Progressif
One more helpful verbal construction is le présent progressif, which we form with le présent (the present tense) of the verb être (to be), the phrase “en train de”, and the infinitive form of the main verb: être en train de + infinitif = I am + doing something).

The present of the verb être (to be):
Je suis       Nous sommes
Tu es          Vous êtes
Il est           Ils sont

Je suis en train de lire. = I am reading.
Monica est en train de parler avec son client. = Monica is talking with her client.

5) Practice the words to explain yourself

If you’re talking with French people and they still don’t understand you, you can use scripts to clear up the confusion. By this, I mean some sentences that you can practice and master right now and repeat to yourself from time to time so you can really remember them when needed. They can be pretty straightforward:

  • Je veux dire… = I mean, or literally, I want to say. It’s a filler that lets you reformulate your sentence. Like: Le train va arriver éventuellement. Je veux dire, le train va finir par arriver. = The train might possibly arrive. I mean, the train will eventually arrive.

Click here to learn (and practice) more:

Regularly ask questions, too, to make sure they understand you, such as :

  • C’est ça ? = Is that right? (very simple!)
  • Est-ce que c’est correct ? = Is this correct? (more specific)
  • C’est la bonne prononciation ? = Is this the correct pronunciation?
  • Ça se dit comme ça ? = Is that how you say it?
  • Tu comprends ? = Do you understand? (“tu” for friends and family)
  • Vous comprenez ? = Do you understand? (for strangers and officials)

Keep learning more everyday scripts to prepare for your trip to France or reconnect with the language!

Click here to get your next lesson:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

→ If you enjoyed this lesson (and/or learned something new) – why not share this lesson with a francophile friend? You can talk about it afterwards! You’ll learn much more if you have social support from your friends 🙂

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Join the conversation!

  • Quand j’étais en France pour le premiere fois, je me suis trompé avec un faux ami. Nous avons parlé de la confiture et j’ai parlé de préservatifs. Ils ont rigolé. Le correct mot est conservateurs. (Je pense) (Préservatifs =condoms) Ils n’y avait définitivement pas de préservatifs dans ma confiture.

  • Merci.
    Pour aider ma prononciation des voyelles nasales, j’ai enfin remarqué qu’on ne voit pas les dents en entendant “-on” par rapport à “-an”.

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