Understanding Spoken French (Even When It’s Fast)

You want to speak better French. That’s why you’re here, after all! You spend time learning grammar, vocabulary, watching French movies… and then you try to understand a real French person talk.

And they speak fast. It’s scary, and maybe even a little intimidating!
You understand a word or two, maybe a full sentence, but it’s quickly overwhelming. They skip half of the consonants, and even vowels!

Don’t worry
I’m here to help! In today’s lesson, you’ll get some tricks and techniques to help you fit in better in real-life French conversations. Think of this lesson as your “15-minute Cheat Sheet” to better understanding fast spoken French!

Learning goals (What happens after this lesson?)
– Beginner: You are familiar with how French sounds in real life. You know what to aim for.
– Intermediate: You spot fast French elements in French movies.
– Advanced: You add fast French elements to your own spoken French.

BONUS: I recently did a lesson where I break down the difference between “Authentic French” and “Movie French”, with three case studies of great French films: Click here to get your Bonus Lesson – Real-life spoken French vs Movie French

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

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1) Pronunciation of fast spoken French

— WARNING —
Fast French is NOT “just” slow French spoken faster.
You shouldn’t rely on software that accelerates dialogues to give you a taste of natural fast French. (Nor can you just slow down natural fast French and get a clearly articulated conversation.) There are many specific pronunciation and shortcuts that come into play.

Think of it like the difference in English between “I have got you” and “gotcha,” for instance.

In this written lesson, I’ll write some words as we pronounce them in real spoken French. This “fast spoken French spelling” (in italics) is not correct and not used in written French. I just use it to help you understand.

a) Eating the “e”
An “e” in the middle of a French word often disappears in natural conversation (in the common “Parisian accent” at least.)

La boulangerie” becomes “la boulanj’rie” for instance.
(By the way, check out my lesson on shops in French for all the shop names you need to know for your trip to France)

Petit” (=small) is pronounced like “p’ti.” Such as in this perfectly “French” song, Viens boire un p’tit coup à la maison (“Come have a little drink at our house”) !

In a full sentence, there are often several possibilities. Let’s take a look at an example:
We would write Je me suis réveillée à 6 heures. (=”I woke up at 6.”)
But you would more likely hear “J’me suis réveillée…” (“Je” becomes “J”), or “Je m’suis réveillée…” (“me” becomes “m’”.)

There’s no hard rule in this case: it depends on the speaker’s personal habits and/or the region they come from.

b) Transformation of sounds

In fast spoken French, the “J” sound often mutates into “Ch” before a consonant.

For instance: Je suis (= I am) becomes J’suis (the “e” disappears) becomes Chui (“J’s” turns into “Ch.”)

Je suis allée à la boulangerie sounds like “Chui allée à la boulanj’rie” in fast spoken French.
You might even hear “Chu allé…”, depending on the speaker.

Similarly, “Je te…” and “Je t’ai…” turns into “Ch’te” / “Ch’tai.”
Je t’ai apporté des bonbons → “Cht’ai apporté des bonbons

(To be fair, this sentence is often shortened into a simple, universal: “Aaaah!” ;).)

c) Transformation of words

Changes in sounds in spoken French can create new “words”.

Very common changes:
Oui → “Ouais
Non → “Nan
In both cases, the “spoken French” version is more informal, with less weight or certainty behind it.

Ouais” can mean the English “meh.” French people also use “Mouais,” to mean “more or less” / “I guess so”…
— —

Other very common “fast spoken French” words are created by cutting the end of words or groups of words. Such as:

D’accord (= I agree) → “d’ac

À plus tard (= See you later in the day!) → “À plus” (And then “A+” in text messages)

Un déjeuner → “un dej
Un petit-déjeuner → “un petit-dej” (And then, by eating the “e”: “un pti-dej”)

Il faut queY faut que (the “l” disappears like in “Il y a”) → Faut que

2) Grammar of fast spoken French

During my 2018 French Summer Camp, I talked about how to speak French more fluently. It’s a great complement for today’s lesson, especially on the differences between the “correct” French grammar, and the one French people actually use in real life.

a) Drop the “ne” in negation

This is the classic, most-actionable tip to start speaking like French people do.
Correct French grammar includes “ne…pas” for negations, but French people very rarely use the “ne” in spoken conversations.

Je n’aime pas les Paris-Brest. (= “I don’t like the Paris-Brest pastry.” ) becomes “J’aime pas les Paris-Brest.

Building on this, spoken French also has an interesting expression. It’s a negation without any negation marker!

Ne t’inquiète pas (= don’t worry) drops the ne. It becomes: T’inquiète pas.

But in colloquial conversation, in this case, even the pas is dropped! So we have: T’inquiète !

It’s a common colloquial expression that means “don’t worry” / “I take care of it.” It doesn’t mean “Do worry,” there’s no ambiguity here. “Do worry” would be “Inquiète-toi.”

T’inquiète, j’ai acheté des éclairs.
(= Don’t worry, I took care of it, I bought someéclairs”)

b) No inversion in questions

In correct French grammar, the verb comes before the subject in a question: Préfères-tu un éclair au café ou au chocolat ?
(= Would you rather have an éclair with coffee or chocolate flavor?)

In fast spoken French, French people don’t bother making this inversion!
The subject comes before the verb just like any affirmation. The question comes from the inflexion of the voice at the end:

Tu préfères un éclair au café ou au chocolat ?
(= same sentence, but “Tu” comes before “préfères.”)

c) “Nous” becomes “on”

Nous is the correct pronoun for “We” (1st person subject, plural.) In correct written French, at least.

Nous mangeons des pâtisseries tous les lundis.
(=We eat pastries every Monday.)

However, in modern spoken French, the conjugation makes the sentence longer, and there’s no time for that! So, “Nous” is very unusual as a subject in an informal conversation – instead, French people use “On” (with a 3rd person singular conjugation.)

On mange des pâtisseries tous les lundis.
(= same as above, but more informal)

There are several uses of “On,” though. I break them down for you in a lesson on how to use “on” in modern spoken French.

De même manière, “ne t’en occupe pas” (= don’t take care of it ) devient “t’occupe” (= that’s none of your business) en français informel.

3) Other characteristics of fast spoken French

a) French fillers

French people use a lot of fillers in their sentences. They’re called un tic de langage.

Some of them are:
Euh → the most common, whenever we’re looking for words or hesitating (like “uh” or “umm” in English).
Tiens → literally “Hold”, used as “Oh!” for surprise (or feigned surprise)
Voilà → “Here it is” / “That’s it.” / “Exactly.” A way to agree with someone, emphasize a point, or end your sentence.
Tu vois → “You see
Bah / ben → A deformation of “Bien” or “Eh bien” meaning “Well…
Quoi → “What,” some people use it as a punctuation, with a distanced meaning of “And what are you going to do about that?” / “And what’s wrong with that?” / “Or what?

Example:
Tiens, Michel, tu fais quoi? (= “Oh, that’s Michel! What are you doing?”)
Euh… Bah je vais acheter le pain, quoi ! (= “Well, I’m just going to buy bread.”)

b) Familiar vocabulary and use

Fast spoken French often involves French slang. Don’t use it in your essays or in formal conversations with strangers!

Examples of French slang:
une femme → une nana (= a woman, a gal)
un homme → un mec (= a man, a guy)
comment ? → quoi ? (= what did you say? “Comment” is considered more polite than the slouchy “Quoi”)
beaucoup → vachement (= a lot. “Vachement” is more informal, “uglier”.)

In French slang, some French words substitute for others. “Faire” (= to make) is used instead of “dire” (= to say), for instance.

Example:
Le mec me fait “Vous voulez 5 éclairs ? Vous avez si faim que ça ?”
The guy then tells me: “You want 5 éclairs? You’re really so hungry?”

c) “Mistakes”, like in your language

The most difficult thing in fast spoken French isn’t really slang or conscious changes of grammar. No, it’s plain mistakes!

French people often won’t bother finishing their sentences. They’ll start, stop, hesitate, change their course mid-sentence…

As in any language, it involves context, body language, the tone of voice. And each French person has their own habits and preferred words, as well as regionalisms that are still common all across the country.

And that complexity is the beauty of spoken French! It’s something you can only learn with time, and with practice.

4) QUIZ!

Beginner:
How would this sound in fast spoken French?
Je suis allée à la boulangerie cet après-midi et je t’ai acheté un croissant.

Intermediate:
How would this sound in fast spoken French?
N’aimez-vous pas les macarons ?

Advanced:
How would you turn this fast spoken French sentence into “correct” French?
Ah bah bien. T’as ram’né ton mec à la soirée d’la boîte, jte félicite pas ! T’abuse, quoi. On avait dit : “pas d’mari ni d’femme”!

Check out the video lesson to hear the answer!

Want to save this for later ?

Your turn now – ET TOI ?

→ What is your favorite way to better understand fast spoken French?

Give me recommendations, I love to hear from your own personal experiences!

You can answer in French in the comment section on the blog. I’ll give you pointers for your mistakes and read all your replies!

For example:
“J’aime regarder “Echappées Belles” sur YouTube, surtout les épisodes sur la France.”
(= “I like to watch “Echappées Belles” on Youtube, especially the episodes about France.”)

(“Echappées Belles” is a French travel show, on public television. You can watch it here.)

And now:
→ 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 🙂

→ Double your Frenchness! Get my 10-day “Everyday French Crash Course” and discover more spoken French for free. Students love it! Start now and you’ll get Lesson 01 right in your inbox, straight away. Click here to get started

Allez, salut 🙂

Join the conversation!

  • Echappées Belles ~ je ne connaissais pas ce guide YouTube sur des endroits intéressants à visiter en outre-mer et en France. Très utile merci. Et la langue française parlée dans la vie quotidienne ! J’ai trouvé que dans la Suisse les gens parlent un français plus facile à comprendre, dans le sud de la France ils parlent avec un accent difficile à comprendre, les jeunes gens parlent avec un argot impossible à comprendre, et les parisiens ? Comment ?? 😀 Mais les personnes un peu plus âgées autour de la France (et la Suisse) parlent avec beaucoup de politesse quand on leur demande le chemin, ou si on commence une petite conversation avec eux. Voilà, ce n’est pas impossible et on fait des progrès. Merci beaucoup Géraldine, tes leçons sont toujours super utiles avec énormément d’encouragement.

    • Merci beaucoup John. C’est rigolo, la perception de la facilité (ou non) de comprendre les accents est vraiment propre à chacun. Certains élèves comprennent mieux le Sud, d’autres la Suisse, d’autres les Parisiens… Ca varie beaucoup.

  • C’était vraiment un bon épisode, merci ! Pour m’aider à améliorer ma compréhension orale du français, j’aime bien écouter vos épisodes en français du CUF. De plus, vos cours de français sont le meilleur contenu en ligne pour le français parlé. Merci !

  • when wishing a group of senior citizens a good day is it appropriate to say
    bonjour monsier dames, missing out the “et madames”

    • Bonjour David,
      I feel like you’re mixing up several greetings.
      The greeting you’re talking about is “Bonjour Messieurs-Dames”. If there are women in the group, you can’t remove “dames”, indeed.

  • Je ne peux pas comprehendre encore FGV (Français de Grande Vitesse). Je tente et tente et tente. J’ai vu et écouté les films français, telenouvelles, publicité, et tout comma ça.

    Eh, voilà, je souhaite que quelque jour . . . Eventuellement.

  • Merci, Geraldine, ce vidéo est très intéressant. Mais il faut que je te corriges: “Gotcha” means “I understand you [what you are saying]”, similar to “got it!” It is “gotta” that is a contraction of “got to”: you can say: “I gotta go” for “I have got to go.” (The ‘ve drops, just as the “ne” does in informal French.) Another way to say the same thing is “I hafta go” for “I have to go.” I have a master’s in TESL, and these contractions are quite tricky, as is what you are teaching here in French. Merci!

  • The “download lesson as PDF” link doesn’t work. It opens a screen for joining “Complete Beginner French”.

  • 1. En France, j’ecoute “voilà” au moins dix fois par jour.

    2. En Boston, “vachement” se trouve comme “wicked.” “I was wicked scared.”

    3. Il me fait = “he goes to me” “I saw this guy at my car and asked what he was doing there. And he goes, ‘I’m just stealing your tires.'”

  • Before I even watch this lesson, I’ll say that I’ve read that the French speak something like 30% faster than native English speakers, and women are faster than men.

    Something like 120 words per minute for English speakers, and 160 for French men and 180 for French women.

  • Very helpful…and I have the same question. As an older generation French speaker, is it better to speak a more exacting French than a French that is fast/altered/grammatically compromised? In any case,
    being exposed to all this is extremely helpful when reading French or visiting French/ friends…I do hear French such as you describe but am often complimented for my more grammatically correct expression. Also, as an educator, shouldn’t I first teach the perfect grammar before I share this more conversational French? Especially when students are assessed on their progress? Merci pour tout ton travail/ détails/ explications. Troy

    • Bonjour Troy,
      Excellent question.
      This is a decision I will leave to you because it depends on the goal of your students.
      What you could do:
      – Show your students how French is actually spoken, so they have a goal. And never get this awful shock of “Oh no! French people don’t speak like in my textbook.”
      – Teach them proper French so they have the basics of grammar covered. Spoken French ALWAYS derives from proper French. You need to understand how it’s built, before speaking the “spoken French” version, anyway.
      – Compare how what they hear and what proper French differ.
      – According to their goals, let them pick the French they want. However, most of the spoken French I teach (expect slang) is not vulgar or age-related. It’s just how people speak, and it was started decades ago. “Youth French” is even different.

      The aim is not to be surprised by how French people speak in real life. That’s what matters the most. Too many students learn from CDs for years, building fake listening skills.

  • Bonjour Géraldine,
    Thank you for a very informative lesson. As an older person (I am 60), I am wondering whether older French people also tend to speak this way- dropping the negation etc., or would they tend to be more formal? Would there be a big difference between,say, a group of 60 year olds and a group of 20 year olds?
    Bonne journée!

    • Bonjour Barbara.
      Excellent question.
      20 year olds will speak “youth French” which is not something I teach because teenager French is useless if you’re beyond 18. And it changes all the time.
      Most of the spoken French showed here was invented by French people decades ago. It’s not “my” generation’s French.
      So, while being careful with the slang, the spoken French grammar is great at all ages. My parents use these structures too, and they are older than you.

      PS: I don’t consider 60 as old, anyway. 🙂

  • Thanks for all the tips! So many changes I did not know (I knew j’ in general and mec, but mef as a slang for femme!).

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