Why You Can’t Understand Spoken French

Understanding spoken French is difficult.
French people speak fast, and they often don’t follow all the “correct” rules when speaking!

For example, just take a look at this interview by French online media Konbini with Olivier Véran, our new Ministre de la Santé (= Health Minister.)

Even if you learned French for decades, you probably can’t understand him. That’s because spoken French can seem like a completely different language from the one you learned at school.

Today, let’s use this real interview to learn 3 rules and examples that will help you finally better understand fast spoken French.

Bonjour I’m Géraldine, your French teacher.
Welcome to Comme une Française.
Today, like every Tuesday, I’ll help you get better at speaking and understanding everyday French.
C’est parti !

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1) Dropping the “ne”

At 1:23 in this interview (you’ll find the extract in my video lesson above as well), he says:

“Je sais pas. Je sais pas répondre à cette question.”
= “I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer this question.”

Here, Olivier Véran is answering the question “Can I get married in August?”

He’s not speaking slang, he’s not especially talking to intimate friends, he’s not trying to mimic youth culture… He is simply speaking casual, real-life spoken French here AS the Health Minister.

And did you notice? He still made a technical grammatical “mistake.”

He said “Je sais pas.” instead of “Je ne sais pas.” (= I don’t know.)

Making negation with “ne… pas” is what your french teacher Madame Martin taught you at school.

But dropping the “ne” in a negation is actually very common in casual spoken French. So, we only use “pas.

For example:
Je n’ai pas compris. (= “I didn’t understand,” in “correct” French from school.)
J’ai pas compris. (= same thing, in casual everyday spoken French.)

An even more casual (and quite common) thing in spoken French is:
Je + “s-” → Ch

Je” before a verb that starts with “s” is often pronounced like “ch” (because “j’s” is hard to pronounce distinctly.)

So, for example, you can commonly hear in spoken French:
Chais pas = Je sais pas = Je ne sais pas (= I don’t know)

2) “Eating” vowels

In Fast spoken French, we often “eat” vowels. Especially in “le” and “je” before a consonant.

From the same interview, in the sentence just after the one we heard before, Olivier Véran says:

On sait que jusqu’au 2 juin, je ne pourrai pas partir en vacances à plus de 100 km.
(= “We know that until June 2nd, I won’t be able to go on a vacation further than 100km / 60 miles away.”)

…At least that’s what the subtitles say. But written French (even the transcription) is usually more “grammatically correct” than the actual spoken version.

What we really hear is more like:
On sait que jusqu’au 2 juin, j’pourrai pas partir en vacances à plus d’100 kilomètres.

→ He “ate” the “e” in “je” and in “de.” That often happens when people speak fast in French.

(He lives in Grenoble, where I live, so we’ll have the same holiday options.)

You may also notice the dropped “ne” in “Je ne pourrai pas” / “Je pourrai pas (= I won’t be able to ) that we’ve covered in the first tip.

Finally, he uses On as a casual “We.” That’s also part of Modern Spoken French: How to use “On.”

Our minister is not totally casual, though! He said je pourrai (= I will be able to) in le futur simple, which is a tense that we don’t always use. In everyday spoken French, we’d rather use le futur proche = “aller” au présent + infinitif.

Le futur proche is also a great “hack” or shortcut for you. You don’t have to learn a whole new tense — you only need the simple present.

For example, with “pouvoir” (= being able to):

Olivier Véran also eats the “l” in “plus”. That’s another very specific but very common thing in fast spoken French. And here the “s” is silent, you can learn why with French Grammar: How to say “Plus” !

There are no tricky exceptions or special forms with le futur proche !

3) Casual vocabulary

Just after that last sentence, in the interview, Olivier Véran adds:
“Mais en tout cas si le mariage était début juin avec 200 personnes, je pense que ça aurait été tendu.”
(= “But in any case if the wedding was planned for early June with 200 people, I think it would have been difficult.”)

You’ll see, though, that he eats some vowels again. So, what we actually hear is: “Mais en tout cas si l’mariage était début juin avec 200 personnes, j’pense que ça aurait été tendu.”

That final adjective, Tendu, means “tense,” and here it’s used for its more casual meaning of “difficult.”

Casual vocabulary like this is a third big part of fast spoken French.

It’s not slang, it’s not inappropriate, but it’s a casual modern use that you won’t read in official written French.

For example, we have some verbs for eating that have a different casual meaning, like gober (= to gobble / to believe.) Or casual expressions like “Y’a pas de souci.” (= No problem), and more.

You can find more examples of this slang in these 2 videos about spoken French!

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

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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 🙂

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Allez, salut 🙂

Géraldine

Join the conversation!

  • I heard “j’en sais pas” More like he smashed “Je” and “ne” together. That one didn’t baffle me as much as the rest of his rapid fire French. Without the subtitles I wouldn’t have understood what he said.

  • Les Français que je rencontre sont toujours des trés gentils – ils ralentiront leur discours et offriront des corrections.

    [I have an account and a password, but somehow i couldn’t login to this lesson to leave my comment …]

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