July 21, 2011

3 Tricks for Speaking Better French

When I first studied abroad in Paris, they had all of us write down a list of goals of what we wanted to see or do during our 4-month sejour in France. Despite having only taken one quarter of French beforehand, I wrote “become fluent in French” on my list.

Unfortunately for my naive study abroad self, I was nowhere near fluent at the end of my 4-month stay.

The study abroad Laura. The first and only picture of me from those entire 4 months with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Clearly I should have written "take a better Eiffel Tower picture" on my list.
I made it pretend to be sepia otherwise you couldn't see me.

Even today I hesitate to call myself fluent, as it is such an all-encompassing word. Nevertheless, FBF insists that I am, and even I must admit that I have progressed tenfold since I first moved here back in 2009.

Going from not-understanding-FBF-talking-to-me when we first met to speaking-French-without-realizing-I-was when FBF drove me home the other day has taken a lot of practice. I've also picked up a few handy dandy tricks along the way.

Here are 3 tricks for speaking better French:

1. Fake it till you make it

A lot of the time when I don’t know the French equivalent for what I want to say, I say the word in English with a French accent. You’d be surprised how often this works.

I used this just last weekend. I was talking about things becoming decriminalized, but had no idea how to say that in French. So I just said “decriminalisé.” It worked.

2. Context clues

Especially while reading, but also during conversation, it is not important to understand every single word precisely. Don’t get hung up on one word! Listen to the rest of the conversation/read the rest of the sentence, and more often than not you’ll be able to deduce what the previously unknown word means.

If you look at the first sentence of this post, I left a French word undefined. But based on the rest of the sentence, I'm betting you figured it out. You might not be sure if it means trip, or stay, or sojourn, or study abroad experience, but you get the general idea. A lot of the time, the general idea is more than enough.

(P.S. Sorry if rule #2 feels like the SATs. The good news is it doesn't matter which answer is the "best answer," as long as you are able to communicate!)

3. Actual Friends

People are constantly warning us non-native French speakers to be aware of “faux-amis,” or false friends, which are words that sound same in both French and English, but have very different meanings. While there are a few (like mail), I’ve come to realize that most of the time words that sound similar tend to have similar meanings!

For example, the French word for Christian is chrétien. Although they are written very differently, to me they sound similar. The French one is pronounced "Kre" + "Tea-un," which to me sounds like "Christian" without the s (but with a French accent, biensûr).

This is why rule #1 works, and if you combine this with rule #2, you might even be able to discern the slight differences in meaning between the French and English words that actually do hang out together.


  1. "when I don’t know the French equivalent for what I want to say, I say the word in English with a French accent."

    LOL, when I was in the UK and didn't know the English word for what I wanted to say, I used the French one with the French accent. So posh! But not always useful or well perceived... ;-)

  2. Love it, although when the French say Chrétian it sounds like 'cretin' to me.

  3. Emilie: Yeah, sometimes I just say the word in English without an accent, but it works better if you pretend like it's a word in French! Sometimes it totally fails - like when explaining how to make cookies to my French friends.

    But you have to take risk when learning a new language!

    Sasha S.: Thanks! I hadn't thought of that one before but I can see what you mean! It's the little "ien" that makes it sound like Christian to me (sans s), whereas cretin sounds more like the French crétin because there isn't any -ian/-ien involved... but I'll admit you do have to have a pretty big imagination for rule #3 some of the time!

  4. hahaha! I totally fake it! All the time! And, yes, I think of Lapin Cretins when I hear Chrétian!

  5. I'm so living through you!! I love following Samantha and I saw your comment and had to stop in. I love learning all about people living in France... it's magical!

  6. Samantha: Faking it is where it's at!

    Jen: Thanks! I'm glad you like the blog :) Feel free to live through me all you want.

  7. During one of my trips to Paris, we stopped in front of the Eiffel Tower and my dad took a photo of my friend and me. I asked "Is it good?" and he assured me it was. But I didn't trust him, so I asked, "It didn't turn out blurry or anything?" "No, no, it's fine." I go to upload the pics onto my computer, and it is NOT fine. My dad sucks at taking photos. No Tour Eiffel photo for that trip for me. :( At least I ended up going back on other trips for more!

  8. "when I don’t know the English equivalent for what I want to say, I say the word in French with an English accent."
    It works for me every time :-D

  9. Melissa: That's hilarious! Some people just aren't good at taking pictures... Once I moved out here I made it a priority to take a lot of Eiffel Tower pictures to make up for missing out while studying abroad!

    Jenna: And smile constantly!

    Pogo: Glad I'm not alone with that! haha

  10. Very cool, I think you are making progress being very brave, you leap in and make it work. I should study my french more - Dad


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