How to improve your conversational French

Nov 28 / Ellie Louis

Most people are better at reading and writing a second language rather than speaking it

When you are learning a language you will more than likely start off by focusing on how to make sense of the foreign jumble of sounds and turn them into words and sentences that you can understand. Often the quickest way to do this is by writing them down and making a rough translation back to your native tongue.

This approach is so efficient in fact that people very often find that they can read and write the language very well, but then find themselves completely at sea when it comes to speaking and listening. In other words having a conversation is very difficult but writing an essay or coaching out the meaning from a written text is fine. 

But most people learning French with me, are doing so in order to be able to have a conversation in French!  So, how do you make the leap to being able to process and select those sounds in your head rather than on always relying on a piece of paper?

Thinking about speaking disrupts natural rhythm

In our native language, speaking has a rhythm that it is really easy to produce without a second thought.


However, the minute we introduce another variable, it's incredible how difficult and stilted our speech can become. Let me give you an example, if you are being filmed and are self-conscious, you might be like me and suddenly start talking with a special edited "video voice" the minute the record button is pressed. Or, when you read something out loud. all of sudden does your voice and the rhythm of your speech change? Would anyone listening be able to guess that you were reading, regardless as to whether they could see you or not? It's much harder to speak "naturally" when we become self-conscious and start thinking about the words.


And those are examples of the change that happens in our native language. It's not a situation where we usually feel hesitancy about words, sentence structure, tense and pronunciation. And, of course, in English there is no masculine and feminine to throw us into doubt about the accuracy of our utterances.


So, getting to natural rhythm in a second language, where we are consciously working hard to make those sentences make sense, is likely to be quite tricky. But, it is possible. Millions of people speak second languages successfully, even when they learn them later in life.

Most people joining The French Room want to improve their speaking skills

Most people learning at The French Room want to improve their speaking skills. And, without a shadow of a doubt, the best way to improve your speaking skills in French is to do as much speaking as you can. It's the whole ethos behind The French Room classes in fact. But, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable. It's far safer to write something down.

Unfortunately, that just makes us better at writing French.

So, how do you make the transition from being an writer to a natural speaker? 

I think a useful parallel can be drawn with some insights into how to become an accomplished pianist shared in the TED Talk by Benjamin Zander - The Transformative Power of Classical Music

Zander is currently the musical director of The Boston Philhamonic Orchestra and he demonstrates in his talk how the pianist's fluency transforms from the stilted punching of the piano keys at age 7 to the fluid phrases of the concert pianist. Not dissimilar to the stages we go through as adult learners speaking a second language. 

It's all about the merging of sounds into phrases rather than individual words or notes. Zander says that a 7 year old, learning the piano, will put an impulse on every note, an 8 year old on every other note, a 9 year old on every 4,  the 10 year old on every 8 and the 11 year old just 1 impulse on the whole musical phrase.  And the difference is remarkable. So what does that mean for us and how we can improve our French speaking skills?

Think in phrases rather than words

Well the first thing to take from the Zander analysis is that it takes time and practice to play music fluently. So take heart, you have space to practice, get things wrong and make small improvements along the way, all the time improving your French speaking skills.

The second, is that the aim is to make a single impulse across a phrase. Let's have a look at the what that progression might look like on a French phrase.

Je-en-ai-déjà-envoyé-une (each word stressed)

J'en-ai-déjà-envoyé une (a slight merging of stress at the beginning and end of the phrase)

J'en ai-déjà envoyé une

J'en ai déjà envoyé une (A fluid phrase spoken as a single phrase)

The more practice you get speaking, the more you will smooth out your stress or impulse points across a phrase. And the more you do this, the more natural and fluent you will sound.

So, what I am suggesting is that focusing on the rhythm of your speech will help improve your French speaking skills. Repeating phrases over and over and then practising them in real conversation will start to bring a fluidity that will allow you put down your pen and pencil and go with the flow of the conversation.

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