Thursday, 23 August 2012

Useful French-isms: Cultural Tips and Being Understood When Learning French

French Stone House/Building in Vence. Useful tips for speaking/learning French





So you're going on holiday to France, you've got your basics and you know how to order a glass of wine... but how can you get past the awkwardness?

Read on to eliminate those blank looks, be understood, and feel like you've nailed it - holidays to France have never been more successful!


1. Manners in French

In France, be assertive but maintain formality and be considerate. French people don't seem to apologise for things for no reason the way we British do, and quite rightly so. If you're asking for a karafe of water, don't apologise or thank them profusely - it's their job and all you need to do is ask (politely). You don't need to return the favour by helping them move house or anything.

Always use please (s'il vous plait) and thankyou (merci) and make sure you mean them. Don't overuse them (as we tend to do in Britian), or let them lose their meaning.

2. 'Bonjour'

This is not just a word that simply needs to be said. Every French child is raised with 'bonjour' as a fundamental part of social interaction in the French language. It not only says 'alright mate' but it says 'I've been bought up with manners, I respect you and our interaction will be pleasant.' Say this word with pride and meaning. On holiday anywhere in France, you'll notice French people sound happy when they say it and they almost 'sing' it.

3. The Famous' r'

Ah, the power of pronunciation! Never underestimate the importance of correct pronunciation in French. You could be fluent in French but without making an effort with the accent you may aswell learn gobbledegookPlease don't be afraid to sound 'silly' or exaggerate - your pronunciation capability is much better than you realise.

Don't resort to any other pronunciation of the 'r' (we British sometimes ignore it completely) as it is not likely you'll be understood very well on your French holiday. If you roll your tongue you'll sound Spanish. The sound of the French 'r' is a trilled sound which comes from back of the tongue/throat. The rolled r comes from the tip of the tongue.

4. Making the langauge 'flow' - Enchainement and Liason

We English speakers are used to a language with gluttol stops, hard consonants and 'fricatives' at the ends of words. Travel anywhere in France, or indeed a French-speaking country and if you just listen to the sound of English compared with French it flows very differently. Some subtle differences in the French language which distingush words are lost on English speakers who aren't used to the rhythm of the language. The more you listen to French the more you will learn and understand it's rhythm.

The French language uses Enchainement and Liason which basically means the end sound (phoneme) of a word links to the beginning of another without breaking your speech. Some consonant sounds which are not pronounced when the word is said by itself, become voiced when combined with the next word.

Example: 'Vous ĂȘtes' (you are)
The 's' at the end of vous is not normally pronounced but when combined with the etes, it is. So 'Voo et' becomes 'vooz-et'


5. The Nasal Sounds of the French language

Again don't be afraid to sound silly. The nasal sound is unfamiliar in most other languages and it is natural to feel absolutley ridiculous trying to make it, but it is vital for being understood. You may think you've said a word correctly, only to look up and find the French person looking bewildered, and if its a particulary bad experience, irritated - cringe! They may then realise what you're trying to say and repeat the word pretty much exactly how you said it. If that sounds familiar, you probably missed off a tiny intonation in your voice or a nasal sound which makes the word kind of unrecognisable to the French speaker.

Words ending in 'en', 'in', 'on', 'un,' or 'an' are pronounced with a nasal sound (each only slightly different from each other - see below). To make these sounds your voice comes through your nose aswell as your mouth, and you don't actually pronounce the end consonant (usually an n, sometimes an m). 

To make the sound you have to sort of narrow your air passage in your mouth at the back with your tongue a little. You'll be able to imitate it when you hear it.

en - sounds like halfway between 'on' and 'en' but longer
un - sounds like 'un' but longer
in - sounds like 'an' but longer

on - sounds like 'on' but with more of an 'o,' and longer
an - sounds like - 'on' but longer

6. 'Everyday' French

As with all language, the formal French we learn in school is not always the same as the everyday French heard on the street. On holiday in France you will hear everyday French - slang and coloquial phrases that we have in English too. A useful example is that French speakers often drop the 'ne' in negative sentences e.g:

For the phrase 'I don't know':  'Je sais pas' is used instead of 'Je ne sais pas'

Try to bear this in mind when listening to a French speaker and when you feel comfortable you can use this yourself (once you're used to hearing it).

A pointless but important reminder: Make sure you use 'vous' for 'you' unless you're invited to use the less formal 'tu.'

French Alpine Chalet

7. Asking Questions in French

In French you can form a question by making a statement and making it sound like a question (i.e. by rising the tone/pitch of your voice at the end). For example: 'You have sugar?' - 'Vouz avez du sucre?'

You can also ask a question by adding 'est-ce-que...?' (Pronounced esker) to the beginning of the sentence.  This means 'is it that...?' which is similar to the English 'do you...?'

8. Yes/Oui

In France you may hear an informal version of 'yes' a bit like our 'yeah' in English. It is written 'Quai' and sounds a little like 'way.'

This is useful to know incase a French person answers with this and you're not aware that it is a variation of 'oui'

9. Pronouncing 'ais,' 'er' and 'et'

I have heard a few French people say that they can always tell an English speaker by the over-pronunciation of words ending in morphemes like 'ais,' 'er' and 'et' (all sounding like 'ay'). English speakers tend to over-pronounce the 'y' when there isn't one. Words like 'jamais' ('never') are pronounced something like 'zhammay' but without too much of a 'y' sound (the sound at the beginning of 'yuck'). Listen to a native speaker in any Francophone country - practice and imitate, and you'll soon learn.

Useful French-isms - Cultural tips for being understood when learning French

Text, Images and Videos Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2012
All Rights Reserved


  1. Your article about learning french is really informative . Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Everyone should improve their native language and people should take various courses for improving their language. French learner can improve their language skill by taking Language course, French grammar and vocabulary books , french phrasebook etc and thus they can improve wonderful French language .

  2. Thank you. Yes, a variation of language aids are useful, and for serious learners an equal balance between grammar and vocabulary is important. Useful phrasebooks are also great as you need to learn phrases off by heart so you don't freeze up and go blank when you're faced with a French-speaking native!


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