You’ve learned some French at school, maybe at university, or perhaps you’ve lived long enough in France or a francophone country to learn the language. You can buy bread, order lunch, arrange a delivery, even sort things out over the phone with the electric company or the mairie. But when it comes to having an actual, sociable conversation with an actual French person, things get tricky. Quite apart from the fact that general chit-chat is unpredictable and you can’t be prepared with key phrases ahead of time, there’s the politesse. People think that the British are inhibited by politeness and etiquette, but the French too excel at holding themselves back comme il faut, which can make things rather intimidating for the newly-francophone.
I learned French at school and at university level. Fifteen years later I arrived to live in France and was able to spend a year in intensive French classes at the local university. I lived there for two more years, then later returned for another year. Lots of Frenchness. By the end of all that I had fully functioning French – I could deal with just about any situation. Except having a chat with an actual French person.
Such is the curse of the anglophone abroad. The full immersion needed to become really fluent in a language is elusive, since just about wherever you go in the world there will be some other English speakers around to fall back on. I’m always in awe of friends who basically live their entire lives in their second or third language, because there don’t happen to be any other Romanians, or Hungarians, or Koreans around. Still, here in Congo, life is more French than in France, and so are most of the expats, so with French neighbours, French teachers at my childrens’ school, a francophone housekeeper and driver, and fellow French thespians (I need to find out if there’s a really good French word for that) I’ve got as close to immersion as an anglophone can, and I’ve got over that last hurdle.
So here’s my easy primer for actually speaking French with actual French people.
Ok, sorry, this first one is tricky. I know that the first thing you learned in French class was Je m’appelle Sophie, but you are highly unlikely to ever hear a French person saying Je m’appelle… French people are not keen on introducing themselves. They prefer to be introduced. What if there’s no one around to perform a formal introduction? I’ve spent literally months milling around groups of people, passing the time of day, never knowing people’s names, yet being expected to somehow know them. Even when I have awkwardly introduced myself, eyebrows raised expectantly, there’s been no reciprocation.
There are moments when a new group of people are meeting for the first time, then names will be briefly exchanged – only after or during a kiss of course. There’s a knack to this – one of you might say your name during the lean-in, the other should then try and get theirs in between cheeks. In these moments, you must be eagle-eared – forget stressing about the awkwardness of your bisous, or whether you’re both going to try and hit the same cheek first, or frantically avoiding lip-grazing with a stranger – this is your one chance to hear this person’s name. And if you’ve managed to catch it, don’t expect to be able to look squarely at them and repeat their name back to them as a memory aide – they’re already on to the next bisou quicker than you can say enchanté. (And you must say enchanté.)
These days, if I’m really determined to introduce myself to someone with politesse, I’ll say something like, Excusez-moi, je me suis jamais présentée, je suis votre voisine d’à coté, je m’appelle Catriona, et vous?* It’s a mouthful of context, but the context matters. And even though your next-door neighbour knows fine who you are, that little bit of formality will just help them along.
Tend to the Negative
It’s a quirk of the French language to express things negatively by default. In fact, it’s more than a quirk, it’s a natural extension of the French character. The British have a reputation for being complainers, but the French can more than match us in this respect too. Whereas in a shop we might say in English, ‘Do you have apples?’, a French person would ask Vous n’avez pas de pommes? (n’avez pas = don’t have). The shop probably does have apples, but the question can’t allow for the optimistic possibility that the questioner is going to get what they want – of their 5-a-day, or of life. So if you’re kicking off a conversation with a question, couch it in the negative. When I’ve tried it the other way, it only leads to confusion.
In a similar vein, if you give them the opportunity for some hearty complaining, you should be able to get away with not speaking for a while, so bring up the topic of something that’s been mildly disruptive (Tu n’as pas vu les travaux sur le boulevard? = roadworks) and get ready with your sympathetic shrugs and pouts and ooh la las. Which brings me to…
The clichés are true here. An expansive shrug and a pout combined with a despairing sigh or other outburst of breath can get you a long way in a French conversation. They also do that thing where they express rueful agreement by making a sound a bit like oui expressed during an in-breath, something I’d previously only associated with the north east of Scotland. I know you’re trying it now. Awkward, isn’t it?
Learn Your Starters and Fillers
The thing about speaking in another language is that it often doesn’t feel natural when we start speaking. Especially if we’ve just rehearsed a phrase in our heads a couple of times before daring to say it out loud. If you’re keeping up with the conversation going on around you, well and good. But sometimes, what we want to say needs a little easing in. One of my favourites is simply donc – the equivalent of starting a sentence with ‘so’.** Donc, j’ai régardé Le Grand Journal hier soir, tu l’as vu? (‘So, I watched Le Grand Journal last night, did you see it?’) Another good one is écoute – used often to bring up some news and a neat translation from the way we would use ‘listen’: Ecoute, ce nouvel restaurant à la plage, c’est pas mal. (‘Listen, that new restaurant by the beach is not bad.’)
As for fillers, the sky is the limit. I was delighted when I first arrived in France and discovered that they really do say ooh la la – a lot. Football commentators seem to compete with each other for the most number of ‘la’s they can fit in a breath. French football seems to be very dramatic. (Ok, ok, apparently all football is dramatic, more important than life or death, etc…) A very reliable conversational tool in French is quand même. This translates as ‘still’ or ‘all the same’, and often hangs at the end of a sentence, not requiring much explanation. You’ll just as often hear it in a sentence on its own, to express surprise or emphasis, and, my favourite, to answer a question with the implication that the question really did not require to be asked in the first place: Pourquoi tu n’aimes pas ce tableau de Picasso? (‘Why don’t you like this painting by Picasso?’) -*eyebrows raised, gesturing to the painting* Quand même!
Bon, ben… is useful in bringing a conversation to its end. It kind of translates as ‘…ok, well…’ and sounds more like ‘bon, bah’ to me. Viens, aller has a similar usage, although it translates literally as ‘come, go’. Du coup is another popular filler. After I became aware of some people using it in virtually every sentence, I investigated. Here is a good blog post explaining how it’s used. One friend of mine declared staunchly, ‘I never use these vague phrases in French – I don’t want to sound wrong.’ But if you want to sound more French, sometimes you have to embrace the vagueness.
Combine Any or All of the Above
This is your trump card and really works, I promise. Don’t try translating these at home, but they will make sense in a French conversation:
- Bon, ben, ecoute, quand même…
- Donc, du coup…oh la la…
- Bon, ben, viens, aller…
Tell Them You’re From Scotland
This is a great ice-breaker, to be used with caution if you’re not actually Scottish, mind you. The French seem to love us and our country, and will enthusiastically tell you about their visit there, or that they hope to go one day.
Talk About Food
Another cliché that rings true. Over lunch, they will discuss what’s for dinner; over dinner, they’ll describe what they had for lunch. Almost every day, while our children play, my neighbours will be discussing in detail what they’ll be cooking that night (while I’m desperately hoping I’ll find a jar of pasta sauce in the cupboard).
Ask If They Speak English
If all else fails, it’s worth a shot, not just because many French people speak excellent English. But it’s more likely you’ll hit on another popular conversation topic – their lack of English. The French are actually not much higher up the language-learning spectrum than the British, and a common lament is that they wish they had had the chance to learn English. The topic of the differences between the two languages, and how they are learned, can always keep you going for a while.
Then again, you could take all of this with a pinch of sel and…
Screw Trying to be French – Be Yourself, Speaking French
Ultimately, this is my best and healthiest piece of advice. After years of trying to fit in, avoid offending old French ladies, and generally sound like a French person, I’ve finally figured it out. ‘Frenchness’ is such an aspiration, one that we get quickly caught up in when we start learning the language. We want to be French – eat the food, drink the wine, inhale the champagne and the history, be effortlessly chic and generally stop sounding like a brash Anglo-Saxon. But it ain’t gonna happen. No matter how fluent you become, you will always have an accent, you will always be identified as not-French. (Even my French-Canadian friends can confirm this!) I’m jealous of my French friends and their effortless style, their poise, their ability to cook simple-yet-sophisticated family meals…but guess what, they’re jealous too. They envy the anglophone’s directness, our warmth, our ability to get to know one another quickly and even bond within a few hours of meeting. If, as an expat, they speak English, they’ll eagerly turn up at anglophone events to enjoy the relaxed informality, so refreshing to them in contrast to French events bound by protocol.
It’s hard enough to feel like you’re expressing your true self in another language, never mind trying to assimilate into a culture you’ll never really identify with. So we might as well just be ourselves. Much as it can be fun to explore linguistic intricacies, and all of the above is useful knowledge, sometimes you just need to be yourself, in whatever language you’re speaking. And if you make mistakes, you won’t be judged because, guess what, they know you’re not French! In fact, they’ll more likely relish the difference.
So next time I meet someone new, I’m just going to stride up, hand outstretched for a firm shake, and announce Je m’appelle Catriona!
*Grammar disclaimer #1: If you’re worried about the comma splices in that sentence, don’t be. It’s not a thing in French. Trust me – it took a long argument with one of my French teachers for me to learn this.
**Grammar disclaimer #2: Starting a sentence with ‘so’ in formal contexts is HORRIBLE and I HATE it. But anything goes conversationally. (And..ahem..in a chatty blog post…)