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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Language dilemmas: Why can’t I understand what French people say?

It's a common problem - you've done your classes, listened to the tapes and then you try to strike up a conversation with a French person and are instantly lost. We asked French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis for her tips to help you understand the conversation.

Language dilemmas: Why can't I understand what French people say?
Everyday French chat is harder than you might think. Photos: AFP

Whether you're living in France or just visiting, there comes a time in every French learner's life when – flushed with confidence at how your lessons have been going – you strike up a conversation with a French person and find yourself embarrassingly lost as you instantly lose the thread of what they are saying.

So what are the most common reasons for this and how can you overcome them? We asked French language expert Camille, founder of French today, for some tips.

1. Expectations

Camille says: “People have crazy high expectations of themselves as language learners. If you went to a yoga class you wouldn't expect to master all the poses after a couple of lessons, it takes years. And it's the same with a language, you need to be patient.”

Also bear in mind that a full conversation is a lot more complicated than just ordering a coffee.

Camille says: “When I ask people what their language goals are, I often hear 'Oh nothing advanced, I just want to be able to chat to French people' – but that's actually very advanced.

“To be able to have an unscripted conversation, even on mundane topics, with varied vocabulary and maybe some slang, is more complicated than you might think. Don't expect to be able to do it straight away.”

READ ALSO: Understand Spoken French Pronunciation – with audio recordings 

2. Grammar

It's no-one's favourite topic, but French is a very structured language so doing the boring hard slog of learning the grammar is essential if you are going to progress.

Camille says: “I see so many language-learning tools focused on 'fun' language like learning phrases or slang or matching words to videos, which completely neglect the grammar.

“But if you are to progress to a level when you can have an actual conversation, then you need to learn the grammar.

“I find even the word 'grammar' scares English-speakers, because the typical English school curriculum doesn't insist on sentence structure the way European schools do, but in French you need to really understand the word order and the agreement / functions of the words: and that's what grammar explains.

“The basics are really important in French and if you don't have those in place you won't progress, unless you one of the rare people who are gifted linguistic geniuses.”

3. Spoken v written French

Perhaps more than other languages, French has differences between the written and the spoken forms and if you are learning it in class, you might be focused on written French.

But when French people talk they frequently run words together and miss out words.

Camille says: “It's important to point out that this is not slang, it's just French as people speak it. And everyone does it, it's not lazy or incorrect or limited to a certain group – I do it, my 80-year-old mother does it.

“A good example is Je ne sais pas (I don't know).

“It's written with all four words, but when you say it, the ne frequently disappears and the je and sais are run into each other, so it sounds more like chez pas. This is not incorrect, it's just relaxed, everyday French and you will hear everyone say it, but for language learners it sounds very different to the full je ne sais pas. And there are loads of examples like this.

“This also applies to the word order, in spoken French it might not be the same as the formal French you have learned in your class. French people make mistakes when they talk, plenty of people avoid the subjunctive and some use contractions.”

4. Panic

Once you hear a phrase or a word that you don't understand it's easy to start panicking, but you don't need to understand every single word to get the gist of what a person is saying to you.

Camille says: “Don't try to translate every single word, listen to the whole sentence and you will probably be able to pick out enough words to understand, even if the person doesn't use the exact word order or question structure that you were expecting.

“Getting the gist of it is fine, and when you come to reply don't be afraid to borrow parts of what the person has just said, you don't need to construct a perfectly formulated sentence in order to reply to their question or comment.”

Like any other, skill, practice is of course important and the more spoken French that you hear, the better.

Camille says: “Definitely listen to audio as well as studying in books, but make sure you pick audio that is at the right level for you – if you rush straight into a complicated French film you will just get lost.

“Also try to pick conversational audio, some language courses have audio that uses an extremely over-enunciated form of French, but in real life people just don't talk like that – well maybe Emmanuel Macron does, but not most people!” 

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com

Member comments

  1. When chatting with native speakers, I find it useful to ask them to slow down if there is something I don’t understand. They don’t need to translate it, but merely enunciate. For listening, I have used the videos available from ina.fr. I usually listen several times, and find that I understand more the second time around.

  2. I now have a better understanding of written french but the hardest thing at the moment is the speed of how native french speakers converse.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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