As a French teacher in Paris who works with adults, I am often surprised to see that my students have forgotten how to study a language. Here are a few tips to help you improve your French conversational skills.
In this post, I intend to give a few pointers for people who want to learn French not only to pass exams, but also to actually speak it and communicate with French speakers
You cannot avoid grammar
Not in French. Sorry. French is a very structured language, and you need to understand its structures. Then you can move on to acquiring reflexes, and have the words come naturally to you. But at one point, you need to understand how it works, how you must arrange the words to build a sentence. And that is what grammar is.
Work with audio and visual resources
As you may have noticed, written French and spoken French are like 2 different languages. So if you want to be able to speak French, you must train with audio and visual resources. Their length and speed should be adapted to your current language level.
Play a very short passage, a short sentence, then repeat. Don’t read the transcript; just repeat the sounds, trying to imitate the speaker as if you were an actor. Repeat as many times as necessary. Once you have the pronunciation down, then, and only then, you can look at the transcript.
If you are more advanced, read out loud over the voice that is reading, and study how your French pronunciation differs. Pay close attention to the word grouping, the liaisons and glidings.
Find a private French tutor online or in Paris to correct your pronunciation
You can find good resources online to learn French pronunciation and it is indeed important that you memorize and understand the many rules of French pronunciation. But then, you need someone to listen to you and correct your mistakes. No software or recorded lesson can do that. It needs to be a real person. This investment in a couple of online French pronunciation lessons can change your accent for the rest of your speaking life.
Train with questions/answers out loud
A great way to train your French speaking skills is to ask short questions on a text and answer them. First of all, that will give you good training on question building, which is an essential part of conversation. Then you can answer the questions and practice your speaking skills.
Go from English to French
When memorizing new vocabulary, remember that it’s not because you understand the French word that you could come up with it. I have seen people approach lists of vocabulary by looking at the French and seeing if they can understand the English; this is good to build your understanding, but not your speaking ability. Au contraire, you need to look at the English, and see if you can come up with the French. Flashcards are a great way to memorize a lot of vocabulary. Don’t forget to always have an article to go with a noun so you learn the gender as well as the noun.
Visualize the object, the situation, don’t link the words to English
Avoid linking the French word to the English word as much as possible. When you learn the word « le chien », picture a dog in your head, and link the French word to this. Going trough another language is a waste of time and effort, and will cause trouble when the French and English don’t follow the same pattern.
Don’t learn your verbs « in order »
Typically, French verbs are taught from « Je » to « Ils ». The problem is that when you memorize something in order, your brain memorizes the order as well. And then you have to go through the whole list to get to the « ils » form…
Instead, write down your subject pronouns, and then pick them at random. Believe me, you’ll gain a lot of speed when speaking French. And don’t forget to train in the negative form as well. Check out the French verb drills, they are the best tool to memorize French verb tenses and gain speed.
Repetition is the key
When you spend time memorizing something, your brain will store it in its short term memory. Only experience and repetition will store the info in your long term memory. So it’s better to work on your French regularly, for say 20 minutes per day and do a lot of repetitions, than spend 3 hours on it once a week.
Ultimately you need to get faster in French learning
Once you are at an intermediate level, you need to make the transition from « thinking » the language to speaking it automatically. Build reflexes. That is where sentence learning can be useful, especially ones with pronouns. Make lists of common yet complex sentences « il m’a dit », « je lui ai donné » etc… and memorize them. Also, train on saying things that are relevant to you, and likely to come up in conversation: what you like to do, your job, your family situation…
If you liked my tips on the how to sharpen your French conversation skills, you may also like my tips on the recommended podcasts to improve your French comprehension.