Like many languages in the world, French is constantly evolving throughout time. There are words and expressions French people used a lot 50 years ago but which have almost completely disappeared today. Conversely, there are new expressions created nowadays which are absent from older generations language.
However, one thing pretty much hasn’t changed for the last 2 centuries: written French. Indeed, traditional grammar and conjugation rules remain the same when you write an essay or a book in French.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it can give a formal aspect to what you write, which is important for job applications, cover letters, professional emails…
But of course, you don’t need to be that formal when you speak in your everyday life: you wouldn’t talk to a friend like you talk to your company boss, right?
That’s something foreign teachers often fail to teach to their French learning students. They can’t be blamed for that, because that’s how they were taught French themselves!
I’m not saying what they’re teaching is useless, of course it’s important to know some formal French. But if you go to France and you happen to make French friends, I assure you that’s not the kind French you will need.
In this article, I wanted to show you some differences between written French and modern spoken French which concern vocabulary, grammar and even the phrases structure.
Why modern French is not taught at school?
I think one reason why modern French is not taught in schools is because it’s considered “poor French” by scholars and linguists. They believe what’s happening to the beautiful French language is disastrous and so they want to keep control of it.
Whether this is good or bad, something I’m sure about is that this is a real fact, and if you want to understand French people today, you need to study the way they speak today which is modern spoken French.
1) Some differences in modern French vocabulary
There are several sources of differences in the French written and spoken vocabulary:
A term is considered colloquial when it’s very specific to familiar conversations rather than formal speech or writing. These are informal words you are not usually taught at school, but which are very often used by French people. Here are 10 very common examples, but there are much more…
Know that these words are not vulgar, people use it with their friends and relatives. But they are not formal at all, so don’t use them in a serious job interview or something like that.
That one is quite interesting and very typical of the French language. I’ve never heard about anything like it in other languages. Basically, it’s a common French way of speaking consisting of inverting the order of syllables in a word.
For example, to say “thank you” in French, you normally say “merci”. But if you use the verlan, it becomes “cimer”. Quite stupid isn’t it? But yeah, it’s a thing in France, and it’s older than most people think, because apparently, the first forms of verlan started to appear in the 16th century, even though it wasn’t known as “verlan” at the time. You can find a whole Wikipedia article about it.
But the truth is, it began to spread in the French language in the 2nd part of the 20th century. Nowadays, it’s usually younger people who use it, but some words became so common that even people over 50 years old use them regularly.
Here are 10 of the verlan words I use the most:
Remember that these are also very very informal terms, so be careful with who you use them. And be aware that I’m in my twenties right now, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend you to use them if you are in your fifties you see, or even if you’re a beginner in French. But I think it’s good for you to know that verlan exists because you might here it sometimes in movies, music, or street conversations.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Those are English words used by French people, usually in a “French way” (with a French accent and not always exactly with the same meaning).
There are many of those, but once again, I give you 10 of the most common ones:
Other foreign language influences (especially Arabic)
Though English is the language influencing French the most nowadays, since France is a country welcoming lots of immigrants (now and before), we also have some other words which come from other languages. Many of them come from Arabic because there are many people from Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian origins.
Once again, I wouldn’t recommend you to use these words (especially “niquer”, and anyway I didn’t really explain you how to use it :p). Just stick with normal French words and everything will be easier for you. I just thought I could show some words to you in case you hear them somewhere.
2) Asking questions in modern French
You’ve probably learned at school that to make questions in French, you have to do the inversion. You invert the conjugated verb and subject pronoun and join them with a hyphen:
But once again, inversion is a very formal way to ask questions in French.
Some people would rather use “est-ce que” followed by the statement.
And even more common, we don’t use inversion nor “est-ce que”, but we simply say the statement and raise the intonation.
Note that when you make a question raising the intonation, if you use an interrogative adverb (who, what, when, with whom, why…), you have to put it after the verb in your question:
You can also read this article about asking questions in French for more information.
3) Differences in the word order when French people speak
Sometimes when French people speak, they often emphasize something or someone just before talking about it or him/her.
When it’s something (inanimate), they usually use “ça” which is “it or that/this” in English.
When it’s someone, they use a stress pronoun: moi, toi, lui/elle, nous, vous, eux > me, you, him/her, us, you, them
It also happens with whole sentences. We basically use this pronoun to reinforce the subject:
4) Using “on” instead of “nous”
This is a very important one. I tell you, 99% of the time, when a French person want to say “we”, they will use “on” and not “nous”.
I don’t really know when this change started, but it’s an important thing to remember if you want to sound French when you speak. The reason is probably because the conjugation of verbs with “on” is usually faster to pronounce than with “nous” (one syllable less) since it’s the same as for “il, he, and elle, she”. However, in books and literature, you will generally more often find “nous”.
But be careful, you can use “on” only when you start a clause with “we”, so when “nous” is a personal pronoun. Because “nous” can also be a stress pronoun or a direct object pronoun, for example:
You couldn’t say: “C’est on”.
You couldn’t say: “Ils on a attrapés”.
Note that “on” has different meanings, you can see more information in this article.
5) The glidings (or “enchainements”) in French
Just like in English where people say “I’m gonna take” rather than “I am going to take”, when French people speak normally, they glide over some words by linking them in the pronunciation.
These glidings happen when a consonant sound at the end of a word is transferred to the beginning of the word starting with a vowel that follows it (they are in red in the next examples).
The difference with the liaisons (which make mute consonants be pronounced) is that the consonant would be pronounced even if there were no words following it.
In this sentence, we have two glidings: “danse avec” and “avec Albert”. It sounds like the words are “dan ssavec” for the 1st one, and “avê kalbert” for the 2nd one.
Now here’s a sentence with a liaison in blue and a gliding in red:
If you put the word “on” alone, it’s pronounced [õ], without the consonant sound [n] pronounced. But when the following word starts with a vowel sound ([a] in this case), you must pronounce the “n”: that’s a liaison.
If you put “une” alone, it’s pronounced [ùn], this time with the letter “n” pronounced because of the mute “e”. And since the following word “omelette” starts with the vowel sound [o], it sounds like there is liaison between the two words (it’s almost [ù nomlêt]), but it’s actually an "enchainement" = a gliding.
Sometimes the gliding even creates a different consonant sound than the original one:
Here’s some other common glidings:
- “Il y a” becomes[ya]
- The sound [e] in the middle of words disappears:
- “Il” becomes [i] when followed by a consonant, and it makes a gliding with the “ l ” when followed by a vowel:
- The sound [e] at the end of short words disappears (je, me, te, se, le, de, ce, que). In this case, usually it sounds more like the consonant sound attaches to the preceding word (when there is one):
You should know that unlike the liaisons which are based on linguistics and stylistic factors, the glidings are simply a phonetic issue. It’s not a rule that you learn at school, it’s just a natural way for people to speak and it also increases the musicality of the language. But for beginners in French, it’s often confusing to understand the words because it seems like French people don’t articulate.
Some people glide words more than other people, it depends a lot on the context, regional accents, the person you’re talking to, your age, the person’s age… Young people tend to apply more glidings when they speak than adults.
Once again if you’re a beginner, I’d recommend first to articulate your words and don’t apply too much glidings. It’ll be easier for you to speak, and for people to understand you. But anyway, I don’t think gliding your words in French is something you can learn. It’s something you get naturally, by hearing it lots of times and getting used to it.
6) The “ne” disappears in the negation
Here’s another one they don’t teach you at school but which you need to understand if you want to sound French. Here again, let’s say 90% of the time, when French people speak, they don’t use the “ne” in the negation.
You’ve probably learn that to make a negation in French, you have to put “ne” before the verb, and “pas” after it. For example:
It’s true, but most of the time, French people will drop the “ne” and keep only the “pas”, like this:
And they will even make a gliding with the
You might here sometimes people keeping the “ne”, but they will glide it with the following verb:
But it’s quite rare, and it sounds more formal.
Remember that this concerns spoken French. If you’re reading a book, writing a professional email or any other formal situation, you should use “ne … pas”.
Understanding with the context
The best way to learn modern spoken French is in the context. In the Blog French Course, you will find more than a hundred dialogues of everyday life conversations with audio recordings. The recordings are recorded at slow and normal speed to help you master both traditional and modern spoken French.