New Year’s Resolutions to Sweeten your French Speaking Savvy

Last week, I started making a list of possible New Year’s resolutions for francophiles wanting to improve their French language skills. Some of my readers thanked me for providing such a thorough list of resources but I was just getting started. When I’m done, I hope they won’t be cursing me. My dogged pursuit of French proficiency this late in life is perhaps a bit unhinged but I’m sharing some of my experiences in the hopes of inspiring others with similar aspirations (or should I say afflictions).

Today’s post focuses on improving your French speaking abilities.

People speaking

4. Seek out conversation partners

Thus far, I have touched on activities to improve your comprehension of written and spoken French. Most people, however, study a foreign language because they want to be able to speak it. Producing both written and spoken French from your own thoughts is much harder than absorbing what others produce.

One reason that listening is easier than speaking (and reading is easier than writing) has to do with inference. If I hear someone emphatically say, “It started raining so hard yesterday when I was running in the park that it completely ruined my hair!” I may only catch the words “rain”, “yesterday”, “park” and “hair”, but given the person’s demeanor, I’m able to infer that she was unexpectedly caught in a recent downpour. If the speaker is young and fit, or wearing spandex, I might further entertain the possibility that she was jogging at the time.

Mime artist

However, if I want to express the same sentence in French, I may have difficulty even if I know the words pluie, demain, parc, and cheveux. Providing that I’m willing to set aside my dignity, those four words coupled with an excessive amount of pantomime can convey just as much meaning as the original sentence. But, when looking to exercise our nascent speaking abilities, few of us have the courage to engage a surly Parisian in what is essentially a game of charades. The key to improving your spoken French then is to find other language learners who are willing to put up with your stunted and stunt-filled articulations in exchange for you putting up with theirs.

Finding French Speakers in your Community

The Eiffel Tower by Robert Delaunay

My decision to restart my study of French was sparked when I met a friend of a friend who said she’d been brushing up on her French in preparation for a trip to Paris to celebrate her 50th birthday. (If you read last week’s post, this might sound familiar.) Her rousing enthusiasm reminded me how much I’d enjoyed French in high school and I expressed my envy of her upcoming voyage. By the end of the conversation, I was thoroughly inspired and vowed that I was going to rush out and buy that grammar book I mentioned.

“You should come to our French conversation group,” she offered. The idea of me carrying on a conversation in French seemed preposterous but she insisted that others in the group were far from fluent and I’d be welcome to join. So, after practicing the phrases je m’appelle Carol and merci pour l’invitation numerous times in front of a mirror, I headed out on a cold winter’s night to the house of a total stranger.

Luckily, the group (which has sadly disbanded) was comprised of wonderfully welcoming women and for a few years we would regularly meet at each other’s homes to drink wine, eat cheese, and butcher the French language. Those with greater proficiency aided those with lesser proficiency and little by little, we all improved.

Being invited to a conversation group on the very day you decide you might want to study its target language might sound like an awfully lucky coincidence. But once I became interested in French again, it was surprising how many people I met (or already knew) who showed an interest in improving their French. I found that even accomplished speakers were sometimes willing to spend time with me. While walking their dog or meeting for coffee, they would chatter away, exercising my auditory aptitude, and by turns lean in to decode and correct my stammering francanglo-ese.


Meetup logo

At some point, I learned of a group that met every Wednesday night at a local café. They posted their réunions on the app Meetup, an online platform for finding and building local communities. There are hundreds of French Meetups sprinkled throughout the United States. The one I belong to is open to everyone. Member fluency is all over the map, from people who have been using Babel for a month to native French speakers who are tired of using English all day long.

Understandably, members of this group often talk about the one interest they have in common—anything related to French. Like any valuable network, they share information and insights, movies and magazine articles, travel tips and recipes, rumors and the latest news. I soon learned of a local retired French teacher who was holding small conversation classes for a very modest price. This eventually led me to a French reading circle. The point is that when you start to look for people with whom to speak French, you may be surprised by how many aspiring francophones appear out of the bleu.

Conversation group

My French Language Exchange

Conversation groups are wonderful but at some point, you may feel that you aren’t spending enough time talking to native speakers. Being able to carry on a conversation with someone who lives in a francophone country was my ultimate goal and even though I was making myself understandable to a growing number of francophone friends, I knew that my French was far from conversational.

My Language Exchange Logo

As with all questions of vital importance, the quest to up my game began with an Internet search. I quickly came upon a site called This site helps you find native speakers in your target language that want to improve their English. A basic membership (which is all I’ve ever used) is absolutely free! The idea is to set up a mutually advantageous exchange, where you help someone with English, and (in this case) they help you with French.

The site has you set up a profile to introduce yourself to potential exchange partners. If you’re shy when it comes to speaking, you can indicate that you’re looking for a pen pal exchange. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are living in the target country, you can specify that you’d like to meet face-to-face. But most people, like me, use the site for long-distance conversations that take place over Skype, or Whatsapp, or whatever communication platform you and your partner agree upon.

Finding a language exchange partner

You may be wondering how you start a conversation with a total stranger. MyLanguageExchange helps you by providing a list of topics that you and your partner determine in advance of each conversation. After several interactions, however, you’ll naturally come up with topics on your own. The site also helps you set up initial guidelines to manage each other’s expectations, like how long the conversation will be, how to divide the time between French and English, how open you are to receiving corrections, and so on.

I set up my account 10 years ago and shortly thereafter began interacting with 3 French natives. I chose people who were roughly the same age and shared some of the same interests. I’m still in touch with two of them, one who was looking for a conversation partner and the other who was seeking a pen pal. I’ve been to both of their homes in France, and still regularly talk to the conversationalist who has met all the other members of my family, as I have his. Perhaps, I got lucky but both of these people have been interesting, insightful, and exceedingly generous. If they ever come to Michigan, I plan to roll out the red carpet.


HelloTalk app icon

A similar but more spontaneous platform than MyLanguageExchange is HelloTalk. I had this app on my phone for about a year and overall, I enjoyed it. As with MyLanguageExchange, you set up a profile describing yourself and specifying whether you wish to interact via chat, voice, or video calls. When you open the HelloTalk app on your phone, you can search for native speakers of your target language and immediately begin an exchange, usually by sending a text message.

HelloTalk is a perfect example of technology that stops you in your tracks to take stock of the powerful capabilities buried inside our increasingly omniscient and omnipresent smartphones. I remember a day when I was waiting for a contractor to show up at my father’s house in rural Michigan. I had about 30 minutes to kill so opened up HelloTalk. Also online at that moment was a woman in Algeria. I reviewed her profile, texted her, and after a few minutes, we were talking to each other over the phone. We began in English and I learned a bit about the town where she lived along the Mediterranian coast, hours east of Algiers, and what she liked to do for fun. Then in French, I briefly told her about myself and answered her questions about what my plans were for the weekend.

HelloTalk screen capture

Upon hanging up, I was elated. It was exhilarating to think that on the spur of the moment, I’d been able to communicate quite successfully with a woman living in a decidedly different culture on the other side of the globe. I had several positive exchanges with people over HelloTalk, interacting with strangers in Quebec, Switzerland, The Ivory Coast, and France. The reason I didn’t stick with it was that I didn’t have time to dedicate to a longer-term exchange. While using HelloTalk was thrilling, I didn’t necessarily want to always interact with a stranger but I also didn’t have time to set up regular interactions with a new partner.

HelloTalk has since added several features as well as lessons to strengthen your speaking abilities. You can find many articles and videos online that show you how to make the most of these capabilities. There is no question that bad actors make use of the platform but they are few and far between and the team behind HelloTalk works hard to detect and kick them off. I ran into one creep but it was easy to block him. If you’re worried about predators, there’s an option directing the app to only connect you to people that are generally averse to sending requesting lude photos, namely women.

5. Improve your pronunciation

An essential exercise for improving pronunciation is to listen as much as possible to native speakers. Last week’s post provided a short list of resources for improving your listening comprehension. Whether you are listening to an introductory French lesson on Youtube, a French podcast, or dialogue from a French film, I recommend that you regularly repeat portions of the script out loud. In addition to the correct enunciation of consonants and vowels, consider the speaker’s cadence and intonation, otherwise known as prosody—the melody of a language. I definitely recommend hamming it up every now and then. Exaggeration can help train the different muscles of your mouth and throat needed to speak French well. Just don’t make this your normal speech pattern.

A humbling exercise for intermediate-level learners and above is to listen to a French emission where the speakers are talking slower than the typical French person and then try to repeat every single word, immediately after they’ve said it. You might start with a speech delivered by President Macron who talks slowly and enunciates every word extremely clearly. Now, imagine an interpreter who, in real-time, retransmits a person’s elocution in a different language.

Mime interpreter

Record yourself

It’s also useful to record yourself speaking off the cuff and then play it back to see how you sound. I’d never taken the time to do this until I was studying for a French proficiency test called the DALF-C1. The test is composed of 4 parts with the last part assessing your speaking proficiency. You’re given one hour to study a series of documents, after which you spend 30 minutes in front of a panel of examiners who quiz you about the materials. While answering, you need to cite portions of the text while conveying your opinion of various assertions. To support your argument, either pro or con, you need to talk about people and events from your personal experience or current events that have influenced your stance.

As with most standardized tests, it helps to run through several practice exams before you sit down for the official drilling. The only way for me to assess how well I performed on a practice speaking exam was to record myself talking and then play it back. Like most people, I don’t like to listen to recordings of my voice so I wasn’t looking forward to hearing myself speak French but doing so proved helpful in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Recording your voice

As expected, I flagged and made note of several grammatical errors but I quickly recognized that I wasn’t going to eliminate all of my grammatical mistakes. My chief objective was to restate ideas from the documents and clearly present my own position with an argument that was easy to follow. A misused preposition or incorrectly conjugated verb was likely to be understandable. Whereas, a thick American accent might render key concepts unintelligible. In this light, I listened carefully to my pronunciation and tried to pick out syllables that were different from the way my mind’s ear told me a French person would pronounce them.

Unexpectedly, this activity bolstered my confidence in the days leading up to the test. It seems obvious that I would be able to understand myself when speaking French and logically, this has no bearing on whether or not a French person would be able to understand me. Yet, when listening to these recordings, I was pleased as punch that I could totally follow my own argument! Ridiculous? Decidedly so, but that little boost helped prepare me for facing the verbal firing squad that awaited me at the end of a long morning of reading, writing, and listening exams.

Study the phonetics of the French language

In a beginning conversation class that I took at a local university, we spent 3 or 4 weeks learning the phonetic symbols that represent all of the sounds of the French language. Concurrently, we practiced exercising the organs of the mouth and throat employed in articulating these sounds. Those few weeks were some of the most productive of my entire quest for French fluency.

French phonetic alphabet
The French phonetic alphabet.

Before I knew the phonetic alphabet, I could only guess at how to pronounce a new word that I encountered in print. I could look up the word’s meaning in a dictionary, but I didn’t know how to say it. I’m not a very observant human being in general, so I hadn’t noticed that most dictionaries provide a phonetic notation immediately following the word that indicates how it’s pronounced. Long ago, my adolescent brain must have dismissed the strange symbols as unwanted and unnecessary noise and I’d ignored them ever since. Once I’d learned how to decipher this phonetic code, I felt like a linguistic Dorothy receiving Glenda the Good Witch’s mildly annoying pronouncement that she’d “had the power all along” but had had to learn it for herself.

French pronunciation is extremely consistent. The pronunciation of various letters and letter combinations almost never varies. So once you understand these phonetic building blocks, you know how to pronounce new words that you encounter in text. Understanding this mapping of characters to sounds also works in reverse, helping you dissect spoken French. Whether listening to a fast-talking radio host or man-on-the-street, you’ll be much better equipped to pick out unfamiliar words and know immediately how they must be spelled so that you can look up their meaning.

Below are the two textbooks that I used in college as well as a highly recommended workbook. All are available on Amazon and through various used booksellers.

Change Siri to use French

It’s one thing when a French person understands your spoken French, but how about a French-speaking machine that is unable to read your lips or facial expressions or interpret your gestures? In general, I’m not a fan of Siri and often disable it on my phone. But, it can be fun to talk to Siri in French to see how well it understands you. Doing so will force you to speak your very best.

I admit that Siri can be frustrating even when talking to it in English. But generally speaking, when you are able to train Siri to recognize basic questions in French, your pronunciation will easily pass muster dans les rues de Paris. Of course, the same is true for any speech recognition program.

Siri configuration
Siri configuration is in Settings


Of course, not all native French speakers have the same accent. A fun and useful website to compare the pronunciation of speakers from different regions of France or different French-speaking countries is Forvo. Forvo is an online pronunciation dictionary for 430 different languages. For each of the more than 6 million words that are hosted there, Forvo provides one or more recordings of native speakers pronouncing them.

Forvo screen capture

For more tips on improving your French, check out : Creating An Online World of French Immersion and Diversion

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. This is a very thorough look at the subject! I await to see what you might include in the second part!! 🙂
    I agree that French pronunciation is consistent but the regional accents – although slowly and sadly fading – can still pose a challenge.

  2. Quand j’ai pris ma retraite il y a dix-huit ans, j’ai réalisé que j’étais réduit à deux langues, l’anglais et l’allemand. J’ai décidé de réactiver une de mes langues dormantes, et j’ai vite compris qu’il faudrait que ce soit le français, puisque Paris est à moins de quatre heures d’ici en train. Depuis lors, je lis des livres en français et je voyage souvent en France (lorsque la pandémie le permet), et je fais quelques-unes des choses que vous avez mentionnées dans cet article. Aussi j’ai un abonnement en ligne à un journal français (Le Monde) et j’essaie de commenter en français sur les blogs français.

  3. Très complet. Mes compliments, Carole…
    Je crois que c’est à peu près complet.
    J’insisterais sur les films Français…
    (When my grandson is at home, and he watches comics as a reward, I always put the sound in French.)
    You might want to try TV5, if you can get it. There used to be some good programmes a while. Now, i don’t know.
    You can also try Waze or Maps with a French speaker. Pronunciation of street names will be fun. (and of course audio books in “ze” French…)
    Bon Dimanche.

    • TV5 would be great Brieuc. I can’t get it without going through a VPN. Since there is already more content online than I can possibly consume I’ve so far avoided the extra expense.

      I’ve used navigation apps with a French speaker. It’s a great exercise that took me a while to get used to. The French pronunciation of English street names is often a hoot. What language do you prefer for navigation in Mexico?

      • I understand. I don’t think TV5 is included in my current “packages”. And I seldom watch TV anyway…
        A hoot it must be. For a short while I used an English speaker for navigation, but the pronunciation was too funny… I’m back to Spanish.

  4. Good ideas. Last year I told a friend I did want to improve my speaking and she recommended an online class she was taking before a trip to France. I joined one session. The teacher was definitely fluent but had a broad American accent. I decided that was not what I needed.

    • False starts are inevitable Caroline. Kick them onto the imaginary trash heap of past misteps and start again. I suggest practicing speaking at home—narrating your day, introducing yourself, or telling a story. When you hit words you don’t know how to say in French, look some of them up.

      Next, see if you can find someone to practice speaking with. Keep in mind that mistakes are inevitable and progress seems terribly slow. Six months down the road, however, you look back and realize that you’ve improved. I’ve known people who are afraid they’ll be practicing mistakes (I have this tendency as well). They don’t want to speak until they’re sure they know how to say things correctly. The important thing is to start speaking, even if you do it poorly.

      Try not to judge yourself and be patient. Trust the process and celebrate small achievements. You will get better.

      • Very good advice. The one thing that does seem to get me into French–unexpectedly–is volunteering in ESL classes. Both agencies where I volunteer have a lot of Haitians right now, and although they prefer Creole, they understand my stumbling French. And nobody cares a fig if someone makes a mistake!

  5. Great advice!
    Actually, if you have a good vocabulary, it’s easier to talk than understand, because then you can use other words to express what you are trying to say. It’s always been like that for me in all the languages I have studied. When you listen to somebody, if you dont know the word, you are in a dead end. Several of my students are also better at speaking, for the same reason.
    The Progressive collection is so good.
    They also have Grammaire progressive du français; Vocabulaire progressif ; Communication progressive ; Littérature progressive.
    And maybe more.
    For each, 4 levels : débutant, intermédiaire, avancé et perfectionnement. I use some of them with different students.

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