GCSE Speaking Test: Hints and Tips  French dictionary

Tips for the GCSE speaking test

Learn the most basic vocabulary and then other examples of things

The GCSE speaking test will generally test your vocab in two ways:

  • you'll be tested on some specific, but basic vocabulary;
  • you'll be tested on whether you know some examples of less basic vocabulary.

For example, there'll be parts of a role play where you are told specifically to "ask for some bread", or "say you have a brother". And to get the marks for these specific parts of the role play, you need to know the words for bread and brother. Then there'll be other cases where you have to "tell your friend what your favourite food is" or "tell your friend which form of transport you prefer". The speaking test won't be trying to catch you out by asking for less common vocabulary. You're much more likely to be tested on the words for brother, sister, mum, dad than on aunt, mother-in-law, stepsister etc. However, you might be required to name "another member of the family". Similarly, you're more likely to be tested on the words bread and milk specifically than pineapple or cherry. However, you might be asked to name "your favourite fruit".

To get you started, here is some essential GCSE French vocab that you should really try and learn before anything else.

Learn a few basic "function phrases"

Make sure you know the following:

j'ai ... I have ...
j'ai ... ans I'm ... (years old)
on a ... we have ...
je suis ... I'm ...
il est ... he's ...
elle est ... she's ...
c'est combien? how much is it?
c'est ... it's ...
c'est ... euros it's ... Euros
quand? when?
pourquoi? why?
à quelle heure? (at) what time?
quel âge? how old?
et toi? and how about you?
et... (ton frère, ta soeur etc)? and how about... (your brother, your sister etc)?
je veux... I want...
je / il / elle préfère I / he / she prefer(s)
s'il vous plaît please
merci thank-you
il y a... there's..., there are...

Learn small numbers

Some number or other is bound to crop up at some point in the role plays: for asking for "two apples", for saying the price of something, for saying your age. Make sure you know how to say:

  • small numbers (say, up to 20);
  • "teens": 20, 30, 40, 50;
  • your age;
  • a plausible age of your mum or dad.

When you say an age, don't forget the word ans.

Avoid obvious pronunciation blunders

First, some good news: a convenient feature of the GCSE speaking test is that, despite being a speaking test, you're allowed to have surprisingly bad pronunciation and still get full marks (the general requirement is that you are "understandable to a sympathetic native speaker"). However, there are one or two pronunciation blunders that the examiners really don't like:

  • being unable to distinguish between très and trois, between sur and soeur...;
  • pronouncing French words like six and ticket exactly like the English words six, ticket (after all, if you do that, there's no evidence that you actually know the French word...!);
  • pronouncing the -s on the ends of words.

Note: an exception is the word fils (=son), where the final -s (but not the l) is pronounced!

Finally, if you have an iPhone or iPad, then the Utter French pronunciation app provides high-quality recordings of native pronunciation of virtually all items of core GCSE vocab, along with expert advice on how to pronounce the words.

Asking questions: do it the easy way

Occasionally (and probably at least once in the exam), you'll be told to ask a question. For example: "ask your friend what school subject they like". There are two easy ways to ask a question in French, both of which will get you full marks in the GCSE speaking exam:

  • Use a statement followed by et toi?, et ton frère? etc. For example, if you need to "ask your friend if they like French" it's perfectly acceptable (and will get you full marks) to say J'aime le français. Et toi?. If you need to "ask how old your friend's sister is", you can say: J'ai quinze ans. Et ta soeur? or Mon frère a seize ans. Et ta soeur?. You don't generally need to worry about actually trying to make a question form.
  • You can form a question in French by keeping the word order of a normal sentence. For example, to say "How old is your sister?" you can literally say "Your sister is how old?": Ta soeur a quel âge?. To ask "What time will you arrive?", you can use Tu arrives à quelle heure?. This word order is usually only used for emphasis or surprise in English, but it's a normal, natural way of asking a question in spoken French.
  • For asking why, it usually sounds better to put pourquoi at the beginning; if you can remember, use pourquoi est-ce que...?.

Don't be put off by fancy verbiage

Especially in the role plays, there'll usually be one or two key words that are going to get you the marks. And they're usually fairly simple words. Occasionally, the wording of the question can make things look harder than they really are. If you're asked to say that "your brother has fallen ill", remember that the basic message is that your brother is ill, and the examiners are essentially looking for something with the words frère and malade (and ideally, a grammatical sentence: mon frère est malade). If you're asked to "greet the shopkeeper", remember that just means say "bonjour!"...

What do I do if I don't know a word?

In general, you have a couple of options:

  • if there's a brand name for the thing you need to say, then use that— for example, if you're told to "ask for some cereal", then you can say je veux des Cornflakes, s'il vous plaît (you may actually get full marks if not half the marks for this— this has happened in the past);
  • if you know a general "category" word that covers the thing you're supposed to say, then use that: for example, if you're supposed to be asking for some pears, but you've forgotten the word for pears, you could say je veux des fruits, s'il vous plaît— depending on what examiners decide that year, you might get half marks for this;
  • you could hope the French word is similar to English, especially if you can think of a "posh" word in English that means the same thing (see the next section on When is it worth "guessing" the French word?);
  • otherwise, just put some other word in so the sentence still makes sense and don't worry about it.

The brand name option will generally (probably) work if that brand is known in France/some French-speaking country. You'll just have to take pot luck.

Sometimes, you might be asked for a general word, but saying something more specific is also OK. For example, if you're asked to say that your broher is ill, but you've forgotten the word for ill, then try and invent some more specific thing that might be wrong with him. For example, if you know mal à la tête (headache), you could say mon frère a mal à la tête.

In other cases, it's really best to just say some other word and not worry about it: it'll only effect part of your mark for that role play. For example, let's say you have a role play where you have to (a) ask for some bread, (b) ask how much it costs, and (c) say "thank you". If you don't know the word for bread, then you won't get the marks for part (a). But you also won't lose any marks on the other parts of the role play. So just ask for some milk or ham (or Cornflakes) instead, and worry about trying to get the marks for parts (b) and (c).

When is it worth "guessing" the French word?

There are lots of French words that are the same as English or very similar. But in general, these words tend to be the "posh" words in English. In particular:

  • words ending in -ion are very often practically the same in French ("election", "reservation", "nation"...);
  • words ending in -ist, -ism are often the same but ending in -iste, -isme;
  • verbs ending in -ate in English are often similar but ending in -er in French (e.g. to separate is séparer); adjectives ending in -ate(d) are very often the same but ending in (complicated is compliqué; frustrated is frustré);
  • verbs ending in -ify and -ise/-yse in English are often similar but ending in -ifier or -iser in French;
  • in general, where there's a "basic" word and a "posh" word for something in English, the "posh" word is often actually French (for example, "keep" is English, but "conserve" and "preserve" are actually French words: conserver, préserver).

Guessing that the French word is similar to English can be a good strategy if used carefuly. The problem is that most of these "guessable" words aren't simple words— in other words, they're not the kind of words that you'll be asked for directly in the GCSE speaking test. But indirectly they might help you. So:

  • a short, very basic word of English probably won't be the same in French;
  • but a "posh" or "long" word with similar meaning might be the same in French.

So if you're stuck for a word, see if you can think of a "posh" word that means the same thing or a similar thing. For example, if you're asked for somebody's job but can't think of that word, you might think of the word profession (same word in French). If you can't think of the word for keep, try and think of conserve (French verb conserver); check might make you think of verify (French vérifier). If you can't think of the word for choice, then the word selection might help you (French sélection). If you need to ask for a slice or helping of pizza, what you really want is a portion etc.

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