Colloquial French Grammar

I just finished reading Colloquial French Grammar by Rodney Ball, which I highly recommend to those who want to learn the “rules” of everyday spoken French. You do have to have some knowledge of French because sometimes there are no translations given, and a linguistics background would be helpful to understand all of the grammatical terms.

One aspect that I was surprised to not find in the book was the usage of on and specifying the people included in on. I learned very early in my French classes that on is a more common substitute for nous, which can be a little confusing since it takes a singular verb and not a plural one. But I never learned that it is possible and common to name the person or people that you are referring to when you say on. For example, On est allé au cinéma, avec Marc actually means Marc and I went to the movies and NOT We (= someone else and I) went to the movies with Marc. In English, if you use we and then say with [someone], that someone is an additional person not already referred to or included in we. But perhaps this is possible with nous (I never hear anyone use nous so I don’t even know) and so it’s not considered colloquial?

Chapter 7, titled “Grammatical Effects of an Unreformed Spelling System,” reminded me of Joel Walz’s 1986 article “Is Oral Proficiency Possible with Today’s French Textbooks?” The answer was, of course, a big fat NO and I’m sure the answer remains no even in 2009 because textbooks really haven’t changed all that much over the years, unfortunately. In the chapter, Ball grouped adjectives and verb conjugations together according to their pronunciations instead of their orthography. This was a large part of Walz’s article on how textbooks only teach the written form of language and group certain grammatical items together solely by spelling and not by pronunciation.

As Walz points out, adjective agreement and the number system are highly complicated in oral form, but simpler in written form. Therefore, textbooks group the adjectives together based on their spelling changes, without regard to the many pronunciation changes that occur. “A typical textbook presents twelve adjectives showing fifty-two oral forms” yet when students are tested on their knowledge of adjectives, it is usually the spelling of feminine or plural forms with complete disregard to the pronunciation changes that do or do not occur. Most textbooks teach the numbers from 0 to 100 or to 1,000 in a single lesson, even though “the numbers zero through ten alone have twenty-two possible oral forms.”

On the other side of the spectrum, verb conjugations are easier to learn orally than in written form. Yet the textbooks do not adequately describe the pronunciation and instead focus on highlighting the spelling changes for verbs that do not actually change pronunciation, such as adding a cedilla to verb stems ending in -c before the -ons ending of nous. Writing ç is due to the archaic and complicated French writing system and not because the pronunciation changes during conjugation.

In Ball’s group of regular -er verbs, he states there are only two forms that need to be learned since the on form is more common than nous. Here is the IPA for the conjugated verb forms:

j’arrive [aRiv]
t’arrives [aRiv]
il/elle arrive [aRiv]
on arrive [aRiv]
vous arrivez [aRive]
i’z/e’z arrivent [aRiv]

The same two-verb system can be used for the imperfect, future and conditional, though of course, it does get more complicated with -re and -ir verbs. But the point is that it is easier to learn the conjugations if they are based on pronunciation alone. The written forms should be secondary, but in textbooks, they are always primary.

Ball and Walz both explain the syntax of forming questions, and how intonation is actually the most common even though textbooks still insist on teaching inversion and est-ce que. Walz even states “if the more frequent form is also easier for the learner to acquire, then textbook writers have an added incentive to develop that form pedagogically.” It is common sense to teach intonation to form questions since it is the exact same word order as for declarative sentences. But textbooks teach inversion of subject and verb, which actually delays acquisition for elementary French learners, because it is the standard form in written, academic French.

Walz goes on to explain that “academic purism prevents many writers [of textbooks] from describing the spoken language as it exists. Written language has always enjoyed more prestige.” There is a reason why textbooks seem to be clones of one another. Authors are afraid to teach spoken French because it is considered inferior to written French and publishing companies would just throw their manuscripts out. Another facet of textbook publishing is simply the profit factor. Publishing companies print textbooks to make money, not to help students learn. Otherwise, textbooks would be open source and online for everyone to learn from, for free. But I digress…

Part of the problem with teaching French based on orthography is French’s ridiculous spelling system with its numerous homonyms and spellings for one phoneme. There are 13 spellings for the phoneme [o] !! There will always be debates about reforming the system (especially during la rentrée), but I don’t know if it will happen anytime soon. It did happen in the 1800’s actually, but no one really knows about it because all of the earlier famous works in French literature were re-written with the new spellings. Today’s French has changed a lot since the time of Molière so when purists claim that the langue de Molière shouldn’t be reformed, they are just showing their ignorance because it has already been changed. (Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow’s The Story of French explains this and much more about the history of the French language throughout the world.)

I completely agree with Walz that French (or other languages with complex orthography) should be taught based on the pronunciation because it is easier to learn and because language, at its core, is more about spoken (or signed!) communication than written. Of course writing a language is important too, obviously, but speaking and understanding should be primary. French majors who have only learned textbook French have an incredibly hard time understanding everyday French when they study in, or move to, or merely visit, a French-speaking country. They never learned colloquial French so they cannot understand the majority of interactions in French, unless they plan on doing nothing but listening to the nightly news or presidential speeches.

Especially with French, it is important that the students do not get distracted by the spelling, so they should always learn the pronunciation of a word first or simultaneously with the spelling of the word. I’m a very visual learner and I need to see the spelling of a word in order to remember how to spell AND how to pronounce it even if the spelling has nothing to do with the pronunciation. But I learned the phonology of French first, and later applied that to the spelling sytem, so I can keep them separate in my head.

This post is getting incredibly long, so I’m going to stop there. But the point is that I wish textbooks would teach the real spoken language instead of fake textbook language that no one really uses. When is someone finally going to write and publish a textbook on colloquial French that includes authentic language samples from a spoken corpus and that focuses more on the vocabulary (especially slang) needed to survive in everyday situations instead of standard grammar?