More and more, I’m starting to believe that there is a secret society that banishes authors from teaching real French in any books. French has such an astounding number of slang words and expressions, as well as a spoken form that is sometimes nearly unrecognizable from the written form, that I truly believe this entire language is just one cruel joke on foreigners. I have read through at least a dozen textbooks, and yet another dozen teach yourself French books, and have never come across half of the words that are in common usage in France today. I realize that slang is hard to publish in books because it changes so quickly, but still…
Another problem is that I have no idea when to use the slang words. Unlike English, French has a rich lexicon of slang words for nouns. For example, I cannot for the life of me figure out why there are three slang words for umbrella. In which cases would you use pébroque instead of pépin instead of chamberlain instead of the standard parapluie? Is one word considered old-fashioned? Does another describe the good or bad qualities of the item (such as clunker for a run-down car?) Are any of them even used anymore today? I just don’t know.
I’m also starting to get used to discovering what I learned in my French classes is wrong in spoken French. Well, not wrong, just not used. Déjeuener actually means to eat lunch and to eat breakfast. Salade is nothing more than a bowl of lettuce. Steak haché is nothing more than a hamburger patty. Possession is shown by using à not de. Barely anyone uses inversion or even est-ce que to form a question (subject, verb, question word is good enough). Everyone uses on instead of nous to mean we.
Recently on TF1’s site there was a poll asking for opinions of the show Secret Story (some stupid reality show where the contestants must discover each others secrets). The choices were:
C’est top, C’est bof, Ça craint, C’est quoi ?
Approximate translations: It’s great, It’s mediocre, It’s awful, What is it?
Years of French at university and 9 months of living in France and I still had to look up ça craint. I knew the verb craindre meant to fear, but I had no idea there was a slang meaning too. These words are relatively easy to figure out since the first choice is obviously good, and the rest go downhill from there. But if I had encountered these expressions in a different context, I would have no idea what they meant.
My biggest fear when I first moved to France was being able to understand spoken French. I knew that my grammar and reading comprehension were fine. But the thought of not understanding a word someone said to me made me so stressed out. To this day, I still have problems speaking and understanding French on the phone (Heck, I still have problems speaking and understanding English on the phone, but that’s a different story…)
I suppose this is why I’m so obsessed with discovering new expressions and words everyday, so I can add them to my Informal French page. I feel cheated that all of my French books only teach the formal, written language and I want to help others learn the real French language so they are not completely lost when they move here.