Les argots

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.

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  • ManicBlu

    I’m not sure keeping up with slang is possible except for a linguist. ;) It changes too often. My husband, who is French, tells me many times he doesn’t understand much of what young people say due to the slang. Since I don’t speak the language I keep a dictionary with me at all times and pen and paper. Hands and contorted expressions work well also. ;)

  • ManicBlu

    I’m not sure keeping up with slang is possible except for a linguist. ;) It changes too often.
    My husband, who is French, tells me many times he doesn’t understand much of what young people say due to the slang.

    Since I don’t speak the language I keep a dictionary with me at all times and pen and paper. Hands and contorted expressions work well also. ;)

  • ColourMeCrazy

    And then there’s Verlan – I’m completely lost when it comes to that!

  • ColourMeCrazy

    And then there’s Verlan – I’m completely lost when it comes to that!

  • Leah

    I totally hear you on this one. I’ve been learning French since I was 12 and when I was 20, I left to study abroad and lived with a host family. Well, I had a good level of French before(of what I had already learned), but I got so lost with all of the slang words that even they would use that sometimes I would zone out for a while and after a bit, suddenly they were all staring at me and I realized they had asked me a question and were waiting for my answer. OOPS.There’s not much you can do to counteract learning the slang before you get here, but your webpage is a great help for those coming over for the first time and in case you ever forget what a word means that you have learned, you have a resource to look it up. Sorry for blabbering on, just wanted to say hi and that I totally understand where you’re coming from. Keep at it!~Leah

  • Leah

    I totally hear you on this one. I’ve been learning French since I was 12 and when I was 20, I left to study abroad and lived with a host family. Well, I had a good level of French before(of what I had already learned), but I got so lost with all of the slang words that even they would use that sometimes I would zone out for a while and after a bit, suddenly they were all staring at me and I realized they had asked me a question and were waiting for my answer. OOPS.
    There’s not much you can do to counteract learning the slang before you get here, but your webpage is a great help for those coming over for the first time and in case you ever forget what a word means that you have learned, you have a resource to look it up. Sorry for blabbering on, just wanted to say hi and that I totally understand where you’re coming from. Keep at it!
    ~Leah

  • Astrid

    What annoys me to bits is when the french cut words in 2 like “Cet Après-midi” becomes “cet aprèmm”… Like it isn’t hard enough for us immigrants to get the hang of the language :)

  • Astrid

    What annoys me to bits is when the french cut words in 2 like “Cet Après-midi” becomes “cet aprèmm”… Like it isn’t hard enough for us immigrants to get the hang of the language :)

  • Cuppa

    This entry captures very vividly the experience of a (relatively) newly arrived foreigner finding the linguistic aspect to be daunting. It’s well written and even fun to read. The particulars pointed out are very useful, and duly noted here (for my future use). Merci !I want to point out: This phenomenon is not specific to French, rather it’s true for all lanaguages apparently. The situation in English just as bad, if not worse. I was born in Hong Kong and studied English there for 14 years, then came to the U.S. and needless to say, I started over again as a “baby.” 25 years later, I have mastered the language (and some of the slang). Then 5 years ago, my fianceé came, from London, UK. And she was completed confused for years. Mind you, this is someone that spoke English as her primary language all her life!

  • Cuppa

    This entry captures very vividly the experience of a (relatively) newly arrived foreigner finding the linguistic aspect to be daunting. It’s well written and even fun to read. The particulars pointed out are very useful, and duly noted here (for my future use). Merci !

    I want to point out: This phenomenon is not specific to French, rather it’s true for all lanaguages apparently. The situation in English just as bad, if not worse. I was born in Hong Kong and studied English there for 14 years, then came to the U.S. and needless to say, I started over again as a “baby.” 25 years later, I have mastered the language (and some of the slang). Then 5 years ago, my fianceé came, from London, UK. And she was completed confused for years. Mind you, this is someone that spoke English as her primary language all her life!

  • Sandra

    Hey there. I’m a southerner and down here the French you hear and speak is so so different from the one you would hear in Annecy. I’m from Marseille originally and people from the South don’t understand us at times. We make sure we pronounce almost all the -e s in each word (i.e, say CE QUE JE VEUX and not c’que j’veux, that’s Northern) thus making them sound a lot longer, our accent is very musical and we use all those crazy provence words that I wouldn’t know how to write, if they are ever written. Crazy, eh? Anyway. Sorry this language is giving you such a hard time! I lived in South Yorkshire in England for 8 months, so I did happen to do the nodding thing at times while having no idea what those dudes were telling me. :) Now I’m off to Dublin soon, with an North Carolinean, Welsh and Italian friends… yoohoo! Phonetics heaven. We, linguists, will hang in there! Cheerio x

  • Sandra

    Hey there.
    I’m a southerner and down here the French you hear and speak is so so different from the one you would hear in Annecy.
    I’m from Marseille originally and people from the South don’t understand us at times. We make sure we pronounce almost all the -e s in each word (i.e, say CE QUE JE VEUX and not c’que j’veux, that’s Northern) thus making them sound a lot longer, our accent is very musical and we use all those crazy provence words that I wouldn’t know how to write, if they are ever written. Crazy, eh?
    Anyway. Sorry this language is giving you such a hard time! I lived in South Yorkshire in England for 8 months, so I did happen to do the nodding thing at times while having no idea what those dudes were telling me. :) Now I’m off to Dublin soon, with an North Carolinean, Welsh and Italian friends… yoohoo! Phonetics heaven.
    We, linguists, will hang in there! Cheerio x

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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