My two year-old niece will help you learn spoken French [New informal French video]

My two year-old niece was recently talking to David on the phone, and she asked t’es au boulot ? Are you at work? However, books will tell you to say es-tu au travail ? instead – or actually it’s more likely they will insist on êtes-vous au travail ? because foreigners never need to use the informal you, right? Most French books also still teach that using inversion is the best way to form questions, and they ignore slang vocabulary such as boulot in place of travail. Yet even my young niece knows that nobody talks like that in everyday conversations in France.

Real French is very different from textbook French. When I think about how many years I spent learning French before I ever came across the reduction t’es or the slang word boulot, I wonder what the heck kind of French these books are trying to teach. My niece may only be two but she can teach you real French much better than any French book found in bookstores. I’ve made a video of one of the eavesdropping mp3s available on French Listening Resources, with the transcript and notes on the informal words used, featuring Mélina eating a snack and wondering where her shoes (shushu) are:

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  • Fern

    Hm, that’s interesting. I’m 17 and started learning French at school when I was 11. I haven’t watched the video, but just from what you’ve written, I can tell you that I was never actually *taught* using inversions until starting the AS level course (though of course I’d picked it up anyway, but when we were taught questions, we were generally taught them without the inversion), we were taught very little about the ‘vous’ form (the GCSE course, and the years before it, are generally based on memorising phrases, so basically I mean we learnt all these phrases in the ‘tu’ form), and we were taught the word ‘boulot’ rather than ‘travail’.

    To be fair, I think a lot of this is because they thought inversions and the ‘vous’ form were too complicated to teach and that people couldn’t cope with both the noun ‘travail’ and the verb ‘travailler’ (had you seen our French classes, you would understand!), but still, food for thought?

  • Anna

    And it was a while before I learned that inversions are usually only used for very upper-class “snooty” 16eme-style French. I once went through the Pimsleur French course to see if it would help with my spoken French and it almost exclusively uses “vous” even when the dialogue they set up is supposed to be between you and your friend. Though to be fair I sometimes have trouble remembering to use “vous” so I guess they’re trying to avoid that.

  • Rebecca

    A French friend of mine moved to Normandy and reported back, “It’s crazy up here… they always use their inversions!” This video came out very well–nice work.

  • Margaret

    Oh that video is ADORABLE!!! (When is our adoption going to finally go through…?)
    My sons used to put one end of any oblong food item into their mouths and systematically shove it from the other end using one hand, as far down their throats as it would go….”Quelle élégance!” indeed.

  • Matt

    Awesome, thanks!

  • Matt

    Awesome, thanks!

  • Jennie Wagner

    Most of my research has been on textbooks used in American schools/universities, so I haven’t really looked at European books yet. Though I’m interested in knowing what your textbook taught compared to what your teacher taught. That’s great that you learned boulot and didn’t focus on inversions so much.

  • Jennie Wagner

    I just love the way she says shushu. :)

  • Félix

    Interesting video, and you raise an interesting question too.

    I remember a German teacher that I once had who told us that we could learn all the informal stuff “later,” even though some students in the class were eager to learn it right then and there. Instead, we had to stick to the “grammatical” stuff. That killed their motivation. These students communicated directly to the teacher what they wanted to learn in German, and they were told “no.” This baffles me.

    I think textbooks stick to the formal stuff because it’s just too shocking for some people to see informal language in print. That, and there’s still the idea that informal language isn’t “correct,” or that it’s “less correct.” Maybe this way of thinking is a leftover from the days when learning languages was a scholarly activity, and not a question of practicality.

    I think my German teacher had it backwards. Shouldn’t we be learning the informal stuff right from the start? Might it not be the formal stuff that can wait?

  • Jennie Wagner

    I definitely agree that informal and comprehension/speaking should come first since that’s usually what is most vital when trying to communicate in a new language (especially for tourists or expats). Most textbooks don’t agree with that however. It does seem like they are still unwilling to change from the translation method, or perhaps they are afraid to change their format for fear of losing money since publishing is first about profit.

  • Félix

    Do you think then that a better strategy for introducing informal language into classrooms is by changing the way teachers feel about it rather than the way publishers do?

  • Jennie Wagner

    Probably, since publishers are unlikely to change for fear of losing money. The problem is that most teachers depend a lot on textbooks because they don’t have time to create all of their own materials, or perhaps they aren’t fluent enough to really know slang or informal language because they haven’t been abroad in years.

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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