As a follow up to my post on Subject Pronouns in Textbooks: Written vs. Spoken French and how French textbooks do not include the spoken meanings of the pronouns, I came across a few examples of the use of ils in the indefinite sense while preparing transcripts to use in class.
Textbooks still teach that on is the indefinite pronoun that means one / they / the people in a general sense when not referring to anyone in specific; however, this is not actually the case. Just like in English, French uses ils to mean they in both a specific and indefinite sense while on, instead of nous, is used much more often to mean we – which most textbooks do acknowledge, though it is usually classified as only being used in “casual conversation.”
- From the film L’auberge espagnole:
Moi, par exemple, je suis wallonne, je ne parle pas le flamand. Quand je vais en Flandre, je me fais passer pour une française. Alors, ils me parlent en français… S’ils comprennent que je suis wallonne…
- From the series Bref on Canal+:
Sur la notice, ils indiquaient qu’il fallait être deux pour monter ce meuble.
For advanced levels, all of the episodes of Bref are available online for free – though many of them probably cannot be used in American classrooms. For self-study and learning slang vocabulary, they are extremely useful. There are no subtitles for the online videos, but the DVD does have closed captioning (of course, it is not the transcript but more of a summary.) The opening screen even includes more examples of using ils in the indefinite sense:
Ils m’expliquent que c’est pas bien de télécharger, mais comme ils me disent sur un DVD que je viens d’acheter, j’ai l’impression que je me fais engueuler à cause des autres.
Finally, Institut Français Deutschland has several great dossiers pédagogiques to use in class on many French films, including L’auberge espagnole, Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Astérix et Obélix : Mission Cléopâtre, Ma Vie en Rose, etc.
Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.