I teach French to kids and adults. Teaching kids is easy; formulaic. Find a text, teach the content, and pull out reading, writing, speaking, and grammar to help develop their second language.
Adults aren’t so simple. Adults are eager to capture the unique nuances of a second language. Sure, they’ll follow along with new verb conjugations, but mostly want to be able to pass for French in a cafe. They want to embody the canonical Frenchman on a bike with a beret, mustache, marinière, and baguette. They want to feel French, verb conjugations be damned.
So while teaching language conventions, I try to lead the way with the kinds of cultural cues that inspired my adult students to learn French in the first place.
Here’s my list of 6 things you can do to fake the French language.
The French are known for being characteristically blassé, and their conversational mannerisms do not disappoint.
“Bof” is a cultural staple. It’s used to express your discontent, but apathetically. Are you annoyed that your friend will be late for your rendez-vous, but there’s nothing you can do about it? Have you chatted ad nauseum about the last 4 year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and you feel that there’s simply nothing more you can say about it? Is your shopping bill higher than you expected?
Just say “bof” ([bɔf]). It’s best if you roll your eyes a little while you do it. Pronounced under your breath, inconspicuously, it’s the verbal embodiment of a shrug. It will indicate to people that while you feel annoyed, you also don’t care enough to do anything about it. It’s the way it is. C’est la vie.
“Pbbb” is like the mannerism twin to bof. Stick out your lower lip and make a little raspberry noise. Voilà, you’re already passing as French. Another dismissive gestuelle, the French do it to express that they’ve surrendered to the crap. It’s sort of like saying, “whatever” or, “welp.”
Burn your cookies? Pbbb.
Can’t find that article you were looking for? Pbbb.
No parking spaces open? Pbbb.
I lived in France for a couple of years in the 2010s. It’s been many years since I’ve been back and yet somehow Pbbb still lives on both in my household and my parents’. It just sort of sticks.
*Full disclosure, I have no idea how to actually spell this one.
- The “oui” gasp
The little “oui” gasp is my favorite. Normal people exhale while they talk, but not the French. It took me forever to get used to using it because the gesture just isn’t innate and I still never use it sometimes.
If you’ve got an affirmative response to a yes or no question, say “oui.” But do it while gasping. You know how you make a little inhale when you’re surprised by something small? It’s like that, but while agreeing to something at the same time.
This is not an undivided-attention oui. It’s a you-interrupted-my-story-to-ask-me-a-question oui. An I’m-multitasking oui. An as-I-was-saying oui. Gasp and move on.
- “Si” vs. “oui.”
In English, our questions sometimes face a double negative problem.
You’re not going to the store?
Wait. Yes, you’re going to the store? Or yes, you’re not going to the store?
The French have figured out how to circumvent the problem with one extra syllable: Si.
“Oui” is for affirming a positive question. “Si” is for contradicting a negative question. (By contrast, “non” is for affirming a negative question).
Are you going to the store? Oui. I am going to the store.
You’re not going to the store? Si. Yes, I am going to the store.
You’re not going to the store? Non. That’s correct, I’m not going to the store.
Once you’ve started using it in French, you’ll find yourself lamenting that we don’t have an equally efficient response in English.
5. . Frenchify your verbs
A lot of English and French words share the same latin cognate, meaning there’s a pretty large overlap in bilingual vocabulary. This is especially true for verbs.
Even when there’s not an exact match, there’s probably a synonym not far off.
Keep in french is garder. We could say guard in English.
Look in french is regarder, which is like saying regard in English.
Cook in French is cuisiner. Travel in French is voyager. Construct in French is construire. And so on.
So when in doubt, just use the verb you know in English and tack a traditional -er conjugation on the end. It’s probably not right, but you’ll make yourself understood, and you’ll get bonus points for ingenuity. In my experience, giving it a go earns enough respect from the French for them to provide you with the right word that you can use next time.
A word of caution: Just watch out for faux amis, or false friends. These words parade as the same thing in both languages, but actually mean different things – sometimes embarrassingly so. Préservatif, bras, and pain all come to mind.
6. Befriend the right French media
In terms of learning a second language, news sucks. Radio sucks. A lot of films suck. They’re really hard to understand in many cases, because these media are scripted, practiced, and/or move too quickly. Even after two years in France and six years of having spoken the language, I could frequently tune into a program without good comprehension.
Instead, stick with what you know. Find a film or series that you’ve already watched in English a thousand times over. You know the dialogue, you know the one-liners, and you know the storyline. Watch it again, but this time turn on the French dubbing + subtitles. Your comprehension will be significantly increased, and you’ll walk away with an authentic display of French vernacular and vocabulary.
If you do want to start a new show, click it and stick with it. Shows tend to recycle a certain lexicon and its actors use a consistent cadence. You’ll habituate to the delivery and the learning curve should ease up over time.
By the way, if you’re looking for an unassuming account of French living and au pair-ship, I believe my little grassroots blog from 2012 still has a breath of air in some corner of the internet. It won’t present groundbreaking perspectives, but it is home to some saccharine cultural differences and fun observations on learning the French language. Oh, to be 22 again.