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Modern French Versus Textbook French

Camille Chevalier-Karfis explains why even the best students of French can struggle in real-life conversations - it's because the spoken language is very different to the written one...

Many French students learn French from textbooks, which insist on grammatical structure and verb conjugations but give few pointers on pronunciation.

Unfortunately, most textbooks do not cover modern French. I am not only talking about modern slang, but the type of French that anyone (from the market street vendor to my 60 year-old mother-in-law) would use.

The way people speak French is very different than the way people write it. It affects the vocabulary we use, and the sentence structure – especially when asking questions – and the pronunciation.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why you do not understand a thing in French movies or were totally lost on your last trip to France, this is why: there are two French languages: book French, and today’s spoken French. Chances are no one has really prepared you for the latter.

Here are a few examples of how modern spoken French and textbook French differ:

The “ne” disappears in modern spoken French

A typical negation in French is formed with two words: “ne” and “pas”. In modern spoken French, we tend to not enunciate as we should, and therefore glide over the “ne”.
"Tu ne sais pas" = you don’t know –> becomes « tu saypa » when we speak.

The “je” becomes more of a “sh” sound
Once again, I blame our lazy mouth. You won’t recognize the clear “je” sound, but more of a “sh” sound that would start the verb, especially verbs that start with a consonant.
"Je ne sais pas" = I don’t know –> becomes “shaypa” with the “je” becoming a “sh” sound and the “ne” disappearing. It is some distance from the written form.

The typical word order changes
There are absolutely no rules, but in spoken French, we sometimes change the typical word order in a sentence to strengthen one word or present the brain with the most important facts together.
- "Elle est trop belle, ta voiture" – instead of « ta voiture est trop belle» = your car is really beautiful.
- "Le train, demain, il arrive à quelle heure ?" – instead of « À quelle heure le train arrive-t-il demain ? » = At what time does the train arrive tomorrow?

We no longer use inversions for questions!
In France, it’s quite rare when we use inversion in spoken French.
For example, we tend to say: “il arrive quand” and not « quand arrive-t-il ». So not only do we not use inversion, but the interrogative expression, the “quand”, goes to the end of the sentence.

We use many foreign words
Don’t be surprised if you run into a French person using an English word (with a French accent of course). It’s quite trendy in France to do that. Furthermore, we’ve borrowed a lot of words from other languages: they come and go according to the times, and sometimes stick around so much that they end up in the dictionary.

"On a brainstormé hier au bureau" – we brainstormed yesterday in the office

"Je la kiffe cette meuf" – I’m attracted/in love with this woman (colloquial). From the Arabic “kif” which means “fun” and the verlan which is a type of slang which consist in inverting the syllables of a word… the word can then still evolve into another form. Femme (woman) = mefem = meuf

So, the French language is very much alive and evolving all the time. The basic grammar and pronunciation rules endure, and as a student of French, you need to know them.

But be aware there is a whole different French language out there: the spoken modern casual French that all the French people speak today. Even my 80-year-old mother says “shaypa”… If you want to understand the French when they speak, you need to learn French with audio, recorded at a manageable speed yet using the modern glidings, sentence structure and vocabulary.

Check out my article on French Today for more tips on modern French pronunciation.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis
French audiobook method &
blog writer, founder of FrenchToday.com

 

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