Another Ineptitude: “Formal” French!!!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

The adjective formal may take various meanings in French depending on the context: formel, en règle, positif, en due forme, cérémonieux, solennel, compassé, formaliste, conventionnel, raide… When applied to languages, it just makes my face twitch because I do hear stiff (raide)! And, in my book, there is nothing like a français raide!

When I first arrived in Ottawa, I had contracts with Unions… I remember a manager asking me what “kind” of French would I be teaching his staff: French from Paris or “joual” (Québec slang)? Of course, I could not help it and my answer was a bit cynical “And what about French?” … Speechless, he looked at me in total dismay… “Yeah… you know… plain French?”… Neither “French from Paris” nor “joual” can be taught anyways since both are regional slangs!

French… a language that everybody understands, independently of where they are from, is… well… the one spoken on the Radio-Canada News! Accurate words, correct syntax and excellent pronunciation without any accent… No Francophones would ever think of qualifying this French of “formal”! Yet, for some reason, Anglophones are convinced that formal French does exist… IT DOES NOT!!!

Last Friday, I was asking Jessica a series of 200 questions (in a controlled environment) she had to answer using the correct pronouns for replacement and verb tenses… I do believe it is a perfect exercise for civil servants in view of their oral tests: no “real” conversation, only direct answers to specific questions. Suddenly she asked me why I was always addressing my questions using vous“And why not?”… Her answer did not really surprise me… she said her former teacher (actually teachers) had told the class that vous had been traded for tu… that Francophones were no longer using this obsolete pronoun… Since Anglos do not really know the difference, they use tu in all occasions and trust me, by doing that, they might sink into deep shit some day!

I had an argument with one student one day (he was an Union representative) about the proper usage of the second singular personal pronouns (vous vs tu). The week before he had attended a conference in Montreal and he had asked the Hotel staff to address him with tu and call him by his first name. Of course, no one paid attention to his request and just moved on with vous and Monsieur… Since he was insisting, an employee told him it would not be proper/polite to address him otherwise and… he would probably lose his job given that familiarity with clients was not the Hotel’s policies. Right away he thought this Hotel’s employees were oppressed by their employer and, because of that, he would not hold a conference in that Hotel… ever!!! I spent some time (too much indeed because Johnny was an irreducible activist for Human Rights) explaining the difference between vous and tu… but he was very stubborn and I ended that heated discussion with my final argument “Okay then! Suit yourself… and boycott all hotels and businesses throughout the French speaking world!”

Fortunately Jessica agreed right away with my explanation… I told her that, when she will go for her oral test, the examiner will address her with vous and she will have to do the same… only based upon the fact that they do not know each other… Tu is used with family, friends and colleagues (assuming we have some kind of relationship with them); otherwise vous is the keyword! Usually vous is used most of the time at work… I cannot imagine myself on the phone asking a potential client “Comment t’appelles-tu”! It would be like asking someone you do not know “Hey buddy! What’s your name by the way?”… Kind of rude, n’est-ce pas? At some point, Jessica asked me if she had been rude to me by addressing me with tu from the beginning… I reassured her: given the nature of my work, it is important that my trainees feel comfortable with me and addressing me with vous would prevent them from having that essential trust in me!… But I told her we had to use vous when practicing for her exam, so that she would get used to it and sound more natural.

So-called formal French is not only associated with vous and tu… since I never use “est-ce que” to ask questions (I prefer the use of inversion), my students think I am speaking “formal” (assuming they ever heard questions asked with inverted pronouns! most of them do not have a clue!)… actually it is the common way to turn questions. Personally, I link “est-ce que” to “baby talk”… You have to keep in mind I am teaching French for work, consequently my trainees need to speak and write correctly (not formally!)…

There is also the widely spread use of the near future… a tense you will never see listed in the Bescherelles simply because it is an anglicism and… laziness… we do tolerate its usage (only spoken though!) for an action that will occur today, yet I advise my students to use the futur simple all the time… therefore there will be no risks (or temptation!) to use a near future during their oral tests! On the other hand, you will find the passé surcomposé in the same Bescherelles (only conjugated with je though… for space saving purpose)… and amazingly none of my students who ever learned French before knows about this tense! C’est à se demander ce que l’on enseigne dans les classes de français langue seconde! Would I be wrong to say “almost anything” except “correct French”?

Once again, this “sin by omission” seems to be intended to keep learning simple! Simple for who? The students or the teachers? My vote goes to the latter!… The day (which is not tomorrow for sure!) language schools and their alledged teachers will adopt an ethical code regarding the way they teach people in the workforce, maybe I will be able to rest at peace… but, then, I will have nothing left to blog about!…

This blog moved here, if you are ever interested to get more information on those issues…

“Si la cause est bonne, c’est de la persévérance. Si la cause est mauvaise, c’est de l’obstination.”

Lawrence Sterne




  1. diane said,

    August 18, 2008 at 4:16 am

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this topic. I always tell my high school students to use “vous” with ANY adult until they are told otherwise. Especially because of their age, I don’t want them to be perceived as rude. But maybe you can clarify some questions I’ve always had:
    At what age would kids/teens/young adults vouvoyer a peer? Even with my own peers, it’s tricky to know when you’re on friendly enough terms. I always let the native speaker take the lead. But what if I’m speaking to a native, but I’m the older, wiser 40 yr. old & they are only in their 20’s. Would they wait on me???? And what’s the deal with using “vous” when addressing a teacher? I had learned students are supposed to, yet I let my students use “tu” with me.
    But I do have a very relaxed relationship & approach–our whole high school does. I’ve had colleagues in the past who insisted that the class stand and say “Bonjour Madame” at the beginning of each class. IMO . . . yikes! I’ve done exchange programs in France and heard 12 yr. olds address their teacher with “tu”, and when I did exchange programs in Quebec, I was surprised to hear kids address their teachers by their first names. Jamais ici! Quoi faire??? Help this anglophone understand! And, at the risk of sounding completely ignorant and unqualified to be in the classroom, I sheepishly wonder . . . what’s the passe surcompose???

  2. August 18, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Bonsoir Diane… Yes, the use of “vous” or “tu” can be tricky sometimes… well… kids, teenagers and young adults should address adults with “vous”… unless they are told otherwise… So you being the wiser 40 yr old person, normally young adults should address you with “vous” (at first… you’ll decide if you want to switch or not!)… I think addressing the same young adults with “vous” at first is a good thing: it shows respect on your part… Afterwards, c’est à ta discrétion!

    At what age peers should use “vous”?… well, it depends on them… generally young adults address each other with “tu”, but use “vous” when addressing older adults… As for yourself, you can start with “vous” when addressing a new colleague and… you’ll see along the way if you develop a friendship or not, then you can switch…

    I taught in university and my students were addressing me with “vous” and I was addressing them with “vous” as well… now, in my practice, I only teach one-on-one or very small groups (3-4) and because of the nature of the situation, “tu” is what we use to address each other (except when practicing for their oral tests).

    Yes, for years in Québec, kids and teenagers were addressing their teachers with “tu” and calling them by their first names… That was changed by “law” 5 or 6 yrs ago: they realized that high school students were very rude and disrespectful of their teachers… Easy to say “Va ch…” with the second person singular, more difficult to say the same thing with the second person plural! Therefore… starting in kindergarden, kids address their teachers with “vous” but still call them by their first names… so… respect is back, but the use of the first names helps a bit in terms of developing trust. They noticed that students are now polite and respectful… Voilà… And, some people will never give you the “green light” regarding “tu”… so, in case of doubt, start with “vous”!

    Le passé surcomposé… don’t worry, it seems no Anglos know about this one… it is used in specific context in the past… when “quand/lorsque” means “after” and it is always used after “dès que/aussitôt que”… e.g. LORSQUE J’AI EU PARLÉ À DIANE, J’AI ÉCRIT MON RAPPORT… DÈS QUE J’AI EU FINI MON REPAS, JE SUIS ALLÉE AU GYM… It’s always used in the subordinate clause of the sentence and, in the main clause, we always conjugate the verb at the passé composé…

    Voilà! Hopefully I did answer your questions! And don’t hesitate… it’s a pleasure for me to help you out with “les petites bêtes noires du français”! 😉

  3. foreignlanguageteacher said,

    August 19, 2008 at 12:41 am

    Lyne, I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to answer all of my questions! That is so fascinating to me that there was an official change in how students address teachers. (My last exchange trip with a Quebec ecole was in 2001, je crois.) I hope that the law is making a difference. I am very fortunate in my current job that the kids are pretty nice. Years ago, I was at a high school with blatant disrespect, fights, drugs, etc. I didn’t even feel safe, let alone respected. I almost left teaching for good, and I definitely swore off teaching high schoolers. But, like they say–“never say never!” I’m very happy now, and I’ve even been in touch with some of my students over the summer. In fact, some of them volunteer to assist me with the preschoolers.

    Thank you again, for your wealth of knowledge 🙂

  4. Thuy Lam said,

    August 19, 2008 at 12:58 am

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. August 19, 2008 at 12:59 am

    You are more than welcome Diane! And I am glad to read you are now happy back with high schoolers… I do not think there are bad kids (unless they are psychopaths or sociopaths), most of the time it is just because they never had the proper guidance and trust!… This is why they need more teachers like YOU!!! 😉

  6. August 19, 2008 at 1:11 am

    Thuy Lam… and thank you for stopping by!

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