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.”