One of the frustrations in learning French is often that you’re not given the words you really need to know. I learnt French up to A-level, but I was utterly at a loss when I lived in France and went out with my French girlfriend and a few of her friends. I was feeling suitably smug about following the whole conversation in French – until everyone started talking about “chestnuts”. At the end of almost every story, someone would mention them. Now, it’s not often chestnuts crop up in most conversations (!), so I thought I’d check with Isabelle later on. When I asked her about it, she said her friends hadn’t been talking about chestnuts at all. When I pressed her, she said they hadn’t been saying ”marrons” but ”marrant”, which is slang for ‘funny’! The next day, I started a list of all the slang words – or ‘argot’ – I came across; and within a few weeks I had over a hundred.
This is just a trivial example of what anyone who has lived and spoken French among French people knows: a lot of the words they use are not always those you learn in Longmans Audiovisual French! More often than not, they are ‘argotique’ or slang. For example, a house is not a ‘maison’ but a ‘baraque’; a car is not a ‘voiture’ but a ‘caisse’ or a ‘bagnole’.
Similarly, pupils spend a long time being taught vocabulary for a given set of situations and environments – doing the shopping, going to school, going to the cinema etc. – but they rarely learn some of the most common words. You can easily find a list of the 2,000 most common words in French, and, if you are to spend some time in France, learning those words would probably be much more useful than learning ‘le muguet’ (‘lily-of-the-valley’), which I remember cropping up in my own Longmans text book!
Nick Dale, French and English Tutor
Image: Diana De Cicco