All the French you really need to know

All the French you really need to know

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What the expat books don't tell you is that you could go, oh, five or six years, pretending to speak French if you can sufficiently master one crucial expression in the French language.

One of the questions I often get from people about to move to France is: how well do I really need to speak French?

I never know what to tell them because the answer that first occurs to me is: pretty darn well unless you have the hide of an elephant.

But I don't want to be discouraging so I don't say that. Neither do I remind them of the scene in the movie-version of 'Le Divorce' where one of the peripheral French characters says: "All these Americans speak French of course…but execrably."

Of course in the movie that person was a snot, a category of person on which the French do not possess a monopoly but whose examples of which are so particularly gifted at deflating the confidence of others that their barbs not only hit the target but can cause collateral damage to anyone in a 500-metre vicinity.

I would estimate that 98.276 percent of all French people I meet fall somewhere between "pleasantly surprised" and "actively encouraging and supportive" when they meet a French-speaking foreigner. (But an encounter with just one of the snot-people can make you want to sew your own lips together for a week or so until the sting wears off.)

Luckily, for those of us who either occasionally or consistently find ourselves with the holes in our French showing, there is a secret weapon: "Ah, bon."

If you can master this one expression in all its infinite variety of inflexion and intonation, also innuendo and insinuation, then not only will you find most of your daily communication needs answered but you can actually convince people that you speak French much, much better than you really do.

This is because French is a language where the less said the better. Social anthropologists call this an “implicit” culture where much of the information exchange is implied; it’s between the lines where all the communicating happens.

Japan—where famously people go to great lengths to avoid saying no— is another example. This, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon cultures—most especially American culture—where information is communicated explicitly, in the form of words, and verbal subtlety can be considered morally suspect.

You’ve read, I’m sure, where 60 percent of communication is body language? [I actually made that number up. But I know it’s supposed to be a big number.] Well, in French, it’s 60 percent body language, 15 percent what you’re wearing, and 20 percent “Ah, bon”. That means only five percent is actual words anyway, so spending a lot of time learning them is an exercise in diminishing returns.

Here’s an example from a trip to our tabac, which recently changed owners:

Me: Bonjour Madame, deux tickets mensuels pour le car s’il vous plaît. [Translation: Hello, two schoolbus tickets please.]

Her: Ah, l’ancien proprietaire m’a dit qu’il y a une Américaine dans le village. [The former owner told me there was an American in the village.]

Me: Ah, bon? [Oh no, my cover has been blown. Duck and cover! Duck and cover! Well, what else did she say about me?]

Her: Oui, j’essaie de repérer les clients habituels. [Yes, I’m trying to identify the regular customers.]

Me: Ah, bon? [Well, one snotty remark on my accent and I’ll be taking my bus-ticket traffic elsewhere. Oh, and you should do something about all these idiots who park in the middle of the street while they run in for smokes.]

Her: Eh bien, vous avez deux enfants, je vois. Ils vont à l’école publique? [So, you have two children, I see. Do they go to the public school?]

Me: Oui. [Yes]

Her: Les miens aussi. [Mine too.]

Me: Ah, bon? [Do your kids know my kids? What do you know about my kids? Your kid isn’t the one my son had a fight with in the cantine, is he?]

Her: Bonne journée. Au revoir. [Have a nice day. Good-bye.]

Me: A vous aussi. Au revoir. [You too. Good-bye.]


Learning French


We understood each other perfectly...and I walked away in complete confidence that I would not, for the moment, be needing to look for another source of bus tickets. And that’s how it’s done, folks.

Advanced French students can also try the trick of adding “quoi” [what] to the end of every other sentence; this idiomatic touch will make it appear like you speak fluent colloquial French and distract from any grammatical errors in the rest of the sentence.

I do this now myself, but with less success because every time I say it I remind myself of one of those eccentric English lords on an old BBC costume drama. “I need to go to the bank today. Jolly ho, what?”

But really, I can’t overemphasize the importance in French of saying as little as possible.

Information of all kinds is still treated here as something precious, certainly not something you give away to just anybody for free. This means, often, one supposed to somehow know stuff without having had the stuff concerned communicated in any out-loud kind of fashion. Sometimes it really seems they’re communicating telepathically on some wavelength unknown to non-French people.

For example, I recently took my son to a week-long vacation camp. The first morning I showed up at the pool/designated drop-off spot. I went in through the main door: no sign of life except one woman at the accueil who appeared not to have gotten her coffee that morning. “Hello, but where is the vacation camp?” “Outside, third door on the left.”

It turned out it was actually the fourth door on the left, none of them marked with any indication that this was the door for dropping off your kid. I only found it by waiting around on the sidewalk looking for parent-type people coming out. Inside, I found one of those milling, shambling clusters of people that counts as a line in France. “What are we waiting for?” I asked another Mom. “Oh, there’s something up there you’re supposed to do.” “Ah, bon.”

The second day I went in through the same door at the same time: no sign of life except a cleaning woman who appeared not to have gotten her coffee that morning.

It turned out we were supposed to drop the kids off at the main entrance that day and 15 minutes earlier than the day before. I figured that out after the teen-aged animatrice, who seemed to me barely older than my son, scolded me for being late. “But no one told me that when I picked him up yesterday. Don’t you think you could have explained that—put a piece of paper on the door or something so everybody would know?”

“Well, everybody else figured it out. You were the only incompetent foreign mother who failed to intuit what is clearly the proper order of things in the universe and who showed up late, rudely inconveniencing us all.”

This is not what she said, of course. What she said was: "Ah, bon?"

A la prochaine

Clair Whitmer

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Kim posted:

    on 15th February 2012, 21:24:04 - Reply

    Thanks, a really excellent article and I quite agree with "Ah bon". Another useful word is "truc" but you probably know this. Have a read of my article on the subject of the French lingo if you have the time:!
  • Denise posted:

    on 26th October 2011, 17:55:25 - Reply

    Great article on learning the subtle yet strict code of French behavior!