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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Six things I wish my French teachers had told me

Like most Brits, I learned French at school for around five years. But like many others I found that when I moved to France I was barely comprehensible to French people. Here's what I wish I had learned at school.

Six things I wish my French teachers had told me
Yes, you will need to pay attention to verb tables. Photo: AFP

Nobody says je voudrais

After bonjour, one of the first phrases most British schoolchildren learn (or at least they did in the 1990s) was je voudrais une baguette/une glace/ un billet simple s'il vous plaît – I would like a baguette/ an ice cream/ a single ticket please.

But while teaching a few basic tourist phrases is a good place to start, in reality je voudrais (the conditional tense of the verb vouloir – to want) is rarely used by French people in the boulangerie, café or train station as it's very formal.

It's not incorrect, but will rather make you stand out as a tourist.

If you're in a café you can say Est-ce que je peux avoir un café s’il vous plait ? (can I have a coffee please) or the more casual je vais prendre un café (I'll take a coffee) while in the boulangerie simply saying une baguette s'il vous plaît is perfectly acceptable.

Make sure you say hello to your waiter. Photo: AFP

But everybody says bonjour

But whatever you're asking for, never forget to start each interaction with a bonjour.

While children are of course taught this basic French word, it's not often stressed just how crucial this is to French life. Every interaction in France – from ordering bread to getting into a lift with other people to having a 3-foot swab shoved up your nose at the Covid-19 testing centre – starts with a bonjour.

Not saying it marks you out as insufferably rude in France, unlike in English-speaking countries where it's quite alright to just launch into your request without a formal greeting. 

READ ALSO Nine French words that the French just don't use

Saying sacre bleu will make you sound 90 years old. Ditto zut alors

For some reason French textbooks seemed convinced that French people encountering a surprise or the petty irritations of daily life (stepping in dog dirt, running out of bread or narrowly escaping being mown down by a scooter) respond by shouting either sacre bleu! or sometimes zut alors!

In reality you could comfortably spend a decade in France without hearing either and sacre bleu in particularly is extremely old-fashioned and roughly equivalent to turning up in the UK and shouting 'Crickey! Golly Moses!'

And yes, OK, maybe the best French swear world of all time (putain – fuck) is not appropriate for the classroom but there are some great and widely used non-sweary options.

Mince! Is the swear-free version of merde (shit). It's the kind of thing that people say in front of their kids and is basically the same as Anglophones saying 'oh sugar' instead of 'oh shit'.

If something has shocked you or made you jump a great response is 'La vache!' – the cow! It makes sense in French.

While for an 'oh no' type exclamation you could use purée!

READ ALSO La vache! The strange origins of six French curses

Verbs are very important . . .

OK, maybe my teachers did in fact mention this but it really cannot be overstated to French learners.

Most people can pick up nouns and phrases as they go by listening in on conversations, watching French TV, chatting with the neighbours etc. 

But really the only way to learn verbs is to spend at least some time sweating over a grammar book.

It's unfortunately very necessary though, because you won't progress until you learn how to structure verbs.

READ ALSO Five Netflix series that will teach you French as the locals speak it

It's possible that only the members of the Academie française really know all the French grammar. Photo: AFP

. . . But you can cheat on the future tense

You will need to learn the future tense eventually, but while you're learning, make good use of the futur proche – the tense that basically involves sticking 'je vais' in front of most things.

Want to say you will buy a Navigo pass tomorrow but can't remember how to conjugate the verb acheter (to buy) in the future? No problem – use je vais acheter un pass Navigo demain – I'm going to buy a Navigo pass tomorrow.

It works with questions too – Allez-vous rester longtemps à Paris ? – Are you going to stay in Paris for long?

It won't be grammatically correct in all circumstances (it's intended for use for events in the near future) but people will understand what you mean and it's a handy cheat while you are slogging your way through the many different tenses that the French language enjoys (including the one specifically for writing novels). 

Half the time the French don't know either

Ever had a French person explain something to you, proudly trot it out in conversation only to be told by a different French person that you are completely wrong? Yes, we all have.

It may not help confused linguists, but it's sometimes comforting to know that even the French find their own language complicated.

The Academie française, the official guardians of the French language, spend a large part of their time correcting frequently-made mistakes that have crept into the everyday language of French people, so try not to worry too much about everyone around you being a grammar expert. Half of them are probably faking it.

READ ALSO Swords, immortality and wifi: Five things to know about the Academie française

And if you're looking for something to pass the time, try asking random French people what the rule is on when bonjour (good day) becomes bonsoir (good evening) and see how long it takes before you get the same response (18 months and counting for me).

READ ALSO Why even the French can't explain when bonjour becomes bonsoir 

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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