"Chui pas pressée", or "why teach, or not teach, French slang and familiar language"...

Most natives will be careful not to use slang words that you may not understand, but once in a while some may forget that foreigners do not automatically understand slang, and carry on with their conversation as they usually do when they are between natives. 

Many students can't wait to speak French like natives, which is very good, but for that reason they also feel a real frustration when their French friends (or friends from other French speaking countries) suddenly use words or expressions which belong to the world of slang, because they have not learnt those words and do no understand them. In consequence, they often feel excluded (not rejected, but excluded) from the group. They feel there is something missing. 

If this is your case, the very simple advice I will give you is not to hesitate to ask your friends some explanations. That means in fact asking them to give you the standard word or expression corresponding to the one they have just used. Asking them to explain the word and translate it into the standard version will make you feel re-integrated into the group. 

Does it mean students should learn to speak in slang?

Natives in all countries do not usually expect foreigners to know slang, and would even be surprised if a foreigner spoke in slang. I guess people would be surprised if a foreigner in France said "pépin", or "pébroque" instead of "parapluie" to designate an umbrella. 

I suppose it would be the same for me in England if I said a "brolly" instead of an umbrella. People would probably be surprised. Maybe not that I know the word, but that I am actually using it. 

Also, I can't imagine saying to somebody "please cut me a slack!" instead of "please leave me alone." For the same reason, teaching a student to say "fous moi la paix" or "lâche moi la grappe" instead of "laisse moi tranquille" does not really make any sense either. I agree that it is good that the student understands what slang expressions mean, but is it really essential for that student to actually speak like this? 

As I said previously, a lot of language students have the impression that they will never be integrated in their new country (or in their new language if their intention is not to settle in the country but just learn the language) as long as they do not speak in slang. This is understandable, but on the other hand why should people feel unintegrated or "not like the natives" if they do not speak slang? 

The reality of France is that a lot of native French people never use a single word of slang in their life. I am not talking about the fact people can speak fast or eat their words, as this is very common, especially in  Paris, but about the proportion of slang words and expressions in everyday conversations. It does not mean these people are snobbish, boring or old fashioned, it just means they naturally prefer to use the standard word if it exists (and believe me, it always does 😉). 

I am among those people who prefer to use the non slang word rather than the slang one. Why should I say "pébroque" or "pépin" if I can say "parapluie" ? What is so wrong with the word "parapluie" that I should have to replace it by another word? 

Whatever my personal opinion about this subject, I do know and understand that slangs (in the plural form, please read below) do exist in French, as they exist in every language, and they must be considered and recognized as part of the language, because apart from languages like Latin, a language is alive, and it evolves with time. Except that personally, I believe the evolution is more to be found in the apparition of new words to designate new realities (like when the word "ordinateur", meaning computer, had to be created), or the evolution of the meaning of some words, rather than in the abrupt replacement of a perfectly valid word by another word, that moreover only a percentage of people will use, or even understand. 

However, although slangs exist and are part of the language and its evolution, is it really necessary to learn to understand or speak slang? And at what level can you start this apprenticeship if your chosen answer to the previous question is "yes"?

In fact, it is not that easy to answer this question. It depends on several factors. 

The first one, according to me, is: "for what reason would you like to learn French?" If your intention is to settle in France, then you probably need to learn at least the most common words and expressions you may hear around you. You may decide (after all it's up to you, not to me) to use them, or you may prefer like me to stick to the standard version, but at least you will understand what you hear. If your objective is to study French for your school or university exams in your country, then I doubt that learning slang will be very useful to you. It would be a waste of your precious time when your objective is to pass an exam. If your objective is to speak French during your holidays in France, then you don't really need to learn slang at all. 

The second factor will be: "how old are you?" If you are eighteen or twenty years old and your objective is to come to France to study for a few years, it is obvious you will hear some slang spoken by your new young French friends, as slang is often more used in young people's language, as they use it also to mark their belonging to their community. 

However, the first problem I see in the teaching of slang, apart from the fact that it is wrongly considered old fashioned or boring to teach no slang at all, is that some teachers believe that teaching slang makes it "fun" for the student to learn the language, and that it is also supposed to be more "authentic". First, it is not more authentic because, as I said previously, many French people never use a single word of slang in their conversations, and these people are as authentic natives as anybody else, and second, it does not make learning more fun, because after all it is just about learning a word instead of another one. 

It has become nearly compulsory nowadays, for some teachers, to teach slang for several reasons. It is their choice and everybody must make a choice, but I nevertheless have an opinion about the compulsory teaching of slang. Maybe I should say that it is the fashion at the moment, rather than say it is compulsory, I don't know. Anyway, first, according to me, it is due to this confusion between teaching slang and teaching in a "fun" way, second it is due to the high demand of language students themselves to learn slang, as they wrongly feel they will be more integrated if they use slang instead of standard language, and which encourages many teachers to start teaching slang at any level, even the lowest ones, and finally it is due to the fear that many teachers have of looking old fashioned, of disappointing their students, and also the fear of not providing "authentic" enough teaching material.

Imagine for example a dialogue where a character would say: "tu peux me prêter ton pébroque?" (can you lend me your brolly?). This dialogue is ficticious, of course, I have made it up, but such dialogues exist in language methods. The teacher will then have no other choice than to explain: "oh by the way, 'pébroque' is slang, the real name of this object is 'parapluie' "... How could a teacher possibly choose not to explain that "pébroque" means "parapluie"? How absurd it is to introduce a word if you have to translate it afterwords (play on word from "afterwards" 😊) into more standard French!

Of course, I am not against the principle of teaching to understand some slang, or rather some form of slang, so I do it from a certain level (certainly not from A1 or A2), and preferably as part of a writing or oral workshop, as I still believe the teaching should be done the other way round, that is to say teach the standard language first, even if it is considered more "traditional" to do so. Second, I will never base my course on teaching slang just for the sake of teaching slang or the promise of teaching in a "fun" way. Third, the idea is to allow you to understand it and not to encourage you to speak it, and finally, in practice, I do it in certain contexts, when it is justified, and certain activities, in other words I do it punctually, for example when you need to understand a song containing many slang words or expressions, like in French artist Renaud's songs. 

The second problem -and a big one too!- I see with teaching slang is that there is not one single form of slang, but many, many forms, depending on your age, your social background, the region you live in, your job (some slangs are used in certain jobs only, like the "louchebem" which is the name for the slang used by butchers in France)... and the period of time you live in. 

This is why I wrote above: "Whatever my personal opinion about this subject, slangs do exist in French, as they exist in every language, and they must be considered and recognized as part of the language.

In consequence, you will never learn "slang", but one form of slang only. It will be the form of slang chosen by your method of language, or the one chosen, or known, by your teacher. In other words, you will be very restricted to the form you have learnt. Also, if you are fourty or fourty five years old and your teacher is very young, you may learn a form of slang which is used by younger generations only, because this is the form your own teacher has always used (if this person uses slang). 

Young people have their own form of slang, older people speak another form of slang (which was young slang at the time of their youth). Older people often have difficulties understanding (or do not understand at all) young people's slang, and vice versa. Older people very rarely update their level of slang to speak the new form of slang, or the new form of slangs, used by younger generations... This is the same in all countries. 

Although I have just explained that there are many forms of slangs and not just one, for practical reasons I will sometimes carry on, in this article, using the term "slang", put in the singular form, instead of "slangs" or even "a form of slang". 

Slang or familiar language is different from one region of France to another. People from Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Luxembourg... French speaking African countries... also have their own forms of slang, familiar language, local expressions etc. Not to be confused with the difference of vocabulary in different French speaking countries, which is the equivalent of the differences between British English and American English. 

Of course, if your objective is to live in Paris, you should learn Parisian slang if you need it (believe me, I am from Paris myself, and not all Parisians use slang, far from that. Most of the time the conversation will take place in standard French). However, as soon as you travel outside of Paris to another region of France or another French speaking country, your Parisian slang will more than likely be useless where you are. For many people, you will speak "Parisian", which is not very good if you wish to feel integrated.

Finally, slangs are also very different from one period of time to another, and in consequence... slangs change all the time. You will learn this year a form of slang that will be totally out of date in a few years. At best in a decade. 

I gave the example of "pépin" and "pébroque" (which can also be written "pébroc", by the way...) to designate a "parapluie". Not only "pébroc" is more slang than "pépin" which is now considered more familiar (it was considered slang a few decades ago, when "pébroc" did not exist yet, you see how complicated things are...) but nowadays you hear "pébroc" more often than "pépin", and in the very old days, many people used to call that funny object "un en-cas" which means literally "an in-case" (in case of rain, as you had understood). 

You can also find "riflard" to designate a "pébroc" where and when the word "pépin" is not in use. (Riflard with one 'f', not to be confused, of course, with rifflard with two 'f's, which is also slang but means -according to the circumstances- "victim", or "policeman").

Slang or familiar language can also take the form of the deformation of grammatical structures. The example I will give you now is the one I have used for the title of this article:

Chui pas pressée. 

(I am not in a hurry)

You may not have seen or heard "chui" before, and it does not surprise me. It is the deformation of "je ne suis" (I am not). This deformation is obtained in several stages:

Je ne suis pas pressée


Je suis pas pressée.


J'suis pas pressée


Chui pas pressée.

In the second sentence, you will notice that the "ne" which is used for the negative form in French has been dropped. This is extremely common in spoken French. 

In the third sentence, the contraction, in the pronunciation, of "je suis pas" gives "j'suis pas". This is also very common, especially in Paris.

Now, the form "chui", which is more slang than a simple contraction or deformation based on speedy pronunciation, is relatively recent as a way of speaking. For sure, it did not exist in the 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s. 

Now, will I teach you "chui"? (Too late, I have just done it!) 

I will certainly explain it to you as I have just done now, but I will not encourage you to speak like this, for the pretext that it would seem more "native" or "authentic". 

Whether or not you like this kind of slang, let's not forget that it is still considered as an incorrect form of the language. As a teacher, I can not imagine two seconds encouraging my students to actually use an incorrect form of language, even if it can be necessary for them to learn to understand it, in other words to recognize it when it is spoken.

On the contrary, not many people still pronunce the "ne" when forming a negative sentence orally, although some still do, so you may want to drop it yourself, as this is so common nowadays that it has become more "everyday life" standard language rather than slang or even familiar. 

However, this "ne" is still compulsory in the written language. Some modern writers will take the liberty to drop it in their novels, especially if they are reporting dialogues between characters, but this is relatively new too, and you would certainly not drop the "ne" when writing an administrative letter, for example. 

The subject of familiar language includes much more situations of life that slang itself. Addressing somebody with "tu" instead of "vous" is already entering the vast world of familiar language. Familiar language is much more universal than slang which is always linked to a condition of age, of location, of social background or historical period.

Slang, as a form of language, is like a snapshot, reflecting this level of language at a particular instant and in a particular situation, when standard language is more of a... let's say a painting, if you see what I mean. Or let's call it the landscape itself, as it appears and you can see it on the long term, with all its slow and progressive evolutions (seasons, very slow geographical modifications...).

Literary language, standard language, familiar language, slang... All these are called the "levels" of languages. The word "level" in itself evoques a form of hierarchy, with some levels placed above other ones. Literary, as you can imagine, is always placed at the top of the pyramid, and vulgarity at the very bottom, far after slang. I was not my objective in this article to judge the use, in everyday life, of slang, and even less to be derogatory, but to explain my choices as a teacher, and to answer the two questions all language teachers have to ask themselves one day: "why and how to teach (or not teach) slang and familiar language?"

It is much easier and logical to teach how to speak familiar language than slang, as it is the next stage (I will not use the word "level" as it can be perceived as a judgement) after standard language, which also explains why slang is more of a "community" language, and it is not as widely used in everyday life, apart from in certain groups or communities where it is also used as a sign of recognition, of belonging, as people tend to believe. 

Some teachers will go even farther and teach their students rude words, which is of course not a French speciality as they exist in all languages. 

If you settle permanently in France, you will inevitably hear them sooner or later, but does it mean that teachers must teach them? 

Many students wish to learn them, as they feel like having a good laugh and also it makes them feel nearer to their teachers to see that they accept having this good laugh with them too. This is perfectly understandable. However, teaching rude words is not the option of teaching I have chosen. 

As a teacher you need to make choices, even if it makes you go against the current, and sometimes it can be very tough... 😉

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