The French language has different “registers”: different levels of formality. You don’t use the same vocabulary whether you are talking to your bestie at a barbecue, or to your future boss during a job interview.
The particularity of French is that the register you choose will affect not only the vocabulary, but also the whole sentence structure, and also the pronunciation.
Use the wrong register and you’ll misrepresent yourself: book French: may make you sound snobbish; slang: vulgar.
So let’s see what the different French language registers are, how they affect the language, and then I’ll tell you what register I believe a French student should use.
1- French Slang
Slang, “l’argot” in French is fun to study. However, with French slang, it is extremely easy to make a really bad impression.
There are several registers to French slang. Slang can be colloquial and familiar like saying “bosser” instead of “travailler” (work), “une meuf” instead of “une femme” (woman).
In French, we have a form of slang when we invert the syllables of a word, called “verlan”: “t’es ouf” = “tu es fou” (you’re crazy). Some French slang words nowadays have an Arabic or African origin, such as “kiffer” (to enjoy) – as featured in the image above : “quel kiffe ce bouquin” – this book is such a great trip / I love that book
Some of these expressions may be OK for you to use: it really depends on how you speak in English. Do you use slang? Do you swear? How formal is your English?
However, slang can be very vulgar too, or offensive. If saying “putain” (whore, but translates more like fuck) is a very common and used swear word / exclamation in French, it will strongly stand out in the mouth of a foreigner. Furthermore, “putain” can be an insult as well.
Besides, French slang evolves. Some words are timeless : “une nana” for woman has been around for a long time and is still very much used. But saying “une pépé” will make you sound like an 80 years-old. Say “une zouz” and you’ll sound like a teenager from the hood.
So, French students learning slang need to play it smart:
- use only “mild” slang words: colloquial, time proven, everyday slang
- know the real difference between everyday and vulgar, offensive slang (and also be extra careful that what you might see as ‘acceptable’ on TV or YouTube in one context, could be much worst in another)
- pick “age appropriate” slang
- only use slang in the right context, with the right people
Not so easy, right?
2 – Familiar / Modern / Everyday French
Obviously, that’s the language most people use every day in France (from the 20-year-old clerk at the store to our 70-year-old parents)
What students of French should know is that this everyday French is quite different from the French they are learning in school.
First of all, modern French is a mix of ‘light’ slang and formal French. It, of course, varies on the speakers’ age, level of education, personal vocabulary choice and above all, the context.
More importantly, as far as the French language is concerned, the register affects not only the vocabulary used but also the language structure and pronunciation!
Here are a few examples:
- The “ne” of the negative disappears:
Sophie (ne) vient pas. Sophie is not coming
- “Je” “tu” “il(s)” “elle(s)’ are really glided:
Ch’ui = je suis. I am
T’as un chien = tu as un chien. You have a dog
I sait pas = il ne sait pas. He doesn’t know (we would never just write “I”, even in a text message, but that’s how we’d say it)
- Questions are asked by just raising your voice. Interrogative expressions move to the end:
Tu fais quoi ? What are you doing?
Unfortunately, this modern French is almost never introduced to French students. You may learn a few mild French slang words here and there, but you never get the full picture, with the modern French glidings found in pronunciation, and everyday form of questions.
This is exactly why I developed my À Moi Paris French learning method. All the points of French grammar/vocabulary are illustrated by a novel written using modern, everyday French. The story is then recorded twice: first in a slower enunciated way, then in a more natural way, featuring the modern French glidings.
To know more about modern French, I suggest you read my article: “how to speak modern French”
As a foreigner, you may decide you do not want to speak this way yourself. That is your choice but it is still absolutely essential you train with it or else you will not understand the average French person when they speak.
3 – Formal French
Formal French is what you’re likely to have learned in school.
It’s the language used when the speaker wants to “make a good impression” and speaks to someone s/he doesn’t know at all or wish to show special respect for.
That’s how newscasters speak on TV or most politicians.
That’s how I’ll speak during a job interview, or if I meet people I’m trying to impress.
In formal French, one would use “vous” instead of “on”, proper grammar, proper vocabulary. Questions are likely to be formed with inversion. The pronunciation will be more articulated, a bit slower, and featuring all the proper liaisons.
However, in everyday life, French people are not all that proper!
4 – Literary / Refined French
We call this “le français soutenu”. This is an extremely formal and elegant language used in literature of formal French letters.
Only French scholars and lawyers speak that way. Well, scholars, lawyers AND foreign French students ;-)
Unfortunately, a lot of French textbook feature only formal or literary French. It’s also the French pronunciation still featured in the large majority of audio methods.
Speaking this way will make you sound overly sophisticated, possibly snobbish and definitely old-fashioned. If that’s the image you want to send, it’s fine. But it’s important you are aware of it.
5 – Do French People Switch Register?
Yes, we do. Or at least, we try to. The ability to switch between language registers will vary from people to people.
I cannot speak “hood” French. I cannot speak “teenage” French. I may know a couple of words but I’m not fluent! And I sure don’t know the intonation or glidings.
I know a lot of regular slang words. I don’t know many swears nor vulgar slang words.
I use mostly everyday modern French. Because of my upbringing, also my age (I’m 47 as I write this article), I tend to use a bit of formal French too. And sometimes, when I want to impress someone, I may use a bit of literary French, even quote poetry or famous authors.
My daughter who is 14, is learning to use formal and literary French in school, for her essays. It’s funny to see her try to push up her French, use fancy words and constructions. She often makes mistakes, and I tell her to simplify her French. She first needs to get the basics right, then she can push it to the next level – without trying to impress too much or she’ll sound like a snob.
So, there is a fine line. You do want to show your wit and education through the language, but you also need to show that you are a fun, approachable, normal person.
6 – What French Register Should a Student of French Learn?
It’s a question you should ask yourself. The answer will vary on your age, the reason you are studying French (to communicate or to pass exams) and your personal preference.
For most people, I would say modern French and formal French. A bit of colloquial slang here and there to show you’re “in”, a few fancy words when you want to impress. And above all, a correct French pronunciation.
In my audiobooks, or in my newsletter, when I explain vocabulary words, I always add notes on the register I’m using.
As you now understand, it is really important to study from a method that will teach you the register you want to use, but also prepare you to understand the register most French people use nowadays = modern French.