French class may teach you French, but not necessarily the French you actually use. Here are some examples of things we are taught, paired with their suggested alternatives.
Est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes? (Can I go to the bathroom?) Every student knows how to say this, but is it really the most important toilet-related French phrase? Because there are far more sinister toilet-related problems afoot in France, like certain bathrooms you actually have to PAY to use. Therefore, a more useful phrase is Il faut que je PAIE pour utiliser ces toilettes-là?! delivered with horror. (I have to PAY to use that bathroom?!)
Allez tout droit, puis prenez à gauche/droite. (Go straight, then left/right.) This is correct, but it is severe overkill. Here is why – and I’ve never understood it, but it is the truth: when you give directions in France, the only thing you ever say is tout droit (straight ahead). Everything is tout droit: the Seine, Poland, your relative’s house. If you do not believe me, ask a Frenchman. He will tell you to go tout droit.
Pourriez-vous parler plus doucement, s’il vous plaît? (Can you speak slower, please?) What they do not teach you in French class is: no, the person will not speak slower. Therefore, a more useful phrase is Desolé(e) de vous avoir demandé de parler plus doucement. Je suis une espèce de bactérie. (Sorry I asked you to speak slower. I am bacteria.)
Laissez-moi tranquille. (Leave me alone.) Nothing is wrong with this phrase EXCEPT the word tranquille. Does it end in “-ee” or “-eel”? (NOTE: IT’S EEL.) You short-circuit mid-word, trying to save face by somehow making both sounds at once: “Laissez-moi tranqueeeleleleleleeee.” Then you hide under the table. To save you this grief, try the infinitely more pronounceable shut up, and maybe with French accent so it’s “shet uhp.”
Excusez-moi. (Excuse me.) Not technically wrong, but the instant you arrive in France, you will find excusez-moi supplanted by its more popular cousin pardon (pardon). Why? Beats me. Yet excusez-moi is what gets taught in class, despite its being the equivalent of the nice dish towels from Williams-Sonoma we never use, preferring instead to use the ratty stained ones from 1989 (those ones are pardon). And yes, I realize there are 6,000 instances in which we do use excusez-moi. But just laissez-moi tranquille already.
C’est bien! (That’s good.) That’s great that we can say something is good, and yet, we do not learn is what is good. This is critical missing information, wouldn’t you agree? What you should learn is the same phrase, but delivered as a question, very darkly: “C’est bien?” (That’s good?) If delivered with a severely-raised eyebrow, this will make it clear that you, my friend, know what’s up. Even if you don’t. And that level of cool is something they never teach in French class.
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