Je Ne Sais Pas or Chez Pas Training Students' by fso11775


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                                  Je Ne Sais Pas or “Chez Pas”:
                      Training Students’ Ears in the New French

                    LORIN PRITIKIN
                    Lorin Pritikin has been teaching French for more than twenty years in Chicago, Illinois. The last
                    17 years, she has been teaching all levels of high school language and literature at the Francis W.
                    Parker School, a JK-12 Independent School on Chicago's lakefront. Ms. Pritikin has been a
                    frequent presenter at professional conferences and has offered teacher training nationally and
                    internationally on a broad range of topics including: differentiation for students with language-
                    based learning challenges; non-traditional approaches to teaching foreign language to learning
                    disabled students; la francophonie; and survival skills for new teachers. Ms. Pritikin designed and
                    implemented her school's first alternative foreign language program for at-risk students--i.e.,
                    students who had had prior failures in foreign language learning or who were diagnosed with
                    language learning deficits. The program was inaugurated in 1995 and has served as a model for
                    similar programs in a number of other schools in Illinois and in other states. Ms. Pritikin is
                    currently working with a foreign language publishing house to develop teacher resources for
                    modifying traditional foreign language programs to meet the needs of language-challenged

As a teacher of a modern foreign language (FL) for over twenty years, it has often struck me
how little thought FL educators have given to prioritizing the skill sets of the language they are
teaching: listening comprehension, reading, writing, and speaking. I have had frequent
conversations over the past two decades with colleagues in the profession about which skill
they considered to be the most important for developing the greatest proficiency. They often
appeared to be baffled by the question. Either they had assumed throughout their teaching
that they ought to give equal weight to the development of each of the skills or they simply
had never considered the need to assign a value to each of the skills.

While the modern language programs of French and Spanish at my high school begin with
instruction in the mechanics of the language in the lower levels for basic speaking and writing,
the demands of the upper-level programs place a heavy emphasis on the development of
reading comprehension, literary analysis and essay writing. Therefore, it seemed to be
reasonable to ask the following questions: 1) How important is oral/aural proficiency, in
general?; 2) Is oral proficiency being developed primarily for real-world encounters or for
classroom discussion?; and 3) Does the value and importance of oral/aural proficiency change
throughout the breadth of a program? I have found a considerable lack of formal discussion of
this question among FL educators. There often appears to be no cohesive practice within
department; it is basically left to the discretion of individual teachers to determine where to
place greater or lesser emphasis, if any.

Demystifying FL Learning

Students come to the FL classroom with diverse talents and challenges. They frequently have
anxiety about what will constitute a challenge for them, individually, and what talents, if any,
they posses They often wonder whether they will be able to understand what is said to them,
whether others will understand them when they speak, and whether they will be able to
retrieve needed vocabulary and remember how to write it accurately for quizzes and tests. I
believe that it is critical for teachers to be specific about general goals of their program,
particularly with regard to the value placed on each of the skills.

Habitually, I explicitly address the issue of oral/aural proficiency with my lower level students
at the start of each new school year, particularly as I explain the goals of our four year
program. I inform my students that if they enjoy learning French and intend to continue
beyond our three year FL graduation requirement (which only requires two sequential years of
language after which students are free to pursue study of a new language), they will need to

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refine their reading and writing skills. However, I tell them that in the lower levels of language
study, development of their listening comprehension and speaking skills will be the most
important because I will be teaching them with the intention of their French serving them well
when confronted with authentic situations.

I also explain to them the significant differences between the French they read in print and the
French they are likely to hear. I demonstrate these differences with examples from their native
English, as we discuss the usage of “wanna/wouldja/couldja/gonna.” We talk about what kind
of language they are permitted to use in formal school writing assignments versus what kind of
language they use in informal notes that they take from class lectures, or notes that they write
to friends (of course, in more recent years, these discussions have included discussion of
language used in emails and text messages on cell phones). I stress that I will ask them to
code-switch between a formal and less formal usage of language and that I will encourage
them to speak a language that they are likely to hear, not read. I explicitly tell them that in
the first two years of the French program, we place a greater emphasis on their
comprehending what they hear and making themselves comprehensible when they speak to
others, than on reading and writing.

I think that it is imperative for teachers to have these conversations with their colleagues, too,
as well as with their students. Teachers in the same FL department may have divergent
opinions on whether one skill is more important to develop than another at a particular point in
the study of a FL. However, teachers teaching the lower level FL classes should reach some
consensus on which skills are more important and on standards for formal and informal usage.
Despite the accessibility to ACTFL proficiency guidelines and newly published FL standards for
the 21st century, based on my own conversations with many FL teachers, this discussion
appears not to be taking place at all.

The New French: Is It Really New?

As I came across an excellent article recently, “If This Is French, Then What Did I Learn In
School?” (Durán and McCool, 2003), I began to chuckle as the authors discussed a cool
reception they received by a number of French instructors to their ideas in their first
presentation of a paper on New French (NF) at a 1991 Northeast Conference on the Teaching
of Foreign Languages. I found this mention amusing for two reasons. First, because for years,
I often raised the issue of stressing informal usage of oral language in class during
conversations with colleagues at various sessions of conferences. And I, too, received a cool
reception by colleagues who questioned the wisdom of teaching a spoken language
dramatically different by sound and syntax to the written language. Durán and McCool address
this concern: “...the instructor should stress the fact that spoken French, like spoken English,
can differ greatly, from its written form. For example, one might say, ‘I dunno’ in casual
speech, but one would never use that type of language in an essay. Students are certainly
capable of understanding stylistic distinction” (Durán and McCool, 2003). They offer a telling
quote by a French language researcher, Jacques Pohl, who offers: Problème grave et délicat
pour celui qui doit enseigner notre langue: il y a des cas o`ù parler trop bien le français, c’est
un peu le parler mal” (Pohl, 1975).

Second, I found it amusing also because the practice of promoting the teaching of New French
and the term itself were first discussed in works by a Dutch language professor, Knud
Lambrecht in 1981. And I had been doing precisely what Lambrecht and his colleagues and a
few others promoted in the 1980s, i.e., address and instruct students about the gap between
standard and spoken French and teach a spoken French that students are likely to hear.

As Durán and McCool point out in their articles, as early as 1914, a French linguist, Vendreyes,
wrote “l’écart entre la langue parlée et la langue écrite est de plus en plus grande” (Durán
and McCool, 2003; see citation Vendreyes). The work of an American French instructor
discussing the impact of the 1980s New French movement was also cited in the article, John
Joseph’s “New French: A Pedagogical Crisis in the Making.” (Joseph, 1988). According to Durán

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and McCool, Joseph in his study affirms that, “the structural gap between the standard dialect
and what most urban people speak in most circumstances is considerably wider than for any
other major European language...Joseph thus distinguishes between Standard Modern French
and the more commonly spoken variety--what Lambrecht referred to as “New French” (Durán
and McCool, 2003; see citation Joseph). Durán and McCool frame the issue, referring to
Joseph’s work

                “Joseph predicts that the traditional efforts to protect standard academic
                French from the changes occurring in the spoken dialect will ‘inevitably
                result in its becoming a classical--i.e., dead--language, replaced in most
                functional spheres by a Standard New French that is only beginning to
                emerge.’ Ultimately, Joseph explores the dilemma that this phenomenon
                poses for the teaching of French. In his opinion, ‘it is inconsistent with the
                goals of the proficiency movement to spend time training students for oral
                ability in Standard Modern French, when “that is less and less likely to be
                the language of normal interaction with their peers.’ Continuing to use the
                formal structures of written French in oral practice will ‘more closely
                resemble the artificial use of classroom Latin or Greek than training in a
                living language” (Durán and McCool, 2003).

I agree with Durán and McCool when they insist that, as instructors of French, we must
consider in what context will our students encounter French and put their language into
practice? As they suggest, “the most probable situations would involve travel, personal
encounters, and the various forms of audiovisual media” (Durán and McCool, 2003).

New French: Common Misconceptions

There are some common misconceptions about NF. One common misconception is that the
language use it promotes is one that reflects a limited education or a lower social class. This
could not be further from the truth. NF reflects a spoken language that is used by highly
educated persons but used in informal settings. This misconception is based on a reluctance to
admit to the use of informal language, by French teachers themselves, and even by native
speakers, perhaps due to this association with a less educated speaker or one of lower social
class. In fact, in one study, a researcher named Behnstedt studied the use of intonation in lieu
of inversion by native French speakers. The results of his study revealed that the average
French speaker is largely unaware of his or her preponderant use of of intonation when asking
questions, even in informal situations. Some subjects claimed that they would use inversion in
all situations, yet when Behnstadt observed them for a week, “he observed that, in familiar
situations, they never used inversion with questions similar to those in his survey” (Durán and
McCool, qtd. in Wall,236).

I remember attending a conference in 2001 and speaking to a native French speaking teacher
about my interest in teaching students NF, particularly the complete omission of ne in spoken
French. Alain, the man to whom I was speaking, insisted that only less educated French
speakers engage in this linguistic faux pas and that he would refrain from instructing students
to take up this habit. I was equally stubborn in my insistence that when I lived in France, I
heard students and professors alike omit their ne entirely in informal conversation. To make
my point, an hour after our lively debate, I asked Alain, “tu fumes?” to which he promptly
answered “non, je fume pas”-- he conceded to my point that native speakers frequently omit
their ne ; however, he continued to insist that it was not a wise decision to instruct students to
“speak as the French speak.” I met with the same resistance that Duràn and McCool cite in
their article, when they presented their ideas about instruction in NF at a FL teachers
conference 10 years earlier, in 1991.

Another common misconception about NF is that it instructs students exclusively in the use of
argot. Therefore, some instructors object to exposing beginning and intermediate students to
NF, asking “why impose a surrogate lexicon on these students when Standard French
vocabulary already overwhelms them?” (Durán and McCool, 2003). However, argot comprises
a minor part of NF. While teaching students slang and colloquial expressions can play a role in

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instruction of NF, it is more about “the aberration of very basic linguistic structures--
structures familiar to even a first- or second-year students. Yet these common structures can
undergo such radical changes in NF, either morphophonologically or syntactically, that they
become unintelligible to the untrained ear--e.g., je ne sais pas which can become chépas”
(Durán and McCool, 2003).

American adults and teens are just as likely to be unaware of their own informal speech habits.
I have had numerous teachers tell me that they don’t use “gonna” or “wanna” in their own
speech, only to point it out to them minutes after their protestations. I distinctly remember
teaching English to a group of adult French bakers living in the U.S., early in my teaching
career. While I had always been a proponent of the principles of NF, and was using them in my
French classroom, I had had no formal instruction in the teaching of English. I made the
classical error of teaching “textbook language” to these bakers. We were practicing the
equivalent of the futur proche in English. We had completed numerous oral exercises with
“are you going to __________” questions, such as “are you going to go to the party?” Several
days after our lessons, a number of the French speaking adults in my class asked me “what is
‘gonna’?” I asked them to repeat the word they were uttering. They repeated the question,
“what is ‘gonna’?” I still had trouble understanding what they were asking. I asked them to use
the word in a sentence and they said “I’m gonna go to the store.” I soon realized that all of the
sentences we practiced that included “going to” had no connection to what their ears were
likely to hear when listening to conversational English.

Characteristics of New French

Durán and McCool divide the most common features of NF into three linguistic categories:
morphophonology, syntax, and lexicon.

Morphophonology. While there are many morphophonological changes that occur in NF, Duràn
and McCool direct their attention to only those that are most pertinent to beginning students.
First, the authors focus on the changes in NF stemming from the disappearance of the
minimally stressed e . “La chute du e muet est probablement le trait le plus fréquemment
souligné de l’usage populaire [...]” (Durán and McCool; Gadet, 1996).

Some examples listed in Durán and McCool’s article include what they refer to as the most
problematic monosyllables: le, me, te, se, ce, de, je, and ne.

--c’est l’livre
--je m’lève
--tu t’couches
--on s’trouve

While the above expressions may remain comprehensible to students, Duràn and McCool
maintain that they still can cause confusion in terms of grammar because students may not
hear a sound (as in the case of c’est l’ livre) and thus, the sentence become grammatically
incorrect. In the case of pronominal verbs, if students do not hear the entire pronoun, they
may not understand the pronominal nature of these verbs. Another example of a serious
morphemic omission that may present comprehension problems cited in the article is a
sentence where the use of the direct object pronoun is obscured, as in je l’ fais, where the
failure to hear the pronoun may also make this sentence sound incomplete to a beginning or
intermediate student.

A common reduction of de is likely to be encountered in numerous functions--as a preposition,
negative article, in expressions of quantity, etc. “The recurrent omission of its e should thus be
pointed out, especially in its function as a negative article (pas d’stylos) and after quantifiers
such as beaucoup, un peu, etc. (beaucoup d’ livres, un peu d’ café )” (Durán and McCool,

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Another important morphophonological change that Duràn and McCool include in their
instruction of NF is any marked variation of je: j’peux, j’ crois, j’ suis, j’s’rai, j’sais pas. While,

at times, the verb may remain intact enough to retain comprehension, other times, the
devoicing and coalescence of the sounds affect the clarity of the verb itself. This may render
common utterances unintelligible to students whose exposure only to standard usage of French
in the classroom may serious limit their comprehension in authentic situations.

Finally, the authors mention that the reduction of another subject pronoun, the dropping of the
u in the pronoun tu, can cause considerable confusion to students: t’es allé, t’as parlé, t’as
donné, t’as faim, t’as l’heure?

Other reductions covered in Durán and McCool’s article include not only the tendency to drop
the e in sequences with negation such as je n’vais pas, and je n’peux pas, but the elimination
entirely of ne. “Amorcée depuis très longtemps, la déchéance de ne dans la langue parlée
paraît se précipiter. l’élimination de ce mot leger, plein de finesse, mais peu utile, sera sans
doute un des faits marquants de l’évolution du français de notre siècle[...]” (Duràn and
McCool; Pohl, 1970). It is possible to teach beginning students that in spoken French, “ne
becomes redundant, given the consistent use of the second negative element pas, jamais,
plus, etc.” (Duràn and McCool, 2003). Durán and McCool cite many research studies from
various French-speaking cities such as Paris, Tours, and Montréal. In addition to observing
everyday speech, researchers also analyzed conversations between a host and guests of a
popular French-language talk show. All of the studies concluded that “the negative ne in
speech is well on its way to disappearing, both in France and Montréal” (Durán and McCool,

Some startling statistics of some research studies found that “in a corpus of over 5,000
utterances, ne was dropped in the spoken French of Montréal 98% of the time when the
second element was pas, jamais, or plus, and 100% of the time when the second element was
rien or personne. Additional follow-up studies led to the same conclusion among diverse
populations of varying ages and educational background that “the elimination of ne is, in fact,
accelerating” (Durán and McCool).

There are numerous other examples of reduction through the omission of e ; however, Duràn
and McCool explain that it is not necessary to point out every example. Once students are
familiarized with this tendency, “they can deduce why one hears only two syllables in au revoir
and samedi and often only one syllable in petit (p’ tit) “ (Durán and McCool, 2003).

Syntax. The syntactical changes in NF addressed by Duràn and McCool relate mainly to
question formation, and the predominant use of intonation in lieu of inversion or est-ce que ,
especially in spoken French. In spoken French, the word order generally taught for
interrogatives has been replaced almost entirely by simple intonation, and to some extent by
est-ce que. This transformation in NF is not limited to yes/no questions but also is used for
information questions. For example, D’où viens-tu is frequently reformulated to tu viens d’où?
or even D’où tu viens? While these syntactical changes are primarily found in spoken French,
some of the studies cited in the article maintain that the spoken/written dichotomy for
questions is an artificial one and that use of intonation or Subject/Verb syntax can be seen
“across both spoken and written genres” (Durán and McCool, 2003; O’Connor Divito, 111-
emphasis added).

Lexicon. Duràn and McCool explain that the lexical aspect of NF “comprises the random use of
argot    in place of the standard lexicon. Unlike the previous categories which are
transformations of a standard form that students must learn, argot functions as a gratuitous
surrogate or supplement” (Duràn and McCool, 2003). In their opinion, of the three categories,
the lexical aspects of NF would pose the fewest problems for beginning students. They
maintain that students’ familiarity with slang is “much more dispensable than their recognition
of the morphophonological and syntactic changes in NF.

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Like many teachers, I infuse my lessons with slang and colloquial expressions that are
frequently not found in traditional textbooks. Students like to recycle these expressions when
writing original dialogues. They also take great pleasure in their level of comprehension and in
identifying these expressions when watching French-language movies.


Like Durán and McCool, I have met with frequent resistance over the past two decades when I
have suggested instruction in NF for beginning and intermediate students. Even before I was
aware of the term, I had determined that it was critical to my students’ comprehension to
model French in the classroom that they were likely to hear in authentic situations and that it
simply made sense to encourage their use of le français populaire. I also felt that in
encouraging their use of informal speech, they would sound “more French” and less like a
“walking textbook,” The misconception has been that if teachers encouraged the use of NF, our
students would sound like an uneducated French speaker. As I hope this paper and Durán and
McCool’s article have established, it is quite the contrary. They write:

                “Validation of our attention to New French frequently comes in the
                form of student comments expressing appreciation for the insights
                we have provided into “the way French is really spoken.” Some of
                our more motivated students who have assimilated aspects of NF
                in their speech are at times mistakenly thought to have had
                experience abroad. Of course, the most gratifying responses come
                from former students who have later traveled to France. They
                always note their superior skill in oral communication compared to
                other American students at similar levels” (Durán and McCool,

I, too, have found the same validation from my students. Thet have frequently returned to tell
me how much native speakers complemented them about their spoken French and how native
speakers often told them that they sounded better than so many other American French
students. I attribute those compliments to my students’ exposure to French as it is spoken.

Teachers should establish priorities and set goals for their students in the various skill sets. If
teachers believe that it is important for beginning and intermediate students to understand
informal speech and to sound authentic when they speak (it is difficult to imagine any French
teacher rejecting these goals as priorities), instruction in New French will help meet those


Durán, richard, and George McCool. “If Then What Did I Learn In School?” French Review 77
(2003): 288-298.

Gadet, Francoise. Le Français ordinaire. Paris: Colin, 1996.This Is French,


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