The Actual Learning Of French Grammar


By John McWhorter, PhD, Colombia University

The French language taught in American schools is quite different from what is actually used by native French people. Will these differences, between the French you have learned and how the French speak, make you look foolish when you go to France and use it?

A French class
A young boy learning French during a French class. (Image:

Being Taught a Codified and Frozen Language

Words change as they move through time. One important thing that happens is that they become shorter. The languages that we are exposed to in school can become difficult to learn due to this reason. Take standard or conversational French. One of the toughest things about the way it is usually taught in America is that after you learn it in school and go to France, you appear foolish for using it that way.

One of the biggest reasons for this is that the way it is taught in schools is quite different from the way educated people normally speak it. Rather, the language taught is more of a codified, hyper-standard French that is of no help when you are, in fact, trying to be a human being in that language. The French taught in schools is not similar to how the language is spoken in France.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Taught French Grammar and Actual French

It is French grammar that is very different. For example, we learn about the double negative in French. We acquire knowledge of je ne marche pas. Here, the ne and the pas, which is around the marche, are negative, and it means I am not walking. Therefore, je ne marche pas. The negative is ne…pas. This is weird in its own way but we manage to learn it. We are able to learn ne…pas. There is this type of ne…pas sandwich arrangement for every verb. But what actually happens is that ne is almost always dropped in spoken French, really nearly always. So in reality, it is said as je marche pas.

Approach a French man walking down the street, tap him on the shoulder and look him in his eyes, and say, “je marche pas.” His answer in all probability would be Non, non, non. You will find that this would be his reply 96-97% of the time. In reality, there is one negative marker in colloquial French and that is this pas after the verb. The ne is used when being straightforward or formal. That is the only time ne is used. That has been the case since the Middle Ages and it is natural.

Words and numbers in French.
Formal written French as it is taught may not teach you the nuances of the spoken language. (Image: Roselynne/Shutterstock)

Just like the tendency of a few sounds to erode, if there is a small unaccented piece of stuff in your grammar — for example, that ne in je ne marche pas —then it becomes dangerousWe understand that something is going to happen to it. This is just like a ball rolling at the edge of a counter; it will just drop off.

Now if you want to understand how standard French looks at stage B, the first thing you are going to ask if ne would go because you expect it to happen. So this shows that spoken French is developing naturally while written French taught to Americans in books in schools is staying just there, frozen. Like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

Learn more about how languages also mix their grammars

How The French Talk

Nous for the first person plural is another example in French grammar. What is taught is that je, tu, il, elle stand for I, you, he, and she. And then there are we, you (plural), and they. When talking about people who are not men, it is supposed to be nous, vous, ils, and elles with s being silent in all. And you go to France armed with this knowledge. So while ordering something, like say coffee, you say Nous prenons du cafe. The person understands it, goes, and gets the coffee for you. And you thought you were just saying, ‘we will have some coffee’. It is because nous is we.

But that is not how people talk. Sure enough, textbooks always say, in a corner at the bottom of some page, mentioned in a different font, that on can be used as a substitute for nous. So you can probably say, on fait la vaiselle or ‘we are doing the dishes’. This is kind of ungrammatical or different. It is something you may want to know but since it is tucked at the bottom of the page and may not be asked in the test, and your teacher is repeating nous, no wonder that you will not remember anything about on. 

When you go to France and use this nous and vous, you look like a fool, because, in reality, nous is very formalThe right everyday sentence is not Nous prenons du cafe but On prends du cafe. In reality, you could be taught French grammar but could never be taught about nous; it has to be learned.

Learn more about spoken style and written style in dialects.

An old French manuscript.
Close-up shot on an old manuscript written in French. (Image: Franck Boston/Shutterstock)

To learn spoken French somewhere where the language is actually being used, you can be whip-snap good at this artificial French they teach you with nous and all these other things. But then you get there and it will be months before you quite wrap your head around the fact that you’ve really been taught almost a different language.

Scientifically speaking, you have been taught an H instead of L that is spoken by everyone else. So, you really can’t expect to keep speaking like that and be able to have close conversations or have close friends or dates. So, what you have to actually do is use one negative marker and start using on like any other normal French person.

Common Questions About French Grammar

Q: Is French grammar easy to learn?

Compared to other languages, French grammar is easy to learn because it has English letters. The majority of French grammar has verbs. It is somewhat similar to English in a little way.

Q: What is the structure of a French sentence?

Learning any language begins with basic sentences with the most common word order. In French, the most common word order is SVO or Subject-Verb-Object. Like most other languages, the subject comes at the beginning of the sentence.

Q: Is learning French more difficult than English.

Compared to English, spellings, and pronunciations are much harder in French. Unlike other languages that start easy and then get tougher, French starts hard but gets easier as you progress.

Q: Are French grammar and English similar?

English and French have around 27% words in common or have similarities in form and meaning. It is estimated that 45% of English words have originated from French, though the similarity may not be so stark.

Keep Reading
The Origin of Sophisticated Human Language
The Social Context that Shapes our Talk
Language Evolution: How One Language Became Five Languages