Le Instant French

by Stephen Phizicky

Parlez-vous français?

Un peu.


Is this you?

If the answer is Yes, then you must be an Anglophone who was born in Quebec.

Face it. If you spoke Russian as well as you speak French, you’d be in the diplomatic corps.

But because you are a Quebec-born Anglophone, you are terrified of even trying to speak French. In fact, you think that you can’t. Your inability to become perfectly bilingual has made you believe that you aren’t bilingual at all.

You suffer from Le Guilt, hiding your French in the closet so that no one will hear how bad it is.

How did this happen?

You made the mistake of going to school. There, you were taught French by instructors from France, North Africa and the West Island, i.e., anyone but Québecois. These people taught you that you would never speak French properly – and then proved it.


With irregular verbs and imperfect tenses. With unfathomable masculine and feminine forms. With rules of agreement you would never need in talking , and mind-boggling tenses that you would never meet in life: the future anterior, le passé simple, and the pluperfect, imperfect, interior posterior.

The mind reeled; it still does. And little wonder. If you worried about things like this in English, you’d be too embarrassed to speak that as well.

But don’t worry. We’ve got some good news for you. You already speak French; you just don’t know it because it’s locked up somewhere inside your mind. We’re going to show you how to release it with a revolutionary new method called… Le Nouveau français.

This is le solution to le guilt; le réponse to le question; le chance you’ve been waiting for. It ain’t pretty, but it’s pretty good.



The overall rule is: Fill the air with words. As long as you’re talking, there’s a chance the other person is listening – maybe even understanding.

But if you’re standing thee mute, trying to remember how to say it correctly, the other person will be bored…and probably switch to English.

The following rules will help you fill the air with words. Not the right words, but ones that are easy to find, and close enough to get the message across. Instant French – to ensure that you always have something to say.

The second Rule of thumb is: If you don’t know the French word, use the English one. For example, in the garage:

“Bonjour, Est-ce-que vous  reparez le … uh … uh … uh… le crankshaft?”

Surprise! You got it right. Most French Quebecers say “crankshaft”, too.

Façile, huh? Okay, now you’re ready for the hard stuff.

Bon Luck.



In a world where soup is feminine but consommé is masculine, ketchup is masculine but mustard is feminine, lettuce is feminine but cabbage is masculine… face it, you haven’t got a change. Be honest. Do you ever say “Mrs. Table” or “Mr. Carpet” in English?

“Le” and “la” are impossible for the Anglophone to master, so why bother trying? Forget them. The rule is: us “le” for everything. Here is how it looks:

le homme

le femme

Ville LeSalle

Lechine Rapids

Easy, eh? Feminists, however, may use “la” for everything, should they prefer. It makes no difference, as long as you only use one. For example:

la femme

la homme

Either way, you will be right half the time, and understood all of the time. Make it plural (les) and you’ll be right all the time.



In le Nouveau français, there are only two tenses: the present and the past. There is no future. The “future bypass” looks after that.

The Present

The present tense is the important one – the one they make you practice in school a lot, as in:

je prends

tu prends

il prend

nous prenons

vous prenez

ils prennent

In le Nouveau français, this is called the present compliqué. Say hello to the present compliqué. Say hello to the present simple:

je prends*

il prends

nous prends

vous prends

ils prends

(*There is no “tu” unless you want it. More about this later.)

Doubtless, they’ll sneer at the Académie français, but they’ll understand pefectly in St. Henri de Mascouche.

The Past

Le Nouveau français uses the easy past – the one with “avoir” (to have), as in j’ai acheté.

Ever since high school you’ve been haunted by the 16 exceptions that use “être” (to be), as in je suis allé.

You’ve never been sure which verbs should “be”, and which verbs should “have”. This might have been a fascinating question for Jean-Paul Sartre – but not for you, especially when you’re trying to learn French.

Forget the 16 exceptions. In le Nouveau français there are no exceptions. There are only rules. So, all past tenses are formed the simple way, as in:

j’ai allé

j’ai venu

j’ai assis

It’s getting easier, huh?

Now, remember “vous avez” and  “nous avon”? Good. These give variety and cadence to the past. Here, then, is the entire conjugation of the past.

j’ai allé

il avez allé

nous avons allé

vous avons allé

ils avez allé

Use “avons” and “avez” interchangeably, to taste.

The “Future Bypass”

Remember, there is no future in le Nouveau français. There is only the “future bypass”. To bypass the future, you simply combine the verb you want, with the present of the verb “aller” (to go).

For example: In the present tense, “je vais” means “I am going”. The verb “tuer” means “to kill”. Combine them, and you have “je vais tuer”, which means “I am going to kill”.

Presto! You have bypassed the future.

Similarly, “je vais vous tuer” means “I am going to kill you”. [Unless you are a “tu” type person (see below), in which case use the more friendly “Je vais te tuer”.]

The Subjunctive

You don’t know the subjunctive in English, why bother learning it in French?



What difference can it possibly make?



In school, the rule was: It all depends on whom you’re talking to. The result? You waste your life trying to figure out how you “feel” about people. Are they a “tu”, or really a “vous” person?

Worrying about this can give you ulcers. In le Nouveau français, it doesn’t matter who you’re talking to: It only matters who you are.

The rule: Uptight, formal people should call everyone “vous”. Informal, back-slapping types should call everyone “tu”.

Just figure out what kind of person you are, a “tu” or a “vous” type, and you never have to worry about it again.

However, this is an important decision. Give it some thought. Hint: If you wear ties, or silk dresses, you’re definitely a “vous” type. If you wear t-shirts, particularly if you wear them inside out, you’re a “tu” type.

Warning to Tu People

Full-time use of “tu” is acceptable, but can be dangerous. There are times when it may pay to switch to “vous”. Among them:

–         a policeman, before he gives you a ticket;

–         an income tax auditor, any time;

–         an inspector from mthe language cops. In this case it is best to call him “maître”.

If you insist on using “tu” at all times, leave a will.

Warning to Vous People

Unless you are part of the Royal family, there may be two exceptions that even you can afford to make:

–         your lover;

–         your children.

These exceptions make for harmony in the home, and allow for very subtle communication.

For instance, if the person you share your bed with gives you a sunny smile and says “Comment voulez-vous vos oeufs?”, you know it’s not going to be a peaceful New York Times Sunday.



When in doubt, always say “non”. (You probably remember that from your referendum ballot.)

As in English, you can always change “no” to “yes”, but changing a “yes” to a “no” makes enemies.

You may recall being tortured in high school with double-barreled negatives (ne…pa; ne…jamais) – and with where to place them in the sentence.

Forget all that. The only word that counts is “pas”.

The Nouveau français rule is: To make a negative, put the word “pas” in the sentence somewhere, anywhere. Then add “non” at the end of the phrase. This is how it works:

“Je veux pas acheter ça, non.”

“Je veux pas danser, non”

Most Québecois use only the “jpas”. Most Parisiens swallow the “ne”. The only people who use both are Quebec anglophones…and the people who taught them French.



Asking questions in French is easy. Look inquisitive or mystified. Say the sentence as a statement, but put a question mark at the end of it (with your emphasis):

“Vous venez ici souvent?”

“Vous voulez danser?

This should cover most situations. If you find it hard to look inquisitive when talking on the telephone, resort to advanced Nouveau français.

The rule: Make questions by putting the phrase “est-ce-que” (pronounced S-kuh) at the start of the sentence:

“S-kuh vous venez ici souvent?”

“S-kuh vous voulez danser?”

“S-kuh vous voulez voir mes etchings?”




There are  four accents in French: (ê); (è); (ê) and (ç). If you look at your typewriter, you will probably not see any of them on it. This is a hint.

Forget accents, except for é (which sounds like “ay”). This accent is very useful as it permits us to tell the difference between a côte de boeuf (a side of beef) and être accoté (slang for “living together”). By using é you won’t make the mistake of going to a French restaurant and saying:

“Garçon! I’d like to live with you.”



This is the important part. It’s also easy. Because French is really English in disguise.

Complicated, legal and technological words are often identical. Look at the following list – if you don’t understand some of these words, then you don’t speak English either.

télévision                                              astronaute

constitution                                           circonstances

gouvernement                                       touristes

spectacle                                              discrmination

passeport                                             inadmissible

président                                              observateur

The longer they are, the more they seem alike.

The rule: When searching for a French word, think fancy, then add “er”.

For example, you might be thinking “being”. Elevate that to “commence” and “commencer”, the correct French word, jumps into your mouth.

Or “catch” as in “catch a thief”. Upgrade that to “apprehend” and you see the French word is “appréhender”.

To “run” a meeting is to “preside” over it, so the verb is “présider” and the person who does it is the “président”.

Other examples of how French is really English in disguise follow:

English                                 Fancy English                               French Disguise

to hunt                                     chase                                                   chasser

weak                                        feeble                                                   faible

to finish                                   achieve                                                 achever

glove                                         gauntlet                                               gant

thin                                           meagre                                                maigre

sheep                                        mutton                                                mouton

the same                                  parity, parallel                                    pareil

to drill                                       pierce                                                   percer

to dive                                      plunge                                                   plonger

to lock                                      bar                                                         barrer

to climb                                    mount                                                   monter

to sing                                      chant                                                     chanter

to walk                                     promenade                                           promener

to free                                      liberate                                                  libérer

door                                         portal                                                     porte



Surprise. You can apply these rules to Spanish by adding “o” to all words. For Italian, just add “i” to everything.

Congratulations! You now speak four languages.



Don’t forget: Fill the air with words.

When uncertain, use your hands, make a face, mumble and slur the English word with a French accent.

The key is to speak boldly. Speaking bad French boldly is better than being silent and correct.

Flaunt your Nouveau français whenever you get a chance. Sure it sounds horrible, but if you speak French badly for long enough, you may eventually learn to speak it correctly.


Remember, now that you speak French, it’s up to you to figure out how to understand it.