Destinations Magazine

Don’t Do These 5 Things When Talking to Your French Professor

By Allisonlounes @parisunraveled

In France, moreso than in the U.S., there’s an immense amount of respect for teachers and professors. At the undergraduate level (license), there isn’t really such a thing as a discussion section, where students share their ideas ; undergraduates are in university first to learn the main tenants of their field. Once students reach the master’s level, a certain number of discussion sections, or séminaires, are possible, but the teacher remains the primary source of information within the classroom.

Because of all this reverence for teachers, there are very few opportunities for chatting with a professor or running an idea by her one-on-one. If you do need to talk to your professor, to confirm a paper topic, ask for clarification on an idea, or give her something from your program, here are 5 things you should never do:

1. Don’t start a conversation without knowing what you want to say.

This may seem like the most obvious point, but given that professors in the U.S. sometimes chat idly before or after class, it may be worth saying. In general, the reverence accorded to professors means that they are NOT your equals and should not be bothered unless you have something very important destined only for them.

If you’re confused about something your professor said in class, first ask a few people around you. If it’s a language issue (i.e. you didn’t understand a word and missed the meaning of something), other students should be able to clarify the professor’s point. If the other students are confused too, you should definitely raise your hand to ask for clarification, but if not, ask your tutor or go over your notes again before approaching your professor.

If, however, you need to ask your professor to approve your project topic, or tell her you’ll be absent next week because of your program’s trip, or something, of course it’s alright to do so. Just make your point quickly and politely, and don’t waste the professor’s time. If she initiates conversation, e.g. how do you like France, how are you getting along, etc., by all means chat and be friendly. Most of the French professors I know are very nice people and care as much about their students as American professors, but their ways of showing it are quite different. French professors will require high standards of politeness and maintain a strict professional distance; if you respect these expectations, they will generally be very nice and accommodating.

2. Use the informal “tu”.

As I mentioned in Monday’s article, one of the WORST mistakes you can make when speaking to a professor is to use the informal “tu”. There’s not really any need to revisit this idea, but if you don’t know how to use “vous” properly and regularly in conversation, you probably should not be taking classes outside of an American bubble where everyone tutoient each other.

3. Use slang words like “truc” or “machin”.

My junior year abroad, I took one class at the Vieille Sorbonne (Paris IV) through my program’s exchange. For the first few weeks, the class was wonderful: the professor was genuinely very sweet as well as knowledgeable, and was friends with my tutor to boot, so we got along very well. After I started teaching in an elementary school in Paris, my teaching schedule conflicted with that particular section of the class, so my program switched me into another session of the same class on a different day.

The professor of the other section was the polar opposite. Not only did she have a sour personality, she was also either Italian or from the south of France, with a very thick accent, pronouncing every single syllable and speaking very quickly. Though my French was quite good even at the time, I found her almost impossible to understand.

We each had to do an exposé for that class, and while mine went fine, I distinctly remember another student’s exposé for how bad it was. Not only was the content of the exposé mediocre, the student (who was French, I think) used several slang words throughout her presentation. After she was finished, the professor made some very negative comments, and the student started to reply, “Le truc, c’est que…” (The thing is…)

The professor didn’t wait for the student to finish, she just started REAMING her out for using the word “truc.” I remember very clearly: “You’re in your 3rd (last) year of license, the word “truc” needs to disappear from your vocabulary. It’s totally inappropriate.”

It was embarrassing for the student, as well as for the rest of us, who had to listen to this professor yelling for a good ten minutes, afraid to move.

Now, as I already mentioned, *most* French professors aren’t this horrible, and *most* of them will cut you some slack, especially as a foreign student. In the professor’s mind, this particular student had no excuse for using slang since she was a native French speaker and grew up doing exposés in school. But even if your professor won’t actually say anything to you for using slang, she may notice and mentally dock points.

The hardest part of learning a language is learning the connotations of words and when to use them, so this can be a rule that’s easily broken if you’re not very diligent. Unless you ask your French friends for the context of certain words when they use them, it’s going to be hard to know which words you hear can be used formally, and which are reserved for informal or slang use. My advice: until you’re confident enough to be able to distinguish the two, use words you’ve seen written down in textbooks or classic novels when you speak to your professors.

4. Use swears, like “merde,” “chiant,” or “putain.”

The Paris Blog recently posted this article about why students of French shouldn’t swear in the language. I totally disagree. I think you should swear in French as much as you swear in English, as long as it’s while you’re speaking French. Not only do I think it’s weird to punctuate French sentences with English swear words (although I do admit to the occasional f$&! and still say “Ow” instead of “Aïe”), I think that part of trying to become fluent in a language is picking up on the connotation of words, sometimes using them incorrectly, and figuring out how to use them as a native speaker would. I don’t think it’s nearly as complicated as Comme une Française claims.

That being said, – and I now use this approach with ANY new word I learn – you have to know what the swears are and when not to use them. This is where looking things up in a dictionary can help you, instead of just learning words in context.

When I was studying abroad, one of the first swear words I learned was “chiant,” which my program advisor used all the time. “Oh, la grève, c’est chiante,” “Tu es vraiment chiante, toi, tu sais?” and plenty of other examples throughout the semester implied to me that the word meant “annoying” or “irritating.”  I never looked it up.

Then, when I was teaching one day, I was talking to one of my students, and mentioned that something – I don’t remember the rest of the conversation – was “chiant.” He looked at me like I had two heads.

“That’s a gros mot, you know.” I didn’t know. “Christophe (the teacher) would punish you if he heard you saying that.”

Luckily, this kid was one of my brighter, nicer students. I apologized to him and told him that I didn’t know it was a swear word and that I thought it meant “embêtant.” I thanked him for telling me what it meant and promised not to use it again. I don’t think he told the teacher, as I never heard anything in the teacher’s room about it.

I’d like to say I learned my lesson, and when I went back for my second year of teaching (in different schools), I was at least able to recognize when my older students were swearing and give them a punishment, and I never swore in front of students again (that I’m aware of). Moral of the story? Learn the swear words, use them with your peers if you want, and know them well enough to NOT use them with your teachers or small children.

5. Challenge the authority of the professor, experts in the field, or authors of the coursebooks.

In my undergraduate core classes at Columbia, we often had lively debates in which students were encouraged to pit experts’ views against each other and to challenge the ideas laid out in class or the coursebooks. One or two of my more obnoxious classmates seemed to take special delight in trying to prove they were smarter than someone who’d spent the last 25 years building up a field of research. This NEVER happens in France.

I’ll repeat it, in case you didn’t get it the first time: This NEVER happens in France.

In France, students are expected to learn from the professor and the experts, not from each other. Especially as undergraduates, students are not expected to be able to critique authors or compare their points of view. Undergraduate learning in France is to learn what the experts say in your field. Master 2 and doctorat are for having new ideas.

It’s not that professors think that some ideas should never be challenged, they just think it’s not your job as an undergraduate to do it. Challenging ideas or an expert’s authority is reserved for those writing their PhD dissertations or academics writing their next book.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never ask questions. But if you ask a question that implies that something your professor (or an expert) said is in direct contradiction with something some other professor or expert said, expect your professor to shut you down. Listen to her point of view, and accept it. Arguing will get you no points, and if you don’t make your point extremely well in French, you’ll just annoy the professor.

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