When Clare, a teaching assistant in a high school in the Lyon area, taught her students the phrase “to light a candle”, one of her students was confused: “I thought bougie existed in English, too.”
As it turned out, the student had fallen into a trap which is well known to language learners around the word: the false friend (a word which appears the same in two languages but which has two very different meanings). She’d seen the English word ‘bougie’ (a common slang term derived from the word ‘bourgeois’), and thought it meant the same as the French bougie (candle).
‘Bougie’ is commonplace in the informal vocabulary English-speaking millennials and zoomers use to converse online.
“Because I’m American, kids will come up to me with slang terms they found on the internet, which usually come from African-American varieties of English.” Clare said. “A student came up to me after class and said, ‘What’s bussin’?’ I said, ‘I have no idea, I’ll look it up,’ and apparently it’s a term to say something’s great.”
English seen as a threat
Since English is the dominant language of the internet, young French people are exposed to this way of speaking, and end up with a better understanding of English neologisms than many natives. So, is it time to bid adieu to the idea that the French are terrible at English?
Much is made of the way internet-related words such as ‘like’, ‘follow’ and ‘troll’ are supposedly corrupting the French language.
The government’s Commission for the enrichment of the French language has previously ruled against the use of the words ‘gamer’, ‘fake news’ and ‘dark web’, and there is even an official page dedicated to providing French alternatives to words like ‘hashtag’.
But social media can also be an invaluable tool for young French people looking to improve their English skills.
“I always encourage my students to use social media in English,” said Anne, from Washington, DC, who teaches middle and high school students in Toulouse.
“I think it’s a great way to get them interested in using English beyond the classroom, even if all they do is read memes or watch TikToks. Really curious students will go and look up terms and learn tons of colloquial expressions.”
Axes and angry birds
Popular games and apps can play a similar role. “I’ve had students as young as eight that know words like ‘candy’ because of Candy Crush, or ‘angry’ and ‘bird’ because of Angry Birds,” Anne said.
“They may not even realise that they know all these words in English, but when they hear it in a different context, they instantly recognise it and make the connection, which can help with memorisation as well.”
Multiplayer video games are an even richer resource, as online players use English to converse with teammates from around the world. “It’s unsettling to hear French tweens listing all the different types of axes and guns that they know from Minecraft or Fortnite,” Anne said.
“In video games, English is practically required,” said Ian, a 27-year-old PhD student in chemistry in Strasbourg. “When you have to make yourself understood by a Russian, a Turkish person, a Spaniard and a Pole, you learn quickly.”
In their research into English use by online gamers in France, the University of Bordeaux’s Jeni Peake and Dr Alexandra Reynolds found that “the online nature of the exchanges between the speakers made the speakers feel more confident when trying to communicate in English”.
In their study, published last year, they concluded that “the repetitive nature of online games and gaming vocabulary helped the participants to learn English words and phrases without the impression of being drilled”.
Whether it’s Call of Duty or Black Lives Matter, today’s students often learn English by following their interests and issues they care about. When she was in middle school, Estelle, now 21, was able to progress by reading One Direction fan fiction.
“I was mainly reading the ones in English, because they were more well-written and there were much more of them than there were in French. The vocabulary was fairly simple because it was chosen by girls my age.”
Upon reaching high school, Estelle became active on Twitter, and discovered slang she hadn’t been taught in class. “When growing up, I noticed that I learned English on social media much more than in school, even if the classes were useful from a grammatical standpoint.”
Estelle, who recently completed a degree in languages at the University of Strasbourg, continues to progress by following ‘High Fashion Twitter’, an online community dedicated to the fashion industry. There, she is able to exchange with like-minded people from around the world, and discover articles that branch out into discussions of social issues.
“There are words I’ve truly learned like ‘sustainability’, ‘intersectionality’; and others that I’d seen before but which have become more familiar, like ‘imperialism’, ’slow fashion’, ‘fast fashion’, ‘anti-fashion’, ’semiotics’, ‘heteronormativity’, ‘fetishization’…”
Meanwhile, Paloma, 23, uses English to interact with K-pop groups and fans online, and to find new creators on TikTok.
“The content you have access to in English is much more vast and interesting,” she said. TikTok is the platform where she has learned the most slang, including “FOMO” (fear of missing out).
There are of course dangers associated with learning informal expressions. For instance, “a student starting his oral exam with, ‘So today I’m gonna talk about’,” Anne said, before adding: “I’d much rather have a student that attempts to use new authentic expressions incorrectly, than one who diligently learns the course vocabulary list but is completely lost in a spontaneous conversation.”
The increasing variety of social networks has contributed to the proliferation of popular accounts which post videos dedicated to helping people improve their language skills.
Miss PunnyPennie posts a new TikTok video every day where she explains a new Scots word to her 120,000 followers. She then uploads the videos to Twitter, which is where Lou, a trainee English teacher from the south of France, watches them to keep in touch with a culture she fell in love with on a trip to Scotland in 2016.
Miss PunnyPennie’s videos are funny, easy to understand and last about 30 seconds. Perfect for her students, Lou decided. “I have pupils who are interested in cultures other than England and the United States, as we always talk about those two countries. So I recommend the account to them,” she said.
“One student, for a piece of homework, instead of using the word ‘child’, wrote ‘bairn’. I don’t know if she was saying, ‘Miss, I watched the video’, or if it just stuck in her head. But I was happy because she had followed my advice and it allowed the others to discover a new dialect.”