Active listening for French conversation.
With the transcript and the translation in Part 1, you should have a pretty good idea of what is happening in this excerpt of a real conversation. Here we’ll listen more actively or in greater detail and dig a bit deeper into the workings of the language. This should improve both your listening and your speaking ability
The language spoken here is an excellent example of standard spoken Québécois French in a formal setting. It is also important to take into account the age of the speakers. The witness is probably in his 60s, the lawyer in his 40s and the judge in her 50s. The language, and particularly the pronunciation, reflects that generation and differs from that of speakers in their early 20s.
Why this sample?
I chose this sample for three reasons. First of all, it represents what I would call contemporary Québécois courtroom French. Not the legal language itself but the give-and-take of questioning and cross-examining of witnesses. Here we see the language being used for the purpose of eliciting the truth. And at the same time, we see a witness who is choosing his words carefully as he answers the questions.
The second reason for choosing this sample is the quality of the speakers. Here we have three highly educated individuals: a lawyer, a judge and an engineer. Although they can talk in technical terms in their respective fields, here they talking in everyday language.
The third reason is the opportunity to see how the language of the witness reflects an uncomfortable and stressful situation. The witness is testifying under oath and is very aware that what he is going to say can have all kinds of unpleasant repercussions.
As the witness becomes nervous and flustered, we see how his language becomes jumbled, with lots of repetition and incomplete sentences.
1. Notice that the formal subject pronoun “vous” (you) and not the informal “tu” is used everywhere. In Québec, people tend to use “tu” more commonly than in France, but in this courtroom setting, the “vous” of respect is mandatory.
There are two places however where I show how the examining lawyer and the witness will use a “tu” form in a very Québécois usage.
2. As to be expected in a courtroom setting, the dialogue is full of questions. Here you will see examples of nearly all the ways of asking questions in French. Pay special attention to the intonation at the end of the questions.
3. Note the use of the “je vais + verb” construction, as in “je vais vous rafraîchir la mémoire…” and “je vais vous demander…” This form is called the “futur proche” and is very often used instead of the more complex future tense.
4. As typical of spoken French, the subject pronoun “on” replaces “nous” (we). There are a couple of cases where the use of “on” is a bit unusual.
5. Because of the nature of the subject, most of the verbs are in the past tense. This is an excellent study in the use of the passé composé when narrating past events. Pay attention to the use of the imparfait when the witness is talking about his feelings and state of mind.
6. Notice how the examining lawyer uses “OK” very often in his speaking style. Other would say “très bien” or “d’accord.” Notice as well how the witness begins most of his answers with “ben.”
(1) Sticklers for proper French grammar would point out that the speaker should have said, “Cela étant dit” or “Cela dit.” Technically, “cela” (that) is a pronoun that refers to something that was said previously. And “ceci” (this) refers to something to come. This is illustrated in the very elegant sentence. “Ceci explique cela”(This explains that – What I’m about to say will explain what I’ve just said).
But this mistake is very widespread, and I don’t think it is such a big deal.
(2) Again, the same sticklers for good grammar would say that our lawyer has made a major grammatical mistake here. He should have said, “à l’heure à laquelle on se parle.”
I should point out that very few speakers would notice this mistake because it is quite subtle. I’ll do my best to explain it.
The speaker probably had in mind the following form that is totally correct:
À l’heure qu’il est. (At the time that it is – At this moment.)
But “qu’on se parle” (that we speak) is not the same structure as “qu’il est” (that it is) and requires the relative pronoun “laquelle.” Therefore, one should say “l’heure à laquelle on se parle” and not “l’heure qu’on se parle.”
As I said, most people would not notice this mistake, but you might want to think about it. Another solution would have been “à l’heure où l’on se parle.” Note the “l’on” to avoid the sequence of “où on.”
(3) Notice how the speaker uses the impersonal form “il reste” to ask if there is any money remaining. And we also have that so-called “partitive form” of “de l’argent” (any money). This is a very common construction that you hear all the time as in examples like:
Est-ce qu’il reste des billets ?
Est-ce qu’il reste de l’eau?
Est-ce qu’il reste du temps ?
Est-ce qu’il reste de l’air ?
(4) There is some confusion over the right way to spell the word for cent in French. In spoken French the final t is not pronounced and the word is pronounced “cenne” as is written here. But technically, it should be written “cent” which is what you see in formal writing. But this tends to be a bit confusing, of course, because it resembles the French word “cent” or one hundred.
(5) Here the lawyer is setting a kind of trap for the witness. He asks him if all the money is gone even though he knows that the witness has given some money back to the police investigators.
(6) “Ben” is a classic discourse marker that is used a lot when answering questions. The witness uses it at the beginning of nearly every question.
(7) Notice here that I wrote “était perdu” and not “étaient perdus” because the speaker said “un cent mille…” One could argue the opposite position but the two forms sound exactly the same.
(8) The speaker says that the money was at the casino (étaient au casino)
This does not really make sense but we are to understand that he lost the money at the casino.
(9) Remember that in French, unlike English, dates are generally pronounced with the word “mille” (thousand). Here are some examples:
1980 – mille-neuf-cent-quatre-vingt
2003 – deux-mille-trois
(10) The speaker could have omitted the “des” and simply said “qui sont enquêteurs…”
(11) “N’est-il pas exact que…” is typical courtroom French.
(12) The president of the Commission, Mme justice Charbonneau, starts to put the squeeze on the witness.
(13) She knows very well that the witness gave the money back to the investigators but wants him to admit it.
(14) The witness, a bit reluctantly, says that he was going to say that he had returned the money.
(15) The use of the pronoun “on” here is interesting. Although “on” usually means “nous” (we), here the witness is probably not referring to himself and the lawyer. This could be an instance where the “on” replaces “je” (I) and the witness is simply referring to himself but from a distance.
(16) Notice the interesting sentence construction here that is common in spoken French. “The money that remained, I gave it back to the Commission.”
(17) “Bon”, like “ben”, is a classic discourse marker or filler in this context.
(18) “Parfait”, like “perfect” in English, is used here by the lawyer to conclude this line of questioning. Now he will move to a second line of questioning.
(19) In this long question form, the lawyer does not use any of the usual question markers except for a “pourquoi” that could be interpreted as two words “pour quoi.” But the intonation at the end does indicate that it is a question.
(20) The lawyer uses the “tu” form of the verb in “Amène l’argent” (Bring the money.) It’s doubtful that the investigators actually used this form with the witness. But here the lawyer is doing something that is quite common in Québécois French. When referring to a person generically or quoting somebody, one can use the “tu” form instead of the “vous.” The same thing possibly occurs at (30).
(21) The witness becomes more nervous and starts off the answer by repeating the question, a typical maneuver to gain time.
(22) French often uses what are called stress pronouns, as in “moi, je pense que…” but here the witness says “moi, ben, moi…je” and then adds a series of disjointed phrases that reveal his discomfort.
(23) The use of the present tense, “il vous reste” instead of the imperfect. “il vous restait” is a bit intriguing. Perhaps the speaker wanted to insist on the fact that this is the current situation, right now.
(24) “bon an mal an” (good year bad year – on the average, year in year out) usually refers to a stretch of time. He would seem to be saying that over the years the witness had about $123,000 of unused money. This is not exactly the same as saying that at the end of all these years, the witness had this money remaining. This is probably a minor point.
(25) The word “piasse” comes from “piastre” and is the popular Québécois term for “dollar” and is used like “buck” in English.
(26) This “…qu’est-ce qui s’est passé” could have been replaced by “…ce qui s’est passé.” The first form looks like a direct quote, i.e. “Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ?”
(27) The lawyer hesitates here, as if he isn’t sure how to complete the phrase and then switches to “ça fait pas…” Notice here that there is no “ne” in this last phrase.
(28) Notice here how, for emphasis, the speaker uses both the pronoun “leur” and the noun “aux enquêteurs” that comes after the pronoun.
(29) The speaker is quoting himself and starts of with the discourse marker “Écoutez” and then a series of short disjointed phrases including “Pis, écoute, moi…”. The “on” in “on parle de choses sérieuses” could refer to all the speakers (nous) present at the time or just the witness himself.
(30) “Pis” is Québécois for “puis” (then). This “tu” imperative form “écoute” is maybe an instance of something we saw in (20).
(31) The “pu” is popular form of “plus.” This “je le veux pu” is really “je ne le veux plus.” Note that I’ve written an entire post on the pronunciation of “plus”.
(32) Here the speaker started out wanting to say “chez vous” but changes his mind.
(33) This “exact” is probably an abbreviation for “c’est exact.” (this is correct.) Otherwise, the speaker could have used the adverbial form “exactement.”
(34) The “ça” in “me débarrasser de ça” refers to “cet argent-là.” A more elegant way of saying this would have been “…de m’en débarrasser.”
(35) The grammar purists would point out here that the speaker should have said “apporter” instead of “amener.” They both mean “bring” but “amener” is reserved for people, animals and vehicles. Not a big deal.
(36) The speaker says “ce sont les enquêteurs.” This is perfect but many people would say “c’est les enquêteurs” which is also considered correct, especially in the spoken language.
(37) The speaker is using the feminine pronoun “la” and not the masculine “le” when referring to the masculine noun “argent.” What is happening? This is a very interesting so-called mistake.
Notice how the entire phrase contains “cet argent-là” This “cet” is “ce” but in front of a word starting with a vowel. This “cet” sounds like exactly like “cette”, as in “cette année.”
Some linguists think that this is reason why many users in Québec and even in France think that words like “hôpital”,”ascenseur”,”autobus” and “argent”
are grammatically feminine although they are masculine. This is what probably happened here.
(38) The speaker probably intended to say, “si vous voulez…”
(39) I’ve written “file” from the verb “filer” which in Québécois is derived from the English verb “to feel.”
The key to improving conversation skills: imitate and repeat
If you are going to interact with speakers of Québécois French of this age group and in a courtroom setting, this is the kind French you will hear them speaking.
What you do with it in terms of your speaking style depends on your needs.
If you are interested in speaking Québécois French, there is a lot of stuff here to use as a source of inspiration and material to boost your own speaking skills. You should try to learn entire phrases by heart and modify them to your requirements.
As I outline in my post on how to use these real-life case studies, the key to improving your speaking proficiency is to extract examples that you can incorporate into your own speech. And the video shows you exactly how these examples sound and are used. It can’t get better than that.
If this material is of interest to you, listen to is at least 10 to 20 times after reading the transcription, translation and comments. Then choose words, expressions and phrases that you like and add them to your repertoire. Here are a few items to consider:
Je vais vous rafraîchir la mémoire.
Est-ce qu’il s’est passé quelque chose de particulier ?
Je vais vous demander d’être plus précis.
Comment ça s’est passé ?
C’est ça qu’on veut savoir.
With lots of active listening and just incorporating some examples into your own speaking style, your French conversation skills will improve noticeably. Just keep working at it.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.