In a previous post, we saw that many French teachers believe that one can speak French fluently and accurately with a very small number of words. As I stressed in that post, the secret to speaking French well is not really knowing many words as much as knowing how to you use the important ones very well, and especially the key function words.
My favourite example is the two prepositions de and à. In their various forms, these two tiny words are among the top 10 French words because they are used so often and in so many different ways. You cannot speak French properly if you do not totally master them.
The same principle applies with common verbs. And what better way to illustrate all this than with a case study. What follows is an authentic example of a typical telephone dialogue between an office receptionist and a client. In this case, it is a dental clinic, but with a few changes it could be any sort of office situation. The telephone rings and the receptionist answers:
– La clinique dentaire La cité, bonjour, Judith à l’appareil. (La cité dental clinic, Judith speaking.)
– Bonjour Judith, ici Jessica Pellerin. (Hello Judith, this is Jessica Pellerin.)
– Ah, bonjour Madame Pellerin, Comment allez-vous ? (Hello, Mrs Pellerin. How are you?)
– Très bien, merci. Et vous-même, Judith? (Well, thank you. And yourself, Judith.)
– Très bien, je vous remercie. Comment puis-je vous aider ? (Very well thank you. How can I help you today?)
– Bien, je voudrais un rendez-vous avec le docteur St-Laurent. (Well, I would like an appointment with Dr. St. Laurent.)
– Très bien. Quand voulez-vous venir? (Fine. When do you want to come?)
– Vendredi matin, si c’est possible. (Friday morning, if possible.)
– Un instant, je vais voir. Oui, vendredi matin à dix heures. Ça vous va ? (One moment, I have to look. Yes, Friday morning at 10 o’clock. Is that OK with you?)
– Vendredi matin à dix heures, oui, c’est bon. (Friday morning at 10 o’clock is fine.)
– Très bien. Vendredi matin à dix heures, on va vous attendre. (Great, We”ll be expecting you Friday at 10 o’clock.)
– Merci, à vendredi. (Thank you, see you Friday.)
– À vendredi et bonne journée. (See you Friday and have a good day.)
The day before the appointment, Madame Pellerin’s phone rings:
– Bonjour, est-ce que je peux parler à Madame Pellerin? (Hello, may I speak to Mrs Pellerin, please?)
– C’est moi-même. (Speaking.)
– Ici la clinique dentaire La cité. C’est juste pour vous rappeler votre rendez-vous demain matin à dix heures. (This is the clinic La cité. This is just a reminder that you have an appointment for tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.)
– Ah oui, bien sûr. J’y serai. Merci de votre appel. (Yes, of course. I’ll be there. Thanks for your call)
– Merci. On vous attend demain à dix heures. (Thank you, We’ll be expecting you at 10 a.m.)
– Merci à vous. À demain. (Thank you. See you tomorrow.)
Depending on how you count the words, there is a total of about 60 different words out of the 156 words in this dialogue.
With the exception of the proper names (Judith, Jessica, Pellerin, St-Laurent, La cité.), nearly all the other words are in the list of the 300 most common words. The key verbs être (5 times) and aller (4 times) are present. So are the prepositions à (9 times) and de (1 time). Many other common words like bien, merci, vous, demain, vendredi and ça are repeated a number of times.
What does this example teach us?
Our receptionist undoubtedly has a larger active vocabulary than just these 60 words, but keeping in mind that this same receptionist probably repeats some variation of this dialogue quite a few times a day, we see that a small vocabulary can go a long way.
Notice how repetitive much of this dialogue is. This is very typical of conversations. In the back and forth of verbal interaction, a speaker will inevitably repeat elements used by the other speaker. This is important for language learners because a key strategy in mastering the art of conversing is learning how to reformulate elements of what has just been said. Instead of racking your brain all the time for something to say, just take what the other person has said and change it a bit.
The other major point that I would like to stress here is how useful this typical dialogue can be as a learning tool. I would strongly recommend that all learners memorize this it. Not because you will be working in a dental office but because it contains many essential and common elements of French grammar: how to ask and answer questions; key verb forms, key grammatical structures including word order, the most important prepositions and pronouns and common phrasings, There’s a ton of French here in a nutshell.