How Many Registers Do You Speak?


When I first graduated from university, I had an interview in French and was hired as a bilingual employment counselor in Saint Boniface, Manitoba. The small office there served the local French-speaking residents who were seeking employment or training opportunities. I was thrilled to get the job, but I not only needed training for the position, I also had to adapt and expand the spoken French that I was comfortable with. Here I was, freshly graduated from an intensive program in French literature where I could discuss nuances of poetry, novelists’ styles etc. en français. Did that mean that I knew the word for welder in French? Could I explain the various requirements of an office clerk or a postal worker in French? Not really. I had a lot of scrambling to do and I’m always grateful for the patience of my employer and clients alike.

Some time later, I worked for a school division as a French second-language consultant. A local agricultural, farm-implement company contacted me and asked me to do some translation work for them. They wanted me to translate a written article about their farm machinery–– for example, their latest harvester combine, its different features, and various components. Although I would have liked to help them out, I very wisely turned them down. As I said to them, even though I grew up on a farm, I had no knowledge of farm machinery, whatsoever. I couldn’t name any working parts of a combine in English, so how could I properly translate an article on the topic into French?

I think this illustrates a mistake we sometimes make. When we hear someone is bilingual, we assume they can talk/write about anything in two languages. We forget that a language has many different registers. (Some sources say there are five: static, formal, consultative, casual and intimate )The vocabulary and phrasing that you use in one context can be widely inappropriate in another.

Can you move between registers in your first language? Not everyone can. Some people speak and write only using the casual register. (Think about how many times you have seen “gonna” in your social media feeds!) I remember the late Peter Gzowski, a popular and articulate Canadian radio announcer reminiscing that he first learned French from workers in northern Ontario. Trying out his newly-acquired phrases and expressions in a more urbane, academic setting did not go over well! His language- the only French he had learned at that point- was too informal and colloquial. On the other hand, some professionals and politicians have real problems switching from the “consultative register” to more casual speech when it’s appropriate. In my new job as an employment counselor, I needed to learn another register that was different from the academic language I had been using in the university classroom.

The number of registers you use in your first language will very gradually become the number of registers that you can use in your new language. As your target language improves, it will gradually acquire more layers and you will be able to move between registers- if you can do so in your first language.

When you are learning a new language, take the time to think through where you want to be able to use this language. Which register will be your priority?  Then, explain your goals to your teacher. This can help you get the appropriate phrases that you need quickly.

Enjoy the journey!



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