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Fun With French: 'Fermez la Bouche!'

Fermez la bouche!

It's an expression that's been heard by just about every high school student who ever took that one mandatory French credit. You know, the class led by a teacher who was only about three lessons ahead of the students?

And because people teaching a foreign language often add a visual when they speak, at least half of those teachers probably mimed a closing of the mouth with their hands.

I wonder if they realized what they were saying?

Teachers assume the expression means, “Be quiet,” but it's actually a lot closer to “Shut up!”

Not only is this expression rude, but it's also vague and grammatically nonsensical. It uses a plural verb form, but then refers to a singular mouth. It's as if to say the entire class should work together to close one mouth.

And lately, we've even heard of teachers who ban expressions like, “Shut up!” from their classroom but are accepting “ Fermez la bouche! ” because they feel it sounds less rude in French!

Not so brilliant, any of it!

Teachers, if you aren't fluent in French but are asked to teach it I do sympathize with you! And I have little advice to offer, except that you ought to try to get yourself some French lessons.

But I can help you to avoid one of the most common gaffes made by people in your position. Instead of falling back on the awkward expression used by most, you can use one of several expressions that are much more appropriate:

  • If you mean to ask the group to be quiet the phrase you are looking for is, “ Taisez-vous .” (Phonetically, that's TAY-zay voo.) It is the most polite way to ask people to quiet down.

  • If the class is acting up a good deal you might prefer, “ Calmez-vous ,” which is like telling the students to calm down.

  • If you want a really easy expression that will grab their attention, try, “ Silence!

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Image credit: Tin can phone by Ryan McGuire/Pixabay ( CC0 1.0 )

Note: This article was migrated to Persona Paper from Bubblews, where it was originally published.

PS elitecodex Could we possibly get a category for Education? I put this one under Tutorials, but it would be a better fit under Education or Languages, or maybe even Society...

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Feisty56 wrote on October 22, 2014, 9:54 PM

How awkward for a foreign language teacher to use a grammatically incorrect and rude expression.

BarbRad wrote on October 23, 2014, 2:30 AM

Reminds me of me trying to teach German to a select group of elementary students for a couple of weeks. My German was pretty rusty, but not as bad as it would be now, fifty some years later.

AliCanary wrote on October 23, 2014, 5:37 PM

Actually fermez is not just the plural form but also the polite form, so it's appropriate for use with one person, if there's a "polite" way of saying "close your mouth", the direct translation. We were saying this to each other in French class, of course, and our teacher corrected us to say "taisez vous" or "tait toi", but I got the impression at the time that THAT was the saying that was more like "shut up!" I think if I were asking for silence, I would probably just say, "Votre attention, s'il vous plait".

Ellis wrote on October 23, 2014, 6:42 PM

In my school where students were well versed in the use of the cane these phrases were not

Ruby3881 wrote on October 23, 2014, 10:47 PM

And yet so many do it! But of course many of these teachers really aren't "foreign language teachers," so much as teachers who have been tasked with teaching a language they don't even speak, themselves :(

Ruby3881 wrote on October 23, 2014, 10:55 PM

If spoken to an entire class, "la bouche" is grammatically incorrect. Because the students each have a mouth of their own. If spoken by a teacher to a single student, it's inappropriate because the polite form (the second person plural) is spoken to a person in a position of authority or to an elder - neither of which ought to describe the student in relation to the teacher.

"Se taire" means to keep silent or to quiet down, or alternatively to keep a secret. Some people surely make, "Tait-toi!" sound like STFU. But that's not the official meaning.

The only place I can think of where the expression, "Fermez la bouche," would be appropriate is perhaps the dentist's office. Since when does, "Close the mouth," mean, "Be quiet"?

Ruby3881 wrote on October 23, 2014, 10:58 PM

I certainly wouldn't advocate for a return to the cane, but I do think that classroom discipline is a subject that is not properly addressed at teacher's college. In some programs, it's not even on the curriculum. Any teacher who complains about "kids these days" is usually under age 40 and has been complaining since she started teaching. The older, experienced teachers don't seem to think kids are any different today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Between that and the lack of education on classroom management, I'd say it's the teachers who have changed.

Ruby3881 wrote on October 23, 2014, 10:58 PM

Even for someone who has full fluency, it's not easy to teach a second language!

Ruby3881 wrote on October 23, 2014, 11:09 PM

The other thing that most anglophone Canadians won't know is that there is a rude expression that uses a similar form to "Ferme ta bouche!" (Shut your mouth - singular) : "Ferme ta gueule!" That is the most common (rude) way in Quebec or in France to tell someone to shut up.

Translated, it means. "Shut your trap!" It can be used in a very familiar way, kind of like someone saying, "Shut the front door!" to a friend. But that's also inappropriate between a teacher and a student, and definitely if spoken in a raised voice it would be understood to be rude.

idyll wrote on October 24, 2014, 5:55 AM

i tried to learn French language during my university time, but i failed it because it is too difficult.

AliCanary wrote on October 24, 2014, 11:10 AM

"Shut your mouth" ALWAYS means "be quiet".

AliCanary wrote on October 24, 2014, 11:12 AM

"Shut the front door" always makes me laugh. It's a cute euphemism!

Ruby3881 wrote on October 24, 2014, 1:20 PM

Isn't it, though? I've heard some people say things like, "Ta guele!" in that same cute, upbeat tone & it's a friendly thing - like they're brushing off a compliment or telling someone not to tease, or something. Otherwise, it's a very dismissive thing to say to someone...

Ruby3881 wrote on October 24, 2014, 1:25 PM

Not in the dentist's office. And honestly, I would never say it to a respected elder or when addressing a group. Maybe it's a cultural thing, having grown up in Quebec. But that's exactly the point. People who teach French but haven't lived it, often teach without understanding what they're really saying because they've learned French from books and not people.

When you've learned a language by living it, you gain the culture that goes with it. That's part of what these French classes are supposed to be transmitting, but they fail when the teachers start off the year using idioms that would never, ever be spoken by a person whose mother tongue was French. If you Google "fermez la bouche," you'll see the only people using this expression are Anglophones.

Ruby3881 wrote on October 24, 2014, 1:31 PM

What is your mother tongue? I imagine it would be difficult for someone whose language is an Asian one, because even the basic concepts are different. But for some it is very easy. Anyone who speaks a Romance language would pick up French very easily. And apparently the same goes for people who speak Farsi. I had Iranian friends, back in the 80s who said French was easier than English.

AliCanary wrote on October 24, 2014, 11:30 PM

LOL, I guess, but I have yet to have the dentist have to tell me that. I agree with your point about the culture of usage, and I did not intimate that the phrase was appropriate in any setting. I do realize it is not accurate usage, as our French teacher (not a native speaker, but she lived in France and studied the language intensively enough to fool the natives) clarified. Frankly, we kids were using it because we KNEW it was rude--we were KIDS! And then she explained it was wrong, and if we REALLY wanted to be rude, we would say "tait-toi!" She was pretty cool.

So you see, I'm not sure why you are explaining all this to me. I am not arguing about ANYTHING with you, actually--all I said was that "vous" can be used with a singular subject. You needn't try to take me to the mat over all this other stuff, you fierce Quebecoise, you :D

JanetJenson wrote on October 29, 2014, 1:36 AM

I used to get annoyed with people who cussed and then said "Pardon my French" when they were cussing in English. I thought it was culturally insensitive. Happily, I have not heard that expression in a long time, but I still remember it grating on my ears. I would only say "Pardon my French" if I were speaking it and pronouncing it terribly.