Voulez-vous étudier? How international second-person pronouns can affect the student-teacher relationship.

The English language is not my first language, although I’m a near-native speaker. I find it to be a very easy-going and practical language for connecting with people. No matter whether the person you are speaking to is someone you are meeting for the first time, or a close friend, whether it is someone younger or older than you one can address him or her with “you.”

Meeting for the first time or not?

Meeting for the first time or not?

And when you teach in German, like I do at the moment, the correct use of “you” becomes an important matter in the classroom. Perhaps those who have encountered a foreign language, might have heard the various forms of the second-person pronoun “you“ and already can guess what I am referring to.

This is because in many other languages, such as French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and English (just to name a few which I happen to be familiar with) there is an entire cultural set of rules and a codex of behavior attached to this pronoun. One has to use a formal or informal pronoun based on the context of the conversation and relationship of the speakers. This is the rule for everyday life and especially important when teaching because this sets the tone for the student-teacher relationship.

"You" in other languages

“Voulez-vous étudier?“ means “do you want to study with me?” in French, and VOUS is formally used instead of th informal TU.


Lets have a look at Germany as an example:

In the classroom such as mine, where teaching takes place in the German language, it is vital to estabish a rule for the correct form of addressing the students from the beginning. I’ve spoken to my colleagues on this matter and they each have a personal approach. Some say that using a formal “Sie” versus the informal “Du“ is the way to go. Others offer an informal “Du“ from the getgo. So how does this affect the student-teacher relationship you may ask? And which one is the right one to apply?


1. SIE – Mutual respect or distance

“Sie,” the formal you, means mutual respect. „Sie“ is what a person is entitled to be called once he or she is 18. It is a sign of being an adult and by addressing a young person this way it acknowledges their adulthood. If a young person is addressed with the formal “Sie” by an elder, they have to use the same pronoun in return. So here we would establish a very formal but respectful form of communication in the classroom setting.


The downside of this pronoun is that it can equally create distance. In fact, sometimes it is used in speech on purpose to show superiority or even mockery.

2. DU – Friendship and equality or disrecspect

“Du,” the informal you, is mostly reserved for friends, family and children.


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All adults are permitted to address children or young looking people (the definition is up to the speaker!) with the “Du.”

It means: “You are a youngster, I am older. I know more.”

Children however, are in big trouble if they use “Du” with elders. Whether it is the lady selling bread at the bakery, their teacher or any adult who they are not realted to – they must not say “Du“ or else it is an insult.


Image credit: here.

In the past and sometimes even today, children in France or Russia were not allowed to use an informal pronoun when speaking to their own parents!

When used amongst friends, “Du” is the way to go. It means equality, informality, a comfort zone and closeness. Even adults can use this informal speech amongst each other but only if they are a) relatives, b) friends or c) have oficially offered the “Du.”

Option c) – offering to switch from “Sie“ to “Du”- is a big sign for commeradery. In Europe you might say: „If you like, we can use the informal you from now on.“ Or „You can call me by my first name and use the informal you.” (This offer implies that obliges the other person to extend the same invitation or else it will be a really tricky situation.)



Image credit: here.

By now I hope that you are not too confused and still here, dear reader! As you can see, this matter is quite complex, although in most European countries one learns the rules from childhood on and knows them instinctively.

Which one did I opt for when teaching fashion? I decided to use the formal, mutually respective “Sie.”

My fashion students are young adults and have embarked on a journey of fashion education in order to pursue a career in this field. I want to respect this effort. The distance and professional setting which this formal pronoun creates adds to the seriousness of the classroom. Equally, the students have to address me the same way and thus acknoledge my position as their tutor. I call them by their last names and they have to address me by my last name.


Image credit: here.

Here is the fun part though: Once the students have graduated and are no longer attending my class, I am allowed to offer them the informal „Du“! In this context, the elder person has to offer it first, but I will be more than happy to do that. Without explaining, this coming-of-age sort of inuendo implies something to the extent of: “You have made it. You have passed all tests and are no longer my student but my equal. Therefore we can reduce the distance and step to the same level. You can call me by my first name and use an informal pronoun.”


Image credit: here.

Have you ever taught in a different language than English? How did you address your students? Is there a way to establish a serious working environment even when using the English “you?” How did you approach distance and closeness, formality and mutual respect in your classrom? I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences!

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  • Karen June 01, 2015 10.46 am

    This was really interesting! I have considered teaching in Spanish but have been worried about all the formal speak. I need to brush up on it!

  • Olga June 08, 2015 02.49 pm

    Thank you for your comment, Karen! Yes, that is a very good point: The formal speech requires to use different grammar, doesn’t it? And that means you really have to feel comfortable in that language. But I think you should still try teaching in Spanish, even if you are not 100% perfect!


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