French is the official language of France and it’s also spoken in Monaco, Luxembourg, some parts of Belgium and Switzerland, in the Canadian province of Québec, parts of North and Central Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Madagascar and the French Overseas Departments and Territories. It can still be heard in some communities of French origin in the USA, in Maine and Louisiana.
Since a large number of English words and expressions are of French origin, you’re actually already au fait with quite a lot of French vocabulary. Had a déjà vu lately? Did that glass of wine have a certain je ne sais quoi? In a restaurant or café, you might find olives, pâté, omelette on the menu, along with soufflé or chocolate mousse for dessert. Feeling flush? Wash it all down with champagne. Ah, c’est la vie !
Helpfully, most French words ending with -tion or -sion are spelt almost exactly the same in English and generally have the same meaning, e.g. participation, action, intuition, élection, décision, infusion, passion.
Lots of English loan words are used in French, but the Académie française, French Academy, which sets the rules of the language, recommends using words derived from French instead. However, this has been received with a mixed reaction in France and the English versions are more commonly used! French grammar has similarities to Spanish and Italian.
If you learn French, you’ll have to get your head around the genders, verb conjugation and pronunciation of nasal sounds.
Some vowels have accents and a few commonly used verbs are irregular, such as:
être – to be avoir – to have
aller – to go venir – to come
Words that end in -ly, in English, usually finish in -ement in French, so you can usually spot them by swapping the endings, e.g. rapidement – rapidly exactement – exactly and so on. It won’t work every time, but it can help!
– Practise the sounds ‘s’ and ‘ch’: Les chaussettes de l’archiduchesse sont-elles sèches, archi-sèches? Are the Archduchess’ socks dry, very dry?
Un chasseur sachant chasser sait chasser sans son chien de chasse. A hunter who knows how to hunt knows how to hunt without his hunting dog.
Parodies, slapstick humour and a play on words are very popular in France and newspapers usually feature cartoons and comic strips making fun of politicians
French is a Romance language, ie of Latin origin. Romance languages share a similar grammatical structure and there are often similarities in vocabulary.
If you learn French, you’ll have a head start in learning other languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Catalan.
In a foreign language, you can easily find yourself in embarrassing or funny situations. For example, if you want to thank someone, you could say Merci beaucoup, Thank you very much. Take care with the ou and try not to pronounce it u, otherwise you could be complimenting somebody on their ‘beautiful bottom’!
Direct translation might not work in some situations. For instance, if you’re after a hot dog in France and you ask for un chien chaud, its literal translation, you’ll get a puzzled look from the waiter. Simply ask for un hot dog.
Finally, even if you don’t know much about the language, it always goes down well with the locals if you mind your p’s and q’s and use s’il vous plaît, please and merci, thank you.
FAMOUS FRENCH QUOTES
Je pense donc je suis.
I think therefore I am.
René Descartes (1596-1650)
The famous philosopher and mathematician used a method of doubting the truth about everything, which led him to this now famous conclusion
Rien ne sert de courir, il faut partir à point.
Running is worthless. You have to leave on time.
Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695)
Modern French was finally established in the 17th century with writers such as Malherbe, Descartes, Corneille, Pascal, Racine and Molière, among others. The Académie française, which sets the rules of the language, was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu.
Like other Romance languages, there are different ways of saying ‘you’:
tu, for people you can be on first-name terms with, and vous, in other cases. The plural in both cases is also vous.
When greeting, men usually shake hands. In informal situations, women meeting men or other women will kiss them on the cheeks, although it’s more like quick ‘cheek-touching’ rather than a kiss. The number of kisses, bisous or bises, varies per region and can go up to four!