Introduction to the French Language
While English is the dominant player in the language world today, less than 100 years ago that title was indisputably held by French. The language was widely spread throughout the world between the 17th and 20th centuries as a result of the French and Belgian thirst for colonization; no one could have considered themselves educated without the ability to speak French, which became the language of politics, commerce, art and literature.
French is a Romance language, a descendent of Latin like Spanish and Italian. French arose from Vulgar Latin (the common Latin speech) over a period of about 800 years, and the first written example of French as a separate language is the Oaths of Strasbourg in 842.
French is spoken as a first language in France, Monaco, parts of Switzerland and Belgium, the province of Quebec, and other regions in Canada. French is also an official language in 29 other countries and one of the official languages of the United Nations. In addition, there are French-speaking communities in many other nations, even where the language does not have official status. Unlike many languages that are declining—by one estimate, the world is losing a language a day—French is on the increase, and it is estimated that French will be spoken by 7% of the world’s population by the year 2050.
There are numerous dialects of French throughout the world, too many to number. Haitian Creole is a variety of French, as is the patois spoken by the Acadians (Cajuns) in the Louisiana area. Canadian French has a pronunciation and some vocabulary that are all its own, and many local dialects are found in France as well.
French is one of the easiest languages to learn for an English speaker. By best estimates, over 30% of English words come from French, because English adopted so many words from French after the Norman Conquest of 1066. This gives an English speaker a tremendous advantage when learning French vocabulary. Here are a few examples:
There are thousands of such cognates—that is, words that are related to similar words in English. Once a learner has recognized the patterns, many words can be created on the fly. That said, some cognates are “false”, and two words that look similar may have entirely different meanings—more on that later.
French grammar and word order is, in general, the same as that of English.
What are some of the challenges for an English speaker learning French?
- Cognates are a great help in learning a language, but there are dangers. Many false cognates exist, but fortunately they are more the exception than the rule. Still, the learner should be aware that not every cognate pair is an exact match. French achever means to finish, not to accomplish (achieve); affluence is a crowd of people, rather than wealth or riches; magasin is a store, not a magazine.
- French pronunciation is more difficult than that of Italian or Spanish. There are numerous sounds that don’t exist in English, specifically the nasal vowels heard in un bon vin blanc (a good white wine); the French guttural “r”; and the sounds heard in bœuf (beef) and cœur (heart) are difficult for some English learners. Difficult, but not impossible. While audio courses provide good modeling, a human instructor is the best resource to help you train your mouth to make unfamiliar sounds.
- French verbs are notoriously complex. Like all Romance languages, there is a difference between a familiar “you” and a formal “you”. We have a remnant of this in the English “thou”, but it appears only in Shakespeare and the King James Bible, as far as most people are aware. There are many tenses and moods that we don’t use in English. Fortunately for a beginner, most of these are not needed for everyday conversation. That said, some of the world’s greatest literature is written in French; if you want to be able to read it in the original, you will need to understand the literary forms as well.
- All French nouns have gender—masculine and feminine. There are some rules and some patterns, but for the most part every noun has to be learned with its gender by repetition.
People wonder how long it will take them to learn French. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, because everyone is different. As a rule of thumb, you should plan on six months to a year of intensive study for basic conversations, and two years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. Once you get started, you may never want to stop. As an added bonus, once you have learned French, you will find that learning Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese will be a snap.
Examples of Words in French
teacher: professeur, maître
Useful French Sentences
What is your name? Comment vous appelez-vous?
My name is … Je m’appelle…
Good morning. Bonjour.
Goodbye. Au revoir.
Where is the toilet? Où sont les toilettes?
I don’t understand. Je ne comprends pas.
Learning French will provide you with a key to a rich fountain of literature, art and music. While some French speakers won’t be impressed unless you can speak their language like a native, you will find many others who are appreciative of your efforts to learn their language, and you will find opportunities open to you that are unavailable to people who speak only English.