Some people think that learning a foreign language, in this day and age, is a needless waste of resources – time, money and brain power.
With electronic translators that fit right in your pocket and pretty much everyone the world over speaking English anyway, what is the point of learning any foreign language, let alone French?
That is an astute observation! Incorrect, but astute nevertheless.
The French language has some of the most amusing expressions, such as j'ai un petit creux – an adorable way to say I am a bit hungry.
Run that phrase through translator software, and you get I'm a little hollow, a near-literal translation that gives no indication of what the sentence actually means.
Near-literal translation? It should be I have a little hollow; the mental image giving a clue to the meaning.
Online translators try hard, but sometimes they miss the mark entirely!
The question is: how will you know that the app you're using is translating accurately if you have no knowledge of the French language, especially French slang?
You can try this experiment for yourself, using a phrase in English. We did!
Julie was gutted over losing her job. Gutted means in despair, of course.
The translator spit out the French equivalent of: Julie was emptied over losing her job.
Close in literal meaning, but in no way does that translation convey the figurative rending that Julie suffered at suddenly being unemployed.
And, if you used that French translation of our very British expression in conversation with a native French speaker, you might be quizzed over your sentence's exact meaning.
If you can't speak French, how will you explain what you had intended to say?
Besides the inaccuracies of translation software – and their unintentional, sometimes comical results, here are five other great reasons to learn French that we will discuss in more depth in this article:
- The French language is spoken by millions of people worldwide, on 5 continents
- There is a strong bond between English and French, in spite of English being a Germanic language.
- French is a beautiful, rhythmic tongue; full of nuance and quirky turns of phrase
- It is considered a gateway romance language; easy to transition from French to Spanish, Italian and Portuguese; even Romanian
- There are so many benefits to being bilingual!
Let us now get to the meat of the matter – an idiom that translation apps render incomprehensible in French.
French Words Used in Everyday English
If ever there were an argument for the ease of native English speakers learning French, it would have to be wealth of French vocabulary we use in our daily lives, quite possibly without a thought to those words' origins.
Are you an avid photographer? Or would you rather play chef, presiding over the beefsteak barbecue on the weekend?
Those words all come to us from across the channel, as do the concepts attached to them.
Not that people the world over had never enjoyed a nice grilled steak before; it's just that eating them pink, or even bloody was, till recently, strictly a French affair.
We call steaks cooked in that manner rare because it was so infrequent that anyone would eat beef that still bled!
Back to your favourite pastimes, now: photography, cuisine, dancing, even visiting an art gallery. Every one of these words come to us from the French language, along with cinema and telly and a whole host of others.
By some accounts, 40% of words in our dictionary have their roots in French. So many French words populate our common English vocabulary that an entire web page has been dedicated to them!
French terms pop up just about everywhere: in botany, geology, technology and especially in the military; in fashion and in political terms that harken back to feudal times.
Did you know our governing body, the Parliament, is a French word meaning discussion or negotiation?
French phrases Commonly Used in English
You needn't cast a wide net to find everyday phrases in French that we English speakers have appropriated and made our own.
We'll bet you have at least heard of these, if not used them yourself:
- a la carte: when you order individual food items from a menu – the card
- Following the same format, you may have a la mode: according to the current fashion or custom
- Je ne sais quoi – used to express an intangible quality; literally I don't know what
- Miss Markle has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her absolutely right to marry a royal.
- Au courant: literally in the current; meaning aware
- I read the news every day to stay au courant of world affairs
- Carte blanche: liberal permission and resources to do as you wish, or as needed
- my parents gave me carte blanche to redecorate my flat.
French Idioms Used in English
An idiom is a phrase whose collective words give no meaning of the sentiment or idea being expressed.
Raining cats and dogs, for example, does not represent hapless puppies and kittens on a forceful downward trajectory, splattering everywhere. Thank goodness!
Idioms generally have roots in the specific culture and language they originate in.
The phrase lost in translation has never been more apt to describe theses concepts that crumble under the force of conversion to another tongue.
Thus it comes as a surprise that we've borrowed more than a few such phrases from our French neighbours.
These imports did not undergo interpretation; we've not just appended to our dictionary what the idioms in question represent, but the words used to represent them!
Esprit de corps translates to the spirit of the body, but means morale.
This phrase was born of military service, in which the soldiers shared a unified mentality of defense and protectionism for one's homeland and ideals.
Since then, the usage of this colloquial phrase has expanded to include everything from office politics to solidarity with your mates.
If you are as one with the majority, you can say that you have esprit de corps.
Do you know this phrase, popularised in song, and even used in one episode of Coronation Street?
We all know what voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir means.
Its implication has been rendered genteel in English – even if spoken in French. But natives of that language interpret the verb coucher in more... graphic terms.
One French idiom that has lost no meaning in translation, even though it is used today in its original language is Honi soit qui mal y pense.
It means shame to he who thinks ill of it.
So impactful was this sentiment that our own Most Noble Order of the Garter adopted it as its motto!
In today's modern French vernacular, that phrase is: honni soit qui en pense du mal; changing the sentiment of shame to revilement.
To end this segment of French words and phrases commonly used in English, here are a few that are routinely used in English speaking countries that, curiously enough, the French don't use – at least not in the way we do.
Au naturel: a phrase we use to describe in the nude.
The French use it to signal natural settings: a backstage interview (entretien au naturel), or to describe natural colours such as taupe or beige.
En masse: how we describe everyone doing the same thing at the same time.
For francophones, the word masse is only used to describe physical weight. The closer translation of the sentiment into Canadian French would be bunch.
See what a lighthearted, amusing activity it can be to dissect French expressions? Let us now look at other benefits of learning the language of Molière.
The Benefits of Learning French
As we ascertained at the beginning of this article, language learning in general can be very beneficial.
What we've not expounded on is in what ways!
For one, people who can speak a second language derive many cognitive benefits that can even help improve their quality of life as they get older.
And, while upwardly mobile in the professional world, bilinguals stand to be hired faster and earn more than anyone who has not taken any language courses.
Those points remain true whether you learn Chinese or take Spanish courses.
But how can French learning benefit you? Why study French, specifically?
Let us say you are such an upwardly mobile professional, eagerly anticipating your relocation to Luxembourg or Belgium, to a lucrative position with a sister firm.
Would you have been considered for that job if you spoke only English?
What about your love of winter sports? You may want to ski or snowboard down Mont Blanc. Or, if you are a mountain climber, you may aspire to summit the highest peak in western Europe.
It is true that you could get by with using English alone in those circumstances, but by embracing the French language, you are also embracing the culture and the people of the land you exercise your passion in.
Did you know that French culture is inexorably intertwined with its cuisine? You could hardly claim to be a foodie and not speak French!
Being able to communicate with French people while abroad represents a tacit approval of everything that their language and culture represents.
You could polish your conversation skills with French speaking people just about anywhere in the world, because the French language is spoken in over 30 countries!
Would you like to learn more about the benefits of learning French as your second language?
A Gateway to Further Language Studies
As your French lessons London progress, you realise that it is both exciting and engaging to acquire language skills.
You may perceive an upcoming certification exam, perhaps the DELF, as a finish line that, once you cross it, would signify that you are done with French courses... and where would you go from there?
The joy of learning is infectious and, once inoculated with it, you may never want to stop learning languages!
That is another reason why studying French is such a great idea.
Because French grammar is so similar to the grammar of other romance languages – many verbs even conjugate the same way!, it would not be such a great leap to learn Spanish, learn Italian; you could even learn Portuguese after mastering French!
Speaking French can give you advantages over monolinguals in the workplace, help broaden your cultural awareness and even help you understand your native language and culture better.
We can't think of a better reason than that last one to become a francophone!
How Long Does it Take to Learn French?
All fun and excitement aside, learning a second language is a serious undertaking that requires diligence, hard work, and time.
Even though we English speakers regularly make use of French vocabulary and idioms - whether we know it or not, any serious language learner would know that studying French is a monumental undertaking that requires dedication and a serious time commitment.
How much time does it take to learn French? How long can any French learner expect to stay at intermediate level?
Let's go over some of the reasons why learning French should be a years-long commitment.
French Grammar versus English Grammar
As previously discussed, French is Romantic and English is Germanic.
That does not mean that anyone with intimate knowledge of the French language and culture is a dashing heartthrob.
Because these linguistic systems have their roots in different cultures, their vocabulary and grammar bear only a few similarities.
A most immediate way to spot a critical difference between the two language systems is with you.
Not you specifically, but in using the pronoun you.
In our mother tongue, that pronoun is representative of males, females, multiple people or a lone person; anyone you might address, formally or informally.
French pronouns emphasise all of these distinctions. However, it is important to note that, when a mixed group is the subject or object of a sentence, the masculine gender is always used.
Tu vas avec elles? – you will go with that group of females? versus Tu vas avec eux? - used to represent an all-male or mixed group.
These differentiations can make conveying ideas a very precise process.
Let us see how grammatical gender applies to articles with this sentence: the teacher gave us a homework assignment.
In English, we have no idea if that teacher is male or female, but in French, le maître would represent a male teacher and la maitresse would be a woman who instructs.
Even indefinite articles, a and an, are treated to such precision: un and une – male and female, respectively.
What about the qualifier some; for uncountable nouns? Du is masculine; de la is feminine and des – the plural form, is for both.
The best way to learn these divisions, of course, is to spend ample time in their study, and their associated rules.
As you may well imagine, if articles and pronouns must relate to the subjects' grammatical gender, so too must any adjectives and, where applicable, verb endings.
Beginners in French classes all fume that mastering such agreements is one of the most difficult aspects of learning grammar in French.
These aspects of French language study need not be antithetical to your motivation in learning this beautiful, complex tongue.
Let us cite yet another import into English, this time from German, that neatly addresses that concern:
Sprachgefühl loosely translates as the feel for the language.
By invoking this phenomenon that every language learner sooner or later experiences, you can be free of rote memorisation of grammar rules, and just let your heart soar with the rhythm and beauty of speaking French!
Our best advice for learning French fast: don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Just as you don't need to understand the workings of an internal combustion engine to know how to drive a car, so you don't need to ponder every single grammar rule before your utter your first sentence in French!
By no means are we suggesting that you throw your French textbook out of the window; only that you will learn French faster if you don't stress over whether you should use le or la; un or une or de or des!
Most people in French speaking countries will recognise and applaud your sincere efforts at learning their language, so there is no need to sweat small grammatical or verb tense mistakes.
Is French hard to Learn?
The intricacies of learning French grammar aside, you might be surprised at how precise and straightforward the language is, for all of its flowery prose.
If you assign the issue of gender agreement to your growing feel for the language, you may find that speaking French is not as complicated, or as daunting as it appeared in your beginner French classes.
If you think that grammatical gender and agreement are complicated in French, you should try learning those rules as they apply to Arabic!
Is French as hard to learn as you think?
What about conjugating verbs in French?
French Verb Tenses
Compared to English, verb tenses in French tend to be more inclusive, expanding to nearly double the number of tenses in our language.
All questions of mood aside – delving into them would make for a ponderous discussion!, we can attest to the fact that only about 6 of French's 23 verb tenses are routinely used.
Unless you intend to prove your French language skills formally by sitting DELF level C2, most likely you will not often use more than eight of these more elevated constructs.
However, we would point out that having so many ways to indicate when an action has occurred is yet more proof attesting to the precision of the French language.
As with nouns, pronouns and articles, with certain verbs, agreement again rears its head: any compound verb construction involving être will make use of feminine form; for example: je suis allée is correct if a female went somewhere.
The extra E is not applied if a male, or if a group of people are involved.
Conjugating irregular verbs can be a tricky affair, in any language. Fortunately, the list of such predicates is substantially shorter for French than our very long list!
Besides, most of the French irregular verbs, such as pouvoir and avoir are used so often that you will soon incorporate their various forms into your spoken French with hardly a thought!
Syllable Stress and Tone
One aspect of learning how to speak French is its rhythm; specifically the fact that there is no syllable stress required to give a word meaning, as in English.
Because English is our native tongue, perhaps we give no thought to two-syllable nouns having a spoken stress on the first syllable, and two-syllable verbs requiring stress on the second syllable.
Such a distinction gives our language a lot of double-meaning words.
For example: IM-port represents goods that are brought into the country; im-PORT is the act of bringing goods in.
Linguistic experts agree that, because of the syllable stress used to give English words meaning, our spoken language sounds choppy.
By contrast, the French use no inflection to give meaning to their words. Instead, vocables are grouped into phonic units and delivered with a unique rhythm.
As a French learner, you may need some time to get used to that distinctive phraseology.
Autodidact Kató Lomb said: Language is the only thing worth knowing poorly.
Obviously, no one would not start out a language learning adventure with the intent of gaining poor skills. Still, there is truth in that quote.
Don't just take anyone's word for it; discover for yourself why learning French is a great endeavour!