A Guide to French - 10 facts about the French language

Useful facts about the French language in French

Translation in French

Check the French-only version

1. Where is French spoken?

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

2. What you already know about French

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. For example:
 un walkman / un baladeur
 un tie-break / un jeu décisif
 un software / un logiciel
 un e-mail / un courriel
However, this has been received with a mixed reaction in France and the English versions are more commonly used!

3. How hard is it to learn?

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!

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

The French would probably tell you their longest word is
 anticonstitutionnellement, a long adverb meaning ‘in a very unconstitutional way’. It contains 25 letters but is hardly ever used!

Try your luck with some of the most challenging virelangues, tongue twisters:
- 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

- And for good practice with homophones, ie. words that sound the same but are written differently:
 Si six scies scient six cyprès, six cents scies scient six cent cyprès
If six saws saw six cypresses, six hundred saws saw six hundred cypresses

- Lastly, a tongue-twister poem to practise the ‘on’, 'en’ sounds and to differentiate between  ou and  u:
 « Tonton, ton thé t'a-t-il ôté ta toux, » disait la tortue au tatou.
« Mais pas du tout, » dit le tatou. « Je tousse tant que l'on m'entend de Tahiti à Tombouctou. »
"Uncle, your tea has cured your cough," said the tortoise to the armadillo.
"Not at all," said the armadillo. "I cough so much that you can hear me from Tahiti to Timbuktu."

5. Know any good French jokes?

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

Here are a couple of jokes using French puns:
 Au restaurant, le garçon demande au client :
« Comment avez-vous trouvé le bifteck ? »
« Tout à fait par hasard, en soulevant une frite ! »
At the restaurant, the waiter asks a customer:
"How did you ‘find’ your steak?"
"Just by chance, when I picked up a fry!"

Playing on the two meanings of quartier, ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘slice’:
 Deux asticots se retrouvent dans une pomme :
« Tiens ! Je ne savais pas que vous habitiez dans le quartier ! »
Two maggots meet inside an apple:
"Hi there! I didn’t know that you lived in the same area/slice!"

6. If I learn French, will it help me with any other languages?

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

7. What not to say and do

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 works 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

Beware of false friends, which can create confusing situations. Just to mention a few:
 sensible means sensitive
 déception means disappointment
 journal is a newspaper

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

8. Famous quotations to impress the locals

 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)
He became famous for his fables and nowadays, it’s common to hear his morals in daily conversation. This is a popular one from Le Lièvre et la Tortue, The Hare and the Tortoise

9. First written records and ruling body

Written in 842 AD, Les Serments de Strasbourg, The oaths of Strasbourg, was an oath sworn by Charles the Bald and Louis the German, to help each other against their other brother, Lothair, following the death of their father, Louis the Pious. However, just a year later, the three brothers reconciled

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

10. How to be polite

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!

French key phrases

French key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The French alphabet

The French alphabet

Get the lowdown on accents and nasal sounds

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