French: Gauche ou droite?

Being blown away on Le Tour Eiffel.

About a year and a half ago, I was walking the streets of Paris, lost. It was my first time to France and I was in Arrondissment 16, the same district where the Musee du Vin was located. I was freaking out, because I was to meet my friend at an apartment we were staying in; I had forgot to wrote down his phone number when I left the States.

I asked many different people for directions to find Rue Charles de Gaulle, from random ladies eating at a cafe to a cyclist, who tired for about 20 minutes and gave up. But every time I attempted to speak French, I could only mutter a “Je suis” or a droite. While I asked two servicemen who were finally able to help me, I apparently had butchered the language so badly that a passerby literally stopped and stared at me. How had my French, a language I studied when I was younger, gotten so terrible?

As you can see, French has a special place in my heart. Why did I decide to learn it and then ditch it when it counted? I don’t know. But for some reason, I’m deciding to give it another shot.

French is used pretty much everywhere by about 265 million speakers, making it the one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Beyond its birthplace, it is used a great deal in many parts of Africa and southern Asia, Belgium, Luxembourg, in the Caribbean and Canada.

REGIONAL HISTORY: French is a descendant of Vulgar Latin, a language that was spoken in the Roman Empire, which is also the mother of most Romance languages. Starting in the 200s AD, Gaul (what France was called at the time) was invaded by a bunch of different Germanic tribes, most notably the Franks. It is from their language from which français (French for French) derives; the arrival of the Franks also had a big effect on Latin. A group of Romance languages spoken in the northern region, known as “oil languages” are referred to as Old French.

French first appeared in the Strasbourg Oaths in 842 AD. During the middle ages, French was being bombarded with new words from Viking, Celtic, Norman and even Arab invaders, adding lots of new words. French became the official language in the country in 1539 by King Francis I, and soon it was to become the preferred language of the arts, literature and aristocracy. One important thing that happened a century later was the establishment of the Académie français, an institution created for the sake of preserving the French language. The academy is still operating to this date.

France was one of the most powerful countries in Europe for several centuries, causing the language to spread to other parts of Europe (and by this time being used by everyone, not just the rich) and, through exploration, to settlements and colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The lingering influence of French in these regions led to the creation of the  Francophonie, or a community of French-speaking nations that currently includes 56 members.

WRITING SYSTEM: French uses a Latin alphabet that is exactly the same as English’s. The main difference is that French has four diacritics or marks that goes over vowels and a consonant: the grave accent (`), acute accent (`), circumflex (^) and cedilla (¸). The first three mainly change the sound of e and a, while the cedilla is only used under the c to make it soft (like in français). With exception of the h, which is silent, the consonants sound mostly the same as in English. Here’s what I found from Smartphrases concerning the vowels:

a – ea as in heart
â – a as in above
e – an “uh” sound
é – a as in day
è, ê – a as in above
i – e as in me
o  – o as in more
u – u as in cue

French sometimes uses the letters œ (oe, similar to “eu” in French) and æ (ae, similar to a in cat), but these are not part of the alphabet.

One important thing to note is that the last consonant in French words is never pronounced, except if the last letter is C, F, L or R or the first letter in a following word is a vowel or h. For example grand (big) would just sound like “grawhn” while grand homme (big man) would sound like “grawhn DOME.”

This also happens for nouns that begin with a vowel or h when used with their articles le, la, les (the), except that the first vowel is eliminated and replaced with an apostrophe. For example, le homme becomes l’homme (the first e is removed).

This is really a review, as noted in the first post, but I’m not sure what to think. One issue (that may have led to my ennui and eventual departure) came from French’s pronunciation and lexical similarity with English (about 30 percent), which really throws me off. Sometimes when I speak it, I always feel the need to hesitate before proceeding, as I worry that I have mispronounced something.

When I was in Paris, the French I heard had lots of throaty “ooh”, “euhhh” and r sounds. I am able to mimic this, but it takes effort to do it effortlessly. I also am curious about regional varieties of French this time around, not just the ones spoken in France.

I will leave you with France’s most famous singer, Edith Piaf, with the classic “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

Babylon – French Alphabet
Smart Phrase
Wikipedia (History of French)

7 thoughts on “French: Gauche ou droite?

  1. Keith its most likely not the fact that you butchered the language. Parisians hate Americans. The only thing they hate more than Americans are Americans who try to speak French. C’est la meme chose en Suisse. Quand Je rendre visite a ma famille en Geneve je n’aime pas aller aux restaurantes parce que Les garcons ne m’ecoutes pas…

    1. Oh no, I hated that I may have painted Parisians as rude. I had a very lovely time in Paris and the people were very friendly and hospitable to me. I suppose I was trying to articulate my frustrations with not speaking it properly. But I’m sorry you had bad experiences in Switzerland.

  2. I’m actually a student of both French and Japanese, and it’s been interesting learning them at the same time and comparing them. I found French pronunciation not overwhelmingly difficult – most patterns are fairly logical and easy to follow. The hard part of French comes with listening and the alphabet – but once you get a handle on how everything correlates, it becomes a lot easier and your pronunciation improves a lot. But it goes without saying, you really have to separate the English alphabet from yourself and relearn it, because despite the similarities, they’re different creatures.

    The other difficult part of French is actually speaking – while it’s true that there’s a lot of snobbery against Anglophones in Paris, you do also have to be really clear when you speak because so much sounds so similar. I know that when I got shy or nervous in France, I’d typically be quite difficult to understand. However, if I was speaking French with someone I was comfortable with (or had a bit to drink, a hur hur hur. The slurring helps the accent though), the only barrier was my actual ability.

    But otherwise, French is quite an interesting language. It’s not quite true about it being the language of love – it’s more like sex. It’s flirty, charming and elegant, but it can still be guttural and fun, too.

    And if you’re wondering about regional dialects, be warned that most are made fun of – Quebecois by the European Francophones, Belgian and Swiss French by the French, and then the Parisians make fun of everyone else in France. I’m not certain about Quebecois or the Creole dialects, but Belgian and Swiss French are, in form, largely similar to mainstream French, bar some idioms, words picked up from nearby cultures (Dutch and German) and a handful of different words. I’m not overly familiar with the regional languages either (like Languedoc and Provençal), but I’m fairly certain that they’re not mutually intelligible, and some, like Breton, belong in entirely separate language groups (Breton’s most closely related to Cornish or Welsh).

    Hope any of this helps 😀

    1. Hi Aidan,

      Thank you for your thoughts on French! I think that’s probably the same problem I had as well, I wasn’t being very clear in what I was trying to say. (I wish I did know what I was trying to say!) Perhaps it’s not so much the pronunciation, but more ennui from listening to it. I also found that a little French went a very long way and that I was respected for trying to speak it or for asking for help.

      I do think its funny how you pointed out the perceptions French speakers have of each other and that you said French is the language of sex — haha!

      It’s quite interesting that you are learning Japanese and French at the same time! That is a project in itself and I’d definitely read a blog about that! Good luck with that!


  3. French! I’ve been waiting your thoughts on this one.

    Sorry to hear some of you had bad experiences with french speakers, but I must say we’re not all that snobby about foreigners. But making fun of other accents is part of the culture and humor, so get used to it 😉

    Beware that Québecois and Créole can be quite different than “Français métropolitain”. When watching a movie in québecois, I have to rely on subtitles to fully understand the vocabulary, and Créole is quite confusing too.

    Provençal is a breed of Occitan (also called Langue d’Oc) that is closer to Catalan. Occitan was originally spoken in the south of France, while different breeds of Langue d’Oïl (among which what we call now French) were spoken in the upper part.

    I think that Aidan was right when he said that “once you get a handle on how everything correlates, it becomes a lot easier and your pronunciation improves a lot.” There is a “barrier to entry”, especially orally, but if you get past it, you’ll start to have fun.

    Bon courage !

    1. Hi Alex,

      Again, I’m sorry I mistakenly mentioned there were bad experiences. The French people I spoke to were rather helpful, nothing bad happened at all! I can’t wait to go back to Paris!

      I agree with your comments about the pronunciation barrier. I definitely think that is true for French. Perhaps I’m not patient enough to get over that barrier. 😉

      Catalan is the last language in part one, so it’ll be interesting to learn about the d’Oc languages.

      Thank you very much for reading and taking the time to comment!


      1. Fun is an important factor when learning a language I think, so don’t be patient if you don’t want to.

        Catalan is one my “to learn” list too, so I’ll be sure to check your posts on that one 😉

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