Everything You Need To Know About French

This isn't quite a first look, since I already have some experience with French, but that doesn't mean I can't still do a basic exploration of the language as I would do with any other language I don't know.

French is an official language in 29 countries. It is spoken by 136 million people as a primary language, by 190 million people as a second language, and perhaps another 200 million people as an acquired foreign language.

It ranks #2 (behind English) among the world's most influential languages, and is among the 8 on my "complete world traveler" language list. The French language has also had a significant influence on English, including thousands of loan-words which are used every day.

General characteristics of French

I already wrote a brief introduction to the French alphabet, so I won't go back into great detail about that again. In short, the French alphabet is a Latin alphabet similar to that of English, but with a few extra decorations for some of the vowels. The R's are throaty, as in English and German, rather than rolled as in many other langauges.

The most interesting aspect of French pronunciation is the dropping of consonant endings. Actually, I'm not an expert speaker of French, and I don't have much experience hearing it spoken by native speakers, but I suspect that these endings aren't completely dropped, but rather severely de-voiced. (If a reader could give me some clarity on this, I would greatly appreciate it!)

French grammar

French grammar is very similar to that of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, owing to their shared Latin roots. But the similarities are most striking with Italian, with which the French language shares more than 90% of its vocabulary.

A typical Romance language, French uses a standard subject-verb-object (SVO) structure. It has an extensive system of verb conjugations to reflect any of more than a dozen verb tenses, moods, etc. A T-V distinction exists to show proper respect to people who are not familiar.

There is no declension, so word order is important and determines the role of each noun in a sentence. Nouns are generally preceded by articles, and there is both a definite and an indefinite article. The French language has two genders — masculine and feminine. Articles, nouns, and adjectives must all agree in gender and plurality.

General impressions

Overall, it's the pronunciation that I find most interesting about French. I love to read it out loud, even when I don't understand what I'm saying, because I enjoy the art of dropping endings and adding them back when the next word starts with a vowel. When you're doing it right, you know it intuititvely, because there is a poetic, musical quality to the language.

Of course it's hard to do it right. In addition to the pronounciation — which is challenging enough already — French also has an even stress. This is very difficult for an English speaker, because we're so accustomed to stressed syllables in all multisyllabic words. I believe it's this even stress that gives the language its romantic, seductive quality.

All in all, it's an excellent language to learn, and one that I certainly wish I knew better than I currently do... but all things come in their time. I will certainly have my opportunity to improve my French in due time. And it's nice to know that this year's Italian studies are possibly helping that!


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Final consonants are usually not pronounced at all in French (there are many exceptions of course). There's really no de-voicing as it exists in German and Dutch, but when liaison occurs, a final voiceless consonant (if it were pronounced as it was in old French) becomes voiced and vice versa:des oiseaux is pronounced like deh zwah-zoh /s/ becomes /z/
    grand amour is pronounced like grahn tamoor /d/ becomes /t/Final consonants are pronounced when a silent ending is added, as for feminine forms of adjectives: pret is pronounced preh and prête is pronounced prehtThat's why I always tell people to start with feminine forms and just drop the consonant sound to get the masculine, instead of the other way around, which is how all books teach it (because they focus on the written form rather spoken).Glad to see you're getting into French again! :)

  • Being a native speaker of French, I can tell you about consonants endings, but I'm not sure that I did understand what you meant. So I'll take an example, and you'll tell me if it was what you thought to.
    In the sentence "Ils parlent à leur fils." (which means "They talk/are talking to their son."), we pronounce "parlent à" as "parle tà" or as "parla". It depends if we say the sentence (we would say "il parla leur fiss") or if we read it (we would say "il parle (t)a leur fiss", the "(t)" is a soft "t"). In fact, there is a liaison (not sure of the word :s) which is optional. But when we speak, we don't care too much about rules (in fact, we do care about them when reading) : we pronounce forbidden liaisons, or don't pronounce compulsory ones. It also depends of the "language's register" (do you say "degrees of formality" ?) you want to speak : if it's familiar (informal), liaisons are quite disordered, if it's current, we pronounce just compulsory ones, and if it's formal, we pronounce all the liaisons (but except politicians, nobody speak formal French).
    I hope I was clear enough so you understood :)Just a question, which as nothing to do with French, but how do you learn Italian ? Which is your materials ? I mean, there are some courses for beginners, basic vocabulary, websites, native speakers, videos, all on the Internet ... I'm learning Esperanto (just for two weeks), and there are plenty of materials on the Web. Then I'd like to start learning Italian (because French is so similar to Italian, I hope it'll help me ...). But I really don't know where to start : I only know "buongiorno" and "ciao".Finally, I think your post was really interesting : I didn't know that French was so important, I thought it was a language that nobody wanted to learn any more, everybody learning English and Chinese.Your blog is really interesting, thanks to it and Benny's one, I can learn languages in a funnier and more interesting way : I think the more fun you have, the more you learn !Thank you so much !

  • Of course, French - if I'm not mistaken - may also be distinguished from Italian in that it is not a pro-drop language, and so doesn't permit the omission of pronouns.

  • True. In that respect it's more like English.

  • I use Google to find grammar. There are plenty of web site describing grammar, so it is not difficult.Early vocabulary can be picked up on LiveMocha, Busuu, and several other sites, for free. Also easy to find on Google.After learning basic vocabulary and grammar, it's just a matter of practice. Reading a lot, writing regularly, listening to music, watching movies, and of course talking to people.

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