Today we’ll touch on various aspects of the French language that native English speakers tend to struggle with. French, like Spanish, shares the same writing style and nearly the same alphabet with English. French has also gifted English with many loanwords (which can be both a blessing and a curse). However, French also requires a great deal of memorization of different word forms and familiarity with grammatical concepts that have no direct English equivalents. So with that in mind, here are six things to keep an eye out for if you are beginning to learn French.
French-English false friends can be especially tricky because of the languages’ shared linguistic history. Modern English has borrowed a ton of words from French over the years, and the difference in meaning between an English word and its French source can be incredibly subtle. The English conductor can refer to everything from the director of an orchestra to the operator of a train. The French conducteur, however, explicitly means “the driver of a vehicle.” Actually means “in reality” in English, while its French cousin actuellement translates to “at the present moment.” On the one hand, the highly nuanced nature of many French-English false friends makes it possible to trace the origins of words back to the point where the meanings diverged. On the other hand, you can’t easily sort similarly spelled words in the two languages into convenient categories based on whether they have the same or different meanings.
French is a much more gendered language than English. Every noun has an assigned gender, distinguished in its most basic sense by the use of the masculine le article and the feminine la article. Sometimes this can be intuitive: le père (the father) and la mère (the mother) are self-explanatory. Things are not so simple most of the time. This is because you have to adjust the form or ending of other words in a sentence depending on the gender of the noun to which they refer. Choosing the wrong gender for the subject can end up mangling whole sentences.
Furthermore, some nouns have different meanings depending on the gender used. Le manche means “the handle.” La Manche means “the sleeve.” Le post translates to “the position.” La post refers to the mail system. You have to keep an eye on which gender you’re using at each stage of composing a sentence. Changes we take for granted as being self-contained in English, like a pronoun swap, will have a ripple effect in French.
The sheer number of verb forms in French makes this possibly the most difficult aspect of the language to learn. The present tense English “to go” has only two variants: go and goes. The French equivalent, aller, has six. The majority of the French verbs you’ll use on a daily basis do follow regular conjugation patterns, but there are enough irregular verbs in common usage that the sheer amount of memorization required to gain a functional grasp of them can feel overwhelming.
Tu and vous:
Unlike English, French has separate informal and formal words for “you.” Tu is the singular informal form, and vous is the singular formal form. Ideally speaking, you would use tu to address individuals you know well or in casual settings with your peers. You would reserve vous for formal settings and addressing individuals to whom you need to show respect, such as an elder, a boss, or a professor.
While this might sound fairly straightforward, there are a couple of catches. First, figuring out when to use tu and when to use vous can be trickier and less clear-cut in real world situations. Second, there is no distinction between the plural informal and plural formal of “you.” They are both vous. You can technically get away with avoiding using tu altogether, but this will make you sound stiff and overly formal in casual conversations.
The various meanings of common English prepositions often translate to different French prepositions. For example, the “by” in “I was awoken by the alarm clock” corresponds with the French par. However, the French equivalents of the meanings of by in “by the end of the semester” and “minute by minute” are different. If you are using a French preposition in a different context than you have in the past, make sure you are actually using the correct preposition.
While the English “to be” literally translates as être, this French verb is not the only one used to convey a state of existence. There are plenty of expressions in French that use the verbs avoir (to have) and faire (to do, make) to get across ideas that we would express with “to be” in English. Spend some time practicing common avoir/faire expressions and getting used to the idea that “to be” is not always literally “to be.”